Why you should let your toddler climb.
As a mum of three boys and one adventurous girl, I know how real the fear of toddlers climbing can be. Attempting to stop them was not only futile, but in fact adverse to them.
Alice, an occupational therapist, discusses why it's important for parents to invite their children to explore climbing safely. She draws upon her experiences working with children of all ages and abilities.
As an Occupational Therapist I work with a range of children and their families who all have such different strengths and difficulties but I regularly find that my sessions incorporate climbing. Incorporating climbing activities into our sessions is not only a highly motivating and fun activity, but can also be scaffolded to allow for a range of abilities and needs whilst providing the ‘just right’ challenge to allow success and functional development.
When we think creatively, we can make the task of climbing easier, more challenging, more motivating and we can use the task to challenge and develop a range of the child’s abilities all at once. Below are a few areas and examples of how I use climbing to empower the children I work with and help them achieve their potentials.
Strength and Endurance:
Strength and endurance are used in the development of many of a child’s skills including running, lifting, pushing, carrying as well as postural stability such as the ability to sit upright for long periods of time.
When a child practices climbing at a young age, they are developing both fine motor and gross motor strength and challenging their muscular endurance. Even when considering a child under 1 year of age who is pulling to stand themselves, they are developing strength with their grasp in their hands, as well as their torso and legs.
By using their fingers, hands, wrists and shoulders to pull themselves up when climbing, the strength developed in these upper body limbs will assist them in grasping toys, drinking cups and handles, holding spoons and eventually holding pencils for writing.
By using their core and lower body for pushing and positioning, the strength developed in these core and lower body limbs will assist in developing the strength needed to a variety of tasks such as sit upright and unsupported, stand and run.
Our Small Pikler & Shape sorter is perfect for the pulling to standing stage.
When a child climbs, they are required to use both sides of their body together. Furthermore, they are using both sides of their body in an interchanging sequence. To do this, children are using bilateral coordination, which may start a little clunky and with practice can develop into a more ‘organised’ or seamless approach.
Bilateral coordination is required for coordinated and controlled movements using both sides of the body. Bilateral coordination requires the ability to integrate both hemispheres of the brain. This means that our left and right limbs can work together simultaneously. A child requires bilateral coordination skills to learn and succeed in tasks such as playing with many toys such as building blocks, feeding themselves, dressing themselves, grooming and using scissors or handwriting.
Planning, Problem Solving and Attention:
When a child climbs, they are challenging their cognitive abilities as much as their physical abilities. During a climbing task a child’s brain is processing a range of demands and they are using flexible thinking to navigate questions such as, ‘how high do I need to lift my foot?, where should I place my hand next?, how am I going to get down from here?’ and ‘is this too high for me?’.
We can also use our creative hats to further challenge our child’s cognition in the climbing task. For example, we could be teaching our child counting or number and letter recognition by asking our child to place their hand on a printed number or letter as we count out loud and provide lots of encouragement to support them.
Furthermore, climbing can often be a motivating task, or be easily made into a motivating task, for children who have difficulty with attention. For example, we can use a visual timer and time how many times a child can get up and down the ladder before the timer goes off. Alternatively, you can dress your super hero loving child into a cape and imagine they are Spiderman or Batman as they scale the rungs. You can set a timer and set the expectation with the child that they remain at that climbing task for a certain number of seconds/minutes.
Climbing supports many sensory processing benefits and when we think creatively we can incorporate sensory processing benefits into the task, whilst using climbing as the motivator. For example, we can support tactile discrimination by placing different tactile objects on the rungs and asking a child to touch all of the ‘fluffy’ or the ‘rough’ material as they go. Or for a child who has difficulty touching particular sensations, we can place small parts of the particular stimulus on the rungs, and prepare the child by having them touch the small pieces of the sensitive input as they climb.
The two most prevalent sensory benefits gained by climbing however are the development of vestibular and proprioceptive awareness.
Proprioception is essential for our brain to know where our body is in space, how hard or soft to use our muscles for specific tasks and essentially is the awareness of how our muscles move. Our proprioceptors are located in our muscles and joints and when our body moves, they provide us with sensory information.
When children separately move their arms and their legs when climbing, and place force on each rung to push, squeeze or pull, they are developing their proprioception awareness. This awareness is important for many everyday living skills, such as for a child to understand how much force to use when brushing their teeth or when handwriting, helping a child’s vestibular system maintain the body’s balance and for the child to know where their limbs are in space.
The vestibular system is located in our inner ear and when our head moves, it receives information. This means that our vestibular system tells our brain where our body is in space and how fast or slow we are moving. When children climb they form awareness around their vestibular sense as they are required to know where their body is in space, coordinate their movements and balance. Vestibular awareness is important for many skills including when balancing when learning to walk, sitting upright, our ability to pay attention and it controls our eye movements and tells our brain which way we want our eyes to move.