Developing Physical Skills
Toddlers grow taller and their shapes change dramatically as they turn from babies at twelve months into little people at the lofty age of three. Nevertheless, physical growth has less to do with gains in height and weight, which slows dramatically after the first twelve months, and much more to do with the maturing of the central nervous system, which consists of the brain and spinal cord. As the central nervous system develops, toddlers gain increased control of their muscles, both large and small, and of some internal organs, like the bowel and bladder. This enables them to handle increasingly complicated physical tasks — everything from walking up stairs to buttoning buttons to potty training.
Unless there is a physical problem requiring special therapy, parents can support physical development in their children by letting nature take its course. Allow children to follow their natural inclination to move freely about the house during virtually every waking moment, provide an opportunity for vigorous outdoor play, and clear an area inside for vigorous play during inclement weather. Occasional trips to the park will be good for both of you, too, both physically and socially.
The Home Gym
The accent should be on having fun when helping toddlers with physical skills. In designing activities, it is important to provide a wide range of physical outlets to stimulate different areas of the brain, which develops rapidly from ages one to three. Lots of repetition is also important so they can master important skills.
Beginning walkers need to work on
Stoop to retrieve a toy from the floor
Walk carrying an object in each hand
Walk while pulling a pull-toy
Chase a balloon or bubbles
Walk on a strip of paper 5 feet long by 6 inches wide that has been placed on the floor as if it were a tightrope
Lie tummy down, feet touching the ground, on an oversized ball and roll (Supervise this activity carefully. Toddlers are top-heavy and can easily land on their heads.)
To help with
Play “So Big.” (Ask, “How big is baby?” and then sweep the toddler's arms up over his head and encourage him to respond, “So big!”)
Make a maze by cutting “doors” in several oversize cardboard boxes; push the boxes together and let toddlers crawl through them.
Teach toddlers to dance the twist.
Put a blanket over a table to make a tent to crawl around in.
Walk in a large sandbox
Run on grass
Walk over a series of car tires that have been placed in the backyard and partially filled with sand or dirt
Jump over puddles
Jump into and out of a hoop lying on the grass
Practice somersaults and log rolls
Jump on a beanbag chair (on carpet or a pad to cushion falls)
Toddlers can be helped to develop
Climb the steps of a slide (Be sure to stand behind your child so you can catch her if she falls!)
Pedal a tricycle
Pull a wagon
Hold on for a merry-go-round ride
Ride a bouncing toy or seesaw at the park
Fill and tote small buckets of sand
Locomotion skills use large muscle groups — including the arms, legs, torso, and head — to move in space. Not all children master locomotion skills in the same order, but the typical progression is:
Crawling. Not all babies crawl. However, the world looks different from the floor, and the worm's-eye view from this vantage point is thought to enhance visual-spatial organization. Therefore, crawling should be encouraged. To do this, you'll need to get down on all fours to demonstrate. Then have your toddler get down on all fours and help her move her arms and legs in the correct sequence.
Pulling himself up. A toddler should be able to pull himself up to a standing position using furniture, a leg, or whatever sturdy object is handy. From a kneeling position, place your child's hand on a coffee table for balance and help him position one foot on the floor and then the other.
Lowering herself to the ground. Adults know they can reach that toy at their feet without collapsing into a heap, but a toddler may not know how to manage without falling. Show her how to hold onto the edge of the end table for support (cover sharp corners and hard edges), and then help her bend first one knee and then the other to lower herself slowly.
Climbing. By twelve months, most babies can climb at least 12 inches at a time. Steps are a great place to practice. With a safety gate at the third step, put your baby into a crawling position at the bottom landing, an enticing toy at the top step, and show him how to extend his hands and slide his knees forward to climb up to it.
Alternating feet. To help a youngster master this skill needed for walking, have her straddle a scooter. Show her how to push her feet to make it move forward.
Cruising. Children make their way around the room using furniture to steady themselves. To encourage cruising, put an enticing toy on a coffee table a few inches beyond the reach of the child when he is standing up, holding onto the table.
Walking. Timid souls may be reluctant to let go of steadying objects, so they walk a bit later. While a toddler is standing up holding onto a piece of furniture, sit just out of reach and call her to you. Catch her before she falls and exclaim, “Wow! My baby's walking!” When she's confident enough to let go for half a step, expand the distance by a few inches.
Running. Clear an area in the house where the toddler can practice this important skill. Your decor may suffer if you must push furniture against the wall of a small living room to make space, but your child's development and safety is definitely more important! Eliminate the lumps from the carpeting and use nonslip area rugs to soften hardwood and tile floors.
Jumping. You may need to demonstrate and help your toddler until he figures out what, for him, is a complex movement. After demonstrating, grasp the child under the arms, lift him up a few inches, lower him until his feet touch the ground, and then quickly lift him back up. Repeat several times.
If a sedentary toddler shuns physical activity, he may need some incentives to get proper exercise. Parents can enroll themselves and their toddler in a kiddie exercise class. Check the newspaper, local parenting magazines, private gyms and spas, and early childhood education programs for leads. Friends with toddlers are good sources of information, too.
Hopping. Use the same procedure as for jumping, except show her how to extend one leg and keep the other bent. Grasp her under the arms, and help her get the idea by bouncing her up and down. Don't expect her to hop or jump by herself. The aim should be practice, not mastery, at this stage.
Galloping. This is a more advanced skill for toddlers closer to age three. Do it in slow motion first. The trick to galloping is to make sure that one foot always lands flat on the ground while the other foot remains bent so the child lands on the ball of his foot, without pressing down on the heel. Show him how to step forward, place his whole foot on the ground, then move the other foot forward and step down on the ball of the foot before moving the first foot forward again.
Skipping. Skipping involves combining walking and hopping, so the motion is step-hop-step.
Stationary Gross Motor Skills
These skills include stretching, bending, turning, twisting. If not every day, at least once a week:
Play follow-the-leader. Encourage your toddler to copy you as you reach for the sky, touch your toes, move your arms like windmills, or turn to look behind you.
Put on a kiddie exercise video or encourage your toddler to dance with the kids on
Turn on some music and dance! Do it free style. Do the twist. Do it fast and slow and every which way to any music your child likes!
Manipulation Gross Motor Skills
A variety of activities help children improve their ability to coordinate their legs, feet, arms, and hands:
Kicking. Spare the furniture and his toys. Tie some rags together with string to make a large ball, and let the fun begin!
Striking. Besides kiddie tool kits and workbenches, try attaching empty spools of thread to a board with large nails. Instead of pounding the nails all the way in, provide a toy hammer so she can spend the next five years finishing the job herself. Alternatively, provide a plastic hammer she can use for pounding plastic golf tees into Styrofoam.
Throwing. Roll up a pair of socks to throw and set up a paper plate to use as a target. Or use a clothes hamper, shoebox, or pail for a beanbag toss. When you weary of socks and beanbags, toss lids from cottage cheese cartons into a pot. For a very young toddler, put the target on the floor at their feet. Continue to move it a few inches farther away as their skill improves.
Catching. Show your child how to extend and steady his arms while you toss a large soft ball into them from a distance of 1 to 2 feet.
Rolling. Sit on the floor facing each other and roll a foam rubber ball back and forth.
When toddlers receive information via the senses, the spinal cord carries it to the brain. The brain interprets the information, decides how to react, and sends commands back down the spinal cord telling the muscles or internal organs exactly what to do. If an adult sees a toy on the floor, experience tells him the toy is an obstacle. A toddler doesn't have the benefit of such experience. He will need to trip over a few things before his brain can correctly interpret these kinds of threats.