The balance skills your kid needs before starting school

Kinderling News & Features

There’s no denying that our lifestyle has changed in the last decade or so. The incredible screen-based technology that helps our everyday life has made such a difference to the way we do life. But that’s not necessarily always a good thing. Kids need balance - in more ways than one.

Robyn Papworth is the director and founder of Play Move Improve. As a mum of twins, from day one she noticed her son's and daughter's balance skills were developing entirely differently. Her son took much longer than her daughter to acquire skills, and while all of Robyn’s research and knowledge has helped her work, having these little people in her life has taught her more than any certificate ever has.

Listen to Robyn on Kinderling Conversation:

Kids are developing balance and motor skills before they’re even born. In utero, “every kick, every roll and every squirm is all motor development,” Robyn says.

We have three systems of balance that need developing:

  1. Vestibular, which is our inner ear balance. With kids, this is all about getting them to spin, rock and move their head.
  2. Proprioception is what we feel through our feet. This means encouraging barefoot play, plus lots of stomping and jumping.
  3. Our eyes and vision is how we develop lots of visual tracking and hand-eye coordination.

What are the warning signs there might be a few issues?

Look out if your kids are tripping over a lot, or bumping into other kids. Or, if they are avoiding using gross motor skills by staying inside because they’re nervous to climb on the equipment outside. These are all possible warning signs.

Consider your own child. Are they well rounded, do they try lots of things? Or are they avoiding certain activities?

What should kids be doing before school?

Robyn says that traditionally we look at the three-year-old mark as to whether or not a child is developing appropriately, but this benchmark is changing based on our modern life.

“Our data at the moment isn’t matching my old textbooks,” she explains. Kids are more and more in front of the screen, meaning that milestone development is changing. Children up to seven years old have balance challenge because of iPads and video games, and the fact that they’re not outside but playing indoors.

“The concern is that we have this research, but we also have a new lifestyle that isn’t tracked yet.”

At school, kids need to be able to look up at the whiteboard, back down at the page, and find their spot again, while remembering what the whiteboard said. Kids are losing that skill in school these days.

While not all children are experiencing this - and each child develops at a different rate - it’s a good idea for parents to be aware of how their kids are developing at certain stages.

Three-year-olds

At the age of three, kids should be able to:

  • Bend down, pick up an object and stand back upright without feeling dizziness, looking disorientated, or their eyes flickering. These things happen when the action is overwhelming for their balance system.
  • Spin around in a circle, without getting overly dizzy.
  • Pick up objects and let go of them slowly. One way to work on this is to sprinkle sand, or colourful sprinkles on cupcakes to make sure their hand function is working and not being impacted by video game controllers.
  • Throw and catch a big ball.
  • Stand on one foot for at least three seconds.
  • Orientate themselves. Can they navigate themselves through grabbing an item without problems? Without help or bumping into things?

Four-year-olds

  • Throw and catch a small ball (eg. tennis ball). These fundamental movement skills assist the actions they need for school.
  • Stand on one foot for at least five seconds. Try with eyes closed too – just to push it further for a quick second. We want to use all three systems of balance, not just the eyes.

Play ‘big’ to get them ready for school

“We need balance,” Robyn says of technology. Screens are great for certain skills – like problem solving, language development, and visual tracking to a point. But then we need to encourage those big, gross motor visual tracking skills – moving the head and eyes left to right, and up and down are necessary for school.

“Do big, large movements first. The essentials are being able to move from A to B to follow an instruction, being able to open up their own backpack to get out their own lunchbox. Those fine motor skills are more important at that age, than being able to do letter formation.”

Use screens wisely. And restrict the time spent - after half an hour or so, encourage your kids to do something else. Robyn suggests:

  • Throwing a ball around - but it’s not just about achieving a great catch. When the ball drops, kids have to pick it up without losing balance.
  • Scrunch up some paper to have a play with. This gets the hands and wrists stronger.
  • Tear up lots of paper to work on their pincer grip.
  • Climb in and out of a cardboard box.
  • Get outside into the backyard!

If there are issues, you might see your kids avoid certain actions, or get a bit silly in the activity; they might have issues with spotting where you are, or even get frustrated and walk away from the game altogether.

From there, the goal is to increase the activity incrementally – try throwing a ball three times to start with. You might drop their favourite objects around the house to challenge their balance. Be persistent and gradually build up on these balance skills.

The good news is that Robyn’s son is now doing really well at school. “He’s a confident playground user, whereas two years ago he would have avoided the playground. Now he’s in there with his friends … and that was my main goal for him. I wanted him to be an active learner.”