What is all the fuss about jump and climb activities?
When I was six, I remember jumping from the roof of my home at Woodville West onto the grass. It sort of hurt, but the thrill of climbing up and jumping off saw me repeat the feat often enough to earn a “Dean, are you jumping off the roof again?” from my mum. Having grown up in the country, she didn’t really think too much of my need to find things to activate my senses, or as she puts it, “you were always busy, and couldn’t sit still for one second.”
Fast forward 6 years, and I am now 12. We moved to the newly developed swamp land at West Lakes Shore where my dad, who was in the structural steel business, worked hard to build his dream 2-storey home near the beach. Awesome! This meant that the challenge for me as a 12-year-old had naturally developed to climbing the split-level 2-storey roof as often as possible, working my way around the house to eventually get to a place on the roof situated over the trampoline.
Now, the next bit was so much fun but again, not recommended – I would jump from the roof onto the trampoline and then navigate somewhere to land on the grass! The feeling of climbing the roof, smelling the salty air from the beach, and feeling the tense ball of excitement in my stomach as I was about to jump is something that has never left me. The Tower Drop at Movie World and jumping from the mezzanine level at OTFC PLUS into the foam pit 3 meters below, can elicit the same feeling for me.
Disclaimer: I am not encouraging or endorsing this type of behaviour, in fact, I would never let my own children do this (with the exception of the foam pit jump which they have both done safely).
How jump and climb activities help kids develop coordination and balance.
It has been so beautifully articulated in Dr Jean Ayres theory of Sensory Integration (SI) that we all have an intrinsic desire to seek out sensory experiences that naturally support our development, both physically and cognitively. Jumping and climbing are naturally two ways to promote vestibular, tactile, and proprioceptive development within a child’s nervous system. The importance of early vestibular, tactile, and proprioceptive stimulation as the ‘foundation’ for a child’s development, is at the core of Dr Ayres theory and very much at the forefront of Research in Ayres Sensory Integration (ASI®).
How and why does this happen?
Well, you need to have a basic understanding of these 3 senses first to be able to see the connection clearly.
- Vestibular input: For most people this means movement, but for the purpose of understanding child development with a bit more complexity, we need to understand that it really means how our body responds to movement force (i.e. the force of gravity acting upon us all the time, or how the force of movement impacts on us when we are riding a bike, playing a sport, or swinging on a swing at the playground). Even a force is felt when we have our feet off the ground – that is the one I used to like the most!
- Proprioceptive input: Most people understand this as body awareness, but importantly, this means ‘joint position in space.’ Sensory receptors are located in the head, neck, and throughout all joints in your body that tell you the position of your head and limbs without having to see. They’re much like the little balls you see attached to the joints of actors when they are filming in front of a green screen.
- Tactile input: There are many forms of touch, and we have sensory receptors for each type – deep pressure, vibration, temperature, pain – all of which provide us with two very important (mostly unconscious) realisations:
- Is this safe? / Am I safe?
- What is this?
As infants, these three senses along with the emerging sense of vision must all integrate. This enables us to feel safe in the world around us, and then to make sense of the world in relation to our body so we can go about doing the things we want to …. like play!
Making sense of it all
Confused? Just watch an infant! An infant’s vision is not yet developed at birth – we are not “ready-made,” but are very reliant on a primary caregiver (usually a mother) for safety and nourishment (our brains were too big to be fully developed at birth so we are a bit underdone when we arrive).
Touch is the first sense of security, and parents who hold their children make the infant feel safe (this is a no-brainer). When a parent gently rocks their child, they provide tactile, but more so vestibular/proprioceptive input that can help regulate and calm their child. When the baby starts to engage more as they get older, this stimulation looks more like playing – holding the baby in a vertical position, changing the force at which you move them up and down, side to side, they also start to roll on the ground by themselves, eventually shuffling and crawling to places they want to get to.
It’s incredible to think this happens so automatically and naturally (in most cases) – our brain and nervous system is the most remarkable thing that has ever existed!
Every movement, touch, roll, bounce, flick, twist and most importantly– fall, that a child experiences, send so many vital messages via the peripheral nervous system to the central nervous system and onto the brain that enables the automatic and unconscious adjustments in muscle tone, posture, head position, and body position. As a child starts to develop their own ideas about where they want to go and what they want to do, these jumping and climbing activities start to build their capacity in motor planning and this is undoubtedly the most crucial processing skill that supports a child’s development, physically and cognitively.
Climbing and jumping are always associated with degrees of safety and the important thing to do as parents is to not compromise your child’s health. But we have become so reluctant to allow our children to fall, fail, graze a knee, compete, climb a tree, pop a wheelie (kids today don’t even know what that is), and figure out things for themselves.– We have limited their opportunity to develop to their true potential.
How can I promote jump and climb activities for my children?
I will often get asked by parents, “What are the most beneficial activities that children can participate in?” or what they can purchase for their child, or what sports they should play that would support optimal development. In my top 5 are two specific activities; jumping and climbing.
The bigger the better! Better quality trampolines that are more expensive usually last longer – and I don’t count mini-tramps as trampolines! There are so many reasons why this is such an awesome thing to have growing up, but from a developmental perspective, trampolines encourage and support muscle tone (lower limb), postural stability, proprioceptive input through the compression of joints, vestibular input (movement force up and down off the ground), safe flips (motor planning), and ball games (creativity). Above all, it is so much fun!
“But so many children have broken their arms or bumped their heads falling off a trampoline.”
I understand that is a personal choice and I am not here to judge. My dad, being the legendary structural steel engineer, made the “OCTAGON” for my older brother, sister, and me. This was an 8-sided beast with no net, no pads, and a mat that an upholsterer made and then subsequently repaired at least three times over 12 years (not bad value). Yes, we fell through the hole where the springs were on occasion (which was much more painful for my brother and me than for my sister). Yes, we double-jumped each other off the trampoline every now and then. And yes, we accidentally gave out dead arms and legs with unplanned knocks. But the trade-off to all of that is that got to play wrestle mania, tramp soccer, boxing, basketball (we put my sister’s netball ring up against the wall well before they were attached to the Vuly tramps), took ‘speckies’ with the football riding on each other’s shoulders, poison ball and so much more.
The fact that we would spend most afternoons before dinner outside on the trampoline and many hours on the weekends meant that the trampoline was the best value-for-money babysitter available. We didn’t need our parents with us or planning activities to keep us stimulated, and while we didn’t go without, we certainly didn’t have all the toys. Isn’t it funny though… We were never bored!
I know that it sounds simple, but this is the place where children start to show their true abilities – strength, motor planning, coordination, endurance, creativity, problem-solving, communication skills, social skills, resilience, and conflict resolution. Take your children to a busy playground on a weekend and watch them; watch how they navigate not only the physical challenges but also the mental ones. I have two older children who are now absolutely fine (I think) and it is time for me to admit that they were my “guinea pigs” when they were younger. My wife and I would often take them to different playgrounds to see how they would adjust, not only to the physical challenges but also to the social ones. We would sit back (sometimes reluctantly or on edge) and just watch how they would climb and move or ask for help or navigate a more competent kid climbing past them and almost knocking them over. In summary, this activity is free, there are great places to go everywhere in our suburbs, and kids gain so much developmentally in such a natural environment.
The benefits of jump and climb activities for children and why parents should encourage them.
The benefits of jumping and climbing activities for kids is simple:
- It’s fun – it promotes physical and mental health/development
- It supports the foundations for more complex skill development that also underlies a child’s cognitive development
- Children can satisfy their intrinsic need to explore their own bodies and their environment
- It develops their fitness, coordination, endurance, and strength
- They are each excellent activities that support a more regulated state of arousal in children, making them happier and emotionally regulated
- It promotes and supports social communication and interaction among peers
Author: Dino Mennillo – OTFC GROUP Director
BAppSc Occupational Therapy