Written by Roslyn Littlejohn
GymbaROO-KindyROO classes include a movement that babies and children love but many new parents wonder about its benefits! Upside downs (USD) are very much part of the weekly program in different forms – tipping down from their parent’s arms, rolling over balls or rollers, wheelbarrows, somersaults and ultimately being lifted from the ground by the feet. All these movements place our babies and children in the USD position for brief moments of time, in a deliberate attempt to stimulate the very important balance mechanisms that link the brain, eyes and muscles of the body together.
Movement is a key to learning. Almost any movement will stimulate the brain via the balance sensors (in our ears). When we move, messages tell the brain about its location – up, down, sideways, and forwards, backwards or central. Spinning, swinging and hanging USD provide the most intense and longest-lasting stimulation to these special nerve endings (vestibular receptors). A well-modulated vestibular system is also important for maintaining a calm, alert state, continued development and good balance and posture. GymbaROO-KindyROO teachers are carefully trained to avoid ‘over stimulating the brain’, by doing these activities inaccurately or for too long. This information is passed onto parents.
Babies have almost no control of their own movements at birth. By experiencing a broad range of movements as they grow and develop, babies and children move towards taking voluntary control. A child might love swinging, but after the initial few minutes, the brain actually stops responding to this continuously repetitive movement. It is important for healthy development, that a child experiences a variety of movements, during both mat-time and equipment time, so they move through all three dimensions – vertical, horizontal and diagonal or tilted.
The three planes of gravity/axes for operation in space
From: Sally Goddard, ‘Reflexes, Learning & Behaviour’
Placing the child in the Upside Down (USD) position, with the head lower than the heart, starts the process where the brain stem (at base of the brain) and cerebral hemispheres, work together to interpret the complex flow of information from the different sensory systems of the body – the vestibular (balance) system, the proprioceptive (muscle and joints) system and visual system. When all these systems work well together, a child is more likely to have well organised eye movements, a good posture and physical balance, muscle tone and gravitational security (Jean Ayres, ‘Sensory Integration and the Child’).
Upside down is great for all ages
Here are some of the benefits:
- Inhibits primitive reflexes
- Spine ‘hangs’ straight
- Builds upper body strength. A child SLOWLY placed in the USD position must use strong extension contractions of the muscles in their neck, torso, legs, ankles and feet (in unison) to hold this vertical position
- Increases focus as eyes team together more easily
- Reduces stress and increases calm
- Enhances confidence as children move outside natural boundaries built up by standing upright
- Gravity and other weight-bearing activities constantly push our joints together. Hanging USD releases this pressure
Preparing for upside downs
YOUNGER NON-MOBILE BABIES:
- Holding your little one closely, (with the head well supported), rock from side to side and backwards/forwards
- Allow baby lots of tummy time. This encourages your baby to raise and lower their own head when they are able – it strengthens head, neck and shoulder muscles in preparation for more strenuous activities such as USD and forward movement
OLDER NON-MOBILE BABIES and MOBILE BABIES:
- Lie baby (on tummy) along your outstretched legs, (baby’s head is supported by your legs). Raise and lower your knees – baby’s head will move up and down. Then place the baby on their back. Repeat the same activity two or three times
- Once they have stronger head control (safely hold their heads up for 1–2 minutes), place your baby across your upper legs. Bend both knees up, then lower and raise your legs alternatively so the baby moves up and down
- Encourage creeping on all fours. Creeping babies have a big advantage of getting lots of USD time – when they hang their head down (to see that toy on the floor), then lift it up again (to view something higher), their heads move up and down through the vertical plane
Toddlers: (1– 3 years)
- Encourage your toddlers to lower their heads and look between their legs… play “Peek-a-boo!”
Younger toddlers will need their hands on the floor to balance
- This age loves rocking, rolling and spinning. Rocking (side-to-side) places the head in a tilted position
- Wheelbarrows are lots of fun, placing their head in different positions. Hold your younger toddler at the waist, gradually moving your support to the hip/upper thighs as upper body strength improves
Pre-schoolers (3 – 6 years)
- Children of this age love to experience different USD movements – animal walks, where their head is lower than their waist (e.g.; dog, bear and elephant) or hanging USD from the overhead ladder or trapeze – with supervision of course! Handstands and forward rolls are also popular. Learning the correct body position keeps them safe and protects them from injury.
In school-aged children, Sally Goddard in ‘Reflexes, Learning and Behaviour’ recommends that “completing somersaults and cartwheels helps facilitate the separation of motion from other sensations, for it is only when children have control of movement that they can pay attention to other experiences.”
Some babies and children may experience gravitational insecurity, and placing them in an USD position may cause distress. If your child does not enjoy USD, please discontinue this activity. Lots of massage, lifting, carrying or pushing objects, often provides welcome stimulation to the proprioceptive (muscles and joints) system. Gentle rocking and swinging forwards/backwards will aid in developing the immature nervous system. As time passes and the child’s nervous system matures, you will find that USD activities can be gradually introduced. Ask your GymbaROO-KindyROO teacher for more advice and introductory USD activities.
Sally Goddard, ‘Reflexes, Learning and Behaviour. A Window into the Child’s Mind’
Sally Goddard Blythe, ‘The Well-Balanced Child’
Jean Ayres, ‘Sensory Integration and the Child’