Last weekend, I was working as a volunteer at my girls’ swim meet and I had one of those conversations that really stops you in your tracks and makes you think.
Event #6 was the butterfly stroke for kids 6 and under and for the next several minutes, I watched as swimmer after swimmer tried their hardest to make their way down the pool and swimmer after swimmer was disqualified from the event.
I finally asked an official, “Are they really doing that badly? Can’t you just let them swim and be proud of what they are accomplishing?”
The official (who was kind of cranky – I don’t think she smiled once during the entire meet) looked at me and said, “Rules are rules whether you are 6 or 16. The bottom line is, kids today just aren’t strong enough to swim this stroke.”
At first, I just wanted to dismiss her comment as being cranky and kind of mean. But then, it started sinking in. Whoa, wait a minute. Kids today aren’t strong enough to swim this stroke?! This is a huge deal!
Have you heard of or seen someone swim the butterfly stroke? Guess what key muscle group needs to be strong and healthy to propel a little body through the water using both arms and both legs together? That’s right, it’s the core!
The first thing you might think of when you see a swimmer doing the butterfly is coordination: the ability to sync up the movements of the arms and legs. But, if you don’t also have the strength to back up the coordination, this stroke is impossible.
What was really striking to me is that these little swimmers spend at least 2 hours per day — every day — in the water, working on these exact skills. So what’s the missing link? Why are these kids (and so many of the kids we see in our school based therapy practice) struggling so much with strength? And, more importantly why are kids weaker today than they were, say, 10 or 20 years ago?
Here’s my hypothesis….
Kids build strength not by pumping iron and doing a bunch of reps of a certain exercise, but by riding their bikes (fast, slow, up hills, down hills, in sitting and in standing); by climbing up ladders, slides, stairs, rocks, and trees; by pumping on the swings at the playground, by running (through the grass, snow, sand, or mud); by swimming in the waves of the lake; and by splashing around and treading water during a game of Marco Polo in the pool.
The point here is that kids are best able to build strength through unstructured, spontaneous PLAY! And, the more diverse and varied their play is, the better they can achieve the comprehensive and dynamic strengthening they need to be successful with everyday gross motor skills.
Plus, as long as they’re are having fun, kids will participate in a play activity indefinitely. As they partake in these fun, playful strengthening activities for longer stretches of time, they’re able to reap more and more strengthening benefits!
The problem? These days, kids are doing less and less of this kind of unstructured gross motor play. Articles and research abound describing how little time children spend engaging in open-ended whole body movement experiences and how much time they spend playing video games, watching television, and sitting still (or not-so-still) in their desks at school.
Even children who play organized sports aren’t really getting the benefits of the type of unstructured gross motor activity that we described above, as they tend to engage in repetitions of very similar movements and drills during practices and games.
So what’s the answer? It’s simple, really. Get out there and play!
Take your child to the playground, help your child learn how to swim, teach him how to ride a bike, and then…sit back and relax. Trust me…the kids will take over and do what they were meant to do – run and jump and splash and climb and race around like crazy – building tons of strength and coordination as they go.
Is there also room for specific, structured strengthening activities for kids? You bet! If you notice that your child has difficulty with sitting posture or if you have a child who is a W-Sitter due to weak core muscles, there are lots of fun and playful ways to help him build strength.
Here are a few of our favorite ideas for strengthening for kids, but be sure to mix things up and allow for lots of free gross motor play too!
Image Credit: Dollar Photo Club | Sunny studio | text added