Learn about strengthening for kids and why today’s kids aren’t as strong as they used to be.
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? Why can’t we just let them swim and be proud of what they are accomplishing?”
The official 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.”
The Butterfly Stroke Conundrum
At first, I just wanted to dismiss her comment as being cranky and kind of mean. Kids today aren’t strong enough to swim this stroke. And then two words started really standing out to me: kids today. Meaning that in years past, kids were able to do it and now they’re not.
Have you seen someone swim the butterfly stroke? 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?
Why Today’s Kids Aren’t As Strong As They Used to Be
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.
These sedentary activities lead to decreased core strength and overall body strength and decreased experience with the types of sensory input that help kids’ bodies learn to move and react to their surroundings.
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.
What’s the Answer?
So what’s the answer?
It’s simple, really. Get out there and play!
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 and motor 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 activities to help him build strength.
Strengthening for Kids: 10 Fun Activities
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!