This week, my thoughts are on being a mom of a child with movement difficulties: not a therapist or an educator, but a mom.
Parents of children who have movement difficulties are often worried about their child's lack of interest in physical activity, sport, ball games and even "incidental" exercise, like walking to the shops, or playing tag or hide and seek with the neighbours. I have often felt that I am not doing my job as a mom properly, because my little girl didn't want to play in the park or go for a cycle. Being a medical professional, I recognised the fact that a child will often say they don't like doing something (or in my daughter's case, it was "boring"), rather than saying they find it hard or tricky, or that they are embarrassed that they keep falling over or bump into their friends, or they can't hop or skip. Thus, the cycle of avoidance of physical activity begins. I knew all of this. However, how could I stop this cycle? If I couldn't do it, how could I expect other parents to do it?
Now, I could go into all the research that is exploring what motivates children to participate in physical activity (and there is lots out there-refer to the research of Australians, Jeff Wakely and Tony Okeley, Dylan Cliff and Lisa Barnett or Cheryl Missiuna and her team at McMaster University and Can Child in Canada and Helene Polatajko's (University of Toronto) fantastic work with the CO-OP approach), but instead, I am going to blog about my experiences as a mom. In retrospect, I think the experience would have been exactly the same whether I knew about the research or not, but it is interesting to read the research and realise that it ties in with the reality of having a child with movement difficulties.
So, back to my quandary of how did I encourage my daughter to be physically active? The first task was to "get in quick"-before she realised that she did things in a different way to her peers; also before her fears started creeping in-about falling, bumping, embarrassing herself. I tried to give her opportunities in stress free situations to practise things-walking along the white painted line on the pavement, the low brick wall, jumping off things, bouncing on the bed-playing, playing and more playing. I asked her about what she wanted to "get good at". Being a little girl, she really wanted to learn how to skip and gallop in ballet and she hated tennis groups at school because she couldn't hit a ball. She didn't mind if she wasn't the best, but she didn't want to stand out as the one who couldn't do anything. She also wanted to join in with hopscotch and ball games in the playground. My daughter told me what the "tasks" were and together we embarked on a journey of learning and mastering them. However, it was always in her own time and I only ever gave her something achievable to work on-we practised little and often-whilst walking to the shops or to our neighbour, never for more than 5 minutes at a time, as she would get cross and frustrated. I have emphasised over and over again, that it takes time and effort to get good at things and constantly reward both my daughters for the effort they put into practising things that they are not good at. Both my daughters are starting to recognise that some people are just good at things-without trying or putting effort into them, but that does not mean that, because they, themselves, need to practise something, they cannot achieve the skill. Practise really does make perfect (well, not so perfect, sometimes, but nevertheless, the CAN learn to DO IT!).
Regarding the ball skills- the key for my daughter was having access to all my physio equipment that happened to be lying around the house. So, (nothing to do with me), she found my big gym balls (which are slower and bigger than normal balls, therefore easier) and started bouncing them, rolling them and throwing them. Everyday whenever she came into the dining room (which is where they were being stored), she would give it a go - little and often - most of the time, all by herself. Initially, we spoke it through and I demonstrated often by showing her with my hands over her hands, we spoke about how the ball moves and used imagery regarding the ball- "imagine it is a fairy and you want to push her gently to the ground for as long as you can keep your hands on her"- but once she had the idea, she just practised on her own. the more she practised, the better she became and now it is one of her favourite activities. It seems to be a cycle: the more a child learns to use the mechanics of their body, the more they get a feeling of success, and the more they experience success, the more they are motivated to keep practising.
One last thought, and that is to do with exposure. Children who are exposed to physical activity, more out of neccessity, rather than choice, the ones who perhaps do not have access to stationary leisure activities, like TV- from a young age- no matter what they baseline ability is; I wonder if they create their own opportunities for task perfection and taking the time to work out how to do things. I am thinking of my nephew who lives on a farm with no TV. He has a learning difficulty and poor core stability, balance and coordination, yet he is the most active child I know. He has learnt his way around his difficulties and compensated in other ways that did not neccessarily use all the perfect fundamental motor skills-yet he managed to achieve the task at hand. In his case, this was being able to play outside with his brother and cousin on the farm-climbing trees, driving tractors, swimming and cycling. The intrinsic (inner) motivation was there. If he didn't work out his own way of achieving these tasks, he would have been left out of the game and bored stiff! If only we all lived in paradise though...