Have you ever wondered why your child just can’t sit still? Or why they seem to prefer being upside down? Or how on earth they can really manage that fairground ride again? Children need to spin, roll, and swing indoors and outdoors. Brain research shows us that movement not only helps children develop their motor skills but also helps to alleviate stress and anxiety.
Our nervous system is responsible for pumping information to the brain just as the heart pumps blood around the body. The brain monitors the information received through our sensory systems (smell, touch, sight, movement, taste etc). Our nervous system is really important because it helps us to survive in our ever-changing world.
The vagus nerve travels from the brain to almost every organ in the body. Among other things this nerve is responsible for the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the part of the nervous system responsible for switching off our stress response and keeping us calm.
To keep us safe from those things that may be a danger to us we have evolved to avoid pain and discomfort. This is important because it means that we will choose to avoid danger over seeking pleasure. This left me thinking if a child is going to be told off for not sitting still, they must really need to move right?
I asked Bala Pillai, a Paediatric Certified Specialist and Doctor of Physical Therapy and she explained all children like to run around and play, but some children seem to crave it- they just don’t seem to be able to sit still. She tells parents:
“You are not alone if you are worried your child may not be able to process instructions or new information when they are always “fidgeting”- or worse, if their safety is at risk. There are many reasons why your child maybe fidgety- but the solution is not “sit still”.
All children benefit from movement but some children NEED it like MEDICINE to function well. Without their dose of medicine, they find it difficult to focus, concentrate and manage their emotions. Some children’s brains process information differently. A neurotypical child jumps once and their brain is able to understand they jumped once. For some neurodiverse children their brain may require 10 jumps to process the information they have jumped at all. Or they may be so sensitive to movement that they get dizzy and feel sick being swung just once. Basically children can carve movement or avoid movement to feel safe and organised.”
Why does my child hang upside down in their seat, at the park or just about anywhere they can?
I prefer to keep my feet firmly on the ground as an adult but as a child I loved hanging upside down from a chair, which often made adults tell me to sit properly. Nowadays I do yoga and love to take a forward fold. I was intrigued when my yoga teacher explained he wanted us to get our heads below our hearts.
When we turn upside down, the blood pressure in the area above the heart initially increases because of gravity. More blood flows towards the heart and through our vagus nerve our parasympathetic nervous system kicks in to lower blood pressure which brings the still sense of calm I and many children find relaxing.
Why does my child love to eat ice – even when it’s cold?
Having a cold drink can activate the vagus nerve. The cold stimulates this nerve, and our parasympathetic nervous system kicks in slowing our breathing and heart rate – no wonder we love ice-cream!
Why does my child love to spin in circles or roll down hills?
Children will seek out the kind of activity they may need. Spinning is likely to mean they are enjoying the stimulation. The centrifugal force experienced on things like fairground rides activates the inner ear so the body knows it’s moving. This is where our vestibular sense come in as it tells the brain the orientation of the head which helps a child to feel grounded and pay attention to where they are and what they are doing.
In the nineteenth century ‘spin doctors’ used spinning chairs as a mental health treatment. And the Sufi Whirling Dervishes use it as a kind of meditation. Spinning upregulates the nervous system so for children who like to it will be organising for their body, helping them function. But do be cautious if a child does not look like they are enjoying it do help them stop and ground themselves.
SO how can parents help?
Bala, who has worked for many years in schools, often supporting Autistic children, says she has realised that what most people do not know is that different types of movement stimulate different parts of the brain.
“Your child intuitively knows what movements their brain craves- be it hanging upside down, running around all the time or wanting to go on merry go rounds.
Their body is going to seek the movement, unfortunately they sometimes choose the wrong times to do it. The good news is there are ways in which you can support your child’s movement needs. This will organize their thoughts and emotions while still ensuring that they are safe and not disruptive to others.”
The first of Bala’s top tips is to set up a routine (preferably before school) where their movement needs are met. Encouraging them to move every day, to the point where they start sweating, is one of the most effective ways in giving their brain what it needs.
The trick, she says, is giving the body what it needs at predictable times every day.
“Choose times during the day when it is convenient for you- just remember- it needs to be done every day. Providing these movements (even if it just running or hanging upside down) at the same time daily- helps the body and brain to know what to expect and helps in setting the tone for a ‘good day’.
Think of movement as medicine- you wouldn’t not give your child their medicine- and running , climbing, jumping are the optimal ways of achieving a sweating state.
Just as the body needs a good food diet to keep us healthy, the nervous system needs a good movement diet to help the brain healthy.”
Daily movement routines help children (and adults) organise their thoughts and emotion. They also help them focus and pay attention better. Some children may need more than just the one-time daily movement diet- consult with a therapist ( OT or PT) trained in sensory motor integration to help you customize a sensory motor diet for your child.
But in the meantime-
- Don’t stop them from moving- movement is like medicine for their brain and body. They will only struggle more if that medicine is not provided.
- Set up movement routines at convenient times daily- this way their body gets their “medicine” before they crave it at inappropriate times.
- Encouraging even more movement may seem counter productive- but it’s not true. The more they move, the more you are supporting their nervous system develop.
If you are wondering about how to help your child find the right kind of play to alleviate feelings of stress and anxiety you could try our new App
Based on Stephen Porges’ Polygaval Theory and play therapy, this App can improve wellbeing by ‘prescribing’ the right type of play at the right time. Using the App’s SCAN button helps parents and carers to work out which state – safe, struggling or drowning – their children are in based on their feelings, behaviours and physical response to a situation. There is also a SCAN for adults with helpful tips and tools to support, soothe and calm parents and carers experiencing stress.
Charlotte Jenkins is the founder and a director of Beacon Family Services. She is an experienced social worker supporting children and families therapeutically using Theraplay and Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy. She is also trained in Sensory Attachment Intervention which focuses on helping children and parents coregulate their nervous systems to build their relationships.
Bala Pillai is a Pediatric Certified Specialist (PCS) and Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) with additional certification in Educational Kinesiology (Brain GymR) and Test Edge (HeartmathTM) methodology. She has extensive, dedicated experience addressing behavioral and learning blocks that inhibit student outcomes within public and private educational environments. Bala was an active member of the APTA’s ( American Physical Therapy Association) Practice committee “Autism Task Force” and “Intervention for Students with Autism” with proven talents combining occupational, speech, social work, and physical therapies to elicit exceptional programming for students with disabilities, including those on the autism spectrum.
She lives in North Carolina, USA. You can read more about her work on her website www.heartbrainbalance.org