Starfish Therapies

October 3, 2012

Using the Ball vs the Platform Swing for Balance Reactions


As a therapist, we use the therapy ball a lot with our kids.  It helps them to work on balance reactions and postural control as well as provides vestibular input in a variety of directions.  The kids love it because usually we sing to them and bounce them and they may even forget they are working.  There are a few things to consider when using the ball though.  Generally you are holding onto the child in some way so they are being provided stability (most likely at the pelvis) which allows them to only concentrate on activating their core without having to figure out how to counterbalance at the pelvis.  In addition, usually kids are sitting with their feet hanging down in front of them so they are able to pull in their leg muscles to assist with activating their trunk muscles by using the overflow.  If they over recruit their muscles, they can generally push against your hands to give themselves extra support.  Finally (although I am sure there a quite a few more points that I didn’t bring up), if you are holding them at their pelvis or even their trunk, I can almost guarantee that you are helping them correct their posture in some way, shape or form.

Another alternative to use in conjunction or to switch it up is to utilize a platform swing.  You can have the child sit in ring sitting, tailor sitting, side sitting, etc in front of you and then you can move the swing forward, backwards, sideways or even diagonal (similar to the directions you can move the ball) and see how the child reacts.  This method is great because it can let the child practice sitting ‘independently’ (although with you close by) so they can practice using their pelvis to counterbalance their trunk reactions.  For example, if the swing moves to the right, the child needs to stop the movement towards the right by pushing their left hip down into the surface and use their trunk muscles to shift them back to midline.  In the beginning, especially with the side to side motions, kids have a hard time preparing their body for the movement and need help to not topple over.  I usually start with slow, small movements until they begin to get the hang of it and then I will increase the speed or the size of the movement.  By having their legs crossed in front of them they also have to work harder to isolate their trunk extensors and other trunk muscles.  If you have a kiddo with higher tone, they will attempt to push their legs into extension while trying to stabilize.

Now I know not everyone has access to a platform swing so what other tools or tricks have you used to work on balance reactions on a dynamic surface, without giving the kiddo stabilization?

August 23, 2012

Backpack Safety for Back to School

Filed under: Developmental Milestones — Starfish Therapies @ 12:00 pm
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With school starting again, most kids will be asking for new backpacks to help carry their supplies to and from school.  Make sure you are aware of how to help them prevent injuries by understanding backpack safety.

Every year the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) has a National School Backpack Awareness Day.  This years is September 19, 2012.  They have also published several handouts on proper backpack use and safety tips as well as several videos for both kids and adults to watch.

It’s recommended that kids don’t carry more than 10%-15% of their body weight in a backpack in order to prevent back aches and injuries.  This means if your child is 50 pounds they shouldn’t be carrying a backpack that weighs more than 5-7 pounds.  With the increase in homework this may prove challenging.   There are some solutions out there that are presented in this ABC’s of backpack use.  Some of the practical ones suggest using backpacks with wheels, organize the backpack so that the heaviest items are the ones that are closest to the back, bigger isn’t always better (its harder to overstuff a smaller backpack).

Because of the high number of injuries from backpack use its recommended that you talk to your children about telling you if their back hurts, they have numbness or tingling.  Also it helps for you to note if your child’s posture changes when they are wearing their backpack.  Do they arch their back more or slump more?  All of these are signs that the backpack is too heavy or not fitting correctly.

What backpacks have you found fit well and are safe for your kids?

August 20, 2012

Some Thoughts on the Bumbo Recall

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It recently made the news that the Bumbo chair has been recalled because of the potential for skull damage to infants.  The recall will provide safety straps to the chair to potentially prevent injury.  Since this recall has been announced several pediatric therapists have taken the time to put their thoughts down.  One of these therapists is an old classmate of mine from PT school and I thought she had some great points in her blog post ‘In Defense of the Bumbo‘.  Another great post was by Kendra Ped PT ‘More Trouble for the Bumbo‘ where she discusses her thoughts on the Bumbo chair as well as reminders about proper use for all infant equipment. We have also posted about the use of infant equipment in the past as well.  Although I did not in the post mention the therapeutic benefits of using the Bumbo chair.  Therapy Fun Zone has also posted on the Bumbo seat as a product review and how they have used it therapeutically.

I think that all of these blogs make great points.  The other thing that I would add is that many people tend to use the Bumbo too early with their kids.  If your child isn’t able to hold their head or back up on their own, or even with you holding them at the hips, then they should not be left in the Bumbo chair.  If you need to leave them in a seat for extended time there are other products that will provide them with the support that they need.  If your child is having trouble with head and trunk control and you are using it to help them work on this skill, you wouldn’t be leaving them in it unsupervised for extended periods of time.  It would be during a supervised session of you engaging them so they are actively working to lift their head and trunk and thereby learn to become more independent with sitting skills.

Hopefully these posts will help you to figure out great ways to use the Bumbo chair appropriately and effectively for your child.

June 4, 2012

Postural Control

Filed under: Developmental Milestones — Starfish Therapies @ 12:00 pm
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I talked a little bit about anticipatory and reactionary balance in one of my last posts.  In addition to balance and the ability for a kiddo to stay upright, there is also postural control.  Postural control looks at how we can maintain our posture while going through the activities of our day.  They are all tied together but I thought I would try to explain postural control a bit.  Then you can put the two pieces together and hopefully have a better understanding of how it all works together.

For some kids it takes a lot of practice to turn their muscles on to hold an upright posture.  However, even if they are able to attain an upright posture can they maintain that posture while walking, or writing, or raising their hand, or eating?  The goal of working on a child’s posture (or even ours) is that they are able to keep their muscles activated while doing the above mentioned activities as well as any other activities that they do in their life.

As I’m writing I realize this is harder than I thought to put down logically into words.  Let me try another way.  As I’m getting older I notice that my back is hurting more often.  This usually means that I was doing something and wasn’t able to maintain my core muscles activated as much as I should have so my back was moving more than it should have.  Basically I wasn’t able to maintain postural control because the task was more demanding than my muscles could maintain.

So, when working with kiddos some may be able to maintain an upright posture with everything they do while some may only be able to sit for 10 seconds with external help, such as someone stabilizing them at their hips.  Some kids fall somewhere in between. The more demanding the task, whether physically or mentally, the harder it is to maintain postural control.  For instance, in the example I gave involving my back, the demands of the task were too physical for me to maintain my postural control.  An example of being too mentally demanding would be if a kiddo needs to concentrate on their posture, they have to think about what they are doing, if you start talking to them or asking them questions, they aren’t able to concentrate on both activities at once so they lose postural control.

It also becomes easier to lose postural control with increased fatigue.  So as I become more tired, or a kiddo becomes more tired, it is harder to concentrate on posture.

I hope this made things a little clearer…


June 1, 2012

Anticipatory or Reactionary Balance

Filed under: Developmental Milestones — Starfish Therapies @ 3:54 am
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For the sake of this post I am going to combine the idea of balance and postural control.  They are not exactly the same thing but they are similar in terms of what I am going to talk about.  Most people just think that balance is what keeps us upright.  While yes that is true its amazing how complex it can be. I am going to attempt to keep it simple (hopefully I succeed).

If you are walking down a hall and someone runs by from behind and bumps into you and you don’t lose your balance, you are using reactionary control.  You had no idea it was coming and yet you were able to react to what was happening to you and stay upright.  Maybe you needed to use your hands (protective extension) or take a few steps but you were able to pull together strategies to stay upright and not fall.  Another example of reactionary balance is if you are walking and the ground changes and you weren’t paying attention such as a slight change in height or a change in surface stability.  Your body has to react to stay upright.  This idea applies to whether you are sitting, standing, walking, running, etc. With reactionary the kiddo’s body needs to recognize that its balance has been disturbed and then send out the message to get the correct adjustments being made in just the right amount of time, in just the right sequence and with just the right amount of force (I feel like I’m quoting Goldilocks and the 3 Bears!).

With anticipatory it is when you are about to do something and your body makes the adjustments it needs to in order to stay upright.  For example, whenever I go to the Cheesecake factory they bring out those large water glasses and I go to pick it up, expecting it to be glass and I almost give myself a bath because it is plastic and much lighter than my body had prepared for.  The next time I go to pick it up I have made the necessary adjustments and can pick it up without dousing myself.  Another example is if a kiddo is just learning to crawl and they are figuring out how to move one arm and then the next and then the legs as well, all without falling flat on their face, they are learning the adjustments their body needs to make so that they can anticipate lifting their arm without losing their balance.  Same thing applies to kicking or throwing a ball or reaching for an object or almost anything we do on a daily basis.  With anticipatory the kiddo’s body needs to recognize that something is going to happen that will disturb its balance and make the adjustments before it happens.

What’s interesting is that often anticipatory starts as reactionary (in my experience).  Think about it, lets look at the kiddo I mentioned above who is learning to crawl.  The first time they lift their arm they can’t hold their balance and they fall.  When they try it again they still don’t know what their body needs to do but they know they might fall so they are a little more prepared.  They lift their arm and start to feel themselves falling so they react to this loss of balance and manage to keep their balance.  The next time (ok, I’m speeding up the sequence, it probably takes lots of attempts for each adjustment) they now know they were able to stay up so their body starts to anticipate what will happen when they lift their arm and they are able to lift it and move it to a different spot all while maintaining their balance.  They of course start the whole process over again with each arm or leg they move and then even more so when they try to move the arm and leg together , or go onto a slippery floor instead of carpet.

Hopefully that explanation made sense and you can see how it can apply to almost every movement or task we do throughout our day.

In one of my upcoming posts I’ll talk about some ways to work on balance (anticipatory and reactionary), in the meantime I challenge you to pay attention to when you are using each of the types throughout your day!


May 21, 2012

Ideas for Helping Kids Develop Better Posture

Filed under: Developmental Milestones — Starfish Therapies @ 12:00 pm
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Posture is always an interesting topic.  As adults we are often trying to improve our posture because we have started discovering that poor posture can cause other problems like pain.  These are things we don’t think of when we are younger and don’t always think about for our kids.  Posture is something that can and should be worked on from when kids are little so that they can hopefully avoid long term problems as they get older.  I have to thank one of our readers for coming up with this idea!

Here are some tips and ideas for exercises/playing that can also work on posture:

  • Make sure kids hamstrings stay flexible.  Its a lot easier to keep them flexible than to stretch them later.  When hamstrings are tight it can tip our pelvis backwards so that it flattens our low back spine.  To help with keeping hamstrings flexible have kids avoid w-sitting and long periods of kneeling as these will both shorten the hamstrings.  They should sit in a variety of positions such as ‘criss cross’ or with their legs straight out in front of them.  Here are some different sitting positions.
  • Core strength is really important.  Some of my favorite ways to improve core strength for kids other than having them do sit ups are:
  1. Lots and lots of climbing.  Since its getting nicer out this should be easier because parks are lots of fun.  The more unstable the climbing surface the more they will have to work their stabilizers and abdominals.  I love climbing nets or climbing domes.  Even ladders work well for this.
  2. Animal walks are a lot of fun and really challenge the core.  Some of our favorites are bear walking (hands and feet) or crab walking or dog/cat walking (straight crawling).  You can have animal parades or animal races.  You can change the terrain by going over uneven surfaces such as cushions or you can go up and down hills.  You can make animal obstacle courses where they have to be the animal and go around cones, over obstacles and through tunnels.
  3. Use a therapy ball.  Have your kids sit on it and move it around in all directions with fast and slow motions.  Or have them bounce on it. Try to give as little stabilization as possible (try for just the legs) and make sure they aren’t using their hands to hold on.  If you can get them to engage their hands in play such as clapping or touching their head or reaching to the sky it automatically encourages more upright posture.  I will also have kids reach for items such as bean bags and then throw them for a target while sitting on the ball.
  • Try sitting on an unstable surface.  There are wedges or core discs that are out there that can provide the ability to wiggle while sitting and allow kids to keep their core active and engaged.  You need to try it out though because sometimes it can be too challenging and they will just sink into a slumped posture.  Also if you can make a sitting surface a little higher than normal so their feet still hit the ground it can encourage an upright posture more than sitting at 90/90.  Or if you have a therapy ball that they can sit on with their feet on the ground while watching tv or doing other things it really works to keep the core active.  You have to make sure that they are safe while doing this though.
  • Swinging at the park especially when they are self propelling naturally engages the postural muscles such as the scapular retractors and the abs. In addition they get some great vestibular input.
  • Bike riding is really fun and great for core strength and endurance.  If you really want to get the core working ride up slight inclines and hills, they will have to use their arms and abs to generate power from their legs.
  • Reaching in sitting will also encourage upright posture.  Have them sit in a variety of positions or on a variety of surfaces and play games where you make them reach up and in front or to the side.  Watch their posture to make sure they are engaging their core muscles.

I probably have a ton of other ideas but this is a start.  What are some of your favorite ‘exercises’ for encouraging improved posture with kids?

May 17, 2012

Spots – Multiple Fun Uses!

Filed under: Developmental Milestones — Starfish Therapies @ 12:00 pm
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I love when I find an unexpected treasure (and in the $ bin no less)!  This morning I stopped at our local Rite-Aid to stock up on soda (not healthy I know but sometimes that’s what it takes to keep up with the kids) to feed our addictions at work and I was meandering through the store and I found these frog and ladybug circle pads that are made of foam and look just like the spots that we used to buy from Ikea (which they no longer carry).  I love the fact that they have animals on them because the kids love using our bean bags that are shaped like turtles and frogs and bugs, so having spots with animals gives them one more cue as to where we want them to be.  What do we use spots for you may wonder?  Well the list is endless but here are a few of our top things:

  • We make paths with our spots for having kids jump along the path, hop on one foot along the path, and skip over spots while jumping or hopping.  It creates a great visual cue when you are able to tell them a color or animal to jump to next.  Its great for beginning jumpers as well as for jumpers that you are working on getting consecutive jumps out of.
  • They provide a great visual for a kid to stand on.  I use them all the time when I want the kiddo to be standing ‘still’.  For instance when playing catch or bean bag toss or basketball, they often want to move closer and I can ask them if they are on their circle and they generally immediately go back to it.  We use them in group for circle games so the kids have an idea of where their space is.
  • They are great targets for the stomp rocket or throwing things.  You can have the kids work on aiming for the spot, especially with bean bags or flat discs since they don’t roll.
  • We use them on the stairs to provide a visual cue for which foot to place down next.  This is great for working on alternating feet as well as giving a clear visual target for where to place your foot.
  • Also when they are in a path it can be used to work on narrowing a kiddo’s base of support by having them stay on the circles or for increasing their step length by having them place one foot on each circle.
  • You can have kids balance them on their head for posture and body awareness while standing or walking.
  • We use them in obstacle courses so that at each spot they have a new task/skill that starts such as standing on one foot, lifting the heavy ball, doing jumping jacks, etc.
  • They are also great visual cues for early jumping jacks skills by placing them in a sequence of 1-2-1-2 to begin working on jumping open, then jumping together.  It is also great for early hopscotch of one foot, two feet.

What are some of the things you use spots for?

March 5, 2012

Getting into Sitting

Babies these days are getting really good at sitting.  The invention of the Bumbo seat has definitely helped with this (although it is a great tool for kids who need extra help with sitting to develop other skills).  Its also a lot easier to pick your baby up and sit them down.  What I am proposing, once they start to develop movement and some trunk control, is to take an extra few seconds and help them get into sitting.  By practicing transitional movements earlier, they develop their motor planning abilities, improve their coordination, and develop the strength they will need to achieve higher level motor skills.  Transitional skills such as learning how to get into sitting will also help your child further develop independent movement which promotes exploration and cognitive skills.  It allows your child a chance to initiate when they want to change their perspective from being on the ground to sitting up.  It gives them a whole new world to explore and can further increase their motivation to move and develop.  This video will show you some ways to help your baby transition from lying on their back to getting into sitting.  As you watch the trunk muscles activate you can also see how it is a great core exercise.  At the last part you see him learning how to modulate his movement so he doesn’t overshoot his target, as well as how to problem solve to accomplish the task.  Transitional movements are a great learning opportunity for your baby.  Check out Developing Sitting Balance for ideas on how to work on sitting balance.

February 24, 2012



Since I just took an extended holiday weekend and went skiing, I for some reason couldn’t turn off my PT brain and I found myself analyzing what I was doing (other than falling) as I made my way down the slopes.

I can tell you right off the bat that your quads get an amazing work out.  Not only were they burning as I was going down the slopes but they are still sore and I can feel them every time I stand up or go up and down the stairs.

My other sore muscles are my calves and that’s because being on skis encourages you to shift your weight forward so your calves are working to keep you from falling flat on your face.  This is the same way your calves (and quads) are used when you go down the stairs, they slowly elongate to keep you from falling.

When you are shifted forward on your skis going down hill you could stay in that one position but I can pretty much guarantee you will go speeding straight down the mountain.  In order to control your speed you need to weight shift from side to side as well as turn your skis slightly (or drastically) back and forth.  This is great practice for weight shifting which is important for walking.

When you are shifting forward and side to side, you need to keep your head and trunk upright and looking down the hill which helps to develop righting reactions as well as trunk rotation (for when you turn your skis side to side).

By looking down the hill or to your next target (especially if you are doing moguls) you get to work on maintaining visual focus despite other things going on around you.  You also get to anticipate what you are going to do next and work on your anticipatory balance reactions.

And believe me, skiing will work on your balance all around!

There are plenty of other things that go into skiing but that is the basic breakdown.

Now, when kids (or adults) first start out they learn how to maneuver with skis on their feet.  I remember practicing with a kiddo who was going to go skiing for the first time.  We were practicing on dry land so that she would have some idea of what to expect and thereby feel more comfortable with this new activity.  We practiced moving our feet from ‘pizza’ (pointing inwards) to ‘french fries’ pointing straight ahead. I would give the command and she would react.  This gave her the opportunity to work on reaction time, motor planning and coordination.  Lastly we practiced falling.  The main purpose for that was so that when she fell she wouldn’t get discouraged and would stand up and ‘brush it off’ or ‘shake it off’.  I was so excited to hear that her first skiing opportunity was not only a success but she wanted to do it again!  Ski school is a great chance for your kids to learn with their peers and work on social skills while they all learn a new activity.

For kids that have more involved needs there are some amazing adaptive skiing programs out there.  This family talks about their discovery of skiing and the upside of going downhill!  I also work with a kiddo who participates in adaptive skiing and he loves it.  The smile he gets on his face when you ask him about it says all you need to know about the benefits of this activity that is ‘typical’ among his peers.  Here are some of the adaptive ski programs I know about but please feel free to add to the list.

February 21, 2012

Developing Sitting Balance

As kids begin to sit up they need to figure out how to maintain their balance.  As you can see in the video it doesn’t just happen, there is lots of ‘figuring it out’ involved!

With the invention of the Bumbo seat more and more people (yes I am generalizing) are putting their kids in it to have them sit up sooner.  Now don’t get me wrong, it has its uses and is good for short bursts but kids need their whole bodies to develop sitting balance.  The Bumbo seat provides them extra stability at their legs and hips which allows them to work on their trunk and how to react to stay upright but it doesn’t give them the opportunity to coordinate all of the components that go into sitting.

To help a kiddo develop sitting balance you want them to have some trunk control first.  If they don’t have trunk control then you want to give them extra support at the hips or even at the belly area so they can start to learn how to keep their head and upper trunk upright in a sitting position.  If they can hold themselves up then you can start to wean away the support.  If you notice in the video I keep my hands close by but I’m not holding on tight.  By keeping my hands close by I am provide limits so that the kiddo can maintain success.  This way if they start to topple they won’t have to pick themselves back up from the ground, but rather from wherever my hands are.  This requires less work against gravity.  It also provides a chance for kids to work on figuring out when they have to turn their muscles on and off as their trunk moves around over their base of support.

I’m going to try to outline some of the things that go into developing and maintaining sitting balance:

(it can help to have something that is really engaging in front of them so they are using their visual attention to help with staying upright)

As kiddos start to lose their balance (or move their trunk too far outside their base of support) one of the first things they need to do is recognize that they are no longer balanced or upright.

Once this happens they need to send a message to their muscles to turn on and try to correct things so that they can be upright again and not fall over.  Usually when this happens in the beginning the message gets there a little too late and they fall over.  This is why if you give limits so they don’t go all the way to the floor they still get to figure out what muscles to turn on.  With repeated practice they start to get the message in time and begin to activate their muscles when they notice a change in head and trunk position.

In the beginning their muscles tend to overshoot the target (sometimes they undershoot too).  This means that they over compensate and use too much force so they go too far in the opposite direction.  When this happens it takes practice for them to quickly get the message and switch the muscles that they are using.  Sometimes I feel like kids learning to sit are little weeble wobbles!

If you notice in the video the legs are coming into play a lot.  This is how they begin to use their legs for stability.  If they can ground their legs and keep a stable base they have more mobility in their trunk and arms and can do more things in sitting.  The grounding and stability begins with them activating their legs to try to counter balance the change in their trunk.  That’s why you see them lifting their legs into the air as they try to regain a sitting position. If you are holding on too tight or they are spending all their time sitting in stabilizing chair, they miss out on the opportunity to develop this.

With practice kids fine tune their timing and their reactions so that they barely have to do anything to keep themselves up when they are just sitting there.  The next step comes when they get bumped or are doing active sitting (such as playing with a toy).

When they are bumped their body has to react to the change in balance so it is a similar process to learning to sit and stay upright.  The challenge is usually figuring out how much they need to react and how quickly they need to do it.  Its usually easier to start with slow and small ‘bumps’ whereas the faster and harder ones are more challenging.

When they are playing with toys they have to use anticipatory balance reactions.  That means they need to recognize that if they move to reach for something, or if they pick up a toy they are going to need to counter balance that move so they don’t fall over.  They turn on their muscles in anticipation of the action or activity that they are about to participate in.  Just think about if you’ve ever gone to the Cheesecake Factory and you go to pick up their water glass.  You expect a heavy glass and so you adjust your force to that, well it turns out its plastic and you end up almost drenching yourself in water!  The second time you go to pick it up though your body has adapted and you use just the right amount of force.  This is similar to anticipatory balance control.

I know the video was a little longer than normal this week but I thought the dancing was so cute that I just had to share more!

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