This past weekend, I took a trip back home to see my parents in Madison County, Va. Madison is a completely different world when compared to NOVA. The cows out-populate the people and most of the area looks almost exactly the same as it did when in the 70's. While there, I decided to get a crawl workout in at my old elementary school, which is actually shut down now and abandoned due to lack of a school-aged population to support it. Most people would consider this facility to be "out of date" because high-speed internet is in-accessible or because the cafeteria, auditorium, and gym were all the same room. But what I realized while there is that this school, despite being built in the the 50's, was outfitted with some of the best tools around for human and athletic development.
My workout that day was strictly work-capacity within my crawling pattern. So after a small warm up, I crawled for a set period of time in the field, switching between baby and spiderman variations (think fartlek style). This gave me plenty of time to think about the place where I spent a large portion of my childhood. As I looked at the playground that was next to the field, I realized that this type of facility is exactly what a lot of the athletes I see need.
As Head of Evaluations at SAPT, it's my job to find what dysfunction or deficit could be throwing off an athlete's movements and performance. This can be a mobility/stability issue, a vestibular issue (think balance), or a deficit in hemispheric communication (coordination, information processing in the brain etc.). Frequently, we as a society chalk up poor movement quality to poor mobility or a lack of strength, however I can assure you that those are rarely the roots of the problem. What I usually see are specialized athletes who may be able to perform the tasks of their sport or activities of daily living (perform, not always perform efficiently), but are extremely lacking in basic movement functions of the human body. A few common issues that I see include vestibular/balance issues, poor weight shift patterns, difficulty with coordination, especially within the transverse plain (rotating), poor scapular stability, and, of course, poor overall body awareness.
All of the previously listed movement deficits are caused more or less by not having a diverse base of movement. A lot of parents believe that their children playing the same sport year round is enough movement to keep them healthy. It's not. The truth is, the more they move within DIFFERENT activities and tasks, the better off they will be physically and even cognitively. This is why children have a naturally playful disposition. They want to play, which means moving and developing more neurological connections. The more engaging the activity, the better off they will be.
Now back to what I saw while crawling. Here is the playground that I was looking at:
You'll notice that there is a swing set (way in the back on the other-side of what used to be our special ed building), monkey bars, a balance beam, parallel bars, and pull up bars. What you don't see is a hop-scotch court, a tether-ball poll and a jungle gym. It was freakin' awesome and I had forgotten all about the time spent and the skills I developed on this playground. Take some time to imagine the abilities an individual would develop if they spent any amount of time on these pieces of equipment on a daily basis.
The swing would help to develop the vestibular system and its sensitivity with in the sagital plane (forward and back). This would help with awareness and could even carry over to weight-shift patterns due to the need to propel yourself. These weight-shifts are very hip dominant and actually load the anterior core, something our entire population could use. Let's also not forget how often, as children, we used to fling ourselves out of the swing, pretending that we were Evel Knievel jumping the Grand Canyon, then transitioning into a smooth tumble or landing into the grass. This helped us to learn force absorption and how to fall (or not to).
The monkey bars integrate scapular stability into a total body movement. It also helps develop grip strength and hand-eye coordination. Plus, when a child is on it their body rotates as they swing, adding to the activation of the rotator cuff and its ability to stabilize within multiple planes of movement.
The balance beam provides perhaps the most obvious of benefits, but I don't think many people understand just how crucial good balance is. In addition to the constant shifting of weight which gives a significant amount of sensory input to the vestibular system, the need to stay up on the beam forces the individual to properly interpret that input and respond by shifting to their center of gravity. Not to mention that it is dynamic when walking the beam so the center of gravity is ever-changing. The more centered an athlete can maintain themselves means the faster they will be able to shift to change direction.
Parallel bars can have a host of benefits depending on how they are used (yes, you can do more than dips on them). Similarly to the monkey bars they also provide scapular stability, but within different motions and angles. They also help to develop core strength and control as the child swings their legs back and forth.
Pullup bars also seem obvious in benefit when looking in the eyes of an adult, but have waaaay more benefit when you see them through a 9 year-old's eyes. Occasionally a child will attempt to knockout as many chinups as possible, but it's far more likely to see them doing something much more beneficial: hanging, swaying, and hanging upside down. I believe that most of us can remember climbing and fidgeting up a bar, kipping our way up and hooking our feet to hang upside down. What's the benefit? I feel the hanging and swaying have already been covered in the previous paragraphs, but being upside down throws a whole 'nother level of vestibular stimuli at them. Every rule of gravity is all the sudden flipped in the child's eyes. It challenges their whole perception and makes them start off of a blank slate for patterning, and they immediately begin learning.
Hop scotch is a fantastic game for early athletic development. I mean, it was developed by Roman solders to test speed and strength after all (they carried weights). This game not only teaches balance and footwork, but it also helps with force absorption. Many programs will throw athletes through speed and agility drills when the athlete has poor force absorption, mechanics, and pretty poopy single leg mechanics, which in turn can lead to disastrous results. But, if the athlete grew up playing hop scotch, then there's nothing to worry about and lil Suzie's hopscotch skills might just help her blow her older brother away in any cone or ladder drill.
Tether-ball is an extremely underrated game for more than just simple, hand-eye coordination. It's a multi-planar, open-loop activity that engages the visual cortex for feedback AND feedforward mechanisms. To put that in simple terms, it requires dynamic/reactive movements in multiple directions (something that is rarely a bad thing) and it gives feedback immediately after the movement as to whether the action chosen was effective (causing the child to more accurately adjust the next movement). It also requires the child to visually track the ball, predict its flight path, adjust their movement based off of the visual input and to execute the volley based off of previous feedback from past volleys. Combining all of these actions into one task helps to get the visual cortex active and force it to communicate with the motor control center. This helps with interpretation of visual, sensory input and theoretically can have carryover to MANY other activities besides just sports (let's not forget that people with dyslexia have been found to have low activity within their visual cortex). Not only that but due to the nature of the game, there is a fairly high volume of volleys, which means the player will get more feedback in one game of tether-ball than they would with other activities of similar benefits. So in short, tether-ball is freakin' sweet for development.
Last but not least, there was a jungle gym. These babies are like monkey bars on steroids. Not only can a child hang from them and swing to the next bar, but they can do it diagonally and laterally. They can also crawl over top of it, which as a quick google search will confirm, offers a plethora of physical and developmental benefits. Children will spend a lot of time hanging upside down from these as well and will even start to attempt to climb it upside down. This just adds to more vestibular and proprioceptive stimuli and puts it into a locomotive pattern.
All of these wonderful, accessible tools for human development were just sitting at a run-down, abandoned school. Many people would look at them as if they were dangerous, primitive structures, and a waste of time. Our society has become so wrapped up in sport-specific development that we've started to lose sight of what's really important. Many children today participate in the same sport year-round, getting used to the same stimuli and becoming, "stuck" within their movements, but justify it because it's exercise. When broken down, many sports only offer a limited degree of benefits on a developmental or movement scale. Sticking a child into only one or two sports (though better than them not doing any activity at all) means that they're only addressing a limited number of systems that affect our movement.. This is fine if the individual is further through their development and has had a very broad movement base, but that is seldom the case.
The funny thing about kids is they instinctively know exactly what they need. This is why EVERY child has a playful disposition and is always squirming around when they are told to sit still. How many times have you seen a 5 year-old spinning in circles to make themselves dizzy? Or perhaps throwing a random object in the area to try to catch it? Or pretend the floor is lava so that they can try to balance and walk over all of the furniture? We learn through movement and different movements teach us dfferent lessons to help us unctions through multiple situations. The hemispheres of our brain communicate through solving sensory-integrated tasks and movements. Limiting the amount of stimuli a child gets by having them do very repetitive activities or sitting them in front of a TV for, "educational" shows only provide a false sense of productivity for our society. The reality is doing so only limits their true potential. We tell them to stop playing around or to put that down and we wonder, "why can't he just concentrate?," "Why can't she EVER sit still?," Why is ADD so prevalent in our society?," "Why am I seeing so many movement dysfunctions in our youth?".... In a society that has watered down its physical education curriculum and that does not actually utilize the importance of free-play in development, I can't imagine why.