1. Single leg balance
Single leg balance activities help strengthen kids’ hips for independent walking
- Position your child standing at a couch or low table and place one foot on a low (2”) book, step, or box. Allow their hands, but not their chest, to rest on the surface. Use a bigger book, step, or box to make it harder.
- Try sandwiching one ankle between your legs for support and placing your kiddo’s other foot on your thigh; then sing a song while you help them hold this position. As they get more comfortable with this, you can progress to playing with a toy, which challenges their balance more. Be sure to switch legs to strengthen both sides!
2. Rotating and reaching
- Rotating to look over their shoulder and reach for something when standing at a supporting surface like the couch strengthens ankles and encourages independent standing. If they’re leaning on the couch too much, try it at a vertical surface like the wall.
- Standing at the couch, encourage your little one to squat with one hand supported on the couch, offering a motivating object such as a toy or snack below the level of their hips. If you need to place the motivator on a surface, tissue boxes are great options – they’re about 5 inches tall, or 10 inches tall if you turn it on its side (built-in adjustable height!). Kiddos may need your help to keep one hand on the couch, so try holding your hand over their hand to maintain that support. Gradually lower the motivator over time until they’re able to squat to pick up and object from the ground.
- Next progression of this exercise is performing this squat-and-reach activity at the wall. Standing and squatting at a vertical surface is more challenging because they can’t push down through their hands, and a more upright trunk targets hip strengthening.
- If they’ve mastered this, encourage play in a prolonged squat, for example, to complete a puzzle on the ground. This helps strengthen the anterior tibialis, the muscle on the front of the foot/shin that is responsible for lifting up toes in walking. Join baby in that deep squat and you’ll feel the burn!
- Another squat variation is sit-to-stand! Start them sitting on your thigh, straddling your leg, and provide support with your hands on your kiddo’s thighs to help them stand up.
- You can also try floor to stand. Use a progression beginning with hands on the seat of a chair and knees on the ground, then transition to hands and feet (bear stance), and finish with hands up, stand up! A backward pull at the hips helps them finish the movement to fully stand. Once they’ve mastered this with a chair, start with hands on a couch cushion on the floor, eventually working to starting with hands on the ground. This strengthens glutes and is great for motor planning and more independent transitions.
4. Cruising along different surfaces such as:
- A weighted plastic toy bin – it won’t move too much if they lean into it and they can squat to pick up toys on the ground and stand to put them away! Clean-up AND therapy?! Sounds great for parents, but if your kiddo isn’t buying it, try saying “score!” or “touchdown!” super enthusiastically whenever they put something in the bin – positive reinforcement for the win!! Another option: “That toy bin looks really hungry, let’s feed him all your toys!”
- Around a chair – the back of the chair provides a vertical surface for extra challenge, but kiddos can also practice navigating around corners when transitioning between front and sides of the chair.
- A wall – again, vertical is more challenging because they can’t push down through hands. A more upright trunk targets hip strengthening. Focus on putting weight through palms, not forearms, to activate those glutes to help your kiddo stand with a straight and steady back, fully bearing weight through their feet. Stickers or squigs are great motivators for wall cruising!
- Position two tables with a gap of a few feet between them and encourage your child to transition across the gap between the two tables. It’s like cruising but encourages more independent walking. Keep the distance reasonable so that they experience success rather than frustration, and then gradually increase the distance between the two tables.
5. Assisted steps
- Grab a ring or hula hoop and encourage your little one to walk while holding onto it instead of your hands. Keep the ring at the level of their shoulders to prevent injury and practice good walking mechanics. A ring or hoop is more dynamic and gets them comfortable with the idea of walking without holding your hand, a necessary part of independent walking.
- Offer a push toy like a toy shopping cart that you can place toys or objects in to add weight to. This helps control momentum.
- Set up a kiddie chair or bench 3-5 ft away from a motivating toy on a raised surface such as a couch (you can also use a bench, a low table, a sibling, a favorite parent… whatever works). Help your child stand up and then take steps toward the couch to get to the toy! You might start holding two hands, then progress to holding just one hand, then the back of their wrist, then maybe just their pinky for security, and then before you know it, they’re taking independent steps!
Special Considerations: Shoes
- For typically developing kids, walking barefoot can help develop foot muscles and ligaments and strengthen the foot’s arch.
- Other kiddos may have decreased ankle stability and require supportive shoes to walk.
- Talk to your child’s therapist to see what they recommend for your kiddo’s specific needs!