The best extra-murals for your children’s development

Posted on 18 December 2017

No two children are the same, so choosing after-school activities should be highly individualised. An occupational therapist at Mediclinic offers guidelines to help parents make informed choices.

Before breaking down activities into their various health and educational benefits, and fitting the child to the activity, Nikita Sweet, an occupational therapist at Kidz and Therapy in Kimberley, advocates looking at your child’s interests first.

‘It is pointless enrolling a child in an activity that doesn’t interest them, so you may have to go through a period of trial and error until you find where their interests and strengths lie,’ she says.

Nikita’s top five activities for gross motor skills

  1. Gymnastics

‘I love the benefits gymnastics provides children, offering shoulder strengthening, core strengthening, bilateral coordination and great proprioception (the sense of relative position of parts of your body to other parts of your body) to name a few,’ Sweet says.

Other popular group activities, such as karate, are wonderful for your child to learn co-ordination, follow instructions and carry out movements.

  1. Athletics

In a small-scale randomised-controlled study of children measuring the benefits of low-intensity versus high-intensity exercise, it was found that high-intensity exercise offered more time-efficient health benefits. High-intensity exercise, such as short bursts of running (sprints), was also found to improve body composition, functional walking and aerobic endurance in children. As running is a component of many other sports, it grooms children to perform better at other sports too.

In addition, some studies have found that rather than harming the joints, higher intensity exercise may even strengthen them.

  1. Climbing (wall-climbing).

According to the National Health Service, climbing uses many muscle groups, both in the upper and lower body. Your child’s back, abdominal and leg muscles all get exercised as well as their fingers, shoulders and arms. Regular climbing can improve stamina as well as muscle strength. In addition, it involves reaching and stretching which results in improved flexibility and agility.

  1. Swimming

‘Swimming is wonderful for bilateral coordination (fluid movement that require both sides of the body) and strengthening,’ Sweet explains.

Swimming will also benefit your child with coordination and movement difficulties (such as dyspraxia) as it helps them practice rhythm, movement and coordination.

  1. Ball sports

‘Ball sports such as netball, hockey, cricket, tennis, softball, rugby or playbill improve gross motor skills which will ultimately help with attention and concentration, visual perception, motor planning and fine motor skills,’ says Sweet.

‘A team sport is always wonderful to encourage holistic development, such as attention and concentration, gross motor skills, fine motor skill and visual perception. It can also help your child learn social skills, teamwork, leadership skills and can boost their self-esteem,’ she adds.

The core of the issue

‘The core is a complex series of muscles extending far beyond the abdominals,’ says Durbanville-based biokineticist Pea Blaauw. ‘It includes the whole torso and is used in almost every movement of the body. Some of the core muscles have up to three times as many proprioceptive receptors –providing information about the body’s position, motion and equilibrium – as other muscle groups.’

Nikita says that of the above activities, many offer benefits for a strong core too:

‘Gymnastics, ballet, wall-climbing, swimming, karate and judo are all good for the core and posture,’ says Sweet. But strengthening your child’s core doesn’t improve only their gross motor skills.

‘Improving handwriting starts at your core muscles and the shoulder girdle. Your child needs well-developed core muscles and a stable shoulder girdle in order to have stable wrists and – by extension – fingers,’ Sweet explains.

She adds that other more sedentary activities can be used in conjunction with sports to strengthen the smaller muscles of the hand, as well as strengthen your child’s thumb and first two fingers. These may include art, sand art, needlework, darts, playing a musical instrument or baking, cooking and decorating cupcakes.

Top activities for special needs

For children with mild to moderate special needs such as ADHD, depression or movement and coordination problems, music can offer numerous benefits.

‘Music gives your child an outlet and focuses their attention. Activities that provide movement (vestibular) and deep pressure (proprioception) such long jump and high jump or swimming can also help your child improve their coordination, mood and concentration. One-on-one time with your child and with a tutor or occupational therapist will offer numerous additional benefits,’ Sweet explains. Additionally, a child with special needs may benefit from sports that involve an animal such as horse riding, as they will then benefit from animal therapy as well as exercise.

Best extra-mural activities for those on a budget

Sweet’s final advice for parents on a tight budget is to choose those that facilitate your child’s holistic development. Once again, a team sport such as netball, hockey, rugby or cricket is often a good first choice. For a second activity, Sweet suggests adding a musical instrument.

‘Learning to play a musical instrument is also a wonderful way of learning and mastering a new skill. It teaches attention, concentration and sequencing and teaches your child to follow instructions, resulting in better self-esteem.’

At the end of the day, if your child is participating in a reputable extra-mural activity on a regular basis, they will reap the physical and mental benefits in the long run.



Published in Exercise

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