Why children trip and fall

Children may trip a lot for a variety of reasons: poor visual pickup and prediction, slow and inadequate responses to balance disturbances, and muscle weakness.  A few children may have a balance problem related to disturbances of the vestibular system in the ears. 

Looking ahead, predicting and anticipating 

When we move across uneven surfaces or a space with obstacles we automatically look ahead, notice what is coming up and make changes in the way we move so as not to trip and fall. 

Try the following - next time you walk out of doors: 

Notice how frequently you look down to see what lies a few meters ahead. Notice what you do as you approach a curb, a set of steps, another person in front of you, or a door. 

Children with coordination difficulties often do not look ahead and check what is coming up. As a result they do not make the adjustments needed to maintain their balance and successfully negotiate obstacles and uneven surfaces. 

Observe your child: Take some time to notice how your child manages when walking out of door, in the house, in a busy street or shopping mall where there are lots of people moving about. Does he/she bump into people or things and stumble or tip when obstacles are encountered? 

Solution:  Create opportunities for your child to learn to consciously look and note what lies ahead.  One idea is to build an obstacle course using chairs, stools and cushion and practice moving across this slowly at first and later on quite fast. Change the arrangement frequently. 

Slow to respond when balance is disturbed

When we move  about either walking or running and encounter an obstacle, change direction or stop suddenly our balance mechanisms come into play to rapidly restore balance and stability. These balance responses need to be automatic, fast and sufficient to be effective. 

Try the following: Do 10 very fast small two foot jumps forwards and then stop suddenly. What do you notice?    Even though your feet have stopped moving,  momentum keeps your upper body going forwards  and in order to restore your balance you need to step forwards fast with one foot. 

Children who trip and fall a lot often have not yet developed these fast and automatic responses, so they loose their balance and fall over. 

Solution:  Practice lots of activities that challenge your child's dynamic balance. Any activity that requires rapid changes in speed and direction is good for this,  Ball skills training is particularly good because it is fun, trains attention and challenges balance. 

Muscle weakness and poor muscle power

When we make sudden changes in the direction or speed that we are moving the muscles of the legs have to develop adequate force in a short period of time (known as muscle power) to accelerate the body or stop it moving in a particular direction. 

If the muscles are weak and tire easily the child cannot generate the muscle power needed to stay upright, especially when the muscles are tired and the legs simply buckle. 

Solution: Strengthening exercise performed rapidly to improve both power and coordination. 

Stepping sideways to catch a ball - good for training dynamic balance 

In this activity you become a training partner (TP) and throw a large and easy to catch ball to the left and right of your child so that a sideways step is needed to catch the ball. 

The difficulty of the exercise is slowly increased by speeding up and requiring bigger and more sideways steps to catch the ball. 

Exercise instructions 

The training partner (TP) stands facing the child at a distance of 3-4 meters.  

The TP bounces the ball just to the left of the child so that she needs to reach to the side to catch the ball. 

Practice throwing and catching the ball to the left and right a few times. Change sides randomly so that the child needs to watch you carefully to anticipate where the ball will go. 

Once your child has mastered this task and is able to catch the ball most time, you can make the task more difficult. 

Now throw the ball so that the child needs to step sideways to catch it.

Once this has been mastered, speed up  throwing the ball. Allow less time for recovery between each throw and also throw the ball faster. 

And finally you can throw the ball further to the side so that the child needs more than one step to reach the ball. 

How this activity improves all aspects of dynamic balance. 

  • Catching a ball requires attention and prediction.
  • Stepping sideways rapidly requires strong muscle action in the leg extensor muscles.
  • Catching the weight on the stepping foot also requires a rapid generation of force to absorb the weight of the body as it lands on the foot.  


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