For young toddlers, stairs may seem intimidating as it challenges their balance, depth perception, motor planning and strength. Many toddlers are scared to walk up and down the stairs and prefer to crawl or receive adult support. By the age of 2, children should be walking up and down stairs with handrail support using a step to gait pattern. They should begin using a reciprocal pattern by the age of 3 with decreasing handrail support when going up the steps. Descending stairs is more difficult due to decreased eccentric muscle control and mastery of an alternating foot pattern without support is not common until around age 4. Below are tips and exercises to perform with your child to help promote a reciprocal gait pattern when using stairs!
1. Start Small
As stated earlier, stairs can be intimidating and many children are fearful of them. Start with 3-5 stairs and work your way up to a full flight. If that is too difficult, practice stepping up and down from a small curb or step stool.
2. Give Visuals
Place colored shapes on the stairs to promote an alternating foot pattern. Have two colors and associate one with the left leg and one with the right. Place each colored shape on every other step and on the side of the body they are matched with. This visual will show your child where to step by matching their foot with the colored shape. Initially, you may have to place the child’s foot onto the next step to promote the reciprocal pattern. As your child gets more familiar with the pattern, slowly fade visual prompts by taking away the colored shapes on the stairs and see if they can maintain independently.
3. Work on Balance
When performing stair climbing, you have to stand on one leg for a short duration while the other leg is stepping. Many children are fearful of performing single leg activities and prefer to keep both feet secure on the ground. A great activity to get your child more comfortable with this movement pattern is having them place one foot on a pillow while one is secure on the ground. While in this position, have your child play at a table or play a tossing game to add a more dynamic component. As they improve, change the foot position from a pillow to small step stool. Make sure to perform on both legs!
4. Improve Eccentric Muscle Control
It is important to have good eccentric quad control when going down stairs. Eccentric control is when the muscle lengthens. A great way to work on eccentric control is having your child slowly lower themselves down into a chair and then return to standing. Another good exercise is having your child hold a wall squat while counting to 10, singing a short nursery rhyme, or playing catch. Last, you can strengthen the thigh muscle by stepping up and down from a small step stool
5. Decrease Support
Many children will try to put both hands on the handrail as a way to feel safer and help them control their body when climbing up and down stairs. To promote single handrail support, have your child hold a small toy in their opposite hand. As your child prepares to use no support, have them place their arms in the air or hold a large object, i.e. a playground ball, in both hands, to keep them from reaching for the handrail. Remember, start small and work up to a full flight of stairs. Also, stand close until your child becomes more proficient for safety.
6. Keep it Fun!
Stair climbing is an everyday routine that loses interest fast, especially for toddlers. Make stair climbing a game by throwing a bean bag up the steps to determine how many steps you have to climb. Another fun game, is throwing a toy parachute man down from the top step, retrieving him, and returning him to the top. Last, place numbers and letters on the steps and have your child retrieve one at a time, carry them down the steps, and place them in alphabetical, word or number order.