Thursday, September 13, 2012

Going for a Walk

  Three of the greatest gifts my grandmother shared with me as a young child were her charitable ways, her habit of reading daily and her unwavering commitment to health - especially her daily walks. As far back as I can remember my grandmother has been a walker and coincidently she is one of the most balanced people I know. 

In her youth, my grandmother cared for her own nine children plus an ever changing mosaic of children belonging to single working women in the neighborhood. After all of her children had grown up and left the house, she took on the role of caregiver to many of her grandchildren. No matter how many little ones my grandmother had under foot, I never remember her losing her cool. I have to imagine the stress relieving quality of her daily exercise routine and contact with the great outdoors had something to do with it. 

This month I am sharing grandma’s passion for health and fitness by teaching a whole new collection of children to walk in a group. Teaching twos and threes to walk together is tricky business! Lots of higher order thinking has to take place in order for them to hold the rules of walking together in mind while filtering out environmental distractions, curbing the urge to wander off and focusing on moving their bodies. All of this takes place while they are busy exploring the fascinating things we find along the way. Even though I am available to provide lots of support, it can be a Herculean task for children so young.

While walking with the children I’ve found it’s best to lead from behind. Positioning them in front allows me to keep everyone in view so I can give verbal prompts to help them stay on task. It also fosters autonomy by giving them a safe space to make mistakes so they can clearly see where their more experienced peers are and self correct.

One simple trick I use for keeping everyone together is to have them hold the sides of the stroller as we move from the yard to the sidewalk. (I also use this method for crossing the street or walking by loud areas where they can’t hear me very well.) Once we get on the sidewalk, the kids can choose to walk with a hand on the stroller or run ahead with their friends. If they choose to run ahead, they know they have to follow three simple rules: stick together, stay on the sidewalk and stop when I say “stop your feet”. The consequence for not following the three walking rules is that the child has to put her hand on the stroller for part of the walk. After a few minutes, they get to try again. 

It takes some time to shape the behaviors that result in a cohesive group walk but it’s a worthwhile endeavor because walking is good for the body, mind and soul.

Some important things we learn on walks include:

  • Exercise is important - we talk about the importance of exercise everyday and the kids learn that getting outside is important rain, snow or sunshine because we go out in all kinds of weather.
  • Bilateral muscle development - Many young children have variations in muscle development on either side of the body, walking naturally encourages children to develop muscles more evenly on both sides of the body. (climbing on hands and knees also helps)
  • Impulse control - No matter how excited the kids are to get to the park or be the first one to round the corner, they can only go so far before they have to wait until everyone in the group is ready to move forward.
  • Directional information - Directional phrases such as “move forward”, “turn left,” “stop at the corner” or “stand behind your friend” are often used during our walk. 
  • Paying attention to surroundings - The children always have to be paying attention to what I am saying, what their peers are doing and where their bodies are in relation to everything around them so they can react appropriately.  
  • Kinesthetic awareness - spacing themselves properly when they all have to hold on to the stroller to cross the street, carrying sticks or other treasures that might poke a friend are some of the way walks foster body awareness.
  • Compassion / caring - when one child falls, everyone rushes to give a hug or help them up.
  • Leadership skills - The most seasoned children help reinforce safety rules by reminding peers to stop if they go too far ahead. The children also take turns deciding where we should go on our walks. 

It would be simple to toss all of the kids in our super swanky six seat stroller but then the they would miss out on all the fantastic learning opportunities that present themselves as we move along, at our very slow toddler pace. 

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