Since the pandemic started, my husband and I have struggled to get Emma the kind of physical activity she needs on a daily basis. Initially, all the playgrounds were closed and remained that way for months. Once they opened, John started taking her, but it just wasn’t the same – everyone was afraid of people they don’t know, so she had a hard time connecting with any other kids like she normally would. We had just moved a week before the lockdowns started, so we hadn’t met any new friends in the area for her to be in a bubble with. Thank goodness, my parents had a pool – that was a lifesaver!!
Thankfully, her school started in person learning and she started having both interaction with other kids and lots of playtime. Before we knew it though, it was winter and the freezing temps started forcing us to be inside even more than we already were. I read recently that kids are getting more screen time than ever before, and we are no exception. She has started watching video games on youtube, playing Minecraft and Goat Simulator on her computer, and just chilling out on the couch watching the Croods. Definitely not ideal, and I knew I needed to do something to help her.
Being an only child, if we are not playing with her, she is not super motivated to run around and play. She is the greatest thing in my life, but I still have a hard time doing imaginative play. I am embarrassed to admit it, but there it is. Not everyone is able to get themselves in the mindspace for it – John is AMAZING at it and also has so much energy. But even he can only play pet shop for so long. So, I knew I needed to create a space that she could play and get her energy out without needing one of us to be constantly engaged.
**As a side note, I am severely immunocompromised due to my various health conditions and treatments I am undergoing for them. So taking her to indoor play places was SO not an option for us. We just cannot take that risk!
We just moved into our newly built home in December, 2020, and I had NO idea what to do with the basement, so it was the perfect spot for an in home playground. All Emma’s toys live in her bedroom, so we had no need for a playroom. As a huge fan of the Wellness Mama blog, I had read all about the importance of the vestibular system and why it is so important to help Emma’s body develop it.
The Vestibular System
The vestibular system is responsible for sensory integration, spatial orientation and balance. Each of your inner ears sends signals to the brain that, when working properly, help a person have good balance, body and spatial awareness. When the signals are not functioning right or are out of sync, you have issues with balance, clumsiness, and other sensory problems…ahem, Emma. She is super clumsy and is SUPER risk averse. She did not go down a slide till she was 3 because she was terrified. So I knew this was an area to focus on.
Remember going to the playground as a kid and all the awesome and DANGEROUS things there were to do? Merry go rounds, poles you slide down, monkey bars and rings, zip line tracks, and the list goes on. Now all the playgrounds we encounter are just a series of platforms with a couple slides. THAT’S IT. Makes me feel better as a parent knowing she is not going to fall and break her arm, but it could actually be hurting her by not giving her the opportunities to experiment with her body like she needs.
There is more to the vestibular system than just balance, too — it is also responsible for handling eye and head and eye and hand coordination. Simple things like following a ball through the air with your eyes, or scanning objects on a page rely on the body knowing if the object is moving or if the head is moving.
I was surprised to find that the vestibular system also helps the body develop and maintain muscle tone. In order to maintain a specific position, your body has to contract and then hold that contraction in the necessary muscles. If this ability is diminished, it can make it hard to maintain good posture or sit without having to be supported by something like the desk (I fall into this category).
How do we help the vestibular system develop?
So how do we help develop the vestibular system? Movement!! Really any movement helps, but movements that engage the balance and spatial sensing are super beneficial. Some examples are swinging, spinning, hanging upside down, or jumping.
I set out to find options for Emma that would be a bit challenging, but also just generally fun to do regularly. Since I am a modern day momma, I also wanted to make sure she did not get hurt if I could, so I found great options for cushioning falls. Here is what we found…
This was the start of my ‘basement gym’ quest. I found this one on Amazon and it fit the bill for climbing, sliding, and generally flipping and hanging. It is a super flexible system that allows for a variety of activities. The only limitation we found is that all the climbers hanging from ropes kind of get in the way, so we used little ties stuck to 3M strips to hold them against the wall when they are not in use.
This was crucial and is my favorite item in the room. There are a lot of crash pads that you can order – the kinds like they have at tumbling gyms, but they are SUPER expensive. This one is super soft outside, has a waterproof inner cover, and is filled with foam squares that absorb falls SO well. We have yet to have a hard landing or hit the floor through the pad. I love doing handstands and falling back onto it.
If you are going to work on your handstands or cartwheels, having a proper mat to break your fall is a must. My parent’s bought this super high quality mat for Emma last Christmas so she could tumble without getting rugburn or hitting the floor too hard. It is just like the ones they had at the tumbling places we have been to. They have velcro flaps so you can connect multiple mats together AND we discovered on accident that it has the added bonus of sticking to the carpet so it doesn’t move at all when playing on it.
Emma had been asking for a hammock and I had always wanted one of these swings, so it was a perfect match. She is able to use the seat part as a full blown hammock and feel super safe and comfy – added fun, she can lay on her tummy and use her hands to propel herself and swing and LOVES it. We are building up to having her stand in it and use the handles, but we are getting there! You will also need super strong brackets to mount it to your ceiling. We bought these and they are holding great.
The balance board is a great way to strengthen your core and your vestibular system at the same time. Emma loves it because we make games out of how long each of us can stay on without falling off. It leads to tons of giggles and fun! Added bonus is that she can play on it while having her chill out time, watching her shows. So she is moving but still giving her mind a break (which she needs because she gets overloaded easily).
A balance beam is more fun than when we were in gymnastics. When you have one at home you can make all sorts of fun games on it. Like setting up obstacle courses with it, timing how long you can hold a pose, and trying to do cartwheels on it. We got this one because it folds up for storage and we also like to fold up our mats to create new shapes for obstacles to jump over.
Emma really wants to work on her backbends and back walkovers (shhh…so do I!) so we got this octagon mat that she can use to support her little back and get the feel for rolling backwards. Its also super fun to roll forward, goof around, and use it as a platform to jump off of!
We have a little trampoline that we can use to jump off onto the crash mat or just see how high we can go. The one we have is a little lacking, so we will be replacing it soon with one that has a bit more bounce like the one shown. Our basement ceilings are 8 feet high, so we can accommodate a bit more than the current one has!
A positive addition
So far our indoor gym has really helped Emma get moving and is super fun for me to do with her. Being able to get her energy out has helped her fall asleep faster and be less of an energy ball right before bed (which saves a little of our sanity). I’m positive it will be a big hit with her friends too when they come over!! Once we have had it for a few months, I’ll update on our progress.
Just as a note – I am not a physician, specialist or expert. I am just a momma trying to learn and do my best for my daughter. This is all our personal experience and not meant to replace the advice of your doctors or therapists. Please make sure to consult your doctor or specialist for your own needs!
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