Every baby, toddler, and child takes some tumbles occasionally. They knock things over and accidentally break things. It’s typically a normal part of childhood play! However, some children present as extra clumsy.
Does your child tend to knock objects off the table frequently? Is their glass of milk always spilled at mealtime? Does your child struggle socially because they cannot play a simple basketball game with their classmates?
Clumsiness can indicate that your child’s motor skills are not where they should be for their age. In this blog, we will dive into what clumsiness is, why your child may be clumsy, and proactive steps you can take to address your child’s clumsiness.
Founded in principles of occupational therapy, discover BLOOM’s course on Reflexes as you navigate parenting your clumsy child.
Defining The Clumsy Child
Many parents seek help when their child’s coordination is not up to scratch. Often, a child presents with minor issues that may not make them readily eligible for therapy, as their motor skills are generally deemed satisfactory. This can be extremely frustrating for a parent.
Examples of a clumsy child’s tendencies may frequently be knocking objects off the table, often spilling beverages at mealtime, or inability to play sports at recess with friends or make simple dance moves to a rhythm.
Does this type of child sound familiar to you? It is not an uncommon dilemma. Many children exhibit clumsiness but are not eligible for therapy, leaving parents at an impasse. While to some, a child’s clumsiness may seem insignificant, parents of a clumsy child can attest that this issue has undesirable effects, influencing the child’s everyday life and often that of those around him.
What is Clumsiness?
Before we begin to problem-solve, let’s explore what clumsiness is. Clumsiness is defined as awkwardness in coordination, action, or movement. Clumsy children generally have poor awareness of the body and self. If you’ve noticed your child too often bumping into things, stepping on objects on the floor, or spilling food, these may be signs of clumsiness.
Clumsiness is often observed in children experiencing academic challenges and learning disabilities.
Those suffering from poor coordination often experience irregular breathing- you will notice a lack of consistency in the person’s exhale, and they may take shallow breaths, even holding their breath sometimes.
Why is My Child Clumsy?
If you are finding that your child is clumsy, it may be a result of one or more of the following:
-Movement that is not being registered accurately by the nervous system
-Decreased awareness of and responsiveness to touch
-Decreased awareness of the body’s position and movement
-Tactile Discriminative Disorder- a disorder that is manifested by clumsiness and an inability to localize touch and is usually paired with poor fine motor skills
-Unintegrated reflexes- meaning automatic responses that have failed to develop and mature since infancy
-Lack of postural control
There is help for clumsy children through targeted therapy, which we will dig into next.
Therapy for a Clumsy Child
Developing your child’s body and spatial awareness is crucial in overcoming the hurdles associated with their clumsiness. If your child is clumsy, they are likely struggling to understand where their body is in relation to other objects or to other parts of the body. This would explain why they might be exhibiting behaviors such as knocking over a cup of milk, stepping on objects on the floor rather than walking around them, or perhaps tripping over their feet for no apparent reason. Your child is not just absent-minded. They have difficulty gauging the position and movement of parts of their body.
Linked to this is the decreased awareness of and responsiveness to touch, which is often observed in a clumsy child. You may notice that your ‘clumsy’ child is left with a dirty face every time they eat or that their table spot is splattered with food stains after a meal. While it is common for children to dirty their faces or the area around them, once a child reaches a particular maturity, they should be able to maintain a certain level of cleanliness most of the time or at least be aware that their face, or whatever is dirty, needs to be cleaned. If they cannot do so, it may be a sign that their awareness of sensation (in this case, the feeling of the food on their face) is weak.
3 Tips to Help Your Clumsy Child
1. Practice Roughhousing
A great way to stimulate your child’s sense of touch and body awareness is through what’s called roughhousing. Roughhousing involves playing boisterously and enthusiastically with your child. When playing, freeze the action frequently. Be cautious (but not overly cautious) to ensure that no one gets hurt, and ensure there is an understanding that violent actions such as punching, kicking, biting, scratching, and headlocks are not acceptable. When playing, reverse the expected roles- encourage your child to be strong and powerful while you embellish being fearful, clumsy, and incompetent. If you do something that makes your child laugh, repeat it. Stop the activity if you notice your child becoming very serious with an edge of real anger. Before beginning, it’s important to tune into your child’s mood and reflect their feelings. For example, if your child is relaxed, you may want to begin by sitting next to them and sharing in the moment, then slowly revving it up by becoming noisier and more excited. The play should start with calmness, rise into physical play, reach a peak of super-excitement, and then wind down. Be sure to leave adequate time for the winding down stage, based on how long it takes your child to relax (usually between 20-45 minutes). The child's constant physical contact with their partner and with other objects as part of the game effectively enhances your child’s spatial awareness and responsiveness to touch, thereby decreasing clumsy behavior.
2. Practice Activities Using Both Sides of the Body
Suppose your child has difficulty performing activities such as jumping jacks, jumping rope, or even walking or running without stumbling. In that case, they may struggle to coordinate both sides of the body. A child with this challenge will have difficulty performing jumping jacks as they cannot coordinate their right and left arm and right and left leg in an organized fashion.
Encourage your child to perform activities that demand the synchronized use of both sides of the body. An effective exercise can be as simple as pushing or pulling a box, laundry basket, or a sheet with a heavy toy or sibling on it with both hands.
Feel free to get the family involved! A sibling can hold onto a rope lying on the floor, and the child can pull their sibling from the other side of the rope with both hands. If they want, roles can be reversed.
Another activity your child may enjoy is jumping through a hoop or over sticks, keeping their feet together.
Even walking around the house or garden while winding thread around a spool can help your child to practice coordination.
Children who suffer from clumsiness often have difficulty understanding direction and laterality- awareness of right and left. Your child’s understanding of direction and laterality can be enhanced through the performance of simple, everyday tasks.
Take the following scenario:
Your child has lost their shoes. Instead of simply pointing to the shoes under the table and telling the child, “there are your shoes; go and get them,” you may want to say, “your shoes are under the table.” When your child responds by retrieving their shoes from under the table, their awareness of direction is being stimulated.
When telling your child to put on their shoes, rather than simply instructing them, “put on your shoes,” it would be more beneficial to say, “put on your right shoe first, and then your left shoe.” This will get them thinking about right and left, and repeated scenarios such as these will help to assist your child’s lateral coordination.
Clumsiness may be observed in conjunction with eye-hand-foot coordination difficulties. In other words, the child will struggle to coordinate their eye movement with the movement of their hands and feet. This can be manifested in the child’s inability to catch a ball while running. A child with eye-hand-foot coordination difficulty cannot coordinate the sight of the ball approaching them, with their feet running to the ball and their hand reaching out to catch it.
3. Practice Eye-Hand-Foot Coordination
To enhance your child’s eye-hand-foot coordination, encourage them to practice various activities that simultaneously stimulate their vision and the muscles of their hands and feet.
If your child likes to play ball, challenge them to bounce or throw it up while crossing their legs and uncross their legs when catching it.
Alternatively, your child can bounce the ball under their leg and catch it on the other side, using vision, hands, and legs.
Swinging on a trapeze is a more relaxing but very beneficial activity for your child. In doing so, your child will use their eyes, taking in the scene in front of them, their hand muscles by holding onto the swing, and their legs to push their body into the swinging motion.
Online Resources for the Clumsy Child
While you may find your child’s clumsiness irritating, it can be effectively worked on from the comfort of your home. Plus, you can get the whole family involved!
Founded on occupational therapy principles, BLOOM offers online resources for parents and children. We meet you at your greatest point of need with easy-to-access online courses.
Discover BLOOM’s course on Reflexes as you navigate parenting your clumsy child.