Is your child hyperactive or does he need better core strength?

A couple years ago, I read about an eye-opening study by an ADHD researcher named Dr. Carsten Vogt that put the whole “kids need recess” debate into perspective for me. Intuitively, we know kids need to move and we know we feel better when we move than when we are stuck in an airplane seat or flopped on the couch all weekend. It’s all about core strength!

But this study demonstrated that kids with weak core muscles who were being evaluated for ADHD had higher levels of movement (which could cause them to be rated hyperactive) than kids with strong core muscles. Basically, kids with weak muscles can’t sit still so they look fidgety and inattentive, so they are more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD! But it’s not their brains that can’t pay attention, it’s their bodies! Or rather, what their brains need is a stronger body to sit on top of!

Whoa.

A diagnosis of ADHD can have life-long consequences and it comes with a whole host of educational, medical, and social-emotional decisions and work to be done. But what if some of those kids who can’t sit still just lack physical strength?

Even without the large consequences of an ADHD diagnosis, poor core strength can affect kids in many ways. Throughout the school day, we ask them to sit and stand and reach and write. It all starts with a strong, stable core.

But do you have to put your preschooler through core strengthening boot camp? Nope! Read on for some playful ways to get your kids off to a (physically) strong start at school.

What does poor core strength look like?

Kids with poor core strength slump their shoulders forward when they sit. They might get fatigued easily when they run or have poor balance. They might always be looking for someone to push them on the swings or boost them up a ladder on the playground.

Miss Jaime, O.T. adds that leaning on you, the couch, or the table are more signs of poor core strength. So is sitting on the floor with legs in a W shape, with their feet behind them. A weak core can make kids fidget, swing their feet, or frequently switch position. Are you always asking your child to, “sit up,” “sit down,” or “just sit STILL!”? Maybe the problem is their bodies aren’t ready for those challenges.

This post from Skills for Action has a ton of photos and illustrations of what a child’s posture should look like. It really helped me understand what core muscles do!

Why is a weak core a problem?

At school, kids often have to sit on the rug or sit in chairs, or on backless benches in the cafeteria. Without core strength they lean and slump. They may be distracted by their uncomfortable bodies or feel tired. Try it now. Pull yourself up into your best charm school posture. Then slump down into your regular Friday afternoon, barely awake, posture. Which one makes you feel more energetic? Smarter? More alert and ready to learn?

Poor core strength can make it harder for kids to learn to write and read. They have to be able to control and coordinate their eyes, hands, arms and fingers and that’s harder if they are focused on just keeping their bodies upright.

Outside the classroom, weak core strength can affect kids’ performance in sports because it impacts their stamina and their balance. It can affect some classic kid activities like climbing the ladder to the slide, swinging on swings, biking and swimming.

And kids don’t want to do activities where they don’t feel successful, so a kid with a weak core isn’t going to be the one begging to practice riding his bike! So if you notice your child has a weak core and is having trouble with these activities, you may have to trick them into getting excited about core work with some of these fun activities!

Strengthen your child’s core (and yours!) through play

While this post from the Child’s Play Therapy Center recommends “good old fashioned outdoor play” to develop kids’ core strength, you might want a little more direction or guidance. Here are some of my favorite activities, collected from the sites I mentioned above:

  • Wheelbarrow walks
  • Play Twister
  • Pumping on a swing
  • Swimming
  • Biking
  • Chores like shoveling snow or carrying groceries (OK, this is secretly my favorite because I’m the mean mom that makes my 4-year-old do these things already)
  • Obstacle courses with crawling  
  • Simon Says with whole body movements (Simon says “do a bear crawl” or “hop like a frog”)
  • Yoga – I like the Cosmic Kids Yoga channel on YouTube for keeping my 4-year-old engaged and moving
  • If you’re looking for something with more clear instructions, this ebook from OT Mom looks great. I haven’t gotten it yet, but you can’t beat $5 for an ebook full of photographs of activities.

Good habits for building core strength

I hate to say this because it was a time of misery and strife at our house, but it’s time to work in some tummy time. I know! You thought you would never have to torture your children with it again once they could crawl and walk but working in that position is great for developing the neck and back muscles that support your child’s core. Lie down on the floor with them to drive cars, do a puzzle, or read a story. Bonus points if your activity has them shifting their weight to use their arms.

Another good habit that was frequently recommended is to have kids pay attention to the way they’re sitting. If they sit down to draw or write, remind them they want their feet on the floor (which reminds me, I need a small stool to put under the dining room table!) and their backs nice and straight. Give them seating options like backless stools and exercise balls while they are watching TV so they are less tempted to sprawl on the couch.

And model good habits! Maybe start reading bedtime stories sitting on the floor instead of curled up on the couch. Be active with your kids to help make you both stronger! Plus, it’s fun!

This is personal

My son is struggling a little with core strength now. He loves to write and draw and he loves to run and jump but he has never been a confident climber nor does he have the best balance. He’s an active kid with lots of terrific, age-appropriate skills. But when I watch him struggle to kick across the pool in a swimming lesson, my heart sinks. I want him to be able to do everything he wants to do and I feel like I’ve neglected this part of his development.

My plan this summer is to change the way we move, mix up our activities and give us both more opportunities to build core strength! Here’s to lots of bike rides and endless games of Simon Says!

What’s your favorite way to encourage core strength development in kids?



Is your child hyperactive or are his core muscles weak?


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