While many people associate posture with sitting up or standing, good posture is actually something we can promote in every aspect of movement. To find models of good posture, look no further than the next toddler you encounter. As seen in the first image, this toddler is playing on the floor with his upper body turned away from his lower body, yet he is remaining upright and lengthened in this activity. The reason that toddlers can maintain upright posture so effortlessly is because they haven't yet been exposed to excessive sitting--particularly sitting in chairs. Toddlers may sit and play on the floor, but as most people with young children know, they get up and move about quite frequently. This was also the case with my children. When they were babies, I marveled at the ease and fluidity with which they moved. They could sit on the floor for long periods-- effortlessly--without leaning against anything. They would play in a squat position as I watched their flat and lengthened backs with joy. I would often think to myself, "Ahhhh, yes, I'm an Alexander Technique teacher, I teach about posture. So naturally, this is how my children should be." Be that as it may, not even my 'expertise' could shield them from certain lifestyle practices that are so prevalent in Western cultures. For even my children, with my watchful eye, could not evade the chairs that awaited them in preschool.
Yet, there is a happy turn to this story. This reality (and acceptance) forced me to be more mindful of what I could do to help offset habits that lead to poor posture. Rather than try to change or ignore our current culture, I learned to adapt. Here are some things that I have done with my children to help them maintain and improve their posture.
1). Let them roll on their side and move on to all fours as they get up. Sound crazy? Hardly. It's the natural and instinctive way our children learn to crawl and then walk. Think about this: When you wake up in your bed, how do you get out? Do you roll over on your side, or try to lift yourself up while lying on your back? If you do the latter, then you can join countless others who start their day with intense straining of their necks and backs to get out of bed. Is this really what we want to teach our children? The good news is that most toddlers will roll on their sides to get up all on their own. That is of course, unless we interfere. For example, for those of us with young ones still in diapers, what do we do when we finish changing their diapers? Do we try to 'help' them up by pulling them by their hands? Do we put our hands in their underarms to lift them? Or do we take a step back and watch how they will instinctively, roll to their sides and then push themselves on to all fours to get up? What they are doing is maintaining the length of their backs; what we are trying to do is disrupting their inherently good use of their bodies.
The next time you get up from a flat surface, pay attention to what is happening to your neck when you get up without rolling to your side. If you think about your neck while doing this, try to discern if it is free or full of tension. Tightening our necks has a negative trickle-down effect on our body causing tightening and contracting, thus leading to pain and tension throughout the rest of our body. So, what can we do? Next time you want to get out of bed, roll on your side, then cross one arm over your body and then push that arm down on the flat surface as you lift yourself up. You can swing your legs over the bed and on to the floor at the same time, or you can use that arm to push yourself up to all fours on the flat surface. Now, pass this knowledge on to your children, unless of course they already know how to do it naturally. If they are doing it naturally, model their behavior.
2). Sitting on stools or surfaces without back support. This is an important practice in strengthening the back and torso. For most of us adults, it is not comfortable to sit in any position for long periods of time without back support. While it is still possible to sit upright in chairs that have backs, the problem arises when the back of the chair becomes a stimulus for us to lean back rather than use our own muscles to remain upright. Eliminating this trigger for your child will help strengthen and support muscles that would otherwise be neglected.
In order to return to our natural mechanism, sit for 5 minutes at a time on a stool and build on that once this activity becomes easier. However, it is imperative that this be done with a lengthened back. Attempting to sit 'straight' by arching the back and pushing the chest and shoulders out, will only add undue stress and tension to their developing bodies and will cause more harm than good. Additionally, sitting slumped over in the stool is just as detrimental. Instead, think about your head being light and lifting up towards the sky like a balloon. The string of the balloon is your spine and it too follows you upward. This is a great exercise to do with children and 5 minutes at a time is easy! Once they become more used to sitting on the stool, have them do so while in front of their laptops and TVs or when they use tablets and phones. Make sure they are sitting at eye level and not looking down at these electronic devices. I will explain this in more detail in a bit.
3). Move around every 30 minutes. It is easy for children to get locked into a good show or video and it may seem impossible to pry them away from their beloved device. But as parents we must. There are several ways to monitor and enforce the 30-minute rule. One option is to set an alarm on your phone for 30 minutes and redirect them to a different activity. This is going to seem impossible at first (and from my experience filled with whining and even tears) but we are the parents, right? Another idea is to 'take a break' to use the restroom, eat a snack or meal, or look at something that you want to show them. From my own experience, not only can I monitor more easily just how much time they are spending in sedentary activities, but I also get to interact with them more. I've implemented "playtime" where my children start their leisure time with tangible toys and books. Only once that is exhausted can they go to their devices. And after 30 minutes of sitting at that device again, they must find a different diversion. And parents...this is good for us too!
4). Encourage them to go into a squat position. If you look closely at this next image with the two boys in a squat, you can see how differently they are positioned. The younger boy on the right beautifully illustrates what I described above as inherent to toddlers. Namely, he is exhibiting lengthened posture while in a squatting position. His back is flat and he is balanced and aligned in his movement. In contrast, the older boy on the left is showing a rounded back, his torso is leaning on his knees and his feet are turning inward. His use of the body has already been disrupted with bad habits. Ideally, the parents of the boy on the left would find an Alexander Technique teacher to help him identify these habits to learn how to use his body in a more efficient way.
As parents, we can also monitor our children's postural habits. We can ask them to go into a squat while thinking up as they go down. We can remind them to send their knees out and away and keep their heels on the ground. We remind them to think of their neck as an open space that allows their heads to go forward and up as their backs are lengthening and widening. Of course, this isn't easy. In fact, it is one of the most difficult things to do. But most children are closer to the ground than we are and it is imperative that they not lose this connection with it. And parents, this activity is not to be confused with the squats you do at the gym. That exercise is full of strain and tension and should not be taught to children in that way. We want our children to grow, and therefore we don't want to teach them straining activities. Instead we want to encourage activities that promote length and space in the body.
5). Bring food up to their mouth when eating meals. I discussed this topic at greater length in one of my previous articles about children's posture. Think about what you or your child usually does as you eat your meals. Are you bringing your heads down towards your food, or bringing the food up to your mouths? If you are doing the former, then not only are you modeling this behavior to your child, but you are also slumping in your chair with a rounded back and shrinking your spine in the process. This doesn't just put unnecessary tension on our bodies, if our children are doing this as well, imagine the impact that eating this way--with our heads hunched over our food and constantly pulling down--has on their developing spines. Is this really the way we want to start our day, which will most likely be followed by many more hours in sedentary activities? Instead, we ask our children to think up. To use the space that they have between their food and their bodies. We teach them how to extend their arms outward and bring their food up to their mouths. Sure, they might spill a bit in the beginning, but this process of re-learning how to eat, will also promote balance and coordination. This is a win-win!
6). Use a pillow to prop up devices. Prop a pillow on your child's lap if they are using laptop, tablet or phone. Poor posture is becoming more and more prevalent among today's youth. Moreover, there is an increase of people experiencing lower back pain and depicting a hunched over posture dubbed as "iPosture". Therefore, parents should ensure that their children's screens are at eye-level, in order to help prevent "text neck" or iPosture. This can also be done by stacking a few books under the child's computer to lift their screen up, or if the screen is already high, getting them a stool that can adjust accordingly.
And guess what parents? You can try all of these exercises to improve your posture as well!