Does playing Superman really improve school and behavioral performance? The answer is yes, kind of. Running around in a cape and pretending to have laser vision won’t necessarily start raking in the A’s, but a nifty little exercise nicknamed The Superman can make a world of difference. Most kids start out practicing this move without any help. It’s a natural result of tummy time as a baby. The Superman, also known as prone extension, requires the child to lie on their tummy and lift their arms and legs just a few inches off the ground with everything extended out so they look like Superman in flight. According to Dr. A Jean Ayers, PhD, “Prone (lying on the tummy) is the position in which normal infants develop many of the postural and motor responses that lead to standing, walking and other adult sensory-motor activities.” As we are all well aware, things don’t always develop the way they’re supposed to.
When things don’t develop properly in the neck muscles and vestibular, or balance system, the Superman exercise becomes a diagnostic tool. Kids who struggle in these two areas will be unable or unwilling to perform the Superman (they should be able to hold this position as long as most adults). If they can’t hold this position, you are likely to see developmental delays and issues with balance, sensory integration, behavioral inhibition, and coordination. These kids spend a lot of time fidgeting, struggle to sit through a teacher’s lecture, show signs of clumsiness, exhibit signs of a Sensory Process Disorder (SPD) and may fall behind in subjects such as reading and writing.
“In the process of motor development the infant [or child] can be observed to produce specific movements thousands of times. This practice (i.e., repetition) enhances communication between the sensory and motor systems of the body. The more often a motion is produced the easier it becomes to produce and eventually to incorporate with more complex patterns of movement.” (Sternat, 2005)
What To Do?
If the Superman pose is a challenge for your child, the next step is figuring out what to do about it. The obvious step is practice the Superman pose. This simple exercise gives the vestibular system a boost and strengthens weak neck muscles. But this exercise can be spiced up in a number of ways that improve efficacy and expand the systems you’re improving.
Scooter boards, like you see here, are definitely one of the favorites at our center. Adding motion to the Superman pose is a major boost to the vestibular system and it makes it more fun than simply lying on the floor. These wheeled boards are super versatile as well. I’ve seen everything from simple exercises pushing off the wall with a bungee cord to human bowling and life size games of Hungry Hungry Hippo. Dr. Ayers says the “sensory input [from riding the scooter boards] reduces hyperactivity, and also energizes the nervous system for more purposeful activity. After riding a scooter board, a child is often more calm and focused, and remains that way for some time.”
It’s not uncommon to find a kid running at a swing and taking off with their arms and tummies wrapped around the swing. Park swings don’t allow for the full extension needed for the Superman pose, but the movement is crucial to helping develop struggling vestibular systems. Full body swings like we use at our center cater to the need for full-body extension and provide a safe cocoon that many kids with SPD crave. If you don’t have access to an indoor swing, swings at the park can be just as useful. Take your child to the park and have them swing on their tummy and then switch to their back. Both are great for strengthening the muscles in the neck and shoulders.
Therapy Ball (using their tummy)
Kids can lie prone on therapy balls as well. Help your child lie their tummy on a larger ball, like you see here, and help them crawl forward so the ball eventually makes its way down to your child’s legs. They can then roll back to the tummy position. For more difficulty, when the ball reaches your child’s toes, have them put their knees to their chest and extend them straight again before rolling the ball back to their tummy.
You can take it one step further and help them complete a task like solving a puzzle or playing a card game while they try to balance on the ball. The ball adds an extra challenge to the balancing system, and encouraging them to complete a task while they balance trains their brains to use that system while they’re focused on something else, which is our ultimate goal. These systems should function properly in the background so we hardly know it’s there.
These are just a few!