Vertical Play

Posted: January 15, 2024

Vertical Play
Most often children play on a flat surface, either the floor or a table and see objects from overhead. Vertical play, however, introduces children to a very different experience. Once play is moved from a horizontal surface (for example, your kitchen table) to a vertical surface (your refrigerator or an easel) the activity can transform as well as the skills that are developed and strengthened. Vertical play is done at or above the child’s eye level, adds a fun new element to the activity and encourages children to be actively engaged. While they are playing, they are strengthening not only their bodies but also their brains.

Here is how vertical play supports your child’s muscle and brain development:

Improved muscle engagement – while your child plays on a vertical surface, they are strengthening the muscles in their hands, wrists, elbows, shoulders and upper back. Most often children are using larger arm movements during vertical play (moving a paint brush up and down while using an easel) which supports flexibility. The strength and flexibility gained from these activities results in an improvement in posture.

Improved pencil grasp – being able to hold a pencil or pen correctly without stressing the small muscles in the hand and wrist is important for children to develop. During the toddler and preschool years, offering a vertical area where your child can use crayons, chalk or markers to draw and make marks helps with pencil grasp. White boards, chalk boards and easels are examples of vertical surfaces for your child to use for the development of a correct pencil grasp. Using a vertical surface naturally places the wrist in a stable and comfortable position.

Crossing the midline -crossing the midline is the skill of reaching across the middle of the body with an arm or leg to complete a task on the opposite side of the body. When crossing the midline, both sides of the brain are working to complete the task. Playing on a large vertical surface provides an opportunity for your child to reach and stretch their arms across their body to play on the entire surface. Crossing the midline also increases spatial awareness and bilateral coordination (using both sides of the body together in an activity). An example of crossing the midline would be when your child is painting at an easel and reaches across the right side to the upper left corner to add the sun to their picture.

Strengthening core muscles – core muscles are those found in the pelvis, hips, lower back and stomach. These muscles help with activities such as sitting in a chair, running, climbing and walking. Vertical play requires the use of core muscles to support the body and when children develop strong core muscles, this allows them to also be able to sit comfortably and correctly while in a chair at a desk (think school!)

Improved balance and coordination – for babies who are learning to stand independently or walk, playing on vertical surfaces allows them to shift their weight from side to side and front to back. This helps them develop standing balance. Older children can perfect their stability with squatting and going up on their tiptoes to reach…right…there!

Consider offering the following vertical play activities to your child:

“Tummy time” is a great way to start offering vertical play to your infant. Place a favourite toy just out of reach on the left or right side. Your infant will begin to reach and eventually, with the strength developed in their arms and torso while exploring their world during tummy time, they will stretch their arms and reach cross the midline to grab hold of that favourite stuffie! They will also learn how to shift their weight and balance while reaching, which will come in handy when they start cruising the coffee table and eventually pulling their selves up to walk.

As toddlers master the skill of walking and moving with confidence, they can begin to play on vertical surfaces, such as playing with magnetic letters, numbers and shapes on the refrigerator along with making marks using paint or crayons on an easel. Offer large, soft blocks that your child can use to make tall towers while standing. Bending and reaching for those blocks will strengthen muscles and hand/eye coordination along with spatial awareness as they stack them up before they knock it down.

Preschoolers need vertical play experiences to prepare them for school. Using an easel to draw will help with shoulder and elbow stability, which is necessary when using writing tools later on. Climbing up and about on playground equipment will strengthen leg, arm and core muscles. Using magnetic shape tiles on a metal surface (a door, a filing cabinet, the refrigerator) to design the latest rocket ship will help with problem solving skills and imagination. You can also offer suction cup toys and window clings on a window or patio door. Better yet, grab a cloth and a spray bottle and they can clean the window! The arm movements while cleaning a window (stretching, rotating and reaching across the midline) are sure to help strengthen muscles. Missed a spot!

Vertical play experiences can motivate children and engage them in ways that playing on the floor or a table might not. Children like to stand and kneel, so take advantage of this natural desire and play up!