As discussed in THIS blog, children’s ankles can be quite vulnerable if they don’t have good proprioception (the communication between a child’s brain and their ankle muscles, tendons and ligaments). This can lead to chronic ankle instability and a lifetime of weak and sore ankles. You don’t want this for your child at all so here are my 5 best exercises to help prevent injuries, develop proprioception and strengthen your little one’s ankles.
Unless prescribed by a pediatrist, have your child do these exercises in bare feet. Doing these exercises in bare feet provides the most natural state for your child’s feet, ankles and lower legs to respond to the movements. Shoes may be designed in a way that effects what is happening in your child feet, ankles and legs so doing these activities without shoes on allows the foot, ankle and leg muscle to respond without any external influence.
Ankle rotations and calf stretches. Either sitting or lying down, ask your child to lift one foot off the floor and draw 10-20 big circles with their big toe (without moving their leg) in one direction. After 10-20 in one direction ask them to draw 10-20 circles in the other direction. Then repeat on the second leg. Twice through on each leg is plenty.
After the ankle rotations, it’s time to stretch the calf muscles (back of the lower leg). Ask your child to stand, facing a wall with hands on the wall (like they are trying to push the wall over). Then have them take one foot back so that the back leg is straight with the foot flat on the ground (the front leg will be straight). This should stretch towards the knee on the back of the lower leg. Always check that their toes are pointed directly towards the wall and not on an angle. Hold for 30 seconds then repeat on the other leg.
These exercises improve the range of motion in the ankle. This means the ankle has more room to move and if it needs to suddenly move in a certain direction (eg a slip) it can do safely without causing injury.
Calf raises and toe lifts.
Now it is time to build some strong muscles at the front and back of the lower leg. Have your child stand up. From here ask them to lift their toes off the floor as if they are trying to touch their knee with their toes. After 10 with toes straight, ask them to turn the toes in a little. Do another 10 then turn the toes slightly out for another 10. Ask them to repeat on the other side. Doing this twice on each leg will really develop the muscle at the front and side of the lower leg.
Next, it’s the back of the legs turn. From standing, have you child stand on one leg (they may want to slightly lean on something for balance) then go onto their tippy toes as high as possible. Count to 2 once they are at their highest point. Do this for 10 reps with toes forward then 10 with toes slightly in, then 10 with toes slightly out. Having your hand above their head is a good target for them to aim for and it is makes it more engaging. This exercise targets the muscle in the top half of the calf so let’s do the bottom half next.
To strengthen the lower half of the calf muscles, simply have your child sit on a chair and repeat going on to the tippy toes. Again, hold for a 2 count but this time have your hand above their knee. Have it higher enough that your child squeezes their muscles but doesn’t lift their foot off the floor. 10 with toes straight, 10 with toes slightly inwards and 10 with toes slightly outwards.
These exercises build the strength in the muscles at the front, back and side of the lower leg which then support the ankle. These muscle control the movement of the ankle so if they are all strong your child’s ankle will be strong in all positions it may find itself getting into.
Balance beams and wobble boards.
Not only are these great fun, but the sideways movement your child’s ankle does while on these activities is of huge benefit. The ankle is constantly moving giving signals to the brain while the brains sends back messages to the ankle’s ligaments, tendons and muscles. This will improve proprioception which reduces the risk of injury if your child was to slip or be in a risky position during sport.
Single leg balancing. Such a simple yet very effective exercise. Ask your child to stand up and take one foot off the floor. You’ll notice the foot on the floor instantly start to work. All the ligaments, muscles and tendons start working to try and keep the body balanced. Count slowly to 10 and see if they can make it without moving the foot that’s on the floor. Repeat 2-3 times on both legs.
Another fun addition is to have your child stand on one foot, and you throw a ball back and forth to each other. See how many catches your child can get before having to move the foot that’s on the floor.
These activities again increase your child’s proprioception with the added bonus of coordination. The brain is working overtime hear with hand-eye coordination and ankle proprioception. Great if your child in involved in ball sports.
Jumping and landing. Starting with a two-feet, have your child jump from a stable surface and land on one-foot. Make sure they bend the knee on landing and encouraging them to “stick the landing” (meaning once they hit the ground, stop, find balance and don’t jump around). You can then have them jump from one-foot and land on the foot they jump off from. The next variety would be to have them jump and land on a beam (not too high off the ground) or a specific target. Then jump on to that target landing on one foot.
So many great things happening in these activities. Proprioception, coordination, power development and self-confidence.
These 5 exercises are great for all kids. Their ankles and feet will take them many place in their lives. The stronger their ankles can be and the better their proprioception is the more fun and enjoyment your child will enjoy throughout their entire life as they will be less likely to miss out due to injured ankles.