Children learn to use both sides of their bodies in stages. As infants, they generally move both sides at the same time (give them two objects and they'll bang them together). Eventually, they learn how to move each side independently, like crawling or walking.
Bilateral coordination is the ability to use both sides of the body at the same time in a controlled and organized manner. Being able to coordinate both sides of the body is an indication that both sides of the brain are communicating and sharing information with each other.
This is important for accomplishing many daily activities such as walking, climbing stairs, playing musical instruments, or stirring food in a bowl. In the playground, good bilateral coordination gives preschoolers the ability to climb through tunnels, use the monkey bars, or push themselves off a swing.
Good bilateral coordination develops naturally with most children. However, this is not usually the case for children with special needs. Two-handed tasks become challenging and difficult to accomplish. There may be an uneven focus, such as when cutting, concentrating on the hand that's using the scissors and being unaware of the other hand.
In a preschool setting, one of the goals of an occupational therapist is to help children strengthen their upper body and bilateral coordination through a series of games or exercises. For children with upper body and bilateral coordination challenges, one of the goals is to help these students be as independent as they can be so when they enter kindergarten or first grade, they are able to complete certain tasks on their own.
An individualized program is usually created for these children with input from the parents, physician, and teachers. The activities selected are then used both at home and at school to help the child develop the necessary skills.
An example of an activity that focuses on upper body strength and bilateral coordination is theExerBug, a bilateral coordination machine, which looks like a skateboard on wheels. Depending on the child, the machine strengthens the shoulders, upper and lower chest, and biceps and triceps. The product works well for either children developing normally or children with physical challenges.
There are also several activities that can be done with young children using simple, everyday items or toys. Some examples are listed below:
Simple Symmetrical Activities
- Blow bubbles and then have the child reach up with both hands to pop them
- Pull cotton balls apart, glue on paper to make a picture
- Pull apart construction toys (Duplos, Legos) with both hands
- Bounce a large ball with both hands, throw or push a ball with both hands
Activities with Alternating Movements:
- Drum or Bongos. With both hands one at a time (reciprocally); try to imitate a rhythm
- Air biking. While on their back, raise feet up toward the ceiling and pretend they are pedaling a bike
- Follow the leader. Have child do an activity alternating each body part, such a foot, a hand, or fingers
For gross motor and active play products, shop our Gross Motor & Active Play category.
School Health would like to thank Nancy LaFayette, OT for her contribution to our blog.