From the moment your baby lurches around on 2 feet like a freshman at rush week to the day you take the training wheels off, you child is learning that gravity is a cruel mistress. You’re going to go through tons of Kleenex and Band-aids before this phase is through. But, chin up, because that pain is giving them the tools to stay on their toes, and how to take a fall if they don’t.
Elizabeth Streb is a certified genius in the art of movement, and her dance company has been hurling into, off, and through solid objects for more than 30 years. You may have seen her work at the 2012 Olympics, where she thought it was a cool idea to get her troupe to strap themselves to the almost 500-foot London Eye like beads on bicycle spokes. Or maybe you’ve witnessed her Human Fountain, where a dozen bodies fling themselves off 30-foot platforms like a fleshy version of the Bellagio attraction?
At her SLAM studio in Brooklyn, one of Streb’s Extreme Action Company dancers, Cassandre Joseph, miniaturizes what Streb calls PopAction, a kinetic bouillabaisse of gymnastics, dance, parkour, and circus — basically everything your kid is going to see in the next 5-to-10 years and say, “Daddy, I want to do that!” That, or they’ll just stare in wide-eyed terror. Either way, here’s how to get them started.
Balancing Is Boring
“Balance is the most boring place to be, but the hardest place to attain,” says Streb. What she means is that it’s all the things that happen when they’re out of balance — falling safely, dealing with fear, maneuvering their bodies in space — that lead to kids who become athletes or dancers or work for Yeun Woo Ping. “I think that balance is something you have a fleeting hold on at all times. It’s about failure, and accepting failure. The first time a child stands up, they’re going to fall. And they’re going to fall again,” she says.
There’s No “Right” Way
“We don’t have handbooks. Most organizations that have been around for generations have a handbook or a set of rules to follow. This is how you build a child’s ability to do a roll. Or do this. Or do that. At Streb it’s a clean slate,” says Joseph. That’s important to remember when trying to teach your kid to cartwheel or make it across a balance beam. Don’t get hung up on your version — pay attention to how your kid is trying to overcome the challenge presented, and work with it.
You don’t have to stick the landing if you have a giant foam mat underneath you. But if you’re watching your little one test out a new move on the jungle gym, take this tip: “The one rule we have is, you can’t land on your head,” says Streb. “Or your upper back. Kids will usually turn around and won’t land on their head.” That’s probably not enough of a technique to do away with a helmet at the skatepark, but it’s a good mantra to instill in your kid before they start actively trying to defy gravity.
How To Spot Your Kid
You want your kid to feel like they have their independent feet under them, but you’re also afraid of … well … everything. “You have to spot to the point where the child can complete that activity safely,” says Joseph. “If they’re hanging on for a long time, you spot and get a sense of how long, or how strong that hand grip is. From that experience you can start to pull away. I don’t drop spotting until that activity is done successfully 5 to 7 times.” That means it’s going to take more than one trip to the park to make sure the transition from bucket swing to big swing goes smoothly.
There Is A Right Way To Encourage
What do you do when your kid is afraid to try or struggling with an activity? Here’s how the people who deal in fear every day handle it. “The best way to push someone through a challenge is present a smaller challenge,” says Joseph. “Add an intermediate step, and go step by step.” It’s the reason why mountain resorts have a bunny slope or salsa comes in “mild.” The wrong way? “Don’t scream at them.”
“One of the main reasons people don’t make [a jump] is because they hedge,” says Streb. “You can’t do that. Once you decide, you must get to the other building.” In the SLAM studio there’s a piece of Philippe Petit’s wire from his World Trade Center tightrope walk. “Petit would say you have to go further than the situation. When he was looking at the wire, he was looking beyond the wire.” Those monkey bars may not be suspended a thousand feet in the air, but the principle is the same — get them to look beyond that last rung.
Exercises For All Ages
Unlike you and your ossified back, kids are naturally flexible. Here are some of the techniques they teach in Kid PopAction that, with the proper padding, you can try in your home studio (aka, the living room):
- Clump: This is where they make the smallest shape they can. Have them get down on the floor, grab their shins, and fold their body over their legs to try to get down as far as possible.
- Donkey Kick: Get your toddler strong — like donkey. Have them push up like they’re going to do a hand stand and then kick both feet backward.
- Mea Culpa: It’s clump, but do a wave like you’re at a Mets game, then back to clump.
- Pivot: Form a perfect line, straight up and down. Then — like a top — have them spin in one motion 90, 180, 270 or 360 degrees.
- Falling: Before doing any of the following moves, make sure you lay down a mat or soft surface for the landing. Like Chevy Chase or Charlie Chaplin, the pratt fall is where your kid falls like a felled tree in a straight line, until they catch themselves at the last minute by extending their arms.
- Salmon Dive: Don’t attempt until your kid masters falling. Have them jump up, get parallel to the floor, and put their arms out like Superman and catch themselves the same way they do with falling. To half-step it, have them keep their arms by their sides until they get more comfortable.
- Torso Fouette: Have them sit with their legs extended in front of them and, in one swift motion, flip onto their belly.
Build An Obstacle Course
Here’s how Kid PopAction sets up an obstacle course that has a little bit of everything:
- Beams: Get a normal 2 x 4 (wood, foam, Jell-O, whatever) that your kid can walk across. Put it on the floor for beginners or raise it a bit off the ground for older kids.
- Dangle Game: SLAM has an apparatus that keeps lifting the kids into the air until they decide to drop on the mat. Spotting them on monkey bars (or your arm) could also be an unsanctioned stand-in.
- Mini Tramps: Unlike those pool-sized tramps of death, the mini-tramps are small and subtle enough to teach the art of jumping and landing.
- Inclines: Get a wedge (not the one you use for sexy time) and have your kid practice crab walking up and down.
There Will Be Blood
An important thing to remember as your kid learns to keep their balance is that falling is unavoidable. As Streb says, “How do you learn to balance if you don’t have accidents and fail?” The most important part about accidents is how you handle them. At SLAM they don’t talk about pain, they call it, “a rather interesting foreign sensation” They know they’re going to get hurt, and our job is to have it be a mild injury, not a serious injury.” Your job as a parent: same deal.