This wonderful Stair Climbing guest post is courtesy of a fellow NYU DPT graduate and Pediatric Physical Therapist, Dr. Sneha Gosalia of Big Leaps Pediatric Therapy based in Greenwich, CT!
Common questions that parents often ask therapists are: “When should my child crawl or walk up the stairs?” and “How can I help my child safely walk up and down the stairs?”
Stair climbing may sound nerve-racking with your little one, but it’s actually a great way to keep them safe. It is important to teach your toddler how to correctly go up and down the stairs, especially when they encounter stairs in different environments.
- Make sure you have safety gates on your stairs, especially when teaching your little one the correct way of walking up and down the stairs.
- Initially, start practicing a few steps at a time instead of the entire staircase. Learning how to walk up a few small steps is the way to begin, as it’s easier to learn how to walk up the stairs than down. Make sure you are supervising your child at all times.
- Once your child has mastered walking up three to four steps, you can then practice the entire set of stairs. During practice, make sure you are always standing behind your little one when they are walking up the stairs to protect them in case they lose their balance. When walking down the stairs, make sure you are standing below and slightly to the side of your little one in case they lose their balance and to block their fall.
Stair Climbing Milestones:
- One year: Your little one begins to crawl up the stairs.
- Two years: Toddlers begin walking up and down stairs using a non-alternating stepping pattern with hand held or rail assistance
- Three years: Children begin walking up the stairs using an alternating stepping pattern without the handrail and down stairs using a non-alternating stepping pattern.
- Four years: Children begin walk up and down the stairs using an alternating stepping pattern without support.
Don’t panic if your child does not follow the milestones listed above. Always remember that every child develops uniquely at their own pace and they may walk up or down the stairs at an earlier or later age.
In order to climb the stairs, it’s imperative that the child has good balance, coordination, body awareness, motor planning, and strength to keep them upright and safe when negotiating the stairs.
Tips & Tricks to Encourage Stair Climbing
1) Step Stool: Place a step stool against elevated surface and have child step up onto the step stool to reach for toys placed on top of the surface. Then have them turn around and step down with hand held assistance as needed. This is a great activity before practicing at the staircase. Repeat for 10-12 step-ups.
2) Sit to Stand: Place the step stool in front of elevated surface and have your child stand up at to place a puzzle piece into a puzzle or to get a toy. This is a great leg strengthening activity; which will help with walking up the stairs. Try and make sure your child does not use their hands to pull up to stand and instead encourage child to use their core and leg muscles to stand up. Repeat this activity for 10-12 repetitions.
3) Trampoline: If you have a trampoline, practice jumping throughout the day as the trampoline helps strengthen bones, reinforces joints, improves balance, and provides proprioceptive input (body awareness); all which are necessary for stair climbing.
4) Bicycle Kicks: This is a fun exercise for children and helps to strengthen the leg muscles, abdominal muscles, and improve body awareness. As the child lies on their back, hold their ankles and passively move their legs forward and back, as if they are pedaling a bicycle. Sing the alphabet song or itsy bitsy spider (approximately 30 seconds) to make it fun. Repeat for a total of three rounds.
Watch Bicycle Kicks Video for instruction on how to perform passive bicycle kicks!
5) Single Leg Balance: This exercise is important for children that are learning to climb the stairs. When a child walks up or down the stairs, they have to be able to balance on one leg/foot in order to bring the opposite leg/foot to the next step. While your child is playing with toys placed on top of the couch, sit right behind them and lift up one leg off the floor for 10 seconds and repeat for three rounds before doing to the same to the other leg. To challenge your child, you can have them stand on a balance disc or pillow and perform the same leg lift.
6) Stair Climbing with Visuals: The best way to teach a child to walk up and down the stairs via an alternating stepping pattern is to use visuals! Place stickers or tactile foot prints on the stairs to help the child place one foot on each step.
Verbal commands such as “One, Two”, “Step and step”, “Big boy steps” or “Big girl steps” can help a child remember to alternate their feet when negotiating the stairs.
If your child has a difficult time alternating feet with the visuals when walking up the stairs, you can stand behind them and pick up their foot to guide it to the next footprint/step.
If your child has a difficult time alternating feet with the visuals when walking down the stairs, you can stand below the child and to the side while picking up their foot to guide it to the next footprint/step.
For helpful visual instructions on stair climbing!
Until you are absolutely sure your child is independent on the steps, you should supervise every time!
7) Sensory Strategies for Stair Climbing
- Tactile: Use tactile element on each step (tactile discs, textured footprints, soft felt cutouts, fine grain sand paper) with child barefoot to reinforce foot placement and encourage weight bearing through each foot as child negotiates stairs
- Auditory: Use auditory cues or rhythmic cadence, with clapping, egg shaker, or song to encourage alternating feet
- Proprioceptive: Ask child to stomp feet to provide deep input and promote full weight bearing
- Visual: Strips of brightly colored tape can help encourage alternating feet on step stool, stairs, or any other surface.
- Soft stairs like these are great for little ones to practice crawling and climbing up and can be part of playroom obstacle course!
- If you do not have stair case in home, can practice with two step stools placed back to back!
- Stepping up and down from curbs as they will encounter this in their daily lives.
- Practicing stairs in the community (e.g at playground, library, shopping center, restaurants, friend’s houses!) will help generalize skill across different settings!
Start practicing our tips & tricks for stair climbing to see improved strength, balance, motor planning and of course confidence!
Dr. Sneha Gosalia, PT DPT CKTP is a Pediatric Physical Therapist and one of the founders of Big Leaps Pediatric Therapy, located in Greenwich, Connecticut. For more information on Dr. Gosalia and her practice visit her website: www.bigleapsct.com and show her some love on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/bigleapsct
Thank you also to Dr. Julie Baruch Feldman, PT DPT, for her additions to the blog in the form of videos of her adorable children demonstrating their stair climbing skills!
Learn more about Dinosaur Physical Therapy!