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, but it is actually a great way to keep children safe. It is important to teach your child 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 child the correct way of walking up and down the stairs.
- Initially, start practicing a few steps at a time before tackling the entire staircase.
- It is easier to learn how to walk up the stairs than down.
- Once your child has mastered walking up three to four steps, you can then practice on a full set of stairs.
- Be sure to stand behind your child when they are walking up the stairs for optimal safety. When walking down the stairs, stand below and slightly to the side of your child.
Stair Climbing Milestones:
- One year: Children begin 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 pattern.
- Four years: Children begin walk up and down the stairs using an alternating stepping pattern without support.
Always remember that every child develops at their own pace, and they may achieve these milestones at different ages.
Tips & Tricks to Encourage Stair Climbing
1) Step Stool: Place a step stool against elevated surface. 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.
2) Sit to Stand: Place the step stool in front of elevated surface and have your child stand up to retrieve a toy. Encourage child to push through legs without upper body support to target lower body and trunk musculature.
3) 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 back, hold ankles and passively move legs forward and back, as if they are pedaling a bicycle. Sing a song as you pedal to keep child engaged & entertained!
4) Single Leg Balance: When a child walks up or down the stairs, they have to be able to balance on one leg in order to bring the opposite leg to the next step. While your child is playing with toys placed on elevated surface, sit right behind them and lift up one leg off the floor for 10 seconds, repeat on other leg.
To challenge your child, you can have them stand on a balance disc or pillow and perform the same leg lift.
5) Stair Negotiation
- Place stickers or tactile foot prints on stairs to help child develop reciprocal motor pattern.
- Verbal commands such as “one, two” or “step and step” can help promote alternating feet when negotiating the stairs.
If your child has a difficult time alternating feet with visual cues alone, stand below the child, supporting at hips and help shift their weight to offload as they step either up or down.
6) Sensory Strategies for Stair Climbing
- Tactile: Use tactile element on each step (tactile footprints, felt cutouts, fine grain sand paper) with child barefoot to reinforce foot placement
- Auditory: Use auditory cues to establish cadence with clapping, egg shaker, or song
- 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 are great for little ones to practice crawling and climbing up and can be part of playroom obstacle course!
- If you do not have stairs at home, can practice with two step stools placed back to back!
- Stepping up and down from curbs in the neighborhood.
- Practicing stairs in the community (playground, library, shopping center, restaurants, and friend’s houses) will help generalize skill across different settings!
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