The Core Strengthening Handbook: A Book Review
by Katherine J. Collmer, M.Ed., OTR/L
A great deal of my energy on the internet focuses on reading and sharing the work of my peers and the many knowledgeable professionals in the therapy and educational fields. My belief in the networking system that technology affords us encourages me to seek out their work and to offer it to others in an effort to support both the writers and the readers. The realm of social media casts a brand new opportunity in our direction to learn and grow together in ways that were never before available to us. My quest for knowledge and the responsibility I feel for sharing it freely has set my course as one of impartiality and equality, allowing me to turn so many brilliant people’s work around for others to see. In the end, that means that I rarely accept promotional offers to review products and to advertise them on any of my platforms. And when I do, I never accept compensation for the privilege. Those are the times when a product comes along that I believe offers exceptional benefits for us as therapists, parents, and teachers.
I have just recently come across a publication that speaks in a very eloquent way to a facet of handwriting skill development that I consider to be the most important building block for success. The Core Strengthening Handbook is a new resource offered by Lauren Drobnjak, BS, PT, and Claire Heffron, MS, OTR, from The Inspired Treehouse. I feel that it will serve as a valuable resource for parents, teachers, and therapists and I think that you will agree. Let me share a review of the book to help you get acquainted with what it has to offer.
But before we begin, I’d like to discuss briefly the vital connection that core body strengthening has with handwriting mastery. Elementary school children spend 30-85% of their classroom time working at their desks, dedicating their visual and fine motor skills to close work that predominantly involves handwriting activities. (1,2) Close work places demands on the visual system to maintain efficient focusing, scanning, fixating, and accommodating skills for reading, writing, and copying from text or the board. The eyes need to stabilize their positon while the head and body move. Core muscle strength provides the platform for this to happen. In addition, upper body control plays a key role in the development of an efficient pencil grasp and a fluid penmanship style that allows the hand to glide across the paper in a timely manner. The core body muscles provide the stability for efficient eye and upper body positioning allowing the student to attend to the task at hand instead of having to expend cognitive and physical energy on maintaining an upright head and body position. This is accomplished with the help of muscle strengthening and the development of the vestibular system and balance skills. In a New York Times article, “The Unappreciated, Holding our Lives in Balance,” Dr. Daniel Merfeld, director of the Vestibular Physiology Lab at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, described the Vestibular System’s job in a most interesting way:
“Whenever we stand up and arrange our calves, thighs, torso and head into a stable, vertical configuration, we are unconsciously juggling six inverted pendulums, six mechanically independent units with masses above the pivot point – a feat that amounts to balancing six pencils on your palm simultaneously.”
The Vestibular System figures out where our head is relative to the floor and then tells the brain how to direct the muscles, joints, and ligaments in adjusting all of the masses and their pivot points to maintain our balance against gravity. However, although an inefficient vestibular system can result in poor postural efficiency, its efficiency can also be limited due to inefficient core body strengthening.
The Core Strengthening Handbook
Lauren and Claire have designed their book to present the important message about core strengthening using developmental guidelines to instruct the reader about the muscles included in the body’s core and the progression of their development following typical gross motor milestones. Their stated intent was to provide “a guide for supporting the development of core strength in children” and they have done that in an easy-to-understand resource for therapists, teachers, and parents. They have acknowledged that the progression of a child’s gross motor development can be observed by his parents, who may often be the first to detect that their child is struggling with movement activities, as well as his teachers in their preschool through elementary grade classrooms. The authors provide a well-written description of the journey a baby takes through tummy time, pulling to stand, and finally jumping using examples of observable movement patterns to help the reader visualize the muscles involved in the baby’s gross motor growth. For readers who are interested in the technical, Lauren and Claire share a brief description of the core muscles.
Probably one of the most important informational portions of the book is the section on “Why today’s kids aren’t as strong as they used to be.” The authors discuss the importance of unstructured, spontaneous play in a child’s development of his core strength. While they endorse the benefits of providing goal-directed activities to enhance core muscle strength, they recognize the importance of providing opportunities for children to have fun with simple playtime activities such as swinging, running, and climbing. In an effort to encourage their readers to investigate the importance of play further, they have provided a link to an excellent article that shares a wealth of additional links and information.
The introductory chapter that begins their exciting list of core strengthening activities provides the reader with a better understanding of the behaviors that a child can exhibit when he is experiencing weak core muscles. This is perhaps the most enticing method for gaining the attention of their audience and to compel them to buy their book! When a parent or teacher understands that inefficient core muscle strength can result in poor posture, difficulty with transitional movements such as going from sitting to standing, challenges with dressing skills, and a poor pencil grasp, they will certainly want to learn more about how they can help their children with the fun and easy-to-use activities that follow!
The first impression I had when I began to investigate the book’s activities was that Lauren and Claire certainly know how to have fun! They have provided a wide-range of strategies designed to engage the individual interests of the children as well as to facilitate their use in the home, classroom, or playground. The activities range from those that include yoga, ball, and wedge components, which are the more advanced forms of core body strengthening work, through the easier to complete and more readily accessible everyday activities such as helping with chores or playing games on “all fours.” Each strategy shares suggestions for grading the activity to match the child’s needs and for making the work fun for everyone. The authors did not forget the babies! They provide a group of playful activities that encourage tummy time and in turn engage the parent or caregiver in interaction with their child.
My favorites? Well, that was a difficult, for sure! I lean toward selecting the Playground Ball Activities since they engage both the visual and the vestibular system in a very natural way. But, who could not be interested in their Towel Activities! I will definitely be including the Oblique Wake-Up Call in my next therapy session! As far as assessment tools, I feel that their section on “Other Quick Core Strengthening Ideas” will come in handy the next time I’m working with a new client. These six activities will tell me a great deal about his gross motor skills.
And did I mention that the book has pictures of the cutest children imaginable? The Core Strengthening Handbook is certainly that – a handbook. It is designed as both an informational resource as well as a quick reference for selecting activities that will work the core muscles. If you have a moment, stop by The Inspired Treehouse and take a look at their site and this book. I think you will be happy that you did!
Katherine J. Collmer, M.Ed., OTR/L, is a pediatric occupational therapist who specializes in the assessment and remediation of handwriting skills and is the author of “Handwriting Development Assessment and Remediation: A Practice Model for Occupational Therapists.” She can be contacted via her website, Handwriting With Katherine.Disclaimer: The information shared on the Handwriting With Katherine website, blog, Facebook page, Twitter page, Pinterest page; in the Universal Publishing Handwriting Teachers’ Guides; on any guest blog posts or any other social media is for general informational purposes only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for sound professional medical advice or evaluation and care from your physician/medical team or any other qualified health care providers. Therefore, the author of these links/posts take no responsibility for any liability, loss, or risk taken by individuals as a result of applying the ideas or resources.