Remember the swing in your school or your backyard? We all have our childhood memories of swinging too high, jumping on the wooden seat, standing on it, and even swinging backwards. Growing up, I had an old and worn out wooden swing in the small play area in my housing colony. I played on it until my mother would call me in for dinner.
When I was a baby, my mother used a hammock made from a sari. Its swaddling effect, combined with the to-and-fro rocking movement, soothed and calmed me down considerably. I know children who are as old as twelve and who still love the swing in the park. When they have meltdowns or bad days, just an hour of swinging calms them down and makes them feel better.
What’s the big deal about the humble, omnipresent swing, you might ask. Sure, they are fun, and sure they occupy your toddler while you get some time alone for yourself. But there is more. Even an hour spent on the swing every day is old-school play at its best — it is not only a great way to solve summer boredom and a move away from purely structured play, but swinging has many physical, mental, and sensorial benefits.
Swinging helps children develop muscle control. It sharpens their focus and builds core strength. Also when swinging, you experience many sensations all at once — the exhilaration of going too high, the rocking motion that calms you, and the excitement of swinging so rapidly that you feel dizzy.
“My daughter actually used to sing her own tunes when she was almost 2 and regulate herself during play (on a swing),” says fellow parent Tania Roy. Her daughter is now 9-years-old. “She can sing for very long and the movement along with her singing calms her down, especially when she feels life is too fast or upsetting.”
This little play aid, rusty or shining, old or sparkling new, in the playground or in the house, builds some incredible skills in children. It is a developmental goldmine for your toddler and preschooler. According to research by pioneers of play, Dr. Stuart Brown and Dr. Joe Frost, swinging strengthens your children’s core muscles and develops their sense of balance. As they grip the swing chains or ropes, your children develop fine motor skills and learn to coordinate their movements. Swinging increases their awareness of the space they are in and how they can operate in it.
Neha Rastogi is a paediatric occupational therapist based in Bengaluru who works with children on their developmental and cognitive milestones. The swing is an important part of Rastogi’s work especially with children on the autism spectrum. Many children with autism have challenges with sensory integration. This is when they are not able to get all their senses to work together at the same time. They are not able to receive information through their senses and integrate them.
Therapies on a swing help children with autism a great deal. The movement gets all the senses to fire away at the same time and also helps in holding joint attention. This is when a child can focus on something with another person, usually the teacher or the caregiver. In this sense, the swing is an important bridge to meaningful social experiences for children. With April being Autism Awareness Month, it is a fitting time to celebrate its many uses.
While the swing is an important part of her work with neuro-diverse children, Rastogi swears by its benefits for all children in general.
“You must have heard of the body’s nervous system but there is also something called the vestibular system, which is located in your inner ear,” says Rastogi. “When you swing, the vestibular apparatus detects the moving sensation and sends this information to the cerebral cortex, which is the part of your brain that is involved in complex learning skills, memory and attention.”
When you swing, you experience a dizzying movement through space along with the gravitational forces at work and this stimulates your vestibular system. When you spin, twist and untangle yourself on a swing, it stimulates different parts of your brain.
Rastogi remembers many children who benefited from using the swing, including a shy 6-year-old girl who refused to speak a word in school. After a few sessions on the swing, she became more communicative and opened up to her friends and teachers. Swinging, in conjunction with other therapies, helped to build her whole body awareness and movement, which did wonders for the little girl’s self-confidence.
I spoke with a father of a 4-year-old boy, who recently expressed surprise when I discussed the merits of swinging. “My child spends all his time on a swing in our housing society,” he says. “I get impatient and wonder why he prefers a passive swing over active options like climbing,” he admitted.
But the truth is that swinging is anything but passive. When you jump or use a trampoline, you are only using linear movements. With swings, the movements are non-linear.
“You cannot keep your body loose when you are swinging because you need to contract your core muscles, even if no one is pushing you,” says Rastogi. “There are many children who only use their upper body to circle and propel. This builds core strength and your shoulder muscles.”
I also want to take a moment here to go a step further and say that the swing also ignites a child’s imagination. I am sure your children imagine themselves to be different people or things when playing on the swing. My daughter tells me she is an astronaut or a bird every time she swings higher and higher. It’s almost as if when you swing, the universe lets you in on all the secret possibilities that await you.
Shweta Sharan is a freelance writer based in Bengaluru.