I have a question just came up regarding splits and young dance students. When is it safe to start doing splits with young children, and why? Most of us start at about 7 years of age, for a variety of reasons. None of this is based on any research we can find. Also mentioned was the fact that in gymnastics, splits are started earlier.
Do you have any opinion on this, or would you be able to head me in the right direction to find the science we need to back up our practice? I very much appreciate your time and consideration. Thank you so much!
When to start stretching?
This is a great question, Nancy! And you are right there isn’t much research on this. What we know is that children’s bodies generally begin to lose flexibility as they come into their adolescent years. Being introduced to effective stretching at an early age will certainly help set in the practice of working their joints through a full range of motion and understanding that a strong and flexible body is what you want – especially as you age!
When I was teaching very young children (5-7 years of age) my focus was on building better coordination and control over their body. Are they developing the ability to balance on one leg? Do they understand what efficient alignment is? Can they follow your verbal directions? (Beyond just doing what you are demonstrating and not paying any attention to what is happening in their own body)
These are all important pieces of the stretching puzzle by teaching young dancers learn how to stretch safely and effectively. These attributes are more important than a strict age designation for a formalized stretching program.
There are 5 and 6 year old students who are very coordinated and can follow directions easily and who know where their knees are facing, or if their knees are bent. Those students are the best candidates for more focused split training.
So let’s talk about one could approach the splits with very young children. I’m going to stick with talking about the front splits for this post. In the front splits there are 2 primary muscle areas that are involved. The front leg needs hamstring flexibility and the back leg needs hip flexor flexibility.
Stretch hamstrings and hip flexors individually
These 2 areas are key for good alignment and separating the 2 areas and working on flexibility training can start as early as the child shows the appropriate coordination as talked about above. What I mean by this is I would do hamstring stretches separate from practicing the splits. Sitting on the floor where they can see whether or not their legs are straight and then rolling back on their pelvis (slumping) then sitting up straight and tall is a good quick test to see where they are with their hamstring flexibility. They should be able to sit on their sits bones ideally without a lot of strain at the hamstrings or bending their knees.
Even with the younger students I like teaching them how to put their leg up on a low chair or stool and doing single leg hamstring stretching. By doing one leg at a time even a young student will become aware if one leg is tighter – and can be guided to do more stretches on the tighter side. For the student who can go for extra stretch you can have them sit on a yoga block or cushion and extend one leg forward while having the other one bent.
Lunge stretching for the hip flexors can be done in the runners lunge position as well as in a standing lunge, or one with your foot up on a low surface and leaning forward. If they are able to go for more range in the hip flexors have them sit on the yoga block or cushion (or
anything that gets them slightly off the floor) and extend the back leg while keeping the front leg bent.
What I would NEVER do is to push a young students legs straight or physically adjust them too much (meaning with pressure or pushing) them into a specific position. You run a risk that by doing so you are placing them in a position that their body isn’t ready for. While the stretching practices that some gymnastic coaches give to their young students can be successful (like taking the leg and passively stretching the leg) it can also be painful and potentially stretches ligaments and joint structures in ways that can be injurious. (Image on right is a no no!)
A young dancer will automatically keep themselves out of painful stretching – and should be encouraged to not do anything that is painful. We need to teach them to listen to their bodies from a very early age.
I like using props to help them move into practicing splits – starting them sitting up on an appropriate surface and stretching long and straight the front and back legs. This way they can release their weight into the stretch without putting themselves in a funky or weird position. (Think of someone reaching to the floor awkwardly with one or both of the legs bent because they don’t have enough flexibility to easily put their hands on the ground – not an effective way to stretch!) I’m sitting on low stool in the picture below to stretch both the front and back legs equally while keeping my body upright. I am not in favor of over-stretching for the very young dancer. Generally, they have not developed enough strength to be put in such an extreme position.
Bottom line is they need an adequate amount of flexibility in both the hip flexors and hamstrings before they ever try a true split. Working on the different muscle groups individually, though, can start as soon as they are able to work with guidance in effective stretching practices.
I’m not sure if my following statement is a true one – but it appears to me that children are less flexible than they used to be. I wonder if there is a correlation between less time spent in playing on the playground and in the yard as many of us teachers grew up doing. In a nutshell, less physical activity and physical play going hand in hand with tighter and less flexible young people.
Good stretching practices are important to set into early in life. While I don’t think it is imperative that a young dancer has to have their splits by age 8 or 9, I do know that as they become pre-teens and teenagers they decrease their injury potential by keeping their muscles flexible and strong as they grow into their adult bodies. And of course… the same is true as we mature into and beyond our 20’s.
And with that thought…. I’m off to stretch!
Hoping everyone has a wonderful holiday break!
“Education is the key to injury prevention”