Too Young for Splits Training?

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?

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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.Picture-2  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

P1018459-150x150anything 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.

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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.

play-200x300I’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!

Warmest regards,

Deborah

“Education is the key to injury prevention”

 

 

13 replies
  1. Keri Sutter
    Keri Sutter says:

    I think you’re onto something re. kids being less flexible than they used to be. Friends of mine who are teachers also say kids learn movement skills more slowly than they used to (skipping, galloping, etc.) One blames the car seats infants & toddlers seem to live in. Other researchers blame TV & video, which also keep kids passive. I wonder if part of it is also the, “It’s not safe to let the kids play outdoors, even in the back yard,” attitude. They aren’t given the freedom to explore on their own, physically or mentally. Therefore their bodies are not as strong & flexible as they could be. Neither are their minds. Scary thought!

    Reply
    • deborah
      deborah says:

      Especially scary, Keri, when research is now showing how interconnected the physical body is with the mind – I’m going to find an article I read about this and get it out to all of you!

      Reply
  2. Brandi
    Brandi says:

    Children are definitely less flexible than in the past. I have so many young students who cannot sit with their legs stretched out in front and be sitting absolutely on their sitting bones with a straight back. This inflexibility becomes evident with students as young as six these days! They come back from summer or Christmas holidays in worse shape than before. I ask what physical activity they did over the break and usually it is next to none! Yikes!!

    Reply
    • deborah
      deborah says:

      Not sure where you live – but what I remember about the holiday break was being able to ice skate and/or build snow forts, snowmen, and so on. Of course, as an older person I now look forward to mild winters with no snow:)

      Reply
  3. Ana
    Ana says:

    Deborah I just love your articles. They are so useful and I look forward to every new one.
    I am a dance teacher in New Zealand and also a Personal Trainer.
    Yes I am finding more and more children have less and less flexibility. This is a problem I most offen find in older adults at the gym due to sedentary jobs. Sitting all day in what we call ‘triple flexion’ the ankles, knees and hips are all in flexion. This causes varies muscle imbalances with tight muscles and other muscles weak and under-used. I think thanks to todays society most children do lead a far more sedentary lifestyle. They go to school all day and sit at a desk (triple flexion) they then go home from school and sit down infront of the tv or computer (triple flexion) sit to eat dinner then when they go to bed alot will sleep on their side with their legs tucked up, more triple flexion. The more this cycle repeats the tighter their muscles get.
    Kids need more physical activities and I also believe dance teachers need to become better educated in human kinetics. Thanks for your articles in helping that happen.

    Reply
    • deborah
      deborah says:

      I definitely see the triple flexion threat in my college students. It’s amazing to me how many of them do not do ANY regular physical activity – and while I think its great they have to ‘walk’ to class that doesn’t really count – especially with backpacks and messenger bags slung over their shoulders:)

      Reply
  4. Nancy Dow
    Nancy Dow says:

    Thanks so much, Deborah! I agree, too, that young children are not so active as children even 20 years ago were. I attended a lecture last year, given by Raymond Lukens, who was one of the persons responsible for the formulation of the recent ABT curriculum. One of the things he said was exactly what you stated: children are not as active, and not only does that affect coordination and muscle strength, but he theorized that it also affects bone strength (or lack thereof). His recommendation was lots more gross motor activities on the pre-ballet level. I’ve begun to incorporate more of these in my classes. My kids are happier, and hopefully they are getting stronger as well!

    Reply
    • deborah
      deborah says:

      Nancy, that’s fantastic! What type of activities are you talking about – things like skipping – hopping, etc? Love to hear what is working for you.

      Reply
  5. Leslie Connaghan
    Leslie Connaghan says:

    I have been teaching dance for over 35 years. I KNOW children are less flexible than in the past. I have an oddball theory: I think it has to do with overuse of car seats. Of course car seats should and must be used when driving, but look at how they are (in my opinion) misused. The newer seats are essentially buckets that can be carried around. Children are not taken out of them when they leave the car, but they are “toted” around in the seat. The seats hold them with their hips and spines rounded. I’ve been on a rant about this lately, but unfortunately have nothing to back up my theory. Help me out here Deb!

    Reply
    • deborah
      deborah says:

      You know, Leslie, that makes sense! Not oddball at all – couple that with less physical activity and you’ve got a group of really slumped posture people:)

      Reply
  6. Nancy Dow
    Nancy Dow says:

    Yes, Deborah — I have them running, skipping, hopping, galloping, jumping, turning, skating (sliding), rolling, etc. With 5’s and 6’s, we start class with these activities, using them in as many different ways as possible (for example, turning can be done standing on one foot or two, or kneeling or sitting or lying down; turns can be combined with jumps and hops and slides; turns can be on different levels and at different speeds, etc.). I choose perhaps three movements and work them into a Dance Freeze Game, where the girls move to music, and then freeze in different ballet positions. After stretching and a very little bit of barre, we have a movement story that involves imagination along with movement. And of course there are grands jetes (LEAPS), which must be included every week!…

    With the 7/8’s, I intersperse movement activities with their barre exercises. I’ll have them do two or three short barre exercises, and then they polka or do ballet skips or gallops all the way around the studio a certain number of times, and then back to their places at the barre. By then they are huffing and puffing with smiles on their faces, and ready to concentrate on the next barre exercise. Barre does not seem so much a chore for them, since they are getting these breaks, and the breaks give them the chance to build strength, stamina and coordination.

    I don’t know what the long term results will look like, but so far it’s working well!

    Reply
    • deborah
      deborah says:

      Nancy, this is great! I love that you have them doing all the basic motor movements and then adding a bit of ballet onto it – I have a sense that you will be happy with your long-term results:)

      Reply

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