How to Best Help a ‘Clumsy’ Child!

I actually don’t like the word ‘clumsy’. ‘Clumsy’ is not a definitive thing. As a label ‘clumsy’ only gives us negative information… and not even useful negative information! As a label it doesn’t help us improve; it doesn’t motivate us to be better; all it does is tell us we are not good at something.

In truth… everyone is clumsy. Clumsy is our baseline. If I ask anyone to do anything they haven’t practiced…it will appear clumsy. Put an elite sports person in a new sport and even they will initially appear clumsy. Thanks to Jaryd Hayne for proving that one. So clumsy is what we are before we have learnt to be better.

Little Miss Clumsy

Little Miss Clumsy

The process of learning to be better is exactly what development is. In the past we have sometimes viewed childhood development as a pre-programmed process where we are just waiting for our nervous systems to mature, however we now know that that is not true. Development is actually a repetitive process of problem solving and skill development. Learning to walk, talk and write are all actually remarkably similar. We learn with what we’ve got, through what we practice, to be able to do what we need to...

So a child who might be called ‘clumsy’ is likely to be having difficulty with a whole range of tasks. The ‘why’ is likely multifaceted and more complicated than can be addressed in this article, but in the short term, the reason ‘why’ is normally less important than the question of ‘how can we help?'

A Target and an Outcome!

Step one of helping a child learn something is to practice it. In many ways, many times! To practice a skill, we (especially children) require two key things… a target and an outcome. 

Using learning to throw a ball as an example:  an infant first learns to throw by noticing what happens when something accidentally slips out of their hand. They see the outcome and then try it again to test if that same outcome occurs. As an older child though we expect far more accuracy. Throwing a ball backwards over our head is no longer seen as the celebration worthy event it once was. It is no longer enough to just be able to throw something, we now expect to be able to throw with accuracy, repeatability or with improved strength. These changes do not occur without practice.

For kids, the best practice is in the form of a game or play. As adults, we can often help by simply and occasionally providing a little direction to this play. The easiest way to do this is by helping provide a target and/or an outcome for the activity! 

Again with throwing as a random example… here are some ideas:

Target : Outcome

Aim for the garage door : Loud noise

Throw to parent : Cheering/excitement

Bucket with water in the bottom : Splash

Cricket stumps : Noise/bails come off

Pins/Skittles : They fall over!

Basketball shot : Score increases / competition won
(for older kids the outcome becomes more complicated)

Make It Personal!

Some children will be easily motivated by the task itself and will make the task easier or harder on their own accord. Other children will need a bit more guidance or different outcomes to motivate them. Also sometimes the game needs to be designed to allow the child to practice the thing they find difficult rather than the part of the activity they are already good at! Ideally we want kids to achieve some form of positive outcome about 80% of the time. This means we will need to regularly adapt the game. 

Everyone can always be better at any task… but why would we?

A very important question! Is it important for my child to be better at a particular task? Being good at throwing a ball is only useful if there is some important reason to be good at throwing a ball. Sure, we could reason that throwing a ball allows a child to develop hand-eye co-ordination, shoulder strength and supports an active lifestyle. These are all very important things (especially when more and more research is supporting the positive impact of being physically fit and healthy with cognitive and learning outcomes). There are many, many ways to attain these sorts of benefits though. So if throwing isn’t important to your families lifestyle…pick something else… swimming, gymnastics, tree climbing, football, bike riding, ultimate frisbee…whatever works!

I don't trip, I do random gravity checks!

I don't trip, I do random gravity checks!

Where does Paediatric Physiotherapy come in...

So there are some times when Physiotherapy might be helpful for ‘clumsy’ children. Any intervention though should be about achieving a specific goal rather than broadly addressing 'clumsiness'. This goal could be about functioning safety (not falling down stairs, not tripping over as often etc), about pain (kids should not regularly experience pain related to movement…sore knees, back, feet etc), about performance (sporting prowess, achieving  an activity related goal, building strength etc), or to help  assess or manage a developmental or childhood condition which itself is impacting a child’s ability to move. 

So next time you notice a child performing poorly, rather than labelling that child as ‘clumsy’ (even in your head!) instead look for a way to help that child practice the things that are important to them!




(Also we have a whole range of kids groups coming up in term 3... check out the bottom of our home page for details! 




B.Phty (Hons), G.D. Paed. Neuro. Rehab.

Tim has 8 years of Physiotherapy experience and is an expert in Paediatric (Baby’s and Children’s) Physiotherapy. Tim’s the person to see if you have any concerns about your baby or child’s movement skills or development.

Tim is co-owner and director of The Movement Team. Tim also holds an Advanced Physiotherapist position within a Child Development Service in the public health sector.

Tim has worked across the breadth of paediatric health (acute hospital, disability care, developmental, community and private clinics) and has completed numerous national and internationally recognised education courses in topics including developmental orthopaedics, high risk infant management, respiratory functioning and infant movement.

Tim's formal training consists of:

Bachelor Physiotherapy (Hons) - University of Queensland

Graduate Diploma Paediatric Neurological Rehabilitation - University of Western Australia

Tim additionally holds the following positions and memberships:

Chairperson of the Queensland Paediatric Physiotherapy Clinical Network 2013 - present

National Paediatric Group Member - Australian Physiotherapy Association