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Helping an Uncoordinated Child

Q. My 11-year-old is having trouble with physical coordination and suffers over games and sports played in the company of more confident, well-coordinated schoolmates. She is a shy girl and tends to be anxious. Although she entertains herself wonderfully on her own and reads well beyond her grade level, she freezes up when the activity is physical or when she is with a group. She has asked me to show her how to ice-skate and turn somersaults, and I've been glad to try, but I'm not the best teacher. What else can I do to help her with this and to boost her self-esteem? It seems noticeably lower this year.

A. Most awkward children lack a sense of rhythm, which makes them think they will trip on their feet for the rest of their lives.

It does not have to be that way. These children may never make varsity, but the right lessons and the right classes will help them catch up and catch on. Even those few children whose rhythm problems amount to a handicap  -- a sort of dyslexia of the body  -- can improve.

Whether your child's problem is mild or serious, she needs musical activities to help her pay attention to rhythm and physical activities to use her arms and legs more.

Consider enrolling your daughter in a course on the Feldenkrais Method, which teaches awareness through movement; the Alexander Technique, which will teach her to use her body better; or eurythmics, the basis for most rhythm/movement programs. For information about practitioners near you, log on to feldenkrais.com or alexandertechnique.com. For classes in eurythmics, contact the Dalcroze Society of America (dalcrozeusa.org).

It will help if she takes music lessons, too  -- the piano, the recorder, anything  -- or even shakes a castanet or beats a bongo drum to her favorite music. Dancing  -- square, line, swing, freewheeling rock and roll  -- would also be great, but with the family, not with youngsters her own age. You do not want her to get embarrassed and discouraged when she makes mistakes.

Ice-skating also would be terrific, but encourage in-line skating most of the time because it uses the same skills, it's free, and it does not require a ride to the rink. It's also a fine family sport. Your daughter will not be embarrassed even if she falls, as long as you skate on an empty parking lot or a playground at twilight when no one is around.

Swimming, walking, jogging, bicycling, or volleyball would also be excellent for her; scuba diving would make her feel graceful and rock climbing would strengthen her concentration, but make sure she is belayed with ropes.

She also might profit from body sculpting, because the weights will build up her strength and endurance. Tumbling, calisthenics, or boxing aerobics would be good, too, because they do not require a sense of rhythm  -- but skip low-impact aerobics, which do, and try modern dance or ballet only when you think her sense of rhythm is much improved.

Yoga is another possibility because it works on coordination, as does tai chi, a slow-moving, breath-oriented exercise that will help your daughter work on her inner physical self. Even meditation would be good for her, because it would teach her to balance in slow, minute movements, although she might twitch quite a bit at first.

This sounds like your daughter should take part in almost any physical activity, but that is not true. Ping-Pong might be all right, since she would not have to move her feet too much, but tennis would be silly because she would have to move her eyes, arms, feet, body, and head while she hit the ball. This would be hard for her if her hand-eye coordination is poor. This difficulty bothers some awkward children much more than a poor sense of rhythm.

Your daughter may be challenged by some classes and activities, but most of them should be fun and sometimes even silly. When you include an old-fashioned potato race or a sack race at a family picnic, your daughter will learn to laugh at her stumbles because she has learned to laugh at yours.

Marguerite Kelly has been advising families for 24 years in her best-selling books and syndicated Washington Post "Family Almanac" column.

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