Ah, cartwheels. These jubilant expressions of joy or happiness (at least in musicals) are quintessential kid. Picture your childhood: It’s summertime. The living is easy, as the song goes, and you’re running around, shoes off, spirits high. You launch into a cartwheel. You extend your arms, reach for the ground, legs flip into the air, gravity kicks in, and plop. You’re sitting in the cool, soft grass. Or, maybe not. Maybe you mastered it and are right back where you started. Upright with a smile.
If that’s your child’s goal or yours – perhaps you’re trying to recapture some of your carefree youth – read on.
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A cartwheel is a simple, core gymnastics move, and one of the first things an aspiring gymnast will learn. When performed, the move resembles the spokes of a turning wheel, hence the name. In a traditional cartwheel, the hands come down on the floor, one at a time, while the feet turn sideways over the head, landing one at a time. More advanced variations include the one-handed cartwheel, the no-handed cartwheel (aerial) and the round-off (where both feet land at the same time).
Since doing a cartwheel involves turning completely upside down, it can be scary for beginners. That’s why Coach Amy Fringer recommends easing into the process. Find a nice, wide open space, like your backyard. “This is not the kind of activity for your living room,” warns Fringer. You may be able to practice in your basement, but be smart – make sure there is plenty of padding to cushion your little one’s inevitable falls.
Ideally, you would begin by having your child place her hands on a slightly elevated (8-10 inches), cushioned surface. In a gym, they would use a panel mat; at home, perhaps you have a step or a stool you can cover for the same effect – just make sure you can keep it from sliding. Keeping her hands stationary, have her jump, moving her legs from one side to the other side, getting her used to that motion. When she is comfortable with that, have her continue that motion, but land only one foot at a time. Again, when she is comfortable, remove the elevated surface and continue to practice getting her feet from one side to the other, landing one foot at a time. Slow progression and repetition are key to building confidence and preparing her for the next step.
By now, your child is probably itching to do a real cartwheel. First, find her dominant side. Have her stand with her arms over her head in a “10 and 2” position (mirroring where those numbers are on a clock), then sway to the left and lift the right leg. Come back to the starting position and sway to the right, lifting the left leg. After a few tries, your child should feel a definite preference to her dominant side, the side that feels more steady. If your child is left-sided (the more common of the two), then you can follow these directions exactly. If she is right-sided, reverse the directions.
Have her stand with her arms over her head, body straight, with her left foot extended in front of her right. With momentum, have her step down with left foot, lifting her right leg while simultaneously placing her left hand on the ground, quickly followed by her right hand while swinging her left leg over her head. She will land on the other side, right leg first and be facing the opposite direction from where she started. It sounds complicated, but it’s a natural progression when you actually test it out.
The most difficult part of the process is gaining the necessary momentum for her to swing her legs fully over her head. Some tips? Try practicing on a downhill. It’s a little more intimidating, but Mr. Gravity will work his magic. You can also have your child take a running head start, but this is recommended for an older child with better gross motor skills. To help keep things in line, consider putting tape down, or some other visual guide for your child to follow. Sometimes, though, the best instruction is to lead by example. Why not try a few cartwheels of your own? Your little one is bound to get a kick out of it, and you may capture some of the childhood charm of landing a cartwheel.
This article was originally published in 2011 and has been updated for 2016.