Common questions that parents often ask therapists are: “When should my child crawl or walk up the stairs” and “How can I help my child safely walk up and down the stairs?”
Stair climbing may sound nerve-racking for your little one but it's actually a great way to keep them safe. It's important to teach your toddler how to correctly go up and down the stairs, especially when they encounter stairs in different environments.
Make sure you have safety gates on your stairs, especially when teaching your little one the correct way of walking up and down the stairs
Initially, start practicing a few steps at a time instead of the entire staircase. Learning how to walk up three steps is the way to begin, as it's easier to learn how to walk up the stairs than down. Make sure you are supervising your child at all times.
Once your child has mastered walking up three to four steps, you can then practice the entire set of stairs. During practice, make sure you are always standing behind your little one when they are walking up the stairs to protect them in case they lose their balance. When walking down the stairs, make sure you are standing below and slightly to the side of your little one in case they lose their balance and to block their fall.
Milestones for Stairs:
One year old: Your little one should be able to crawl up the stairs.
Don’t panic if your child does not follow the milestones listed above. Always remember that every child develops uniquely at their own pace and they may walk up or down the stairs at an earlier or later age.
In order to climb the stairs, it's imperative that the child has good balance, coordination, body awareness, concentration, motor planning, and strength to keep them upright and safe when negotiating the stairs.
Now let's get into various tips & tricks to help your little one climb the stairs:
1) Step stool: Place a step stool against the couch and have your child step up onto the step stool to reach for toys placed on top of the couch. Then have them turn around and step down with hand held assistance as needed. This is a great activity before practicing at the staircase. Repeat for 10-12 step-ups.
2) Sit to stand: Place the step stool in front of the couch and have your child stand up at the couch to place a puzzle piece into a puzzle or to get a toy. This is a great leg strengthening activity; which is needed when walking up the stairs. Try and make sure your child does not place their hands on the couch to pull up to stand and instead will use their core and leg muscles to stand up. Repeat this activity for 10-12 repetitions.
3) Trampoline: If you have a trampoline, practice jumping throughout the day as the trampoline helps strengthen bones, reinforces joints, improves balance, and provides proprioceptive input (body awareness); all which are necessary for stair climbing.
4) Bicycle Kicks: This is a fun exercise for children and helps to strengthen the leg muscles, abdominal muscles, and improve body awareness. As the child lies on their back, hold their ankles and passively move their legs forward and back, as if they are pedaling a bicycle. Sing the alphabet song or itsy bitsy spider (approximately 30 seconds) to make it fun. Repeat for a total of three rounds.
Please watch the video below on how to perform passive bicycle kicks!
5) Single leg balance: This exercise is important for children that are learning to climb the stairs. When a child walks up or down the stairs, they have to be able to balance on one leg/foot in order to bring the opposite leg/foot onto the next step. While your child is playing with toys placed on top of the couch, sit right behind them and lift up one leg off the floor for 10 seconds and repeat for three rounds before doing to the same to the other leg. To challenge your child, you can have them stand on a balance disc or pillow and perform the same leg lift.
6) Stair Climbing with Visuals: The best way to teach a child to walk up and down the stairs via an alternating stepping pattern is to use visuals! Place stickers or rubber foot prints on the stairs to help the child place one foot on each step.
Verbal commands such as "One, Two", “Big boy steps” or “Big girl steps” can help a child remember to alternate their feet when negoitating the stairs.
If your child has a difficult time alternating feet with the visuals when walking up the stairs, you can stand behind them and pick up their foot to guide it to the next footprint/step.
If your child has a difficult time alternating feet with the visuals when walking down the stairs, you can stand below the child and to the side while picking up their foot to guide it to the next footprint/step.
Please watch the videos below for instructions on stair climbing!
7) Sensory Strategies for Stair Climbing:
Tactile: Use a tactile element on each step (tactile discs, textured footprints, soft felt cutouts, fine grain sand paper) with child barefoot to reinforce foot placement and encourage weight bearing through each foot as child negotiates stairs
Auditory: Use auditory cues or rhythmic cadence, with clapping, egg shaker, or songs to encourage alternating feet
Proprioceptive: Ask the child to stomp their feet to provide deep input and promote full weight bearing
Visual: Strips of brightly colored tape can help encourage alternating feet on step stool, stairs, or any other surface
Soft stairs like these are great for little ones to practice crawling and climbing up and can be part of playroom obstacle course
If you don't have stairs at home, you can practice by placing these step stools back to back
Practice on the steps at the playground as those steps are just the right size for your toddler
Practice stepping up and down from curbs as they will encounter this in their daily lives
Practice stairs in the community (e.g. mall play areas, day care centers, schools, shopping centers, restaurants, libraries)
Until you are absolutely sure your child is independent on the steps, you should supervise at all times!
Start practicing our tips & tricks for stair climbing to see improved confidence in different environments!!
Thank you to Dr. Rebecca Talmud, PT DPT for her addition on sensory strategies for stair climbing and pictures/video of her sweet son crawling up the stairs. Rebecca is a knowledgeable pediatric physical therapist and has her own practice Dinosaur Physical Therapy, located in Huntington, New York.
For more information on Dr. Rebecca Talmud, check out her:
Another thanks to Dr. Julie Feldman Baruch, PT DPT, for sharing videos of her awesome children on the stairs!
The content in this blog should not be used in place of medical advice/treatment and is solely for informational purposes. All activities/exercises posted in this blog should be performed with adult supervision, caution, and at your own risk. Big Leaps, LLC is not responsible for any injury while performing an activity/exercise that has been posted on this blog. If you have any information on the content of our blog, feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.