Playing on the monkey bars is such good body work.
Around 30 million years ago something was happening to shoulders and chests. Up to this point, our distant ancestors used all four limbs to climb about the trees they lived in. They didn’t swing because their anatomy was not built for it. But evolving anatomical structure meant that apes developed something called brachiation - the ability to swing from branch to branch using only their arms.
One of those changes was the collarbone, which keeps the shoulder away from the centre of the chest and allows for rotation.
Gibbons are the best brachiators on the planet now. But we humans can do a pretty good version of it too and it is great for both our bodies and our nervous systems.
So what’s so good about brachiating …?
it is an amazing upper body strengthener obviously, but it goes so much further than that
it’s a huge proprioceptive boost in the arms, shoulders and right into the core - that is, it creates masses of sensory information in the muscles, ligaments and tendons, which needs processing by the brain and nervous system, which makes it a fantastic developmental workout
brachiating is so good because it creates a long flow of big sensations and feedback through the whole body - from the latissiumus dorsi (the widest muscle in the body that covers the width of the middle and lower back), connecting into the bone of the upper arm, into the spine and down into the hips as well
there’s also lots of stretch in the skin and fascia. Fascia is the connective tissue that encases our body parts and binds them together
all of this sensation can help us to feel more in touch with our body, inside and out; and more in touch with our self. It can be calming, centering and restorative, reducing and diffusing anxiety
find something to hang from nearby (and that’s only one part of brachiating), and maybe you will feel your whole body, your nervous system, settle a little as you hang
There’s more; this hang, and the full swing, requires the shoulders to work at their fullest range. (Just like a deep squat requires of hips, knees and ankles.) There is something very empowering, as well as functionally helpful, about working at ‘full stretch’ in a safe and controlled way
And getting across those monkey bars only works if there is great rotation in the upper trunk; and this also requires working at full stretch in the trunk
Perfecting that swing is so damned satisfying! No wonder - it connects up our body and puts us in touch with ourselves; it requires us to organise out movement in complex ways and it uses so much of the body’s capacity. And O that swing … it holds a real sense of freedom from gravity. A little like flying …
Yes, you can make a list of more traditional learning aims too: hand to eye co-ordination, developing hand grip, strengthening the hand for pencil grip, strengthening the shoulder girdle for co-ordinated upper body movement, managing emotions etc
But it is so much more than the sum of its parts. Full on brachiating, or even just aspects of it (like hanging and swinging), are joyously whole-bodied, empowering, de-stressing, freeing human activity.
Want to be inspired? Watch this expert human brachiator at work and gain new respect for where monkey-bar play might lead …