Gross Motor Activities for Special Needs

Does your child have sensory breaks in their IEP? Or need them? Are you worried about loss of PT sessions, gym class, recess, organized sports and all the other things that may make our kids more sedentary? And hey, not everyone has a sensory room in their house, right? Or a playground nearby. But, lots of kids with special needs benefit from gross motor activities.

I have a sensory seeker here at my house, so if we do not provide him these opportunities, he will seek them out himself. He will jump on his bed, the couch or go play in the bathroom with water if I do not provide sensory breaks and vestibular input for him.

heavy work

Of course if you do have a swingset, nearby playground, trampoline or bike, you can use those. But sometimes the weather doesn’t cooperate either. And for long periods of time your child is stuck inside, sometimes literally bouncing off the walls because they need a sensory break.

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Understanding Vestibular Input

Our vestibular system is in our inner ears. This factor of interoception tells us if we are upside-down or right-side-up, moving fast or slow, or going on a rollercoaster.

If you’re a child who is processing vestibular information appropriately, you are able to move with control, balance, and (relative) safety. That child can comfortably jump, climb, swing, and take calculated risks in their environment because the vestibular sense is providing accurate information about where the body is in space.

If a child has difficulty with processing vestibular information, they’re not as confident as the child mentioned above. They may be under- or over-responsive to movement which will impact their overall activity. If a child is under-responsive to vestibular input, he/she may be able to tolerate a lot of movement before it registers. IE-your sensory seekers! The over-responsive child is often referred to as ‘sensory aversive.’

Gross Motor Sensory Activities

Most households have at least some of these items. If not, consider asking on Facebook to see if you can do a porch pickup. I bet many families have this stuff laying around, not getting used.

  1. Readjust Position for Working– I had a picture of Kevin doing this, but now I can’t find it (of course!). But find a preferred item or toy. I put it on the floor in front of the couch and Kevin is on the couch. Then he has to lean down toward the floor to use it. That puts his weight on his shoulders and upper torso, so he’s “working” without even knowing it because he wants that toy. You can also have a child sit on a yoga ball or playground ball for activities. (though I acknowledge that a yoga ball may not be that common!)
  2. Obstacle Course/Tunnels– There are so many options for this. Pool noodles, chairs, sofa cushions, cardboard boxes, rolled up blankets, pillows, laundry baskets, buckets, yoga balls and accessories, beach towels, coffee table, kitchen table, rolling office chairs, rolled up sleeping bags…the possibilities are endless. Make an obstacle course with items that you have at home and have your child, crawl, jump, run, step, balance, and climb their way through.
  3. Blanket Swing– This requires two adults and a sturdy blanket. Each adult takes two corners and put your child in the middle. Swing them back and forth to get sensory and vestibular input. Only one adult? Then consider dragging them around for movement and input.
  4. Sock Skating-You can use socks on wood and tile floors. Or, use plastic bread bags on carpeted floors. You can also use paper plates.
  5. Wheelbarrow Walking– Just like what it says. Hold your child’s feet while they walk on their hands. And switch positions, see if they can lift you!
  6. Laundry Basketball/Sock Toss– Use buckets or laundry baskets as your baskets. Find indoor balls or use balled-up socks. This can also be paired with counting and sorting.
  7. Bubble Wrap– Who doesn’t love popping bubble wrap? It’s great sensory input. It can be a fine motor activity with your hands, or gross motor with feet. Finally, a use for all that Amazon trash!
  8. Yard Stick Balance Beam-Put a yardstick on your floor. Find YouTube videos of various balance beam events (probably beginner is best!) and mimic what you’re watching.
  9. Dancing– Put some music on, close your eyes and dance like no one is watching.
  10. Balance Books on Head– When I was little, my friends and I used to do this and pretend that we were learning to be fashion models. See what you can balance on your head while walking.
  11. Help with Chores-There are lots of ways you can ‘trick’ your child into taking a sensory break, just by asking them to help you around the house. Carrying pet food or cat litter, a gallon jug of milk, or checking the mailbox. There’s also vacuuming, sweeping, pushing chairs around, carrying a basket of laundry or helping to fold big things like sheets. What “heavy work” do you do around the house that your child can help with?
  12. Sofa Fort– Sofa cushions and pillows don’t feel big or heavy to us, but they can be to littler hands. Build the fort, reconfigure it, sit in it–lots of sensory experience to be had here!

When in doubt, ask your child’s OT or PT about more ideas. Especially those who work with the 0-3 kids and travel around to homes! Those folks are usually full of good ideas on how to use basic household stuff therapeutically and for sensory needs.

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