Demonstrating the gross motor skills needed for conquering the playground is often seen as a right of passage for kids.
The first time they sit in a bucket swing as a baby while mommy or daddy ooooo and ahhhhh over them and say what a “big kid” they are.
The first time they walk up and down the stairs without mommy’s help (and without face planting!).
The first time they go down the slide by themselves and daddy lifts them up triumphantly after they make it to the bottom.
The first time they climb up the curved ladder that arches over mommy’s head while practically giving her a heart attack.
The first time they walk across the wobbly bridge without holding daddy’s hand.
The first time they swing across the monkey bars without wrapping their legs around mommy’s waist as if they are dangling over a pit of poisonous snakes.
All these playground milestones are SO EXCITING!
Today, as part of our next installment in the Functional Skills for Kids Series, I’m going to spend some time discussing how gross motor skills influence playground participation. I will also share some ideas for what you can do to support the gross motor skills needed for successful playground participation! This post contains affiliate links for your convenience (see my full disclosure here).
GROSS MOTOR SKILLS AND PLAYGROUND SUCCESS
The ability to successfully access playground equipment requires a variety of gross motor skills. Let’s take a look at a few common pieces of playground equipment and what influence gross motor skills have on a child’s ability to successfully access them.
1. Swings — When accessing a bucket swing, babies and toddlers must at least possess a minimal amount of core strength and stability to be able to maintain an upright seated position (without being propped up by blankets). When accessing a “big kid” swing with a sling seat while someone pushes them, children must demonstrate bilateral (two-sided) skills to hold onto both ropes, hand strength to maintain grasp on the ropes, shoulder strength to keep their arms up while holding the ropes, neck strength to keep their head upright, and core strength to maintain an upright position while moving to and fro through space. When accessing a “big kid” swing without anyone around to push them, children must be able to demonstrate all the above factors, as well as the ability to work with their arms, trunk, and legs in a coordinated, rhythmic, and alternating fashion in order to pump the swing and keep it going. This ability to pump the swing in a coordinated manner relies on a complex process known as “praxis” (the ability to conceptualize, organize, and execute purposeful movements). In my experience, children who struggle with praxis (and bilateral coordination) often demonstrate difficulties with learning how to pump themselves on a swing.
2. Stairs — From a gross motor perspective, being able to ascend stairs requires a combination of stability in the core muscles, lower extremity strength, single limb balance, eye-foot coordination, bilateral coordination, praxis, timing, and sequencing. Being able to descend stairs requires an even greater level of control and coordination, as children must be able to demonstrate eccentric control to “put on the brakes” while lowering themselves down each step.
3. Slides — As an occupational therapist, I tend to think of sliding in terms of its sensory components, particularly for children who are sensitive to or fearful of movement experiences (related to the vestibular system). But gross motor skills are an important part of being able to access the slide as well! Children must be able to activate their neck and core muscles (the muscles in the center of the body) appropriately while sliding in order to maintain an upright position and feel secure enough to go down the slide. Therapists refer to this as “postural control.” As a pediatric therapist, I often see how under-developed postural control can impact kids’ confidence, willingness, and ability to independently slide. Additionally, if kids are allowed to climb up the slide (which many therapists assert kids should be allowed to do, for a variety of reasons), they must also be able to call upon their sense of body awareness, balance, bilateral coordination, and upper and lower body strength in order to do so.
4. Climbing and Balancing Equipment — These are the pieces of playground equipment that make me the most nervous as a parent. You’d think all those years as a gymnast would make me more comfortable around this stuff, but apparently that’s not how it works! When climbing up and walking across challenging surfaces, children must be able to monitor their sense of balance while also utilizing skills such as postural stability (there it is again!), bilateral coordination, hand-foot-eye coordination, shoulder stability, and upper body and lower body strength.
5. Monkey Bars — I personally LOVE teaching kids to conquer the monkey bars…must be a gymnast thing! But of course, in order to master the monkey bars, children must possess adequate hand and arm strength, postural control, praxis, bilateral coordination, hand-eye coordination, sequencing, and timing. They need to be able to slightly rotate their trunk with each reach of the arm to the next rung (e.g., right side of the body comes forward as the right arm reaches forward, left side of the body comes forward as the left arm reaches forward). Additionally, they need to possess the lower body strength/eccentric control and trunk strength to be able to drop from the bar to the ground in a controlled and safe manner.
WHEN GROSS MOTOR SKILLS LIMIT PLAYGROUND ACCESS
Sometimes children lack the gross motor abilities needed in order to access the playground at school, at the park, or in the community. This could be due to a variety of factors such as developmental delay, muscle weakness, poor endurance, poor bilateral coordination, overall coordination/praxis difficulties, sensory challenges that inhibit gross motor development (such as being excessively seeking or being fearful of movement), or lack of exposure to gross motor play opportunities.
IDEAS FOR SUPPORTING GROSS MOTOR SKILLS NEEDED FOR PLAYGROUND SUCCESS!
The ideas below target many of the the areas listed in the first part of this post (e.g., postural control, bilateral coordination, etc.). As you support and encourage the skills your child is struggling with, you should start to see progress!
1. Strengthen that core and upper body! Regardless of what gross motor skills are being worked on, we pretty much ALWAYS need to be addressing the core. Here are some tips for how to tell if your child has weak core muscles, and here are some interesting insights about the side effects of weak core muscles in kids. Two of my favorite go-to core strengthening activities include yoga and playing on/with an exercise ball.
If you’re looking for a fresh set of ideas, here are some great sets of cards filled with therapy ball activities and scooter board activities from Super Duper Inc. You can also find tons of core strengthening ideas in The Core Strengthening Handbook from the pediatric therapists of The Inspired Treehouse and in the Core Exercises for Kids ebook from OT Mom Learning Activities. OT Mom also has an ebook filled with Shoulder Strengthening Exercises for Kids.
2. Strengthen the hands. Play with play dough, dig for treasure in Theraputty, crawl on hands-and-knees, hang on a bar or trapeze and sing a song or kick something while you hang (like a balloon, ball, or tower of blocks), wring out wet washcloths or sponges, play with squirt bottles, play with an animal popper or turkey baster, play tug-of-war…the possibilities are endless!
3. Practice bilateral coordination. Try out animal walks such as crab walks or bear walks while going forward, sideways, and backward! Practice more complex movements requiring bilateral coordination such as windmills, jumping jacks, snow angels, or scissor jumps. Many more ideas in OT Mom’s Activities for Bilateral Coordination ebook.
4. Practice balancing. Kick a ball or balloon, walk along a sidewalk or balance beam, stand on a balance board (and play a ball game or clapping game while balancing to increase the challenge), stand on one foot to pop bubbles with your toes, practice yoga poses that require balance, make an obstacle course that involves walking across a “bridge” of pillows, stand on one foot while bending down to pick up items from the floor, or try to close your eyes while playing a game like Simon Says or Head Shoulders Knees and Toes.
5. Practice jumping or dropping down from elevated surfaces. If your child is fearful or unable to jump down from more than a couple inches with control, that’s okay! Start from there and gradually increase the height from which he or she is able to drop with control. This can be done by hopping down from the edge of a sidewalk or off a step stool. It can be practiced while hanging from your hands (child holds onto your hands while you hold her off the ground briefly before she jumps). Emphasize landing in a “safety stop” position (or whatever you’d like to call it), with knees bent when landing and arms either forward or out to the side. You can also introduce this concept when jumping on a trampoline or doing frog jumps.
More than anything, offer opportunities for consistent exposure to playground settings. It doesn’t matter if it’s indoor or outdoor, the main thing is to get them there on a regular basis so they can practice! There are so many therapeutic benefits of playing at the park, and they relate to all the areas listed above (and more!). For kids who struggle with gross motor skills, don’t avoid the park, embrace it as a natural opportunity for practice! For children who really struggle with the gross motor aspect, consider venturing out when the park is less crowded at first. There will be more opportunity for extended time, problem solving, and additional adult assistance. However, don’t isolate that kiddo forever — peers can be a HUGE motivator in helping kids push through their challenges and work to keep up!
Some other pediatric therapists have put together some great posts to help you learn more about how to help kids be successful on the playground!
This is Month Five of our monthly “Functional Skills for Kids” series, so check ’em out!
Developmental Progression of Playground Skills | Your Therapy Source
Promoting Fine Motor Skills at the Playground | Miss Jaime OT
Sensory Integration Therapy at the Playground | Sugar Aunts
Modification Ideas for Playground Equipment for Children | Growing Hands-On Kids
Playground Rules to Break for Greater Play Skill Development | Kids Play Space
Playground Games and Activities for Kids | The Inspired Treehouse
Developing Visual Skills and the Playground | Therapy Fun Zone
Find out all the “functional skills” we are addressing in our year-long series, and take a look at the posts I have already contributed to this series so far.