By CELA on 13 Apr, 2021

Running, spinning, banging and shouting – preschoolers can sometimes seem to have limitless energy. In some cases, it may be a child’s way of signalling that they are feeling overloaded or seeking sensory stimulation. Engaging children in ‘heavy work’ activities can be a great way to channel this energy and calm the mind by giving children a sense of purpose.

We speak with Paediatric Occupational Therapist Claire Joyce about proprioception (sometimes referred to as our ‘6th sense’), explore benefits of heavy work activities and provide a list of simple and fun heavy work ideas you can engage children in right away.

Proprioceptive input – our body’s hidden sensor system

You know when you go to sit down on a chair and your body automatically senses how far you will need to squat in order to plant you backside beautifully on the seat?  That’s proprioception!

You may also think of it as body awareness.

“Proprioception is a form of sensory input to the muscles and joints which makes us aware of our ‘position in space’ such as, where we are in relation to other objects or people,” says Claire Joyce, Director of mobile occupational therapy organisation Learn Through Play. “A child’s sense of body awareness and balance comes from the information their brain receives from their receptors in their muscles and joints. This information tells the child where their body is in space, where each body part is and what each body part is doing. It is the way a child will know how much force to exert through their muscles and joints when completing a task, such as how much force to exert through a pencil for drawing or writing, or how much force to exert when throwing a ball”.

Many occupational therapists have labelled proprioception as our ‘6th sense’.

How heavy work can stimulate proprioception

‘Heavy work’, is any type of activity that pushes or pulls against the body, and it’s a great way of engaging proprioception which can in turn help to channel energy and aid children with sensory processing issues to feel centred.

Lifting, pulling or even pushing your own body weight are simple heavy work activities that stimulate proprioceptive input, and these are just unconscious movements that trigger this sense. There are countless fun activities that can be implemented to help children release energy.

Heavy work activities have many benefits for preschoolers, including helping to calm children or increase their attention and focus. As Claire affirms, the sense of awareness that emerges with such recreation combined with improved self-regulation, balance and stress levels, allows a child to feel more comfortable with their surroundings and enhance their inter and intrapersonal intelligence.

In considering when and who heavy work activities are best suited for, Claire states, “Unlike most other sensory systems, proprioceptive input rarely over stimulates the body. It is believed that 15 minutes of proprioceptive input, or heavy work activities, can last in the body for up to 2 hours, helping to keep a child calm and in an optimal state of arousal for learning”.

All children can benefit from heavy work activities, however it can be particularly beneficial for those with difficulty interpreting proprioceptive input. These children may appear sleepy or clumsy, disruptive, or extremely energetic.

It is of course necessary to consider the individual needs and personality of a child and to not force any form of activity that may appear to cause them stress.

Activity Ideas

The great thing about heavy work is that you don’t really need to go out and purchase any specific ‘tools’ or materials. Opportunities are all around us. Simple activities such as stacking large blocks, moving and sorting books and boxes of toys, pushing or pulling karts and raking leaves or cleaning windows are examples of heavy work that anyone can put into place almost immediately.

Here are five fun heavy work activity examples that you could try this week:

1. Balloon tennis

A great heavy work activity that will help kids stimulate their proprioceptive input is balloon tennis. This exercise will also activate their gross motor skills and improve hand-eye coordination through jumping, balancing, focusing, leaping and stretching! All you need for this activity are spoons and balloons. Watch Storypark’s video to see balloon tennis in action.

2. Newspaper sports

Creating newspaper sports will help keep children engaged and focused. This activity will promote self-regulation and balance and improve stress levels! Give your pre-schoolers old newspapers to use as ‘bats’ and scrunch some paper into balls. Use cones or tape on the ground to create markers and let kids shoot goals or weave their paper-ball between cones through an obstacle course.

3. Animal walking

Animal walking is a simple and entertaining exercise that requires no external resources. These activities resemble the animal they are named after and will help stimulate any child’s proprioceptors. Watch LemonLimeAdventures’ video to see some of these walks.

  • The crab walk – squat down close to the floor and lean backwards. Place both hands on the ground so that you resemble a “tabletop”. Walk sideways whilst keeping your back straight and your bottom off the ground.
  • Frog jumps – begin in a squat and place both hands on the floor in between your knees. Jump forward and land on the ground with both your hands and feet.
  • If you want to make it a bit more complicated, try turtle walks – rest a large pillow on a child’s back and time how long they can crawl around like a turtle with a shell on its back.

4. Budge the bucket

Fill a bucket, basket, box or any other container with items of varying weights. Set up a “finish line” using tape or a distinct object and ask the children to move their container to the finish line in various ways, including pushing, pulling, tugging or lifting it. This activity will engage a child’s proprioceptive sense through receptors in their muscles and joints being activated. This will help the child understand where their body is spatially, where and what each body part is doing, and how much energy to exert. Check out how St Luke’s Preschool execute this activity through their video.

5. Did you know…

Sand play is another great activity to help increase proprioceptive input. The soft sand will drive neurological stimulation through the joints in the feet, legs and spine to the brain. To include additional heavy work activities in sand-play time, cut the bottom off an empty milk bottle and use it to scoop the sand back and forth between containers or dig in a sandbox for buried items.

Check out these other resources to learn more about heavy work!

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Community Early Learning Australia is a not for profit organisation with a focus on amplifying the value of early learning for every child across Australia - representing our members and uniting our sector as a force for quality education and care.

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