Written by Allison McNamara, PT, DPT
Your child is probably very excited to get back to in-person school this year. But, back to school in 2021 poses new challenges that families did not face previously. Many children participated in remote learning for at least part of the 2020-2021 school year and maybe even the 2019-2020 school year. This inadvertently impacted their ability to participate in physical activities like gym class and sports. Students were also not walking to and from a bus stop, walking between classes, retrieving items from lockers, or playing at recess. These types of gaps in their physical movement can affect their physical health.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University have been exploring the effect of remote learning on the physical health of children, and have found that children typically did not participate in the recommended amount of exercise needed to maintain optimal physical health throughout the pandemic. Summer is typically a less active time for children as well, as many are home and not participating in school based physical activities. Because of this, many students have lost development in their gross motor skills and have showed declines in strength, balance, coordination, or endurance.
However, there are ways to address these issues at home, to prepare children to go back to school so that they are ready for gym class, recess, sitting up all day in a firm chair, and the demands of navigating busy classrooms and hallways – ways that are fun, creative, and can be done with items found in your own home!
Try some of these fun and exciting ways to improve your child’s physical health and get them physically ready to go back to school this year. Remember, this should be fun for you and the child – if your child isn’t having fun with one of these, skip it and move on to another.
Activity: For the best obstacle courses, you will want to include at least one of each of the following types of movements: rolling, snake crawl/hands, knee crawls, jumping, walking (with one foot in front of the other), balancing on one foot, and squatting. You can also take a towel and roll it lengthwise into a snake for a balance beam, place a tube or broom across 2 chairs for the child to crawl under or jump over, use pillows to jump from one to the other, have them roll across a towel, and have them squat to retrieve an item to bring through the obstacle course. For younger children, you can have them bring stuffed animals, dolls, or tor cars through the obstacle course. Older children can use puzzle or game pieces.
Results: Obstacle courses are great ways to work on navigating an environment and improving a child’s ability to understand where their body is in space. They can also improve their strength, balance, coordination, motor planning, and endurance.
Bean Bag Games
Activity: Bean bags can be made out of beans/rice/quinoa and small plastic baggies – double bag and duct tape the edges to prevent a mess. You can have your child stand on the floor, in a box, on a pillow, on one foot, or kneel with their bottoms off of their heels and have them toss the bean bags into a basket/box 3-7 feet away from them. The larger the distance and the smaller the basket, the more challenging this activity will be for your child.
Results: This is a great way to prepare children for sport activities in gym class, work on balance, and prepare their trunk muscles to hold their bodies up while they are sitting in school chairs for an extended period of time during the school day.
Activity: Tape a piece of paper to the wall, and place sticker books on the floor. Have your child squat down, retrieve a sticker, stand up, and place the sticker on the paper. You can also have your child stand on a thick pillow to further challenge their balance. You could also put the paper on the floor 5-10 feet away from the stickers and have your child walk sideways to retrieve a sticker, squat down and retrieve the sticker, stand and walk sideways to the paper, and squat to place the sticker on the paper.
Results: This addresses leg and hip strength and is especially good to prepare kids for squatting to retrieve items from low cubbies or lockers, and get them ready to walk up and down steps at school.
Activity: Take disposable cups and stack them into a pyramid (depending on how tall your child is, you might have a base that ranges from 3-5 cups wide.) Have them stand on one foot and with their toe, kick over one cup at a time (you indicate which cup to kick.) You can have them alternate feet, cross their feet across their body, or even stand sideways and have them kick out to the sides.
Results: This works on graded control and will be especially good if your child has difficulty maintaining a single leg stance or standing in line at school without bumping into the wall or other children.
Activity: Depending on your child’s age, you will want to use a larger or smaller ball. Working on skills like chest passes, bounce passes, overhand, and underhand throws, kicking a stationary or rolling ball, trapping a rolling ball with their foot, or running up to a stationary or rolling ball and kicking it. Another fun way to work on ball skills is build towers of paper towels or toilet paper and use those as goals for children to knock over by either rolling, throwing, or kicking a ball.
Results: These are all great ways to prepare your child for return to in person gym class in which these skills are necessary for success.
Relay Races/Animal Walks
Activity: Some fun relay race ideas include putting a puzzle, memory matching game, Legos, or blocks on one side of the room and having the child grab a puzzle piece, Lego, block, or find a match, then run to the other side of the room and put the piece in a designated area. If you have blocks/Legos/puzzle pieces (or even pieces of paper) in different colors, you can tell them which color to find and then tell them where to put that item. Timing them makes this game even more fun and challenging! If you want to make this even more challenging, you can have your child perform different animal walks and exercises between items – bear walk, crab walk, heel walk, tip toe walk, frog jump, bunny hop, one foot hop, skip, leap, slide, backwards, or sideways walk – be creative and have fun!
Results: Relay races are a great way to work on your child’s ability to change directions quickly, which is an important skill for participating in games at recess, gym class, or even navigating a busy hallway at school.
Chalk/Painters Tape Games
Activity: If you have an outdoor area, you can draw out a hopscotch game, and inchworm game, a wavy line, and any other shape you can think of and have the child navigate the game by walking, hopping, or jumping. If you don’t have access to an outdoor area – or if it is a rainy day – you can tape out the same shapes inside using painters tape or masking tape – both of which do not damage surfaces (spot test first.) An added fun game – place tape across a hallway in different patterns and have your child step over, crawl under, and move around the tape without touching the tape.
Results: This is a great way to work on awareness of the body in space and help get your child ready to move through the classroom and hallway without bumping into other children, desks, chairs, or walls.
Activity: Balloon work is also great for younger children who either might be afraid of a ball (the ones who close their eyes when they catch a ball) or need increased time to tack the balloon and figure out how to move their body to hit the balloon back to you. You can use hands or feet and tap/kick a balloon back and forth with your child and see how many volleys you can achieve before it hits the floor. You can also make this an independent activity and see how many times your child can hit it on their own before it hits the floor. If you want to make this more challenging, tape or otherwise mark off a specific area on the floor and tell your child their feet cannot leave that area when they’re hitting the balloon. You can also place the balloon between your child’s feet or knees and have them jump across the room without dropping the balloon.
Results: Balloons are a fun way to work on eye-hand or eye-foot coordination, visual scanning, balance, and coordination with minimal damage to items in the home.
Existing Games into Movement Games
Activity: If you have Jenga, you can write the names of movements on each game piece (or on a piece of paper and tape it to the game piece) and as you play the game, you have to do the exercise on the game piece. For example, if you pull out the game piece that says “mountain climbers”, you will have to perform a certain number of mountain climbers. You can use a die/dice and roll to determine the number of each exercise to be performed. Pop the Pig and other games that have multiple different colored pieces can become movement games as well! Each color can represent an exercise: red = boat pose, purple = jumping jacks, green = wheelbarrow walk, yellow = toe touches, and you can roll a die/dice or decide before hand how many of each exercise will be performed. If your child struggles with certain exercises or movements, you can make those exercises or movements the focus ones for this game.
Results: These are great ways to target areas of movement where your child needs some extra practice by using toys and games you already have on hand.
Loaded Laundry Basket Games
Activity: Pushing and pulling games can be great ways to work on global strengthening! Loading up a laundry basket or diaper box with books, cans, groceries, or even siblings, placing the laundry basket/box on a sheet and tying the corners of the sheet around the edges of the basket/box (to protect the floors) and having your child push/pull the basket/box around your home can be super challenging – especially if the basket/box is placed on a carpeted surface.
Results: This will engage muscles in the front and back of their bodies and will be a great way to prepare kids to move around with a heavy backpack with walking around at school or going up and down stairs at school while wearing a backpack.
Summer is a great time to play and have fun, but make sure your child is physically ready to return to school successfully. Exercise is also a great way to build confidence in children – so let’s play and have a great time working on our gross motor skills!
If you are concerned about your child’s ability to perform any of these skills/exercises or believe that they might be lagging behind their peers, Professional Physical Therapy can help. Contact us for an assessment or visit us at Professional Physical Therapy. We are dedicated to the overall health and well-being of our patients and will customize a physical therapy rehabilitation plan just right for you.