guest post

‘Heavy Work’ Activities to Help Children Self-Regulate and Feel Calm (Guest Post by Pentagon Play)

This is a guest blog post, written by Pentagon Play

Is it just us?! The first time we heard the phrase ‘heavy work activities,’ we conjured up all sorts of images – from trying to lift a ten-tonne dumbbell with grimacing teeth and a bright red face, to rolling tractor tyres up a muddy hill in the pouring rain. 

It was exhausting just thinking about it! 

Thankfully, of course, the truth is that heavy work activities are something completely different!

 Heavy work activities work wonders when it comes to helping children with some Special Education Needs and Disabilities (SEND) to feel calm and centred – especially when they can be enjoyed through outdoor play.

 In this blog we’ll take a closer look at why, and how – and we have some great heavy work activity ideas for you to try with your child.

What is Heavy Work?

 ‘Heavy work’ is quite simply an activity that involves resistance, pushing or pulling against the body. 

This engages our proprioception sense, which controls our body awareness, balance and movement.

 Good, regular heavy work activities can supply the necessary input to a child’s joints and muscles that will help them to self-regulate and feel calm, and subsequently to improve their focus. 

As a bonus, they’re great for developing physical strength and stability too!

Feeling Safe and Centred

When we think of our senses, we usually think of the obvious – touch, taste, sight, sound, and smell. 

But equally as important, and especially for a child’s development, is our lesser known ‘sixth sense’ of proprioception. 

It’s sometimes referred to as the ‘safe sense’ because it has an organising effect on the brain.

 Proprioception is when the brain receives information from sensations in our joints, muscles and ligaments, telling it how our bodies are moving, and where different parts of our bodies are in relation to the space around us.

 This sense is put into action every time we push or pull on an object (such as opening a door or slicing an apple) and every time our joints are compressed or stretched (like when we walk, run, jump or swing). 

It tells us if we’re moving as we need to achieve our aim – and this is the key. Proprioception helps us to interpret this sensory input from other sources and respond appropriately. 

What do we do if we hear a sudden loud noise, or step into a freezing cold bath? Proprioception to the rescue!

Many children will get enough proprioceptive input just from carrying out their normal day to day activities – but children who have sensory processing difficulties usually don’t. 

They need extra help to get their proprioceptive systems going – and that’s where heavy work activities come into play.

How do Heavy Work Activities Help? Finding the Balance.

 All children can benefit from taking part in heavy work activities, whether they have SEND or not. 

They’re good for general physical development and exercise and they can be really good fun too!

 Occupational therapists usually recommend heavy work activities for children who have difficulty regulating their energy levels. 

Regular heavy input into their neurological systems, their muscles and joints, provides the physical stimulation they crave to feel calm and settled.

 As with everything, it’s never a case of “one size fits all,” and different heavy work activities work in different ways for different children.

 For example, autistic children can struggle to process sensory information in an organised way. 

If they have an under-responsive neurological system, they’ll be less aware of sensory stimuli and need to put in more effort to register information, such as stomping, or pushing and bumping into things.

However, if they have an over-responsive neurological system, they might respond defensively to sensory stimuli. 

It makes certain activities unsettling and can cause a great deal of anxiety.

 A child’s therapist can recommend a regular pattern of heavy work activities to suit them, that will help them to feel more balanced.

 Children with under-responsive neurological systems often seek out proprioceptive input without knowing it – if they’re feeling overwhelmed, they can come across as overly full of beans and it can really disrupt their day. 

Targeted heavy work activities will help them to self-regulate and feel more prepared and comfortably able to participate in everyday tasks.

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Let’s Go – Outdoors!

 There are absolutely loads of brilliant heavy work activities that children can enjoy through outdoor play!

 Outdoor activities are well-known for having a positive influence on a child’s health and wellbeing.

Surrounded by fresh air and nature, children naturally feel more relaxed, stress-free, and comfortably able to express and enjoy themselves – and there’s generally more scope and space to do so.

 Here are some of our favourite, very simple, heavy work activities to try with your child. You can incorporate any of these into their daily routine – 5 to 15 minutes at a time is often plenty!

Dress for the weather and let’s go!*

● Start by simply walking, marching, and/or gently jogging on the spot. Get those limbs stretching and moving and feel the lungs taking lovely big deep breaths of fresh air!

● Do some push-ups on the ground, or against a wall – gently using their own body weight to create resistance, bending, and stretching their arms. See how many you can do together!

● Play roly-poly! Great if you can find a grassy slope to lie sideways and roll down, allowing the earth to press gently along the whole body. Making themselves into a “burrito” by rolling up in a mat, or heavy blanket, has a similarly comforting, compression effect.

● Play ‘throw and catch’ with a ball, a cushion, a bean bag or even a soft toy. They don’t just have to use their hands! Try ‘keepy-uppies’ on the spot using their feet or knees to keep a ball off the ground. 

● Challenge them to build a fun obstacle course in the garden. Lifting and placing items such as garden chairs, boxes, cones, hoops, blankets etc – they’ll love being creative with it. Climb, jump over, run around or crawl underneath for an excellent heavy work-out.

● Ropework! Use a rope for skipping and jumping or make a rope swing from a low-hanging branch. Tug-of-war can be played in a few positions – standing, sitting, kneeling, or lying down to apply pressure and resistance to different parts of the body.

● Wheelbarrow walking! This traditional sports day racing game needs two people – a child puts their hands down on the floor, and someone holds their knees up off the ground and gently walks forward so the child can walk along with their hands like a wheelbarrow. Swap places and go again!

● Even better with a real wheelbarrow – children can fill it with items (or each other!) and push it along the ground. Gardening is a wonderful activity for children. Keep them busy raking and clearing fallen leaves, pulling up weeds, sweeping the pathway, digging and turning over the soil, pushing holes into the soil to plant bulbs and seeds, lifting and pouring from a watering can.

● A trip to the park can be a real winner – if it has a good playframe then you’ve got everything in one. Climbing steps, ladders and ramps, scrambling up and down nets, swinging from ropes, hanging from monkey bars, balancing across beams – all these movements involve children gripping, stretching, pulling and pushing, and using their own body weight as resistance.

● Riding on wheeled vehicles – trikes, bikes, and scooters, provides a perfect push/resistance action. Try lying on a skateboard and pushing themselves along with their hands too.

● Sand and water are a dynamic duo when it comes to heavy work! Children can dig, scoop, pour, mix, mash, splash, stir and swirl to their heart’s content.

● Baking activities – mixing and stirring, cracking eggs, squeezing, and kneading, rolling out dough and pushing down cookie cutters. If they’re not in the zone for baking, they can easily replicate these actions with play dough, or making mud pies in the garden.

● Sucking through straws and blowing bubbles are super fun and easy oral heavy work activities for children. Who hasn’t tried blowing through a straw to make bubbles in their glass of juice at some point?! Well now they have a valid excuse!

Slow and steady is key! 

It’s about resistance, applying gentle pressure, rather than sudden, fast motions. Each activity should bring a sense of calm – anything that causes distress is counterproductive, so choose what works best for your child.  

And of course, you don’t have to go outside if they really don’t want to – indoors is absolutely fine too – but we’re firm believers in the calming influence of the outdoor environment for creating a more enjoyable and effective experience, in pretty much everything!

This article was written by Emma Homan from Pentagon Play UK. The number one school playground specialist, Pentagon Play is an award-winning designer of outdoor learning environments and trusted by schools and nurseries across the country. “Improve children’s lives today, to shape happier and healthier grown-ups tomorrow”. 

*As with all activities on our blog, we accept no responsibility for children/adults safety- you need to risk assess all activities yourself based on the children in your care.

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