Published in Sensations, Volume 3, Issue 2 (September 2005), newsletter for The KID Foundation (now STAR Institute for Sensory Processing Disorder)
Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, and kids gotta climb, jump, and balance. While dangling from banisters, scooting under turnstiles, teetering on curbs, and jumping into puddles may dismay grown-ups, children persist with good reason.
How do kids learn to think and relate to the world around them? By scanning their surroundings; touching wooden, metal, rubber, or concrete surfaces; grasping and releasing handholds; changing body positions; maintaining equilibrium; and experimenting with different movement patterns. Furthermore, they are having fun, and “fun,” Dr. Ayres wrote, “is the child’s word for sensory integration.”
An obstacle course is sensational, both to provide fun and to promote praxis. Praxis, a sensory-based process, involves: Ideation (having an idea of something you want to do); Motor planning (figuring how to do it); and Execution (carrying out the plan). Just as the person who chops his own wood is warmed twice, the person who builds and moves through his own obstacle course strengthens praxis many times over.
You and your child can build an obstacle course outdoors, where everything is better, or indoors in bad weather. You don’t need special equipment – just a fresh way of looking at ordinary objects, with an eye on how they can promote sensory processing.
WHAT TO DO
1) Brainstorm, or ideate, with your kids to make three lists with these headings: Ways to Move, Prepositions, and Objects. Encourage children to tell or show you what they have in mind. For example:
Ways to Move:
Step, walk, creep (on all fours), crawl (on belly), scoot (on bottom), roll, somersault, jump (two feet), hop (one foot), leap, run
Up, upon, down, into, onto, between, beneath, beside, under, over, through, across, around
Consumables: Construction paper shapes, shoeboxes, paper plates, bubble wrap, masking tape, Bottle Babies (2-liter soda bottles, half-filled with colored water)
Kitchen: Stools, chairs, mixing bowls
Garage: Sawhorses, boards, inner tubes, tires, thick rope, flower pots, tarpaulins
Household: Wastebaskets, couch cushions, mattress, bridge table, exercise bench, telephone books, wash tubs, rugs, carpet squares, and sheet to drape over chairs for a tent
Kids’ equipment: Plastic hoops, big blocks, gym mats, Crash Pad (duvet cover, stuffed with pillows and foam blocks)
2) Together, plan the course by mixing and matching list ingredients, e.g.:
Step / Into / Shoe boxes
Scoot / Around / Wastebaskets
Creep / Under / Table
Crawl / Through / Tunnel
Walk / Between / Lines of tape
Somersault / Across / Mattress
Roll / Over / Bearskin rug
Jump / On / Bubble wrap
Vary movements, prepositions and objects to reinforce children’s ability to handle and discriminate different materials (tactile sense), stretch muscles and develop body awareness (tactile/proprioceptive senses), balance and move through space (vestibular sense), perceive spatial relationships and negotiate around obstacles (visual-motor skills), and improve motor planning, coordination and postural responses (sensory-based motor skills).
3) Execute the plan by laying out the course. In tight spaces, such as a hallway, a linear course is okay for one or two kids. In the yard or cleared room a circular course is best for a crowd. Let youngsters help! Kids with SPD often sense what their systems need; honor their ideas and be flexible about altering the plan. Also, remember that the heavy work of lifting, carrying, pushing and pulling materials into place is like over-the-counter OT.
- Have everyone travel in the same direction to avoid traffic jams.
- Prior to a happy birthday party, practice building and going through a course with your child so she feels in-the-know, adept, and ready to help her friends if they get stuck.
- For holidays, spice up the course with seasonal accents, e.g.:
- Use red Bottle Babies (soda bottles half-filled with tinted water) to circumnavigate
- Make a curvy or soft, heart-shaped path with red masking tape
- Stick down red paper hearts to jump on and red arrows to manage the flow
- Play patriotic music
- Emphasize red, white and blue objects (sheets, cushions, tape, hoops)
St. Patrick’s Day:
- Tape tiny paper feet along the course so kids can follow the leprechaun’s path
- At the start, hand each child a large gold piece to toss into a pot at the end
- Have the kids go barefoot, or backwards, or with music.
- Incorporate your child’s favorite theme. Does he love trains? Pretend that obstacles are the locomotive, freight car, caboose. Are planets her thing? Obstacles can be Mercury, Venus, Earth. State capitals? Hartford, Annapolis, Denver. This thematic technique may jump-start the child who is not a self-starter.
- Be vigilant about safety. Allow sufficient space between obstacles for the child to readjust his posture before moving to the next. Always be there.
To give children the chance to master new physical challenges, learn problem-solving skills and develop praxis, make an obstacle course every day! Build it, and they will come.
For more on obstacle courses and heavy work activities, see The Out-of-Sync Child Has Fun, revised (Perigee, 2006), The Goodenoughs Get in Sync (Sensory Resources, 2004), and Growing an In-Sync Child (Sensory World, 2010).