Next Step Therapy Blog: ‘Outside Play’

NST-bTracy Rodgers, PT, of Next Step Therapy, submitted the following article: “Outside Play.”

Do you have a “new” walker in your home? Do you have a child with balance/coordination issues? Now that summertime is FINALLY here – (Can I just insert a YAY!! here?) there are many outside activities that you can do with your child to improve their walking/coordination/balance abilities.

First off – don’t forget the sunscreen! Also, I would recommend playing outside in the morning or evening and not right at noon or the hottest part of the day. Kids don’t pay as much attention to the heat, and it’s easy for them to get dehydrated. If you do play outside in the middle of the day, be sure to have them take lots of water breaks. (Water is better than sugary drinks, and milk can spoil quickly in the heat.)

You may have noticed that children who are just learning to walk sometimes seem to just wander around aimlessly without a purpose or a goal in mind. While it appears this way – this is not true. They are actually practicing their new skill. There’s no better place to practice than outside. Let them wander around the yard. The yard is most likely not a smooth/flat surface and that’s great. They can learn to navigate up and down small hills. They can learn to position their feet on little bumps and in little dips. They can learn to correct their balance using their trunk muscles when they walk on these uneven surfaces.

Take them to a park and let them walk on gravel or the rubber chips that most playgrounds have under the swings and slides. Walking on gravel is different than walking on grass. Let them feel the difference. Let them practice. If there are sticks or toys lying on the ground, let them figure out how to either step over or go around. Stepping over objects helps them to learn balancing on one foot. Going around objects helps them to learn weight shifting from one foot to another. Both are needed skills so let them figure out how they want to try – you don’t have to force one way over another.

Play ball to work on coordination skills. Start with a larger ball (Not too large though or it defeats the purpose because if it’s too large they can’t even see over it when they are holding it. I would suggest the normal “playground” size ball.) See how far they can throw it without losing their balance and falling down. Try to have them catch it. Once they have mastered catching it in the air then try to have them catch it by bouncing it once to them. This is harder to do and requires eye/hand coordination. Have them kick the ball. Start with setting the ball on the ground and let them kick it from a “stand still”. As they get comfortable with that then start to roll the ball to them and have them try to kick it while it’s still rolling. This is a harder task and requires higher level skills.

As they become more comfortable walking, start to play some running games. Chase them. Blow bubbles and have them chase the bubbles. Have them run after a ball that you have thrown or rolled away from them. Chase butterflies. If they are focusing on doing one of these tasks the running will start to come to them naturally. (I would recommend doing the running on grass and not on gravel or cement for obvious reasons!)

Kids love to pick flowers. Let them squat down to pick those beautiful dandelions or play with the pebbles or pick blades of grass. Maintaining a squatted position is not only good for balance but helps strengthen the legs as well. Have them squat for small stones and then stand up to put them in a bucket that you are holding. Or give them a shovel and have them stoop to get sand on the shovel and then stand to dump it in the sand pail. Stoop for little flowers then stand to put them in a cup or bowl. (Make sure they are flowers that are allowed to be picked! ) Stooping then standing multiple times in a row is a definite muscle builder!

In addition to all these Gross Motor activities, there are so many Sensory things they can be experiencing while playing outside, but I’ll let my OT friends address those things in another blog!

Go outside. Enjoy the sun. Enjoy your child. PLAY! And while all this fun is going on, your child will be getting practice in balance and coordination that will make them a safer walker, and you will have less “boo boos” to take care of.

~Tracy R.

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