One of the main areas I want to talk about is the proprioceptive system. Some of you might have heard the term "heavy work activities", "proprioceptive activities/input", etc. The proprioceptive system informs us of our body's position in space. The sensory receptors are located in the muscles, joints, and skin and inform the brain about muscle length and tension. The muscles, skin, and joints all work together to give us a better idea of our body in space (aka... body awareness)!
So how does it work? Have you ever carried a load of laundry up or down a set of stairs? Did you need to watch your feet at each step? Most likely, you didn't need to. You already had a sense of "where" your foot was in relation to the step.
How do you know when you need proprioceptive input?
child is often jumping/crashing/banging into things
trips over their own feet and/or seem to "not see" where they are going
described as "clumsy", often bumps into things or people
very energetic and has difficulty sitting still and/or might not be energetic and often seen "slumping"
might need to "lean" on things or someone
described as being very"physical"
may have difficulty with motor tasks
loves to play "rough"
might use excessive "force" without realizing it
In therapy, we often encourage children to participate in physical activities (gross motor skills) to help us evaluate what their skills look like in movement but also to activate the "proprioceptive" system because it helps "calm" the nervous system too! These large robust movements that include carrying, lifting, pushing, pulling, increasing "pressure", etc are very helpful in developing a child's regulatory skills.
These large resistive activities provide feedback to the brain and the brain releases “feel good” messages (e.g. endorphins). You will often see therapists do “heavy work” or “proprioceptive” activities prior to sit-down tasks because it helps calm the body. Once your child's body is calm and alert (regulated), they are able to focus, listen to words better, and participate more adequately in fine and visual motor activities.
If you don't have access to a therapy space/sensory gym, that's ok! We also use the playground! It's free, available in many locations, and also a great way to enjoy the outdoors too.
If you wonder how this might work, try it for yourself. You can do a workout (resistive/pressure type activities) and check in with yourself afterward. How do you feel? are you still fidgety? do you feel tired? body is calm but you are awake? Do you still feel stressed?
Here are some suggestions for "proprioceptive"/"heavy work" activities:
Playfully do animal walks (bear crawls, frog jumps, elephant stomps, etc).
Jump on a trampoline, jumping jacks, hopscotch, skip rope
Carrying/lifting their backpack (reasonably weighted)
Pull a wagon filled with items (e.g. toys, rocks, wood, boxes, anything that kids would want to pull across the yard!)
Crawl, crawl through a tunnel
Chewing on chewy foods (e.g. fruit leather, peanut butter, pepperoni sticks, etc). * Ensure your child is able to chew these foods safely and also while sitting down.
Drinking liquid from a straw. When you drink from a straw, you are activating the muscles of the mouth to "work". The resistance provides sensory feedback.
If you have any questions, or would like additional information on this topic. Feel free to reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you and have a great day!
Jessica Earle, Occupational Therapist