As a pediatric physical therapist, I spend my days analyzing the strength, gross motor skills, and endurance of children. A child’s occupation is to play, and as such, pediatric physical therapy is all about modifying a child’s play environment in order to promote strength, endurance, and gross motor development.
Here are some of my favorite tips that parents and caregivers can incorporate across the lifespan to promote gross motor milestone development through a child’s play time.
1. Tummy time is super important
Whenever we evaluate a new baby, we almost always suggest tummy time as our very first recommendation.
Tummy time is the very best way to strengthen all the muscles on your child’s body. These are the muscles that help your child sit and stand for the first time. We know how difficult tummy time can be, but if you can slowly incorporate just a few more minutes every day, before you know it, your child will prefer his or her tummy – especially as they get stronger and more mobile.
While supervised tummy time on a flat, firm surface is the best place to do tummy time, there are ways to sneak it in throughout the day: over your lap, on your chest, or in your arms. You can also use mirrors, books, toys, and siblings to distract your baby when tummy time is the last thing they want to do.
2. Decrease time in positioning devices
Walking into a baby store can be an extremely overwhelming experience – there are dozens of infant seats, swings, bouncers, jumpers, and walkers all promising to be wonderful for your baby’s gross motor development.
While these things look to promote quicker gross motor development, they actually accomplish just the opposite. When your child is positioned in a device, he or she is not given the opportunity to move his or her body and strengthen those muscles needed to progress gross motor development.
So, while sometimes positioning devices are useful to put your baby down in a safe place when you need, you should try to avoid those pieces of equipment for extended periods of time. Instead, allow your child to spend a good amount of time on a safe portion of the floor.
While on the floor, they are given the opportunity to strengthen their muscles, learn how to coordinate movements, and explore the surrounding environment. If you are worried about the safety of your child on the floor, you can try a travel crib where you can be sure that he or she is safe from pets, other children, or anything else.
3. Head outside
As our children get older, there can be more and more demands from school work and extracurricular activities, but it’s important to remember that play is still a child’s occupation. Playtime is so very important to physical and overall development.
Our world is very “sedentary heavy.” Our TVs, phones, and game consoles could keep us busy for hours, but all we really need is to get back outside. Especially with the warmer weather here, encourage your children to play outside more. The running and climbing outside will help with endurance and strengthening. Riding bikes, playing on scooters, playing hopscotch, or rollerblading will all provide your child with skills needed for strength, balance, and endurance.
4. Go swimming
Swimming is one of the best full body exercises that we can do.
I always recommend swimming as a fantastic opportunity for strength, coordination training, and endurance building across all age groups. Visit your local park district or YMCA to ask about swim lessons or swim team opportunities. Again, with the onset of summer, now is a great time to get involved with swimming.
Swimming also promotes improved breathing patterns and helps with sensory regulation.
5. Play organized sports
I recommend dance, karate, and gymnastics classes to target balance and coordination in the school-aged child. However, if none of these interests your child, try to identify what he or she is interested in. You can again visit your local park district or YMCA to look into other sports and activities.
It’s much more important that your child enjoys whatever it is that he or she chooses than trying to choose for them.
6. Get the whole family involved!
Our children learn so much from our own actions, and if they see us leading an active lifestyle, it will become part of his or her norm.
Try taking walks, bike rides, or jogs together. Family trips to the park or a regular routine of getting outside are great ways to not only promote continued strengthening and endurance building but also a healthy lifestyle and healthy relationship with exercise.
PT/OT evaluation: If you’ve tried the above-listed recommendations and you think your child could benefit from some additional support, talk with your pediatrician. Your child’s pediatrician can provide a referral for a physical therapy or occupational therapy evaluation.
Physical therapy (PT) focuses on gross motor skills — think running, jumping, balance, coordination, things required for gym class. Occupational therapy (OT) focuses more on fine motor skills — think buttoning shirts, handwriting, using kitchen utensils, and they can also assist with sensory and regulation skills.
PT and OT can more specifically identify your child’s needs and how you can help them develop based on their individual strengths and areas of improvement.