What Are Heavy Work Activities and Who Should Do Them?

What is heavy work?

Heavy work is any type of activity that provides resistance to the body by way of pulling or pushing.  Resistance could be created by something pushing against the body like water in the swimming pool, or the body pushing against the floor such as doing push-ups.  Pulling on resistance bands, and hanging on monkey bars are also examples. Heavy work activities offer many benefits because they provide proprioceptive input. 

What is proprioception?

Proprioception is our sense of body awareness.  It is the ability of our body to know how it is moving and where it is in space. For example, being able to close your eyes and touch your nose with the tip of your index finger.  Our body knows how to do this because the sensory receptors in our muscles and joints send information to the brain.  This vital information relays how our body is moving, where each body part is in space, and where each body part is in relation to the other.  Try closing your eyes and touching your fingertip to your nose.  When you really think about it, it’s pretty amazing.

Why are heavy work activities beneficial?

Heavy work activities provide proprioceptive input or information to the body that helps with feeling centered and grounded.  This input provides a sense of organization and calm.  Many children benefit from heavy work activities for this reason.  When a child feels organized, tasks become easier.  For example, proprioceptive input can help a child understand how to grade pressure.  Know any kids who push really hard on crayons when coloring a picture?  Many times their hand will hurt and fatigue before they are finished.  When children have a lack of body awareness, it can be hard to determine just how much pressure to put on the crayon when coloring.  

Who should partake in heavy work activities?

Heavy work activities may benefit all children.  Heavy work is a form of movement and exercise, which we all need.  

Heavy work activities can be particularly helpful and effective for children who have sensory processing difficulties.  Sensory processing is the ability of our body to receive and interpret sensory information and deliver an appropriate response.   Children who have sensory processing difficulties have trouble with taking in information from their environment, and sometimes their own body, making sense of it, and figuring out how to respond to it.   You may notice these children slamming doors, bumping into things, leaning against furniture and walls, and climbing on everything.  Proprioceptive input provides their body with the information they need to modulate.  In other words, proprioceptive input helps children process sensory information and deliver an appropriate response.  

Children who have deficits in motor planning may also benefit from heavy work activities.  This is often referred to as dyspraxia. Motor planning is the ability to know what steps to take, in what order, and then carry out the novel motor action needed to execute the plan.  Proprioceptive input can help children with this disorder gain a greater awareness of where their body is in space which in turn helps with movement and coordination.  

Heavy work activities can also be employed to reduce stress and anxiety because they facilitate calm via organizing and regulating the sensory system.  

How often should children participate in heavy work activities?

Heavy work breaks can be offered to all children, however, the amount of time, frequency, and intensity will vary.  All children are unique and therefore have different needs.  There is no one-for-all approach.  Offering heavy work options during breaks is generally a good idea.  It is not uncommon for special education and even some general education teachers to offer heavy work activities as breaks to their students.  Brain breaks for example very well may consist of heavy work activities that the entire classroom will benefit from.  Parents may decide to have their children engage in heavy work activities at home. This can be particularly beneficial during homework, morning and bedtime routines, or anytime you need your child to settle down. Ever had a hard time keeping your little one under control in the grocery store? Of course! Kids sometimes have too much energy and not enough patience for what you are trying to do. Heavy work activities can be beneficial in the grocery store as well.

However, if you have or work with a child who has a sensory processing disorder, consulting with an occupational therapist is recommended.  Sensory needs can be complex and the expertise of a therapist is needed. Sometimes it is necessary to develop a sensory diet tailored to meet the specific needs of the child.  A sensory diet provides lots of opportunities for the child to engage in meaningful sensory-based activities. Sensory diets provide the input needed for the child to modulate sensory information and produce appropriate responses.  Each sensory diet varies based on the child’s needs.  It typically is carried out throughout a child’s day.  Some may include scheduled breaks, while other sensory opportunities are designed to occur as a natural part of the day.  

What are some heavy work activities that can be done in the classroom?  

Here are some of my favorite activities because I feel that they are practical, doable, and easy to incorporate into your classroom routine.

  • A stress ball or squeezable/squishy fidgets (having a designated “fidget box” with several options is a good idea)
  • Resistance bands on chair legs (students push their feet or legs against the bands while seated)
  • Chair dips
  • Seated push-ups or desk push-ups (child places both hands on the chair or desk and lifts their body off the seat or floor)
  • Movement breaks: tug-of-war, jumping jacks, yoga poses
  • Squeeze and squish:  Kinetic Sand, Play-Doh
  • Trampoline (investing in a mini trampoline for your classroom is so worth it)
  • Crumple paper and shoot for the trash basket (this is great to incorporate while your student is cleaning his/her desk)
  • Wipe the chalkboard or whiteboard clean
  • Wall push-ups (these are just like regular push-ups except the child is leaning against the wall)
  • Recess:  monkey bars, any type of climbing equipment, climb up the slide instead of using the ladder
  • Carry a weighted backpack during transitions (mustn’t exceed 20% of child’s body weight)
  • Hold an exercise ball against the wall using your back
  • Animal walks (crab, bear, seal, etc.)
  • Body sock
  • Weighted lap pad or lap animals

Heavy Work Activities for the Classroom At a Glance

Heavy Work Activities for the Classroom Infographic

What are some heavy work activities that can be done at home?  

Here are my suggestions.  These activities can easily be incorporated into your day.

  • Jump rope
  • Kinetic Sand
  • Push-ups 
  • Wall push-ups (these are just like regular push-ups except the child is leaning against the wall)
  • Stress ball or squeezable/squishy hand fidgets
  • Crumple paper and toss into wastepaper basket (a great opportunity to get rid of your never-ending supply of junk mail)
  • Tug-of-war
  • Jumping on the bed
  • Trampoline 
  • Chair dips
  • Swimming
  • Playground:  monkey bars, any type of climbing equipment, climb up the slide instead of using the ladder
  • Jumping jacks
  • Yoga poses
  • Squish and squeeze Kinetic Sand, Play-doh
  • Animal walks (crab, bear, seal, etc.)
  • Pull wagon filled with something heavy like books or stones
  • Hold exercise ball against a wall using back
  • Steamroll:  Roll exercise ball over child’s back and legs while he/she is laying on the carpet/rug; make it fun by saying “I’m going to turn you into a pancake”
  • Jump and crash into pillows or sofa cushions placed on the floor
  • Blanket burrito:  tightly wrap your child in a blanket to create a nice squeeze; make it fun by saying “I’m going to turn you into a burrito”
  • At the grocery store have your child carry a basket and gather some of the things on your list.  Or you can have your child push the cart.  They will probably love being a helper.
  • Crunchy Snacks:  Offer snacks that provide intense oral motor input like pretzels, carrot sticks, and celery sticks.
  • Chores:  Yes, I said chores!  Chores are a great way to get some heavy work in.  My favorite is vacuum cleaning because vacuums tend to be heavy.  Mopping and sweeping the floor are also options.  Doing yard work?  Have your child dig using a shovel, or pull weeds.  Pushing a wheelbarrow is also a great option.  

Heavy Work Activities for Home at a Glance

Heavy Work Activities for Home Infographic
Heavy Work Activities for Home

Therapist Tip:

Let the Child Choose The Activity

It’s also a good idea to allow children to become vested in their self-regulation journey by choosing what activity they’d like to partake in.  If the child is getting an adequate amount of input, you and the child will probably notice a difference in behavior.  For example, the child is able to remain seated if needed, stay on task longer, and get his/her independent work done.  Over time, he or she will begin to understand what they need to self-regulate.  

You can offer choices by presenting the child with visuals of heavy work activities like in the example below.

Heavy Work Activities Choice Board For the Classroom

Present the child with a sensory choice board like the one below. Cut out the images and laminate them. Use velcro to attach the images to the boxes.

Sensory Choice Board

When a heavy work break activity is needed, or when it is time for a scheduled break, the child makes a choice by removing the laminated picture from the sensory choice board and placing it on their break card. Once they have finished the break they put it on the “all done” side of their break card.

Heavy Work Activity Break Card
Heavy Work Activity Choice Boards and Break Cards
Heavy Work Activity Choice Boards and Break Cards

Would you like a FREE copy of my interactive heavy work activity choice boards and break cards? Enter your email address and get full access to the preview shown!

Have any heavy work suggestions that you like to do in your classroom or home?  Please share in the comments section below, I’d love to hear about it.

Disclaimer:

This blog is intended for educational and informational use only for teachers, therapists and parents. It is not intended as medical advice or therapeutic treatment that would be provided in an individualized treatment plan. If you suspect a child has sensory processing needs, please consult an occupational therapist.

Published by Linda Craig Dennis

Pediatric Occupational Therapist, Author and Creator of Fun Strokes Pre-writing Program

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