Fort Myers occupational therapists

Heavy Work: What It Is & Why Our Occupational Therapists Often Highly Recommend It

Many of the children we treat at FOCUS have some sensory processing issues. These are difficulties organizing and responding to information that is “read” through the senses. Some kids are undersensitive (sensory seeking), some are oversensitive (sensory avoiding) – and some are both, depending on the sense and stimuli. When a child has trouble managing sensory input, it can have a significant impact on learning and everyday life. One of the things our Fort Myers occupational therapists frequently recommend to help children with sensory processing issues is called “heavy work.”

Heavy work is a strategy we use in therapy and recommend to parents to target a sense called proprioception, with the ultimate aim of:

  • Improving attention and focus.
  • Decreasing defensiveness.
  • Helping to calm/regulate.

Heavy work can actually benefit all children, not just those with sensory processing difficulty. Our occupational therapists have found it especially helpful to have kids do heavy work just before or at the very beginning of our sessions.

What is Proprioception? 

Sometimes referred to as “the sixth sense,” proprioception is the medical term that describes one’s ability to sense the orientation of your body in your environment. It’s the constant feedback loop in your nervous system that tells your brain what position you’re in and what forces are acting on your body at any given time. As opposed to our sense of touch, proprioception “messages” are sent from joints and muscles, rather than the skin.

As our Fort Myers occupational therapists can explain, if this sensory system isn’t receiving or processing these messages very well, a person is either going to seek it or avoid it. Children who are seeking out proprioception are constantly jumping and crashing, chewing items, hanging on things and pushing. Those have a slow response to proprioception may lean and slump, become easily tired or accidentally use too much force.

This can become very problematic in school settings. In a classroom, one needs to be able to sit and focus in order to attend to the lesson. But if you aren’t quite sure where your body is in that chair, you need to move to get that extra sensory feedback. This can cause trouble in a class of 18+ kids. You might also run into your peers, accidentally bump into them or step on them. This can impede socialization – something that is already very difficult for many children with sensory processing issues who are often diagnosed with conditions like autism spectrum disorder, Down syndrome and more.

(A really great book to read if you believe your child has proprioception issues is called, The Out of Sync Child,” by Carol Stock Kranowitz.)

What Good Does Heavy Work Do?

In a child who is typically developing, daily activities provide adequate physical input. But some kids with sensory processing disorders don’t. They need some additional help kicking into gear the sensory systems that help them control movement, balance and body awareness.

A child seeking proprioceptive input might be prone to do so in ways that aren’t safe, such as crashing into or jumping off of things. It may sound strange, but it helps them feel calmer because it helps them feel more oriented in space.

Heavy work provides this in a way that is more consistent and safer. “Heavy work” describes activities that push or pull against the body and creates active resistance. The best kind of heavy work is that which will move as many joints and muscles as possible simultaneously – but only for short stints. Some heavy work activities – like swimming – are going to be more powerful and effective than others. Mixing them up throughout the day can be an important part of a child’s sensory diet.

Note that it doesn’t actually have to be “work.” In fact, it’s a lot more motivating for kids if the activities are fun!

Our Occupational Therapists Recommendations for Heavy Work

Our OTs develop plans of care that are tailored to each individual child, so be sure to check with your child’s therapist first to make sure your child is getting the right kind of heavy work that is going to be the most effective. In general though, some activities we’ve found that work well for many kids include:

  • Jumping on a trampoline
  • Wheelbarrow walking
  • Swimming
  • Carrying groceries
  • Stair climbs
  • Marching in place
  • Pillow fights
  • Pulling laundry out of the machine
  • Bouncing on a therapy ball
  • Floor push-ups
  • Wall push-ups
  • Pushing a vacuum cleaner
  • Riding a bicycle or tricycle
  • Building a fort
  • Bear crawls
  • Playing Twister
  • “Burritos” (rolling the child up in a yoga mat or sleeping bag)
  • Play wrestling (not too rough!)
  • Hopscotch
  • Carrying a full basket of laundry
  • Cartwheels and somersaults
  • Pushing or stacking chairs
  • Crab walking

This is not an exhaustive list, so if you need more examples – feel free to ask our FOCUS occupational therapists!

FOCUS offers occupational therapy for children in Fort Myers and throughout Southwest Florida. Call (239) 313.5049 or Contact Us online for more information.

Additional Resources:

Proprioceptive Processing Difficulties Among Children With Autism Spectrum Disorders and Developmental Disabilities, Aug. 27, 2013, American Journal of Occupational Therapy

More Blog Entries:

Kids’ Chores = Occupational Therapy Practice! May 25, 2020, Fort Myers Occupational Therapists Blog

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