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Why Does Occupational Therapy Address Gross Motor Skills?

When people think pediatric occupational therapy, they think handwriting and shoe tying. So why do I have kids doing animal walks and jumping jacks? For SO many reasons!

Reason #1: Gross motor skills help build strength in the whole body, including the hands! Developmentally, kids develop gross motor skills prior to fine motor skills. This is because we NEED a strong foundation of gross motor skills before we can develop proper fine motor skills! I find that MANY children these days are delayed in gross motor skills, which is likely due to less time playing outside, at recess and in PE, and more time with iPads, doing school work, etc. This means that most of the kids I treat need to improve their gross motor skills before they can improve their fine motor skills. So even if I’m treating a kid only for handwriting, you will almost always see me working on gross motor skills because that’s one of the main reasons the child is struggling! These skills develop in a progressive order so if you’re trying to help your child work on fine motor skills but they haven’t yet developed a good core strength, shoulder stability, etc. it is going to be very frustrating for both of you!

The progression of fine motor skill development starts with core strength. Core strength is imperative to EVERY task your child does, from staying seated in a chair, to using their hands for handwriting, to self feeding with utensils. There’s not a child I treat where I don’t address core strength, because I mean couldn’t we all use more abs?!

Click on the link below for a handout of my top 5 favorite core strengthening activities!

Core Strength Top 5
Download PDF • 433KB

Next in the developmental progression is shoulder stability. If your child can’t keep their shoulder stable, they won’t be able to use their hands and fingers for tasks. From stacking blocks, to feeding and writing, shoulder stability is key!

Click on the link below for a handout of my top 5 favorite shoulder stability activities!

shoulder stability top 5
Download PDF • 372KB

Next your child needs to have elbow and forearm rotation in order to manipulate the pencil, feeding utensils, etc. correctly. Activities that help improve elbow and forearm rotation include:

  • flipping cards

  • scooping and pouring

  • wringing out a towel or sponge by twisting

  • turning the pages of a book

  • carrying books with palms facing up

Lastly, your child needs proper wrist stabilization before good fine motor skills can develop. The wrist needs to be stabilized in order for the fingers to move and use the pencil correctly. And guess what activities are great for promoting wrist stabilization?! That's right, gross motor skills! Crab walking and bear walking, crawling activities, yoga poses with input through hands, etc. are all good for promoting wrist stability. Other ideas:

  • working on a vertical surface (on the wall, mirror, or easel)

  • working on a slant board

  • using a rolling pin with play doh

  • playing games such as lite brite, jumping frogs, or pop beads

Reason #2: Gross motor skills help build coordination skills, such as bilateral coordination and midline crossing, that are important for fine motor tasks including handwriting, self-care skills, and more.

Bilateral coordination is the ability to use the right and left sides of the body together at the same time, or with alternating movements. For example, when you push or carry something heavy you are using both sides of your body together with the same movements. With other tasks, such as skipping, climbing a ladder, tying shoes, zipping a jacket, or cutting, you are using both sides of the body together but they are doing different or alternating movements. Lastly, bilateral coordination tasks help develop hand dominance, which is important for handwriting.

Click on the links below for handouts of my top 5 favorite gross motor bilateral coordination activities, and fine motor bilateral coordination activities!

gross motor bilateral top 5
Download PDF • 376KB
fine motor bilateral top 5
Download PDF • 350KB

Midline crossing is the ability to reach across the body to the opposite side with the arms and legs. This is an important skill in the developmental of both motor and cognitive skills, needed for everyday skills such as dressing, playing sports, and handwriting.

Click on the link below for a handout of my top 5 favorite midline crossing activities!

midline crossing top 5
Download PDF • 490KB

Reason #3: Gross motor skills provide proprioceptive input which is calming and regulating, setting the child up to have a successful opportunity to focus and work for a longer period of time!

Reason #4: FUN! Kids spend enough of the school day at a desk. Also for many kids handwriting and other fine motor tasks aren’t preferred. But incorporating it into an obstacle course, with a scooter board or tunnel, with animal walks, etc. makes it so much more fun!

All of these reasons are why my occupational therapy based multi-sensory activity kits include 4 different gross motor activities each month! The idea is to practice the gross motor activities at least a few times a week, to work on all of the above mentioned skills and prepare for the fine motor tasks. Each month an exercise that addresses strength, coordination, and reflex integration is included, as well as a YouTube video with dance or yoga tasks. Two other gross motor activities that go along with the monthly theme are also included to target all of the gross motor skills. And don't forget, every activity comes with ways to adapt so you can do the activities many times throughout the month!

So, now you know, when you see a pediatric occupational therapist working in a school hallway and having children do animal walks and bounce a ball, they aren't just having fun, they are also working on so many developmentally important skills!

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