Tips for Tots: Adding gross motor skills to indoor activities

Did you know you can make simple additions and modifications to activities done with young children to help them develop their gross motor skills?

The two examples here are coloring with markers and doing a wooden puzzle. The key to an activity like this is to have something with multiple parts or an activity that incidentally encourages repeating.

For us, going outside right now is not a choice. It is too cold and the snow is literally deeper than my little one's heads. I've been trying to work in gross motor activities throughout the day so that they are still getting the exercise they need.

Puzzles meet both of the criteria for this type of activity. They have multiple parts and the motion is repeated, putting the parts together.

To set this up for gross motor, I placed a stool (maybe 12" tall?) next to the couch. The puzzle base was on the floor, about 18-24" from the stool. This is important, because younger children need more space to gain and keep their balance.

The puzzle pieces were on top on the couch back. First, I offered two choices to the child while they were standing on the floor, "Do you want square or circle?" Then, I put it on the couch back. If needed, I prompted them to climb up, but that wasn't necessary often. They climbed onto the stool, over a small gap to the couch, then back again. This offers a change in how they balance, because the couch is soft and the stool is firm.

Now the hard part for the little guys: stepping off of the stool. The stool I used is taller than a stair step, not to torture the children, but because it is what I had. You could use something shorter to encourage independent success, gradually increasing the height as able. If you have something tall, you may need to give physical support by holding a hand until they are strong enough to do it on their own. Once they are down, they can put the piece in and it starts all over again.

BONUS: The child gets to practice vocabulary and fine motor skills, too!

Other toys something like this could work with:
- shape sorters
- Mr. Potato Head
- Build a ramp for cars to go down, with the top of the ramp on the couch back and cars on the floor
- Legos
- Tape paper to the wall, sit on the floor with stickers
- Put a container on the floor, put a "loose part" on the back of the couch (buttons, clothes pins, pine cones, acorns, straws, etc)
- Tape a paper tube to the wall next to the couch back and give the child a ping pong ball to put through

This climbing activity requires adult interaction. One of the most common accidents for children is falling. Do your part to keep them safe.

I want to make sure my little friends are rock'n a 6 pack, so we make sure to hit those obliques, too! Or well... maybe not a 6 pack? Let's aim for something more simple: strength to help with balance and coordination. One way I do this is by setting up activities that require children to reach or bend to the side.

Most of the kids I have worked with do a motion like this to pick up an item from the floor while seated. Wouldn't you? Look at that left arm, all kinds of upper body support going on there.

To make it a bit harder, I sit behind the child and gently place my hand over the opposite hand. That way, they are encouraged to use the hand on the same side as the item. This causes them to use different groups of muscles then they would on their own.

I've done this two ways. The first way felt like work and was minimally "fun." I put all the caps on one side and the markers on the other, then the child was able to find matches and put the caps on. I think we were both more excited when it was over.

The next time I tried this, I sat behind the child and as they colored I put the coordinating top to their marker on the floor. This way they were being rewarded each time they took out a marker (by coloring, which was their goal) and they had to do just a tiny bit of work for each color (which was my goal). We both won and it was more fun.

One thing to watch for when doing this is how they are positioning their legs.

When bending to the side, people have the tendency to put their opposite leg up. It makes it easier. You have balance, you have momentum when it is time to go back up, it's awesome. It was difficult to get a picture of this while also helping the child I was with at the time. You can see the right leg starting to go up, but the back of the knee is still on the front side of the chair. If the table leg weren't there, then she would have turned over onto her hip and completely changed the group of muscles we were targeting (based on experience, not assumption).

I also did this activity with crayons. I like using crayons better, because then they are doing harder fine motor work when coloring. I especially like "smaller crayons" (I don't have "broken crayons" - crayons get smaller, but they don't break). I did a combo of the activities. I chose two colors and asked which the child wanted, then put their choice on the floor.

How do you keep children purposefully moving when stuck indoors?

DISCLAIMER: I am not a physical therapist. I am a teacher and mother sharing activities and methods for teaching. In no way should this be taken as medical advice. If you are concerned a child has an issue with their physical development, then consult your pediatrician.