5 Fun Summer Activities to Build Gross Motor Skills (from a Physical Therapist)

As I’m settling in to life with a newborn and toddler, I’m very excited today to share a guest post from a pediatric physical therapist Stacy Menz, PT, DPT, PCS.

Stacy, founder of Starfish Therapies, is a Board Certified Pediatric Clinical Specialist, and graduated from Boston University with both her Masters and Doctorate of Physical Therapy. Stacy has worked in a wide variety of settings nationwide, including early intervention, school based settings, hospitals, private clinics and home care.

5 Fun Summer Activities to Build Gross Motor Skills (from a pediatric physical therapist!)

Summer is upon us and you may be looking for some activities for your kids that are not only fun, but also beneficial. Well here are a few ideas:

1. Pool Noodles, Stairs, and Marbles

(sounds like a dangerous combination…)

Stand at the top of a set of stairs and hold a pool noodle and drop marbles one at a time through the hole. It sounds so simple but our kids loved it and wanted to keep repeating it over and over and over again. Below are some of the things your kiddo will be working on while playing this super simple activity.

Pool noodles and stairs

  • Stairs – We rested the noodle on the stairs and had kiddos walk up the stairs in order to drop the marble down the noodle.  Then they had to walk back down in order to collect the marbles again.
  • Squatting – In order to pick up the marbles the kiddos had to squat down to pick them up and then return to standing
  • Pincer Grasp – When they pick up the marbles on the ground as well as when they are holding the marble just prior to dropping it down the noodle the pincer grasp is the most efficient grasp and easiest to accomplish their goal.
  • Reaching – When the kiddo is at the top of the stairs and holding on to the noodle, we had them reach for the marble across their body to work on crossing midline.
  • Balance – Having the stand and reach as well as squat to pick things up and then to concentrate on getting the marble in the hole of the noodle all can challenge balance, especially for kiddos who have balance challenges.
  • Hand-Eye Coordination – Dropping the marble into the small hole on the noodle requires coordinating their vision and their fine motor skills.  In addition if you have a target at the bottom of the stairs that they can aim for to get the marble in its a great game.  See how many point they can get.  You can use a paper bag or two cones depending on how accurate the kiddos are.
  • Bilateral Hand Use – The kiddos have to hold the noodle in one hand while putting the marble in with the other hand.  They have no other option but to use two hands to accomplish the goal.
  • Fun – For some reason the kiddos think its great when the marble comes rolling out of the other end of the noodle and are intrigued enough to want to do it over and over again!

2. Spots, Spots, and more Spots

We love using spots with our kids. Here are just a few of the ways we use them combined with what we are working on.

Spots

  • We make paths with our spots for having kids jump along the path, hop on one foot along the path, and skip over spots while jumping or hopping.  It creates a great visual cue when you are able to tell them a color or animal to jump to next.  Its great for beginning jumpers as well as for jumpers that you are working on getting consecutive jumps out of.
  • They provide a great visual for a kid to stand on.  I use them all the time when I want the kiddo to be standing ‘still’.  For instance when playing catch or bean bag toss or basketball, they often want to move closer and I can ask them if they are on their circle and they generally immediately go back to it.  We use them in group for circle games so the kids have an idea of where their space is.
  • They are great targets for the stomp rocket or throwing things.  You can have the kids work on aiming for the spot, especially with bean bags or flat discs since they don’t roll.
  • We use them on the stairs to provide a visual cue for which foot to place down next.  This is great for working on alternating feet as well as giving a clear visual target for where to place your foot.
  • Also when they are in a path it can be used to work on narrowing a kiddo’s base of support by having them stay on the circles or for increasing their step length by having them place one foot on each circle.
  • You can have kids balance them on their head for posture and body awareness while standing or walking.
  • We use them in obstacle courses so that at each spot they have a new task/skill that starts such as standing on one foot, lifting the heavy ball, doing jumping jacks, etc.
  • They are also great visual cues for early jumping jacks skills by placing them in a sequence of 1-2-1-2 to begin working on jumping open, then jumping together.  It is also great for early hopscotch of one foot, two feet.

3. Stacking Cups

(and no, you don’t have to use Red Solo Cups!) – Who doesn’t love building a pyramid and knocking it down, only to build it back up again!

Stacking Cups

  • Visual motor skills – you can vary the size of the cups, the color of the cups or even the weight of the cups to provide different input and make it easier or more challenging
  • Grading of movements – if the child puts the cup down too hard the whole tower may fall over so they get to practice regulating their force
  • Accuracy of movement and body awareness – when reaching to place the cup the child can work on accuracy.  They get immediate feedback if they aren’t accurate because they can knock the whole tower down or the single cup they are placing could fall off!  In addition, if they walk right into the tower they will receive immediate feedback as well.
  • Squatting – you can have the cups on the floor so the child has to squat down to pick up the next one and then stand to place it on the tower.

4. Water Balloons

Kids just can’t resist being able to throw a balloon filled with water and watching it explode. Here are some ideas to help you get through the warm months (and yes, we recommend doing these activities outside)!

Water Balloons

  • Catching and Throwing:  The great thing about water balloons is that you can adjust how fragile it is.  If you get bigger balloons you can fill them only a little and they are really hard to break so the kids get something that has a little bit of weight in it for throwing and catching but it has some nice give making it a little easier to catch and it won’t break with the slightest touch.  You can make it a game and see how many catches they can get without breaking the balloon and as they progress in the skill you can make the balloon more fragile by using smaller balloons and/or filling them fuller!  Throwing and catching also works on hand-eye coordination and social skills.  Kids need to make sure their partner is ready to catch and the partner has to pay attention.  They get to use teamwork to get to the end result.
  • Target Practice:  Adding on the throwing and the hand-eye coordination you can set up hula hoops or spots on the ground (the smaller they are the harder it is to hit and vice versa) and have the kids try to throw the balloons at the target.  You can add points to it if you want and include bonus points if they can throw with enough force and accuracy that they break the balloon on the target!  This allows them to work on force production with throwing as well as accuracy.
  • Over Under Relay:  This is one of my favorite relays because it needs a lot of teamwork and the kids can work on sequencing as well.  They alternate passing the water balloon over their head and then through their legs from person to person.  They get to communicate to the next person that the balloon is coming and yell out ‘over’ or ‘under’ to let them know where to look for it.
  • Stomping:  You can have the kids try to stomp on their balloons to break them.  This works on foot-eye coordination, force production in the legs and single leg stance.  Not to mention if they take their shoes off there is lots of sensory input happening!

5. Relay Races

Here are a few of our favorites that work on both fine and gross motor skills. Even if you have just one kiddo, you can use a timer and have them ‘race’ against the clock! And, all of these can be modified depending on the skill level of your kiddo.

Relay Races

  • Egg and Spoon Race – You can use a typical plastic or metal teaspoon with a plastic egg filled with beans or sand. Or, for younger kids or kids who need a little more help with their stability or balance you could use a bean bag with a plastic serving spoon (the large ones).  You can keep it simple by having the kiddo walk straight across without having the egg fall off the spoon or you can have them weave in and out of cones or walk backwards or sideways.  You could also play pass the spoon down the row if you have a bunch of kids!  If you have a scooter or rolling chair you could incorporate hamstring strengthening by having the child sit on the scooter/chair and use their legs to ‘walk’ themselves to the other side or you could get some teamwork going and have another kiddo push the one on the scooter/chair.  All this without letting the egg fall off the spoon!
  • Three Legged Race – You can get some bandanas or use thera-band or any material that you can tie two legs together.  The kids have to work together to get from one side to the other.  You can make it more challenging by having them have to hold something or bend down and pick up things from the ground as they cross.  One kid can hold the container while the other kiddo picks the item (i.e. bean bag or smaller if you are working on fine motor skills) up and places it in the bag/container.  Talk about teamwork and balance skills!  If its just one kid you are working with you can partner up with them or get a sibling involved!

Potato Sack

  • Potato Sack Race – This one can be done with store bought potato sacks or with oversize pillow cases or actual potato sacks.  Have the child get in and hop across to the other side.  If they are much higher level have them hop on one foot over and the other foot back.  For kiddos still developing jumping skills you can give them some hand hold assist while they hop their way across to the other side.
  • Over and Under – A great activity for teamwork and sequencing as well as balance and coordination.  Get a line of kids all facing forward (using a tape line for them to stand on or individual spots may help with the chaos that could ensue).  Give the first child a ball or a bean bag (or a water balloon if you are outside and its summer time) and have them reach over head to hand it to the person behind them.  Once that kiddo has the ball then they pass it between their legs to the child behind them.  The kids take turns alternating over and under until it reaches the end of the line and then they reverse it to get the ball back to the first person.
  • Magic Hat Race – You can put a bunch of options into a ‘magic hat’ and then draw out a piece of paper to see what they are going to do for that turn.  Some options are:  running, hopping, skipping, walking backwards, twirling, walking on tiptoes, crawling, bear walking, crab walking, etc.  You could do this as many times as you want and get in lots of practice for skills.  Its also interesting for kiddos who have difficulties with motor planning and coordination to see how they do when they feel like they need to move faster.  It will give you an idea of what skills you still need to practice at slower speeds or by breaking them down into components.

Wheelbarrow

  • Wheelbarrow – This is really fun when its two kids working together but even if its you and a kid its a great way to work on core and upper extremity strengthening.  Depending on the strength of the child you may need to get on your knees because the higher you hold their legs the harder it can be for them.  Same with holding them by the hips or all the way out by the feet (hips is easier than feet).
  • Tightrope Walk – Put a piece of tape along the ground and have the kids pretend they are walking on a tight rope and if they ‘fall’ off they have to start over.  You can have them do it taking giant steps, baby steps, on their tip toes, sideways or even backwards to mix it up.
  • Logroll – Kids lie on the ground and roll from one side to the other.  Its amazing to see if they can stay on track.  If you have more than one kiddo have them lie down head to head and hold hands and try to roll together across the room without letting go of each others hands.  I highly recommend you try it with the kiddos too – its lots of fun!

What are some of the fun ideas you are implementing this summer?

Thanks again Stacy for these awesome summer activities for kids! Get more great ideas for your kiddos at Starfish Therapies.

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