Over 80 amazing proprioceptive activities that provide powerful and lasting proprioceptive input. These simple ideas can be used quickly to calm, focus, alert.
As an OT and mom, proprioceptive activities are my favorite type of sensory input because they can be used to help calm, focus, or even alert a child. Proprioceptive input is that powerful and amazing! But, this isn’t a once size fits all situation. It may surprise you to learn that there are different types of proprioceptive activities that can all have different affects, and when you learn what they are and when to offer them… well, it can be a game changer in your child’s behaviors, attention, and ability to sleep!
Part of what’s so incredible about proprioceptive activities is that some of them can be used quickly in a pinch and require no special toys or equipment. That means they can be used anywhere: the mall, school, or in the middle of a play date. Let me tell you what I mean…
A few weeks ago I was volunteering in our church’s Sunday school, the routine that morning was a bit different than what the kids were used to because of a special event. I immediately noticed a little boy (that I happened to know has some sensory processing needs) wasn’t able to sit for the story and was even pacing the room, despite requests to sit down with the other kids. Does this sound familiar to anyone?
When the class transitioned to another room to color pictures, he became quite silly, running through the doors and, well, not listening. Another teacher was trying to help him stay inside the classroom when I asked if I could try. This sweet little boy is familiar with me, but doesn’t know me that well. I immediately went to him and said, “How about we shake the silly’s out?”
He barely looked at me, but I assumed he had given me permission since he didn’t protest. I put my hands tightly around his wrists (already giving some proprioceptive input). He didn’t seem to mind so I continued to shake his arms firmly while singing a silly song, “We’re gonna shake your silly’s out!” 3 seconds later he looked up at me with big eyes and gave me the hugest smile.
At that moment, I knew the proprioceptive input was just what he needed. I then, followed up with some joint compression right to his arms (I’ll talk more about these in a few minutes). This took all of about 2 minutes, and guess what happened next?
He followed my request to go back into the room, sat on the floor with the other children, and didn’t run around for the next 30 minutes before his mom came to pick him up! That is why I LOVE proprioception, I’m not kidding when I say it is powerful.
In this post, we are going to dive into all sorts of proprioceptive activities. The ideas are endless and once you know what to look for, you will be amazed at how easy they are to offer to your child or to add to their sensory diet. And if you’re wondering if you need to be concerned about your child’s sensory “issues” then check out how to know if your child needs sensory therapy. Now, let’s talk about what proprioception actually is…
What is Proprioception?
We need to clear this up because most people have never been taught about this 7th sense. Heck, spell check doesn’t even recognize it as a word! Understanding how it works is an important key to understanding why it helps your child or even why they seek it.
In the simplest terms, proprioception is our body’s ability to know where it is at any given time (otherwise called body awareness). And just like we see through receptors called our eyes, with proprioception, we know where our body is because of receptors that run all through our muscles and joints. Our vision is stimulated by bright lights or moving objects, and proprioception is stimulated by pressure to the receptors all throughout our body. Anytime we squeeze through a tight space, hug someone, or jump up and down we are getting proprioceptive input.
Why Does Proprioception Matter?
Our proprioceptive system helps us walk across the room without bumping into anything or climb a jungle gym or hold a pencil to write. We have to know where each part of our body is and how to get it there quickly to be able to do just about anything. Proprioception plays a HUGE role in that and developing it is obviously important for all kids.
How Do You Know When a Child Needs Proprioceptive Activities?
Proprioception is a big deal with kids that have sensory needs because it’s the only sense that calms and helps improve focus almost across the board, when used the right way. The vast majority of kids like proprioceptive input, and many seek it out. And, even if your child doesn’t have specific “sensory needs”, proprioceptive activities can still be beneficial to help them calm down when they get upset or to relax before bedtime.
Your child may especially benefit from proprioceptive activities if they fall into one of two categories:
The first is seeking and is also the most common. Seeking means that your child is often trying to get more proprioceptive input. It’s like their bodies can’t get enough of it. Sometimes kids that love this type of input may be labeled as hyperactive. And, they are sort of hyperactive as their trying to get their sensory needs met. Learn more about how to handle hyperactivity in kids.
Let’s gets specific though, kids that are proprioceptive seekers may frequently:
- Chew on everything
- Hide in tight spots
- Love heavy blankets
- Play rough
- Crash into things on purpose
- Always try to jump on the couch or bed
- Be described as very physical or “wild”
- Over-step personal boundaries
- Hold onto writing utensils tightly
Proprioceptive Low Registration Signs:
The second is called low registration, which is less common, but quite possible. Low registration, or under-responsive, means that the sensory input, in this case from the proprioceptive system, isn’t registering. It’s like the brain has turned the switch off. Let’s look at some signs of low proprioceptive registration:
- Generally low energy
- May not want to get out of bed in the morning
- Bumps into walls and objects, seeming not to notice them
- Very high pain tolerance
If your child has several signs listed above, under either category, then activities that target proprioceptive input will be meeting their needs and encouraging their development completely.
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Powerful Proprioceptive Activities for Kids
Proprioceptive activities can be thought about and organized into different categories, some of which your child may respond to and some they may not. And, when I say “respond to”, I want you to think back to the little boy in Sunday school. His smile, eye contact, and then ability to follow directions were clear indicators that he was “responding to” the proprioceptive input. For your child it may be that they were able to focus to finish their homework or sit through dinner easily.
Keep in mind that while most kids seek or at least enjoy proprioceptive activities in general, there may be some in particular that they do not like. You never have to force any sensory activity or input. Many of these activities give input to multiple senses, like hugging or climbing. Hugging also gives input to the tactile system and climbing also involves a lot of vestibular input. If your child doesn’t like or want either of those other types of sensory input, then they probably won’t want to participate in that activity. And, that’s okay!
First, I want to show you the most basic, and probably the simplest proprioceptive activities. These activities can be used to alert, calm down, and improve focus and attention in your child, but it’s also possible that they can make a child wild, as well. Sometimes jumping on the bed can get really silly and out of control. This will do anything but calm, and that probably isn’t what you’re going for.
If you’re looking to calm or to improve attention, then may want to structure the activities a little bit, although this isn’t always necessary. I would try these strategies if you notice that any of the proprioceptive activities are winding up instead of winding down:
- Sing a rhythmic song like, “The Ants Go Marching One by One…” or some other song with a steady beat while your child jumps or stomps. Jumping in particular can really stimulate some kids.
- Give the activity purpose. Instead of saying, “Go run around the house”, say, “Can you run to the swing set and back?”
Now that we’ve got that cleared up, let’s look at these powerful proprioceptive activities:
- Trampoline (my kids love this one and I love it because it isn’t huge and is easy to move around)
- jungle gym
- rock wall
- backwards up a slide
- monkey bars
- pull up bar
- rope swing
- from the side of a bed
- Bouncing on top of a large ball (We use this yoga ball, its lasted us 10 years!)
- Wheelbarrow walking
- Crab walking
- Using a pogo stick (This one is perfect because its safe for toddlers and kids)
- Pushing a scooter board (especially with hands while riding on belly)
- stretch band tied around the legs of a chair (awesome for kids in school)
- through a tunnel (I love resistance tunnels, here’s a DIY version)
- obstacle course
- specially designed necklaces, bracelets and toys
- crunchy foods (raw veggies, pretzels, etc.)
- chewy foods (dried fruits, gummy candy, etc.)
- Drinking through a straw
- milkshake (thicker drinks give even more input)
- stress ball
- play dough
- Stretching and pulling on stretchy band (like a yoga or pilates strap)
- Chair push ups
- Jumping jacks
- Push ups
- Rolling on belly over a large yoga ball and using arms to hold up
- Playing in a body sock
- Yoga poses (here are some that target proprioceptive input)
Heavy Work Activities
Heavy work activities mean exactly what the name implies, these activities require our kids to actively use their muscles to push, pull, lift, or carry objects that are heavy. When we use our muscles in this way, it creates resistance and pressure is inadvertently put on those proprioceptive receptors in the muscles and joints.
I’ve included some of the most common activities below, many of which are chores, that occur often in family life. However, the opportunities are endless, I couldn’t possibly list them all.
Let me tell you about this unique opportunity that occurred in my house the other day…
I was going through the kid’s closets and pulling out clothes that were too small. I had a big pile of clothes in the middle of the room. As I was finishing, my 5 year old proprioceptive seeker walked into the room, perfect timing! I could’ve had him hold the large garbage bag for me as I picked up and dumped the clothes in, but instead I had him do the heavy lifting of putting the clothes into the bag while I held it open. Of course, it took a couple of minutes longer, but it was a way for him to get some quick and powerful proprioceptive input.
When you begin to think about heavy work like this, you’ll be surprised at how often the possibility presents itself! Here are some ideas to inspire you:
- Push/pull heavy objects
- laundry basket
- lawn mower
- grocery cart (could be a play version for young children)
- Carry heavy objects
- bags or items from grocery store/pantry
- book bag
- loaded boxes
- medicine ball
- garbage bins/cans to or from the curb
- Pull on a rope (a jump rope can work just fine)
- tie it to a door knob
- tie to a tree
- tie to a swing set
- tug of war
- Load/unload the dishwasher
Deep Pressure Activities
Deep pressure activities are often passive and provide lots of calming sensations. They are often used when a child has difficulty sitting still or transitioning to different activities. But, these types of activities aren’t received well by all kids. Deep pressure also provides a lot of tactile input, and if your child is sensitive to that, deep pressure may not be a good strategy for them. They’ll let you know!
If you aren’t sure that your child will like these activities, you can experiment by just putting a lot of blankets on them or try placing a heavy object on their lap. If they seem to like it, you may want to invest in (or make) some of the weighted item below. I’ve shared affiliate links to some of my favorite versions below:
- Getting or giving hugs
- Rolling up tightly in blanket like a burrito
- Sitting with a weighted lap pad or toy (Learn how and when to use a weighted lap pad with your child).
- Wearing a weighted or pressure vest (You’ll want to make sure you get the right size and if using weighted, the correct amount of weight. I like using this store to order one because they have trained customer service that will help you get what’s right for your child.)
- Squeezing into tight spots
- Lying under heavy objects
- Getting or giving a massage
- Joint compressions (one of my favorite quick deep pressure activities, get a full tutorial here)
- Use a large ball to “steam roll” over a child’s body (press firmly, be careful with head)
- Sit or stand on a wiggle seat or wobble cushion (great for when kids need to sit still)
*Note that weighted vests, lap pads and toys will only be beneficial for about 20 minutes, after that the body gets used to the weight. It is fine to use a weighted blanket throughout the night though.
Must Read Tips Before Starting Proprioceptive Activities
1. Any of the activities in the above list can be used as often or as little as your child seems to need them. If you aren’t sure when you’re child “needs” these activities, I’d highly recommend reading about what sensory diet’s are. Even though they don’t sound too pleasant, who likes a diet, they can be quite simple and even life changing. I also have a sensory diet template you can follow that gives you the ins and outs of when to choose what activities. There’s even a free printable template you can snag too!
2. These proprioceptive activities will work for kids of all ages, but you may need to adjust them to fit your child’s development. For instance, an 8 year old can push the cart while you’re in the grocery store, but your 2 year old could use a play cart at home with a couple of heavy cans in it.
3. About half of the activities above are actively controlled by your child. Meaning, they decide how long and hard to run, how many times to jump on the bed, or how many boxes they can pick up. This is ideal because they are determining what is the best level of input for their needs, and they know that better than anyone. However, some of these activities give passive proprioceptive input, like giving joint compressions, a hug, or a massage. That can also be a good thing, and may be necessary, just like it was for the 5 year old I helped at church, but you have to watch for cues that your child isn’t uncomfortable or disliking the input you’re offering.
You’ve learned a lot: what proprioception is, why it matters, how to know if your child is seeking it. Plus, you’ve got tons of inspiration in over 80 different activities that give propriocpetive input. If you want to pull your plan together then don’t miss the FREE How to Create a Simple Sensory Diet Workshop!
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Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 14 years experience with expertise in sensory processing and feeding development in babies, toddlers, and children. Alisha also has 3 boys of her own at home. Learn more about her here.