All young children have a lot of energy. But some children, like my own, fall into a whole other category of “extremely active”. These children don’t tend to do well during the winter when they can’t go outside frequently and burn off all that energy. For these little guys (and girls) it helps to do what we call “heavy work” where they are expected to expend energy in a way that gives them a lot of input to their muscles and joints so that they can help regulate their little bodies.
The key is to find activities that will calm a child without getting him/her too revved up. That is especially tricky because every child is different. For example, running laps might wear some children out, but for my children, it just amps them up so that they want to be even more active. So what works as a calming activity for one child may be an alerting activity for another. But in general, here are some ideas that may help calm an active/fidgety child.
Keep in mind that these strategies work best when they are used as a pro-active reward and not as a punishment. Saying, “Our principal really needs these paint jugs up in the office, would you help me out and take them to her?” is going to be much more effective than saying “You are too active, now you have to carry paint”. They also will work better if you use them before an activity where you need the child to sit and focus instead of once the problem behaviors arise. So if you know that the child always gets fidgety and wild at lunch time (**cough*my youngest son*cough***), think of some natural ways that he could do a bit of heavy work right before, such as carrying something heavy from the classroom to the lunch room.
Giving children something that is literally heavy can help a ton because it gives input to their muscles, joints, and entire system. Here are some ideas that have worked with us:
- Carry something heavy (like a set of books or big jugs of glue/paint) from one area to another.
- Push something heavy across the floor (again, you can make this a job of taking something where it needs to go). In the past, we’ve added a small carpet square to the bottom of a crate or box so that it slides nicely across the hard floors.
- Wall Push-Ups: Does this room feel a bit small to you? Maybe we need to push on those walls a bit to help us feel like we have enough breathing room. Have the children lean against the wall with their hands and do some push ups or attempt to push the wall outward.
- Wheelbarrow Walk, Bear Crawl, Army Crawl: Getting kids on their hands and feet and having them move across a space can be a great way to get extra input to the arms/shoulders that they might not get otherwise.
- Chair Dips: Have the child sit in a chair and place his hands on either side of his bottom. Then, have the child hold onto the chair while he lowers his bottom off the front of the chair toward the ground. Repeat as necessary.
Another way for these little guys to get input to their muscles and joints is through weighted work. Adding extra weight (though not too much) can help a child better feel where his body is in space and help him feel more grounded. Here are a few ideas we’ve used in the past:
- Weighted Blanket: A weighted blanket is a great way to give the child some extra input while sitting, laying, or doing another calming activity.
- Weighted Stuffed Animal: We have a stuffed gorilla that has big long arms that Velcro together at the hands (so he can hang on your shoulder or back). I simply cut a hole in the bottom of him and stuffed in a sock filled with dried beans. He’s nice and heavy now and makes a great companion when one of my boys needs a little weight. He can sit on their lap or hang on their back. Sometimes, he needs to be transported from one place to another so they carry him around, as well.
- Weighted Tube Socks: This is a fun craft activity that can be done with the whole class. Everyone fills a large tube sock with dried beans or something else heavy. Then it’s tied off (and sewed if you want to make extra sure it doesn’t come open). The kids can even decorate them with markers if you want. Then, they go into a tub. If a child is having a hard time sitting still, he/she is welcome to go retrieve his/her sock from the tub and lay it across his/her lap when needed. I will warn you though, make sure you store these in a sealed tub at night. At one of my schools, we had an incident with mice chewing holes in the socks at night to eat the dried corn.
- Weighted Backpack: Another idea is to have a child wear a small, child-sized backpack that is loaded up with something heavy. Make sure you don’t make it too heavy (you don’t want to hurt them) and make sure it fits the child well so it’s sitting in the middle of the back and not hanging way down low. The child can then wear that backpack around during activities when he needs to be calm, or he could wear it during his heavy work to make it extra effective. You could even carry your weighted stuffed animal around in there to give him a ride!
- Throwing Beanbags: Have a child who’s throwing things? Grab a large bucket and several heavy beanbags. This can be your “throwing station”. Have the child practice throwing the beanbags into the bucket. Keep a close eye on this one though, it can quickly get out of hand.
- Tight Squeezes: Some children calm down well when their body receives extra pressure. Offer the child a big bear hug or wrap him up in a blanket to make a burrito and let them hang out like that for as long as they like.
Oral Motor Heavy Work:
Ok, this one probably sounds a little weird. I wouldn’t believe it worked if I hadn’t seen it work with my own children. But this is great! We may not think about it but there are a lot of muscles that work on our oral motor/breathing systems. We have all of the muscles in our face and jaw, as well as, the muscles associated with our respiratory system. And all of these muscles can get input from heavy work to calm the child’s system. And since these are smaller muscles, you don’t need a lot of space to work them out. Here are some great ways to help calm a child using his/her oral motor/respiratory system:
- Chew crunchy foods: Foods like carrots take a lot of chewing power to get through and mash up. Giving a child an extremely crunchy snack like this can go a long way in the calming department.
- Suck something thick threw a straw: Think about sucking a smoothie or some applesauce through a straw. You have to work pretty hard to get it up. And all of that hard work gives feedback to the oral motor system as well as the respiratory muscles.
- Blowing Activities: The reverse of the sucking activities would be blowing activities. Place some cotton balls on a surface and give each child a straw. Ask the child to move the cotton balls from one spot to another by blowing on them with the straws.
Fine Motor/Sensory Work:
We can also give the child extra input to their system through various fine motor and sensory activities. These activities also don’t take up as much room as the gross motor activities so they may work better in the classroom setting. Here are some ideas:
- Handling Something Squishy: Little hands have to work pretty hard to mold clay, Play-Doh, or squeeze on a stress ball. These can be great activities to let out some of that energy and calm a little body.
- Fidget Toy During Attention Times: If the child needs to be able to focus/pay attention for a specific activity, consider giving them a fidget toy to play with. The key is to find something that is not distracting (to them or their peers) and gives them the appropriate amount of input. You may have to try several options before you find a good fit.
- Alternative Seating: Some children do better when they can move while they sit/work. Consider an inflatable exercise cushion/balance disc if they are sitting on the floor or a small exercise ball if they are sitting at a table. We always use the rule “you can jiggle like jello but you can’t fall off the plate”. If they fall off, it has to be taken away. This keeps them wiggling but still staying in one place. If the child needs to sit in a chair, consider tying an exercise band around the legs of the chair so the child can push on the band with his feet while attending to whatever he needs to attend to.
- Sensory Bins/Bags: Children love digging around in tubs filled with dried beans, corn, oats, and any other sensory material. If you need a child to focus on work, consider plopping the pieces of that work into a sensory bin so that the child has to find them. For a more portable option, I’ve filled a small backpack with dried beans before and had the child set it on his lap while he’s dug for the pieces. This gives the added bonus of having a little weight and it doesn’t take up as much room as a whole bin.
- Cleaning Activities: Kids love to help so get them involved in cleaning windows or scrubbing floors. They’ll get sensory input from the water and heavy work input from the motion of scrubbing. You can also grab a squirt bottle full of vinegar and have them spray that on the surface they need to clean. Vinegar will disinfect and the squeezing of the squirt bottle will provide input.
Ok, I’m going to leave it at that for now. There are plenty of other ways for children to get sensory input to their systems to help them regulate, but that should be enough to get you started!