These lessons may just change your life – and theirs.
It’s a pretty common occurrence to see young children flinging their bodies around on the floor, mid-tantrum. And I know that I am not alone when I have to remind my children everyday not to use our couch as a trampoline as a launching pad for their acrobatics.
Parents often find this sort of behaviour tiresome and even a bit embarrassing. But what if I told you that instead of misbehaving, what they were actually doing was actually a super intuitive way of self-calming?
Let’s backtrack for a minute
We are all aware of the five senses: smell, touch, taste, sight and hearing, right? But there are also some other sensory systems to add to the mix, and these are called the vestibular and proprioceptive systems. And the proprioceptive system is where the concept of heavy work comes into play.
Pushing a wheelbarrow is a way to engage the proprioceptive system. Source: iStock
The proprioceptive system
Tamara Duff, a Paediatric Occupational Therapist of eight years explains the proprioceptive sensory system as the body’s very own “body awareness system”.
“There are receptors in our muscles that give the brain feedback about where our limbs and body parts are in space, without us having to rely on our vision. Like when I pass a pen between my hands behind my back; this is the proprioceptive system in use,” Tamara says.
“Heavy work can assist with calming children who; either directly or indirectly, seek proprioceptive input. When a child has decreased proprioceptive awareness they recruit other body systems, and seek out external factors to assist them to meet this need. This then leads to inattention and ‘busy-ness’.”
When proprioception is poor we rely more on vision and touch to give us feedback, or actively seeking proprioceptive input through movement and external weight. Heavy work assists the proprioceptive system to get organised, and in turn provide the correct feedback so that we don’t have to actively seek it, or rely on other body systems to compensate.”
Hanging upside down is another great way. Source: iStock
Seeking heavy work
So, when your child is moving their body around on the floor – they’re seeking heavy work. When they’re jumping off the couch into cushions on the floor, hiding under pillow forts or squeezing their bodies into small confined spaces – what they are seeking is heavy work to balance our their sensory feedback system.
I can say that as a mother to three daughters having been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, I have learnt to embrace the benefits that Heavy Work offer my girls. Proprioceptive input is something we actively incorporate it into our daily life because it makes all of our lives a lot calmer and happier when my girls are calmer and happier. It settles them and grounds them.
Putting heavy work into perspective
To give you an idea of what regular daily heavy work looks like, my eldest daughter sleeps with a weighted blanket on her overnight, calming her restless legs and helping her to sleep soundly. She loves to play with firm Theraputty, read whilst laying in a beanbag and she skips outside on the deck.
My five year old snuggles a weighted toy panda overnight, preferring the weight to be on her abdomen instead of her legs and she’s always asking for big cuddles and squeezes whenever she can. She also regularly has a thick smoothie she sucks through a straw for breakfast and she wears Chewellery to school.
My three year old autistic daughter loves to do cartwheels and somersaults so she gets her heavy work daily by playing on a crash mat and jumping on the trampoline to settle her system. She also really loves wearing tight socks and shoes and having some screen time under a cushion-nest.
The practice can benefit all children (and us too)
Paediatric Occupational Therapist Tamara Duff says that even children without special needs can benefit from heavy work.
“It’s common for Occupational Therapists to use heavy work to improve sitting posture, to encourage weight bearing through the feet, developing a pencil grip and improving bilateral coordination activities. Proprioceptive input can also help with sleep – and who doesn’t perform better when they are getting enough rest?”
Here are some other easily accessible heavy work ideas that could work for your child if they’re seeking this type of sensory input:
- Swinging on a swing when they are using their body to actively push the swing back and forth.
- Hanging upside down on the monkey bars.
- Doing household chores like pushing a laundry basket around, sweeping the deck or vacuuming.
- Playing with a body sock which is essentially a large piece of stretchy fabric.
- Using resistance bands.
- Pushing around a cart or wheelbarrow.
- Playing with play dough or clay.
- Compression clothing like Jettproofor just being put in smaller sized socks.
- Playing in a therapy swing.
So if your child seems to be regularly craving these type of activities and seems a lot calmer after doing them, chances are they’re doing just what their bodies need.
Aren’t kids clever?