Is Summer Break Really a Vacation?
No school…No homework… No schedule. Now what?
Remember the summertime freedoms of sleeping late, playing with friends, going to the beach, or taking road trips during summer vacation? Well, children with special needs often crave routine and have difficulty adjusting to the unstructured time off. For parents, it can be particularly difficult to plan activities which keep the children busy and entertained.
Aside from the structure of the classroom, your child will also be missing school-based therapy (except for Extended School Year in some areas). For children receiving supplemental clinic-based services, their therapy time may be decreased due to a change in the therapist’s schedule. A child can quickly regress or lose skills when their therapy goals are not addressed regularly.
So, here are some fun, “summery” ways that you can help to encourage fine motor and sensory processing development during summer break:
The muscles of the trunk (stomach and back) need to be strong and balanced. These muscles allow us to sit upright, maintain balance, and perform gross motor activities in a coordinated manner.
- Playground. Climbing, swinging, jumping
- Swimming. A great workout for the postural muscles!
- Scooterboards. Lay on stomach and propel scooterboard.
- Exercise ball. Sitting on a ball requires strong postural muscles and balance.
- Bike riding
The ability to coordinate the right and left sides of the body and to cross the midline of the body is an indication that both sides of the brain are working well together and sharing information efficiently. A child with poor coordination of the two body sides may adjust his body to avoid crossing the midline. He may not be able to coordinate one hand to work while the other hand is acting as an assist to stabilize the project. He may switch hands during a fine motor task because he is experiencing frustration with skillfully using his hands together. Writing and cutting require skilled coordination.
- Use backyard or playground equipment. Give your child lots of opportunities to climb, crawl, and jump.
- Learn to swim or ride a bike. Make sure the bike is the correct size and ALWAYS wear a helmet! Both activities are a great way to develop both side of the body, using alternating left-right patterns.
- Create obstacle courses with furniture or household objects.
Hand strength is an important factor in developing hand dexterity, and development of grasp patterns.
- Use resistive materials to increase hand strength (play-doh).
- Finger-painting. Try this outside then set up a wading pool and let them have fun cleaning up. They can also run through the sprinkler.
- Squeeze bottles. Squeezing the trigger promotes hand strength.
- Sponges. Squeezing or wringing out sponges is a great way to strengthen muscles and develop wrist rotation.
- Cutting objects with scissors. Practice cutting objects of different textures and resistance, such as cardstock paper, drinking straws, or play-doh.
- Cooking. Making a snack or meal often involves opening containers, pouring, stirring, and cutting.
- Educational toys. Children learn best through play. Find toys and games which require grasping, reaching, hand dexterity, and mature grasp patterns.
Many children receiving Occupational Therapy services are working on pre-writing or writing/copying skills. Daily practice will keep those skills sharp for the next school year. Keep it fun. Practice for 10-30 quality minutes per day, depending upon the age of the child.
- Write a grocery list
- Send a postcard to a school friend or relative
- Complete 1-2 pages in a workbook (coloring, connect-the-dots, mazes)
- Practice letters with Magna Doodle, sidewalk chalk, or paints
- Keep a journal during vacations
- Chart the weather
- Complete crossword puzzles, word searches, or secret code activities.
An easy way to keep a child proficient with their handwriting skills is to purchase an age-appropriate workbook. For a few dollars, you can have many days of pre-made functional activities.
Children need to demonstrate ocular-motor control in order to catch a ball, play, read, and write.
- Encourage eye contact when speaking
- Flashlights or laser pointers. Have your child practice following the moving light with their eyes. Try this when you go camping.
- “I spy”. A great way to practice visual scanning and figure ground skills in the car. Look for colors, shapes, objects, letters/numbers, etc.
- Treasure Hunt. Find objects around the house or yard.
- Throw/catch games. Use various sizes of beanbags or balls.
- Bubbles. Practice popping bubbles with pointed index finger, or catch on wand.
- Lacing, stringing beads, pegboards
- Sand or water play. Use cups to fill and pour from one container to the other.
- Balloons. Catching a balloon is good practice for children who cannot yet catch a faster moving ball.
- Computer games. Using a mouse is a great way to develop eye-hand coordination.
Children with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) often have difficulty with unexpected sensory input, for example, at the beach or amusement park. Providing controlled sensory input regularly throughout the day will help the sensory systems become better organized and ready to handle most situations.
- Continue with some sort of daily schedule, especially for the morning and bedtime routines.
- Plan for downtime during days of over-stimulation (birthday parties, amusement parks)
- Have a back-up plan for times when your child is over-stimulated.
- Plan organizing, deep pressure sensory input each day. Try jumping, swimming, or other preferred types of deep pressure input. Use a weighted/pressure vest if necessary.
- Use snacks for sensory input. Ice cream and crunchy snacks are alerting. Sipping a milkshake through a straw is organizing.
- Warn your child about upcoming events, such as sleep-overs or vacations.
- Chores. Children might enjoy helping out with the household chores, such as finding items in a grocery store, packing suitcases for a trip, or sorting the silverware. They could even earn tokens or money for something special!
These lists are not exhaustive and are intended only to help you critique and choose activities to address your child’s needs. Use your family’s interests to guide you. Canoeing is a great way to strengthen postural muscles, while amusement parks offer intense multi-sensory input. Get creative! Have fun! And Happy Summer!
Gail Kearns, OTR/L is a pediatric Occupational Therapist at Elite Speech Therapy Inc. in Fort Myers, FL. She has been working in homes, clinics, and schools for over 12 years, helping to promote fine motor and sensory motor development in children. She is also a consultant with Discovery Toys, The Premier Educational Toy Company.
Originally published in our May/June 2009 issue of Parenting Special Needs Magazine.
- Think Camp Yes, You Can Send Your Child to Camp
- How to Plan a Safe and Fun Summer (Part 2)
- Summer Preparation: 8 Steps
- Summer Time: Pools, Sun, Fun, Relaxing and No School!
- Cooking with Kids: Campfire Banana Boats at Home
- Top 10 Fun and Accessible Activities to Do This Summer
- Roll the Dice Its Game Time for All Abilities
- 5 Great Opportunities for Outdoor Activity
- It’s Fall: Sneak in a Little Outdoor Fun Together With Your Kids
- Cool Rules: Preventing Heat Stress In Special Needs Children
- Is Your Family Ready for Fun in the Water this Summer?
- Summer Time: Pools, Sun, Fun, Relaxing and No School!
- How to Plan a Safe and Fun Summer With COVID-19 Guidelines
- 4 Tips for Managing Parties and Social Gatherings this Summer
- Summer Travel & Outdoor Fun with Apps
- Tech Travel Tips for Summer
- Apps for Adventure