The Calming Effect of “Heavy Work” for Sensory Processing Disorder

21 Mar

Pull!photo by Steve Weaver

In therapist lingo, “heavy work” refers to proprioceptive input. The definition of proprioceptive is “the awareness of posture, movement, and changes in equilibrium and the knowledge of position, weight, and resistance of objects as they relate to the body.” Kids with Sensory Processing Disorder sometimes seek out proprioceptive input when they are looking for a way to calm and organize their nervous system. They may seem disruptive, full of excessive energy, or even unsafe. They might purposefully crash into things (or you), jump off of things, or seem in constant motion. Jenna seems to alternate between “sensory seeking” days and “sensory avoidant” days. When she’s sensory seeking, one of my first clues is that she purposefully bumps or crashes into me (or walls & furniture). I thought I’d share with you a list of suggested “heavy work” activities that our therapist provided to us, along with some of my own additions of what we’ve found that works.

To experience the calming effect, these activities need to be performed 5-15 minutes.  Slow, steady resistance that requires effort to be exerted against the muscles and joints is required. Avoid fast, “jerky” motions that will tend to gear up the nervous system and work against what you’re trying to accomplish. It’s important to pay attention to your child’s specific reaction. What works for one child, might not work for yours! Keep track of which activities seem to work best, as well as which activities they seem to prefer. You will generally notice an increase in eye contact as the child calms and becomes more focused.

  • Push a loaded stroller or shopping cart (we have a play stroller & shopping cart that are great for this)
  • Shovel snow (or dirt if you need a hole dug!)
  • Push a dust mop, broom or mop (Jenna LOVES the dust mop)
  • Pull a rake, wagon, loaded sled, loaded laundry basket or blanket loaded with toys
  • Carry a bag of groceries, a diaper bag, a gallon of milk, a loaded backpack, watering can, garden hose, etc.
  • Move or push furniture
  • Ride a bicycle (Jenna has a bike she rides inside)
  • Joint compressions (simply gently/firmly squeeze joints – Jenna tells us how much to squeeze) We call this “Squeezies”
  • Tug of war with a theraband, broom handle, rope, blanket, etc.
  • Rocking gently back & forth while on all fours
  • Wrap a blanket around the child and massage (we call it a burrito)
  • Hang upside down on monkey bars or over an ottoman or bed (or you can hold them if it doesn’t wreck your back!)
  • Sitting with a weighted blanket or vest
  • Lay or sit on scooter board and use hands and feet to move
  • Play catch with a weighted ball
  • Make a kiddo sandwich with child laying on their back & you pressing slowly/firmly with large cushions or pillows
  • Jumping – trampoline, jump rope, hopscotch, on a bed, into a beanbag, etc.
  • Bouncing on a therapy ball (with adult support) or this bouncing ball
  • Lizard crawl on belly and pulling self with elbows
  • Washing windows, erasing a chalkboard, paint with water on a fence, the side of a building, or the shower wall, wiping down the shower walls
  • Cooking activities like stirring, pressing, kneading, or rolling dough
  • Brush a family pet
  • Squeezing a stress ball, theraputty, or playdoh
  • Use a paper punch to make confetti
  • Sand a piece of wood
  • Play “parachute” with a large, thin blanket stretched between you – hold corners, throw blanket up & then pull it down, try running under, etc.

Whatever you choose to do, making it fun makes all the difference! Take a deep breath, smile, and be calm and patient yourself (I know it’s easier said than done sometimes!). YOUR attitude is often contagious and truly makes a difference in their ability to calm.

Om & Namaste!


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16 responses to “The Calming Effect of “Heavy Work” for Sensory Processing Disorder

  1. Barbara

    March 21, 2011 at 9:19 pm

    Hey! You are speaking my language! Heavy work is the most effective exercise for experiencing proprioception. ‘Fun’ is in the limbs of the heavy-worker, eh? Self-selected work is optimum but parents do well to give a small range of options – that whole safety thing…

    Excellent list.

  2. PsychMamma

    March 22, 2011 at 12:11 am

    Thanks, Barbara! 🙂

  3. Jenny

    April 20, 2011 at 2:54 pm

    Thank you! We are in an apt, so some times I get discouraged that I can’t do more of these. However, Dr. J LOVES to use a paper punch, and I didn’t realize that’s heavy work! And it was a reminder I want a theraband! 🙂

  4. PsychMamma

    April 21, 2011 at 9:37 am

    Jenny –

    We started out in an apartment, too, so I know just how cramped it can be. All you can do is the best you can do. I’ll stay on the lookout for other ideas for small spaces and pass them on as I find them! Good luck!

  5. Michelle Post

    June 15, 2011 at 10:13 am

    Thank you for the great information.

  6. PsychMamma

    June 21, 2011 at 1:59 pm

    Michelle –

    Thanks for visiting!

  7. Melissa Taylor

    June 24, 2011 at 10:29 pm

    both my kids have learned how to bounce themselves through the house on an exercise ball – it’s amazing – sort of a push, scoot, push thing.

    Thanks for the post.

  8. Charlotte

    January 16, 2012 at 10:28 pm

    Just getting started with a 4-year old with hyperactivity and impulsive behaviors. These activities look like a good start for a caring grandparent who is trying to help.

  9. unlockingdoors

    July 13, 2012 at 7:52 pm

    These are some really great tips! I’ll be trying a lot of these with my son over the next few weeks. He has been especially anxious lately now that he is on summer break and away from his special needs team. Thank you for these 🙂

  10. PsychMamma

    July 17, 2012 at 10:09 am

    unlockingdoors – Good luck! I hope you find something that helps calm him a little. Change in routine is tough for our kiddos!


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