Soak It Up! Activities to Keep Kids Moving & Learning All Summer
Give us more of that vitamin D! Covid restrictions are lifting and not a moment too soon — we’re all itching to get out there and enjoy the summer. But with many children still wrestling with unfinished learning due to the pandemic, parents will need to find stealthy ways to keep them working on developing skills while still enjoying all that this sacred season has to offer.
Of course, many of us have had to fill a teacher role in some capacity over the past sixteen months, so our creativity banks might be depleted (ya think?). Luckily, our experts have us covered. Here, an OT, SLP, and PT spill some secrets and share lots of cheap and easy activities to keep kids engaged, progressing, and, most importantly, outside.
If you’re working on fine motor skills:
“Nobody’s going to ask their kid to sit down and write a paragraph, especially during the summer months,” says Leah Hiller (MA/OTR/L), founder of Hiller Therapy (where they provide outdoor occupational therapy). If you’re working on grasp, your best friend here will be sidewalk chalk. Hiller recommends breaking smaller pieces down to less than an inch, as this promotes an automatically functional grasp. And while sidewalk art is always great, think outside the box about where you put the chalk:
- Change the plane! Instead of the ground, try a stucco or brick wall. This doesn’t just build upper body strength, but also provides more of a sensory experience as these surfaces provide much more “feedback” from writing on them. Besides art, kids can draw “lazy 8s” — see the video tutorial from Hiller’s Instagram — or “roads” for their toy cars to drive or race.
- Play basketball and use the wall to keep score with the chalk.
- Hit the sidewalk and create an “obstacle course” for passersby to use. Write the words “twirl here” inside a circle, then follow the path to a triangle where you must jump three times. Have your child draw it by lying on their tummy in a prone position, which also strengthens the upper body. And of course, keep a tally of how many people participate on the ground next to the course.
- Clean-up time! If your child thinks sidewalk chalk is their BFF, just wait til they meet the 8-oz spray bottle. Another great way to work on hand strength for writing is by utilizing these bad boys: have them spray away all the chalk you used, or have one child write a message in chalk and ask another to “erase” it with the spray bottle.
If you’re working on language development:
Kids can channel their inner Sherlock Holmes and develop skills with scavenger hunts, which “can be so language enriching,” explains Amy Wilhelm (M.S., CCC-SLP), owner of Splash for Speech, Inc. Whether you’re working on specific sounds (“Let’s find things that start with the letter R!”) or categorizing (“Let’s see how many types of animals we can find!”), make it a go-to activity. Here’s a few more to add to your repertoire of language-spurring opportunities:
- Amy’s Pronoun Race: Set up two boxes, buckets, or pails at one end of your yard while everyone starts at the other end with a grab bag of pictures or figures/toys. Have each child or “team” pick one out of the bag and decide where the object goes (for example, in the “she” box or the “they” box). Then, run, wheel, or crawl down to place it in the correct receptacle before the other team does. This activity is also great for children working on understanding gender concepts or even phonetic awareness. The possibilities are endless!
- Water play: Gather items that start with certain sounds your child is working on and drop them into a water bucket or kiddie pool. Have them describe the type of splash and sound (big or small, loud or soft), and make sink or float predictions for each.
- What’s in the Bag?: This one comes from Sarah Cacciato, educational consultant and therapist as well as founder of L&S Special Education Consulting and Services. Throw some items from around your house into a bag and head to the beach, park, or even a backyard barbecue for this inferencing game. It can be done 1:1 or as a family, as everyone gets to work on their descriptors and adjectives. One person picks an item and the other asks yes/no questions to guess what it is, or one person picks the items and provides clues to describe it.
If you’re working on gross motor skills:
Anne Osborn (PT, DPT), supervisor of physical therapy services and center coordinator of clinical education at Therapy West, encourages us to make the most of our neighborhood walks. “There are a number of different activities you can do that further address a child’s strength, balance, coordination, and endurance,” she says. So, whether your child is using their feet, a gait trainer, a wheelchair, or any other mode of transport, take advantage of your neighborhood forays to play “follow the leader” with playful interval training, doing any of the following for set periods of time:
- Walk heel to toe along pavement markings; this is especially fun in an empty parking lot (your neighborhood school’s probably got a good one). If your child is on wheels, zigzag from one line or corner to another and practice stopping “on a dime.”
- Play sharks and minnows!
- Dribble a ball while walking or rolling.
- Step over, jump across, or navigate around obstacles/divots.
- Squat down to look at rocks or insects.
- Do five wheelchair push-ups (hands on armrests or wheels) at every stop sign. (Don’t forget to lock the brakes and unbuckle first!)
- Make a game of changing terrain: walk or wheel from gravel to grass to cement to sand, etc.
- Walk backwards and sideways, or wheel backwards and practice spinning in a circle.
- Skip, gallop, or race. Maximize the fun with iTunes or Spotify: play the racing version of “freeze dance”!
If you’re working on executive functioning (while also working on PT, OT, and speech skills):
- Hop on the viral “The Floor is Lava!” trend, but there’s no need to run out and buy the game, says Hiller. Work with whatever you’ve got in the backyard — for example, a small plastic slide, some lounge-chair cushions, larger rocks or plywood, a medicine ball, a tricycle. Kids figure out how to get from one end to the other using these objects without touching the floor. Planning this out — pulling and dragging things to create a path — is a great gross motor and motor-planning activity that not only builds strength but also inspires conversations and decisions about safety.
- Plan a backyard (or beach or park) picnic, says Wilhelm. Choosing the menu, collecting ingredients, helping prep the food (“Do we need to peel this? Do we need to chop that?”), are great organizing and sequencing activities. “You can make some invitations, and then we’re integrating those who, what, and where questions. We’re also talking about adjectives for temperatures and textures and really enriching that vocabulary,” Wilhelm adds.
- Pick up some plastic cups and a variety of seeds to plant in them. Keep a journal and calendar to mark their growth patterns and a watering schedule. This integrates time concepts of “today,” “tomorrow,” and “the day after.” Once they start to grow, kids can also measure how tall they get each week.
- Set up a lemonade stand, which incorporates math and language skills!
If you’re working on imaginative play (and/or categorizing and sorting):
- The beach — armed with your sand toys, of course — is a great place to work on imaginary or dramatic play, says Wilhelm. Once those sand castles are built, keep the story going. Bring small figures that can live in them; bring a fire truck the next day because the houses are on fire and the residents need to be rescued; bring construction trucks another day and stage a demolition to build even bigger and better (“Does our new house have a swimming pool? What about a rooftop deck? Does the deck need to be smooth to work, or can there be a hill in it?”)
If your child is having a hard time with categorizing or sorting, sometimes adding some creativity, sunshine, and fresh air makes everything feel possible:
- Have your kiddo gather up all their stuffed animals and set up a backyard zoo; they can charge visitors an entry fee and give tours.
- Set up a toy car or vehicle wash. Break out some soap — and remember those 8-oz spray bottles from earlier? Suds up the cars with small cloths or sponges and then spray them down with the bottle or a garden hose. “There’s sequencing in there too, and you’re acting out a familiar routine in the community,” Wilhelm says.
- Grab that chalk again and make three big circles, or spread a few plastic hoops on the ground next to each other, and get sorting. “This can go a variety of ways,” advises Cacciato. “Are you sorting colors; items in the home; shapes? Whatever it is, adding a little movement and incentive can go a long way.” Label each circle with whatever category (or letter or color or sound) you’re working on and have your kiddo search your home for items that fit.
Do you have a great activity you play with your kids to work on therapy goals or skills? We’d love to know!