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Heavy Work and Sensory Processing Issues: What You Need to Know

By Amanda Morin

At a Glance

  • Heavy work is any type of activity that pushes or pulls against the body.

  • Heavy work activities can help kids with sensory processing issues feel centered.

  • Heavy work engages a sense called proprioception, or body awareness.

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Your child may get a number of therapies to help with her sensory processing issues. But specialists who work with her may recommend one you may not have heard of. It’s called heavy work activitiesOccupational therapists commonly use heavy work to help kids who seek or avoid certain kinds of sensory input.

Here’s what you need to know about heavy work activities and how they can help.

Proprioception and Heavy Work

We typically think of people as having five senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch. But there are two other senses that can affect motor skills. One is called the vestibular sense, and it controls balance and movement. The other is called the proprioceptive sense, and it controls body awareness.

A child’s sense of body awareness and balance comes from the way receptors in her muscles and joints send messages to her brain. They tell her where her body is in space, where each body part is and what it’s doing. It’s the way she knows how much force to use to complete a task, like writing on paper or shutting a door.

This system doesn’t always work as effectively in kids with sensory processing issues. A child may write too lightly with her pencil or slam the car door really hard. She may think she’s pushing down hard enough with the pencil or that she’s using less force to shut the door than she actually is.

When kids struggle with this, proprioceptive input helps them know where their body is and what it should be doing. That input is also known as heavy work.

How Heavy Work Can Help Kids With Sensory Processing Issues

Most people get enough physical input from daily activities. But some kids with sensory processing issues may not. They need extra help “jump-starting” the systems that control balance, movement and body awareness. That’s where heavy work activities come in.

Heavy work is any type of activity that pushes or pulls against the body. It could be something like swimming or vacuuming. With those activities, the resistance of the water or the vacuum cleaner creates the push or pull.

Or it could be something like jumping on a trampoline or hanging on playground equipment. In those cases, a child’s own weight creates that resistance.

Kids with sensory processing issues often seek (or avoid) sensory input. A child who seeks input is looking for proprioceptive input. That’s because it can help calm her body and make her feel more oriented in space. Without heavy work activities, she may seek input by crashing into or jumping off things or in other unsafe ways.

Heavy work is designed to provide that input in safer, more consistent ways. When kids do heavy work throughout the day, it can help them feel more organized before they need to seek input.

The most effective heavy work activities activate as many muscles and joints as possible at the same time, and for a short period of time. That means not all heavy work is equal. Some activities—like swimming—are more effective and powerful than others.

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How to Provide Heavy Work at Home

Heavy work doesn’t actually have to be work. Many of the activities that can help your child self-regulate are just typical play and everyday chores.

You can try some of these activities at home. Keep in mind that because they’re not all equal, your child may have to complete more of them or do them for a longer period of time before you see improvement.

Heavy work can be part of a sensory diet. A sensory diet is a series of physical activities and accommodations tailored to give your child the unique sensory input she needs. You can do a sensory diet at home. But you’ll need to work with an occupational therapist to find the activities that are most beneficial to your child and to create a routine that works best for her.

Here are some activities that use movement and resistance to provide sensory input:

Household Chores

  • Taking out the trash

  • Pushing a vacuum cleaner

  • Mopping or sweeping

  • Carrying a full laundry basket

  • Carrying groceries

  • Cooking (such as stirring or kneading bread dough)

  • Moving chairs/furniture or rearranging books on shelves

  • Shoveling snow or raking leaves

  • Pushing the shopping cart in a store

Outdoor Play

  • Riding a tricycle or bicycle

  • Playing catch (perhaps with a weighted ball)

  • Swinging on monkey bars

  • Climbing on the playground

  • Jumping rope or on a trampoline

  • Playing hopscotch

  • Wheelbarrow walking (walking on her hands while you hold her feet)

  • Swimming

Inside Play

  • Playing Twister

  • Squishing play-dough

  • Blowing bubbles

  • Wrestling (only if your child won’t get overexcited!)

  • Marching or running in place

  • Doing push-ups (either on the floor or against the wall)

It’s a good idea to take notes and observe how certain activities affect your child. Some may help and others may overstimulate her system. Knowing that can help you work to adjust and find the right routine.

Learn more about other strategies you can try at home, including ways to help your child cope with:

Key Takeaways

  • Heavy work doesn’t actually have to be work.

  • There are many heavy work activities kids can do at home, such as marching in place or cooking.

  • An occupational therapist can help you figure out which heavy work activities could be most beneficial for your child.

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