Heavy work and sensory processing challenges: What you need to know

Learn how heavy work like carrying groceries and doing push-ups can help kids with sensory processing challenges. Also get tips for adding heavy work into your child’s daily routine.

A child hangs on monkey bars on a playground while an adult holds them.

At a glance

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

  • These activities can help kids with sensory processing challenges feel centered.

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

A number of activities can help kids who have trouble managing all the information their senses take in. Some of these are called heavy work. Occupational therapists use heavy work to help kids who seek or avoid certain kinds of sensory input.

Here’s what you need to know about how heavy work activities can help kids with sensory processing challenges.

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 the vestibular sense. It controls balance and movement. The other is the proprioceptive sense. And it controls body awareness.

Body awareness and balance come from the way receptors in muscles and joints send messages to the brain. They tell us where our body is in space, where each body part is, and what it’s doing. It’s the way we know how much force to use to complete a task, like writing on paper or shutting a door.

This system doesn’t always work as well in kids with sensory processing challenges. Some kids write too lightly with a pencil. Or slam the car door really hard. They may think they’re pushing down hard enough with the pencil or that they’re using less force to shut the door than they actually are.

When kids struggle with things like this, heavy work helps them know where their body is and what it should be doing.

How heavy work can help kids with sensory processing challenges

Most people get enough physical input from daily activities. But some kids with sensory processing challenges may not. They need extra help to “jump-start” 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.

Some kids who have trouble managing sensory information avoid these sensations. Others look for more proprioceptive input. It can help them calm their body and make them feel more oriented in space.

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 have a better sense of what their bodies are doing. Then they don’t need to get input by crashing into people or jumping off furniture.

The most effective heavy work activities only last for a short time. And they use as many muscles and joints as possible at the same time. Some activities — like swimming — are especially good.

How to provide heavy work at home

Heavy work doesn’t really have to be work. Typical play and everyday chores can help kids self-regulate.

Heavy work can be part of a sensory diet. This is a series of physical activities and accommodations. It gives a child the amount of sensory input that works best for them.

You can do a sensory diet at home. But you’ll need to work with an occupational therapist. They find the activities that are most beneficial to your child and create the routine.

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 hands while a partner holds feet up)

  • 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 activities may help. But others may be overstimulating. Knowing that can help you find the right routine.

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

Discover ways to talk to the teacher about sensory processing challenges. Get tips on how to manage sensory meltdowns. And read a teacher’s tip about her “go to” heavy work technique.

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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