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.

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

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

Your child may get a number of therapies to help with sensory processing issues. But specialists may recommend one kind of therapy 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 person’s sense of body awareness and balance comes 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 effectively in kids with sensory processing issues. Some kids may 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 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. Kids who seek input are looking for proprioceptive input. It can help them calm their body and make them feel more oriented in space. Without heavy work activities, they 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.

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 kids the unique sensory input they need. 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 the routine that works best.

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 may help and others may be overstimulating. 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.

    Tell us what interests you

    Share

    About the author

    About the author

    Amanda Morin is the director of thought leadership at Understood and author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education.” She worked as a classroom teacher and early intervention specialist for more than a decade.

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    Keri Wilmot is an occupational therapist who works with children of varying ages and abilities in all areas of pediatrics.