One of the best ways to work on balance, coordination and motor planning skills for young children is to create and navigate an obstacle course. Obstacle courses can be designed to capture a wide variety of motor and cognitive skills. Various ability levels can be accommodated in the design of an obstacle course with activities varying from simple to challenging. Obstacle courses can be easily and inexpensively constructed, and best of all, they are FUN and engaging for children!
As a pediatric physical therapist, I love working with children and their families to develop obstacle courses using common household objects. Designing an effective and therapeutic home obstacle course can be accomplished by following a few simple steps.
Step 1: Identify motor and cognitive skills that you would like the obstacle course to help address with your child
Try to include different types of skills and activities in your obstacle course. Begin by identifying skills that are strengths for your child and areas that may require some additional practice. By combining skills in these two categories, you will ensure that the obstacle course is not too challenging and will maintain your child's interest. Combinations of too many simple or too many complex items may discourage your child from participating. Examples of skill areas you may want to consider include:
- cognitive skills such as sequencing, following directions, or motor planning
- gross motor skills such as balance, strength, coordination or specific motor tasks
- fine motor skills such as grasp, manipulation, or handwriting
- sensory processing skills
Step 2: Plan specific activities for your obstacle course that target the indentified skill areas
Start brainstorming with your child. Develop lists of fun activities that you could include in your obstacle course. I like to begin by identifying a theme (ex: pirate ship), and then identifying activities that would fall under my theme (ex: walk the plank). Help your child indentify activities that will specifically address areas of concern. Aim for 3-5 activities in an obstacle course for young children under 5 or for children with difficulties with sequencing and 5-10 activities for older children or to challenge sequencing abilities. Remember to include a mix of easier and more challenging activities.
- Sequencing - Remember order of course activities without cueing
- Planning of activities
- Following verbal or written directions for activities
- Motor planning - how to complete each task or how to move from one task to the next efficiently
- Matching, ordering, or cognitive questions (riddles, math problem, etc) activities built into the obstacle course
- Walk on uneven surfaces
- Balance along a line or beam
- Sit on unstable surfaces
- Stand or hop on one foot
- Walk with eyes closed or blindfolded
- Push or pull heavy items
- Play with weighted toys
- Carry heavy items such as books
- Complete pushups or sit ups
- Walk like different animals
- Jumping jacks
- Dancing in patterns
- Hop scotch type jumping
- Running through hula hoops or around cones
- Walk like different animals
- Throwing/ aiming/ catching tasks
- Handwriting tasks - write names or numbers of each activity
- Dressing tasks - buttoning, zippers, tying shoes
- Find items hidden in packing peanuts or rice
- Dive into stacked pillows or cushions
- Ball pits or baby pools filled with leaves or packing peanuts
- Moving on uneven surfaces
Step 3: Collect materials to build your obstacle course
Common materials from around the house make excellent supplies for building an obstacle course. There is no need to buy expensive equipment. For example:
- Pillows and couch cushions can be used to create climbing or walking balance activities
- Cardboard boxes can be used to make tunnels or targets to throw items into
- Rolled towels, blankets and pool noodles can make obstacles to step or jump over
- Packing peanuts, rice or dried beans can create a great sensory environment to climb into or dig through to find items
- Construction paper can make targets or stepping stones or visual cues
- Consider using small balls for kicking and throwing skills
- Have children jump from hula hoop to hula hoop or between various colors of paper
- Small children's step stools can create obstacles to jump off
- Use jump ropes, chalk or tape to create lines to follow on the floor
- Fill cardboard boxes with heavy items and have your child push or pull the box for heavy work
- Forget the equipment and consider walking like various animals (Bear, frog, crab, etc.)
- Don't be afraid to be creative with whatever items you have in your home.
There are many websites available with additional obstacle course activity ideas that can assist you in planning.
Step 4: Practice and describe the steps to the obstacle course with your child
Give the obstacle course a practice run. Walk through the course with your child to make sure they understand the order and directions for the activities. For children who have difficulty with motor planning and sequencing, this will be important practice and will provide you an opportunity to give them cues or ideas of how to complete the tasks.
Step 5: Enjoy your obstacle course
Run through your obstacle course with your child. For an added challenge, consider the use of a stop watch to time how quickly your child can complete the course. Encourage siblings and peers to participate in the obstacle course with your child. Overall, have fun! Remember that not every activity has to be about therapy and goal improvement. Having fun and enjoying time with your child in active play is equally important!