Why Obstacle Courses Are Amazing for Kids: Plus, How You Can Make Your Own Version!

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As a student in college, I wavered between many different professions. I always knew I wanted to work with kids, it was just a question of within which capacity. Honestly, the main reason I chose to become an occupational therapist was because it looked like SO MUCH FUN! (and it is, well, most of the time.)

My first experience seeing a ‘real OT’ in action was as a junior in college. My mother’s friend’s daughter worked in a pediatric occupational therapy and physical therapy clinic, fully equipped with its own sensory gym, seeing children with a range of diagnoses, from SPD, ASD, ADHD, to hypotonia, upper extremity weakness, and psycho-social/emotional disorders. I looked around me in awe, taking a mental count of all the amazing ‘toys’ they had: ball pits, slides, moon bounces, a zipline, board games….that was it-I was hooked. These kids were jumping, crashing, swinging, and hopping. They were having a blast!

I was determined to become an occupational therapist. And, well, here I am. (However, I realize now that those ‘toys’ are tools, the equipment is more exhausting than it looks, and the play is definitely therapeutic physically, cognitively, and neurologically- read on to see why).

Ok, onto obstacle courses. Let’s get into the meat of what is amazing about them, and then figure out how you can modify what you see (or have heard about) from a sensory gym or play space, make your own version, and work on the same skills.

1. Obstacle courses work on many components of motor planning-here’s a few: Ideation (coming up with the plan), Initiation, Sequencing, and Motor Memory.

2. Obstacle courses work on following multi-step directions: for example, in the picture above, I had the children I worked with do the following- bounce 10 times on a hoppity hop, jump with two feet flat over 3 hurdles, leap over 4 tactile prickly pads, leap and then jump with two feet onto colorful discs, and crash on hands and knees onto a moon bounce/crash pad. That is 5 steps! While I had to differentiate the type of instruction and the level of support provided for certain children I worked with, depending on their level of function, they were all able to complete it! Think of how that ability can translate into any executive functioning task.

3. Obstacle courses improve sensory processing skills, thus increasing overall body awareness, self-regulation, and self-concept.

4. Obstacle courses also allow for the fostering and development of language, including following directions, understanding of time, space, etc.

5. When obstacle courses are repeated and consistent, they help develop bilateral physical coordination, strength, and attention.

6. Obstacle courses help develop cognitive skill components, such as overall memory skills, especially when you integrate visual motor components or listing back the directions back to you.

Now, how can you use items in your home to make your own obstacle course/low-tech solutions:

1. Have your kids balance on a ‘balance beam’ instead of leaping on the tactile prickly pads (you can use couch cushions-honestly, a pregnancy pillow works really well!).

2. In place of a crashpad/moonbounce, have your kids collect all the pillows in your house and make a giant pile (just make sure there is adequate cushioning underneath!)

3. Instead of a hoppity hop ball, they can simply bounce on a large ball or do a simple motor balancing activity. You can also use a bilibo (around $20 on amazon) to substitute for a hopitty hop, and it takes up very little space.

4. I’m assuming you don’t have hurdles, so can you can have your kids jump over piles of books, or stack wooden blocks.

5. You can integrate fine motor activities into an obstacle course easily, as well-ex-string 10 beads, tie one shoe, copy 5 site words, put 10 specific cotton balls into a container using a tweezer, etc.

Parents and caregivers- obstacle courses are awesome rainy day activities! After your kids get the hang of how obstacle courses work, they can even make their own, fostering that amazing exploratory and imaginative play that is so good for cognitive development.

Teachers-in addition to the above activities, you can build obstacle courses in your classroom while integrating academic information! For example, while a student is bouncing on a ball, they can be working on memorizing sight words or multiplication facts. The simple act of following multi-step directions from a mult-sensory standpoint builds on essential developmental skills.

Happy playing 🙂

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