How can heavy work help sensitive kids?

I am always on the hunt for parenting tips, tricks and techniques that can help smooth our family’s path.

Having a highly sensitive child (HSC) is a precious gift, for they are the most compassionate and empathy-filled souls you can ever know. HSCs may also be prone to depression and anxiety, however, and that definitely keeps a mama on her toes.

My latest discovery isn’t a parenting technique per se, but actually a proven and effective tool in the Occupational Therapist’s toolbox: heavy work.

I came upon an article about the benefits of heavy work for kiddos with sensory differences. While being highly sensitive isn’t a diagnosis or disorder, but rather a biological trait, it can certainly result in some over-responsiveness to sensory stimuli. For that reason, I thought it couldn’t hurt to explore the idea of heavy work further.

Imagine my surprise when I realized that since birth, Z has sought out this type of experience on her own, and in fact still has her best days when they are filled with heavy work!

Heavy work is exactly what it sounds like, yet also so much more. It is any activity that provides physical resistance, like pushing, pulling, lifting or carrying. Heavy work can also look a lot like traditional childhood play activities.

OTs will tell you that heavy work is proprioception, also called our hidden sixth sense. It is our sense of body awareness – of where our body and limbs are in space. Proprioception tells our brain how hard or softly we are pushing or pulling with our muscles and joints.

The beauty of proprioception, or heavy work, is that it helps to calm and organize the brain. For many highly sensitive kiddos, heavy work can be very soothing and actually reduce anxiety. We have found it can also help increase focus and improve mood.

Examples of heavy work include digging and pouring, rolling and cutting out play dough, resistance band exercises or lifting and carrying weights, pushing a trolley, cart or wheel barrow, tug of war, yoga, climbing trees, cycling and scooters, rowing, calisthenics and hanging from a bar, including “monkey bars” at a playground.

In many ways, heavy work is simply traditional wisdom – who hasn’t heard that we all feel better and more satisfied after a day of hard, physical work?

Since she was very small, Z has loved physical challenges and learning new skills. She has always loved swinging, hanging from bars or a trapeze, climbing, doing hand stands and jumping on trampolines. She still adores learning new “moves” and practicing them over and over until she has mastered them.

During our recent day at Ninja Citi, Z became obsessed with running up the vertical wall and had almost mastered it by the time we left. It was hard, sweaty work and she had to continually stop to catch her breath, yet she was determined to keep trying until she ran straight up that wall. I’m confident she’ll get it next time we go!

Days without heavy work are far more likely to have moments of frustration, poor mood or even meltdowns. A surefire recipe for disaster is any day where Z is overly hungry, over-tired or has not gotten to move her body. Inside recess days at school are frustrating unless she has P.E. that day – she really needs opportunities to run, play and do heavy work in order for her to be her best self.

Realizing all this in hindsight now that my daughter is a tween is very eye-opening. I would have loved to know it sooner! But now that we are in peak “device days,” especially in a pandemic, it is more important than ever for me to encourage and inspire Z to join me in physical activities.

Riding bikes, jumping on the trampoline, taking turns on our treadmill, and creating and taking turns doing physical fitness “obstacle courses” in our basement are just a few of the heavy work activities that Z and I enjoy doing together. In winter, it’s all too easy to become sedentary, so I must continually urge her to do these things with me indoors when there are fewer opportunities to get outside and play.

I am confident that heavy work and working our bodies are not just good for HSCs but for all children – and for both highly-sensitive and typical adults, too. Here are some more great heavy work ideas for younger kiddos.

Have you noticed that heavy work helps your kiddos, whether or not they are highly sensitive? I love having this new magic button to reach for anytime I want to perk up her mood or help her have an even better day.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on heavy work in the comments below or over on Facebook.

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About the author

Proud and loving midlife mama. Lucky and devoted wife. Dog, cat and snake mom. Travel nut. Natural born writer. PR and social media pro by day - tattoo doula by night.
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