Occupational Therapy Obstacle Course

Occupational therapy obstacle courses

Occupational therapy practitioners often times use obstacle courses in therapy sessions to target specific skills through the child’s primary occupation: play. It is through an occupational therapy obstacle course that one can work on sensory input, balance, coordination skills, heavy work input, visual motor skills, bilateral coordination, visual motor skills, direction following, and so much more. Let’s break down OT obstacle courses for functional performance.

Obstacle courses, and the components of gross motor obstacles are a great tool to have in your “therapy bag” of tricks!

Occupational therapy obstacle course ideas

Occupational therapy obstacle courses

Life is full of obstacles. Navigating life’s obstacles builds strength, character, resilience, and focus. Occupational therapy obstacle courses can do the same!

There are so many ways to target occupational therapy goals using an obstacle course. For example, you can use the various types of crawling to incorporate different heavy work input, targeting strength, stability, and motor planning skills. these are great ways to support lower extremity strength and core strength!

Obstacle courses are naturally a sensory obstacle course, through the actions and activities involved, however specific themes and underlying targets can be incorporated as well.

Occupational therapists and occupational therapy assistants use obstacle courses, to address a variety of needs. 

In this blog post you will discover the benefits of obstacle courses, how they help development using obstacle course, and ideas to build amazing obstacle course activities.

Benefits of obstacle courses

What are the benefits of occupational therapy obstacle courses?

At first glance, obstacle courses build muscle strength, coordination, and motor planning.  This is just the tip of the iceberg. While occupational therapy obstacle courses are great for building strength and coordination, they do so much more. 

  • Executive function – following directions, attention, focus, sequencing, planning, initiation, and  task completion
  • Social function (if working with peers) – working together in a group, problem solving, turn taking, waiting, sharing, and negotiation
  • Behavioral skills – compliance, behavior, and work tolerance
  • Sequencing – remembering all of the tasks in the correct order
  • Motor planning – Target motor planning by working through new obstacles and movement patterns builds new skills and motor pathways
  • Kinesthetic learning – learning by doing, rather than talking about an action
  • Strength – core strength, shoulder and wrist stability, head control, balance, and hand strength are built through obstacle courses. These skills lead to improved sitting balance and fine motor skills
  • Bilateral coordinationBilateral coordination refers to coordinating both sides of the body to do the same action such as holding onto a rope, or alternating actions such as climbing a ladder
  • Proprioception – information comes into the body through the muscles and joints. This information helps with arousal level, coordination, and attention
  • Sensory information – tactile, visual, olfactory, vestibular, and auditory receptors are activated during obstacle courses

How do occupational therapy obstacle courses help development?

All of the skills above are core skills needed for further development. Fine motor skills are built from core strength. Attention and focus are built and regulated from sensory input. Following directions builds working memory. Executive function and social skills are necessary for academic and professional development. 

How to develop an obstacle course in occupational therapy

One thing that comes up often is that one will see an OT clinic full of fun toys and think, “OK, in occupational therapy, we play.” This is true! However there is purpose behind each skilled selection of the toys and therapy equipment, and this is particularly true in an OT obstacle course.

ere are the important steps in setting up an OT obstacle course:

  1. Determine the goals to be addressed.  What is the priority for your learner?  
  2. Build your course around the goals, with emphasis on the highest priority goal
  3. Add motivators – learners work harder given motivation
  4. Create a beginning and ending point – everyone needs to know how far they need to go
  5. Check out Pinterest for obstacle course ideas
  6. Select your obstacle course ideas
  7. As always, Amazon (affiliate link) is full of resources for items to incorporate in your obstacle course

Obstacle Course Ideas

Depending on the goals in which are being targeted, you can select from many different obstacle course equipment and activities:

By using any combination of the occupational therapy goal areas above, you can create a “course of action” to move through a therapy session while accomplishing goals. Combine these target areas with a client’s interest such as super heroes, animals, sports, events, or therapy themes, and you’ve got a client-centered therapy activity that is not only meaningful but also motivating

Examples of occupational therapy obstacle courses

Build your course around your prioritized goal(s) to target specific areas:

  • Following directions – set up several obstacles in succession with different variables to follow and remember.  Over, under, times 10, backward, clap your hands, touch your toes.
  • Executive function – have your learner develop and organize the obstacle course for themself or another partner. They can write it down, draw pictures, or use verbal skills to describe the course
  • Self regulation – incorporate heavy work into the course. This could include wearing ankle weights, pushing a ten pound ball, wearing a heavy backpack, and several repetitions of the course
  • Frustration tolerance – make the course very challenging. Add several elements that will challenge your learner, then change the sequence to continue to add more of a challenge
  • Social function – have one learner teach another, pair two learners of different levels to work on waiting, taking turns, and tolerance.  Two similar peers can build competition, or dealing with emotions
  • Coordination – vary the difficulty of the course to build different levels of coordination. Time your learner to measure improvement in coordination without falling
  • Visual motor skills – each time your learner finishes a round of the obstacle course, they have to write a letter, draw a picture, cut out a design, or put pieces into a puzzle

sensory obstacle courses

Obstacle courses naturally offer sensory input. By moving through and around obstacles, a child can participate in organizing and regulating sensory processing tasks in a very real and functional manner. It’s through play that this happens.

Sensory obstacle courses are in fact, every obstacle course! In a typical obstacle activity, sensory input includes:

  • Proprioceptive inputHeavy work input occurs through movement activities but also by using obstacle course equipment such as ladders, ball pits, tumble pits, foam equipment, crawling, animal walks, etc. Each activity offers different motor planning opportunities and different types of body awareness input.
  • Vestibular input crawling, scooting, sliding, jumping, rolling, tumbling, climbing, etc.
  • Visual input Visual processing skills are part of navigating in, through, around, under, over obstacles on a course.
  • Tactile input Moving through a course offers tactile input through movement and manipulation of objects and equipment.
  • Auditory While not always a necessary aspect of sensory obstacle courses, auditory processing can be targeted in obstacle course objectives.

You’ll notice that the first three areas listed are the “big three” sensory systems that calm and regulate the body and play a major role in sensory processing. Because of this, an obstacle course is a great therapy tool and often used in sensory interventions. Sensory obstacle courses can be used as part of a sensory diet.

The Tactile Sensory System is one of the earliest developed senses of the body.  The skin is the largest and the most prevalent organ. The skin performs unique duties for the body.  Most importantly, the skin protects and alerts us to danger and discriminates sensation with regard to location and identification.

These two levels of sensation work together yet are distinctively important.  Discrimination of touch allows us to sense where a sensation is felt on the body.  With discrimination, we are able to discern a fly that lands on our arm. 

The second level of the tactile system alerts us to danger.  It allows us to jump in response to the “fight or flight” response when we perceive a spider crawling on our arm. The information received from the tactile system also includes light touch, pain, temperature, and pressure.

When either of these levels of sensation are disrupted, tactile dysfunction can result.  This presents in many ways, including hypersensitivity to tags in clothing, a dislike of messy play, difficulty with fine motor tasks, a fear of being touched by someone without seeing that touch, a high tolerance of pain, or a need to touch everything and everyone.

When the tactile system is immature or impaired, the brain can become overly stimulated with resulting poor organization and regulation of input.  Children can then experience difficulty with behavior and concentration as a result.

Treatment for the child with an impaired tactile sensory system focuses on providing a variety of deep- and light-touch experiences (Koomar & Bundy, 1991).  Additionally, resistance activities, much like those indicated for decreased discrimination of vestibular and proprioceptive information, may be used in the therapeutic sensory diet.

The Proprioception Sensory System is the recognition and response to the body’s position in space with an internal feedback system using the position in space of the joints, tendons, and muscles.  This sensory system allows the body to automatically react to changes in force and pressure given body movements and object manipulation.  The body receives more feedback from active muscles rather than passive muscle use.  Related to the proprioception system is praxis or motor planning.  Individuals are able to plan and execute motor tasks given feedback from the proprioceptive system. Praxis allows us to utilize sensory input from the senses and to coordinate hat information to move appropriately.

Treatment for the child with an impaired proprioceptive sensory system focuses on providing intense proprioceptive information and improving postural responses.

The Vestibular Sensory System is the sense of movement and balance, and uses the receptors in the inner ear and allows the body to orient to position in space.  The vestibular system is closely related to eye movements and coordination. 

Vestibular sensory input is a powerful tool in helping children with sensory needs.  Adding a few vestibular activities to the day allows for long-lasting effects.  Every individual requires vestibular sensory input in natural development.  In fact, as infants we are exposed to vestibular input that promotes a natural and healthy development and integration of all systems. 

The sensory vestibular activities listed in this book are playful ways to promote performance and tolerance to movement activities.  They are also challenges against gravity to help kids with difficulties in equilibrium, balance, self-regulation, and adjusting to typical sensory input. 

The vestibular system operates through receptors in the inner ear and in conjunction with position in space, input from the eyes, and feedback from muscle and joint receptors, is able to contribute to posture and appropriate response of the visual system to maintain a field of vision. 

This allows an individual to detect movement and changes in the position of the head and body.  Dysfunction in the vestibular system may result in hypersensitivity to movements or hyposensitivity to movements. 

Attention and focus are built and regulated from sensory input.

Printable sensory stations in obstacle courses

Sensory paths and sensory stations can support the areas listed above by simply printing off materials to use in a simple or complex sensory obstacle course.

An obstacle course can be anything.  It can start as simple as furniture, couch cushions, and a puzzle, or become as elaborate as American Ninja Warrior. First, determine your “why”, then come up with the “what and how”. 

Victoria Wood, OTR/L is a contributor to The OT Toolbox and has been providing Occupational Therapy treatment in pediatrics for more than 25 years. She has practiced in hospital settings (inpatient, outpatient, NICU, PICU), school systems, and outpatient clinics in several states. She has treated hundreds of children with various sensory processing dysfunction in the areas of behavior, gross/fine motor skills, social skills and self-care. Ms. Wood has also been a featured speaker at seminars, webinars, and school staff development training. She is the author of Seeing your Home and Community with Sensory Eyes.

Spring Gross Motor Activities

Spring gross motor activities

This blog post on Spring gross motor activities is part of our collection of Spring activities for occupational therapy. Here, we’ve got gross motor ideas that have a Spring-theme, including balance, coordination, stability, and gross motor coordination tasks like skipping, hopping, jumping, and throwing. You’ll find throwing activities, ways to work on the eye-hand coordination needed for catching a ball, bilateral coordination ideas, core strengthening activities, and more.

These are the gross motor skill ideas that you can use in so many ways to address the skills kids need to succeed at home, at school, and in the community! Get the ideas below!

These spring gross motor activities are great ways to build strength in kids, including posture, stability, core strength, shoulder stability, and coordination, balance, and posture.

Spring Gross Motor Activities


Before we cover the gross motor ideas for Spring, be sure to check out  our Spring Fine Motor Activities collection. You can add ideas from each of our Spring Occupational Therapy Activities… because we’re loading you up on different ways to address developmental skill areas with a Spring-theme!

Remember, if you are looking for fun ideas to incorporate into therapy sessions, at home, or in the classroom, our Spring Fine Motor Kit is on sale right now. It’s 100 pages of spring ideas for addressing sensory processing, gross and fine motor skills, visual motor skills, visual perceptual skills, handwriting, and more. The packet will last you all season long and can be used over and over again. 

Grab the Spring Fine Motor Kit here. AND get the bonus Spring Break Kit, filled with handouts for Spring break activities, handwriting prompts, brain breaks, and a Spring homework sheet.

Spring Gross Motor Activities

Let’s get right to those Spring-themed Gross Motor Skills.

Shoulder and wrist stability are such a necessary part of fine motor control and precision. You’ve probably seen it before; a kiddo that writes or colors with their arm “floating” up off the table surface.

You probably know a child that writes with their whole arm as opposed to moving those fingers. You might recall a child manipulating small items like beads with their elbows smashed into their sides in order for them to have support and control…It’s all shoulder stability that is lacking!

We’re also talking about core stability, postural control, and balance. You might know a student that slouches at their desk.

What suffers? Handwriting legibility, reading comprehension, and the ability to copy materials without missing items.

 You may have seen a kiddo that is fearful on uneven surfaces like when maneuvering on bleachers, or struggles with active games in gym class. What may be the culprit to these coordination skills?
It just might be postural control, core strength, and stability.

The gross motor activities below provide opportunities to improve bilateral coordination, core strength as part of improving  postural stability, balance, coordination, shoulder stability, and shoulder girdle strengthening.
The activities follow a Spring-theme to use this time of year. 

These general activities combine movement combinations and motor planning that can be used as a fun brain break in the classroom, or a party game idea:

Create a Bunny Hop Gross Motor Game much like our Dinosaur Gross Motor Game! Just make the activities actions like Hop like a bunny, jump like a bunny, stomp your bunny feet, etc. You can add other spring animals too, like a lamb, baby chicks, or robins.

Make a DIY Dance Stick using ribbons, crepe paper, and string. Then, practice forming letters or writing spelling words with the dance stick. It can be decorated like a May Pole, too. Incorporate bilateral coordination and eye-hand coordination to wrap the stick with ribbon all the way up and around a dowel rod. 

Bean Bag Activity- We made ice cream cones, but carrots would be super easy, too…or just pretend the bean bags are carrots 🙂  Here are some bean bag games to use when working on midline crossing, core strength, motor planning, and other gross motor areas.

Build shoulder and wrist stability 

Shoulder stability is an area that so many kids can struggle with! Writing with their arm “floating” up off the table surface, using the whole arm to manipulate and move a pencil, and other small motor actions. Sometimes, kids that do activities and tasks quickly are compensating for weakness in the shoulder girdle. 

Use Wikki Stix to build Easter Eggs by sticking them to a wall. Position the child at a seated position facing the wall so shoulder flexion occurs at eye height. This is a great way to work on shoulder and wrist stability and mobility. 

Use Spring cookie cutters and small pieces of chalk on a chalkboard or easel. This activity is great for drawing and writing at shoulder height and uses both hands at midline. Working at the vertical surface promote core strength as well as shoulder stability and wrist extension. Bunnies, Easter eggs. hearts, and colorful circles or rainbows are fun this time of year.

Try Spring Yoga- There are some Yoga positions with a Spring theme described and listed in the Spring Occupational Therapy Activities Packet. Add fun animal names and positions to basic yoga positions.

Use a scooter board in prone. Push and pull the scooter board across the floor to transport Spring items into a basket. The dollar store is a good place to find small items. Better yet, use bunny tongs or other tools to transport the items.

Roll a small ball or a therapy ball up and down a wall. Use painters tape to make a ball maze or a strait line like the stem of a Spring flower. “Walk” the ball up the wall to shoulder height and then back down again. Get the ball to the top of the step to create the flower!

Spring Animal Walks- Do the bunny hop, frog jump, and lamb crawl from one side of the room to the other. Think: wheelbarrow walks, crab walks, donkey kicks, and bear walks with a Spring theme!

Color or play on the ground- Use Easter grass to create a sensory space on the floor. Use a large, low tray such as a jelly roll pan to create a sensory bin. Kids can use tongs to find hidden items such as mini-erasers.

Spring Posture and Balance Activities

Posture and trunk stability is essential for positioning in the classroom and in functional tasks in general. Postural control is needed to enable the student to sit upright at their desk, allowing for better handwriting, reading, and copying skills.

Kids who struggle with postural control and balance will be uncoordinated in fine motor tasks, activities requiring sustained positioning, have trouble with motor planning, and may be fearful of tasks that require mobility or uneven positioning such as maneuvering on bleachers or during active play.

Try some of the Spring themed gross motor activities below to improve postural control and balance:

Spring Obstacle Course- Use the printables in our Spring Sensory Stations (free download) to create motor planning tasks that build balance and coordination. Add in jump ropes to hop over, sand buckets to navigate around, and brain breaks (from our Spring Break Kit bonus) to make gross motor planning tasks.

Spring Heavy Work Activities- Add heavy work that challenges motor planning, balance, endurance, positioning changes, and motor skills. These can be used in Simon Says games, obstacle courses, and gross motor play. Print off a copy of these free Spring heavy work cards and get started. You’ll also like these therapy Simon Says commands.

Spring Caterpillar Pose- Assume the “superman pose” on the floor, but call it a caterpillar pose! You can be a caterpillar in the Springtime, gaining strength to start crawling and munching on leaves. Relax rest but then return to the extended arms, legs, and head positioning as you wake up again! 

Balloon Pass- Lie on your back and pull the hips and knees into flexion, toward the belly. Try to hold a ball or balloon between your feet. Then, pass the ball to a friend lying opposite on the floor. Pass the ball into a hoop or large basket. 

Egg Pass- Sit on a partially inflated beach ball and try to balance a plastic egg on a spoon. Try to pass the egg to a friend and then drop it into a basket. 

These spring gross motor activities are great ways to build strength in kids, including posture, stability, core strength, shoulder stability, and coordination, balance, and posture.

Spring Fine Motor Kit

Score Fine Motor Tools and resources and help kids build the skills they need to thrive!

Developing hand strength, dexterity, dexterity, precision skills, and eye-hand coordination skills that kids need for holding and writing with a pencil, coloring, and manipulating small objects in every day task doesn’t need to be difficult. The Spring Fine Motor Kit includes 100 pages of fine motor activities, worksheets, crafts, and more:

Spring fine motor kit set of printable fine motor skills worksheets for kids.
  • Lacing cards
  • Sensory bin cards
  • Hole punch activities
  • Pencil control worksheets
  • Play dough mats
  • Write the Room cards
  • Modified paper
  • Sticker activities

Click here to add this resource set to your therapy toolbox.

Spring Fine Motor Kit
Spring Fine Motor Kit: TONS of resources and tools to build stronger hands.

Grab your copy of the Spring Fine Motor Kit and build coordination, strength, and endurance in fun and creative activities. Click here to add this resource set to your therapy toolbox.

Colleen Beck, OTR/L has been an occupational therapist since 2000, working in school-based, hand therapy, outpatient peds, EI, and SNF. Colleen created The OT Toolbox to inspire therapists, teachers, and parents with easy and fun tools to help children thrive. Read her story about going from an OT making $3/hour (after paying for kids’ childcare) to a full-time OT resource creator for millions of readers. Want to collaborate? Send an email to contact@theottoolbox.com.

Skipping Activities for Kids

How to teach skipping

Young children often ask to learn to skip. Here, you’ll discover skipping activities for kids, as well as specific strategies to teach children how to skip. Skipping is an important gross motor target. For some children, learning to skip is a real challenge! 

These skipping activities are fun ways to teach kids to skip.

Learn to Skip with Skipping Activities

If you have ever spent time in an elementary school, you may have noticed that the youngest members of the school community, specifically kindergarteners, hardly ever walk from place to place… they skip (and hop, jump, twirl, and gallop, too)!

Skipping is a developmental milestone or marker that generally emerges around age 5, with a range of age 4-6 years.  For many kids, skipping emerges without intervention, just the way reaching, crawling, or walking develops. 

For kids who struggle with gross motor skills and bilateral coordination, direct teaching may be necessary to develop this critical skill.  Once the basics are learned, skipping activities are a great way to practice.

learning to skip requires motor planning and sensory integration

Skipping is such a perfect example of motor planning and sensory integration.  It requires ideation (having the idea about how to move), planning (sequencing the movement), and execution (carrying out the movement).  

For a person to execute the motor plan of skipping, the coordinated effort of sensory systems and the brain is required. 

Skipping also provides excellent sensory input. No wonder kindergarteners like to skip from place to place… the vestibular and proprioceptive input they receive is a natural reward for all their hard work in mastering the skill!

what about bilateral coordination?

The ability to coordinate the two sides of the body involved in learning how to skip requires balance, strength, motor planning, and bilateral coordination. Bilateral coordination refers to the ability of the brain and body to process and integrate information from both sides of the brain to respond with movements in a coordinated manner. 

Many functional tasks and daily activities, such as feeding, dressing, and writing rely on bilateral coordination. 

Being able to coordinate both sides of the body is also a foundation skill for gross motor coordination activities such as walking, running, galloping and skipping.

Wondering how to teach skipping? This blog post breaks down the steps of skipping.

How to Teach Skipping

When you have a goal for a child to learn to skip, it is important to make sure that you address all of the components of skipping.  Teaching kids to skip starts with seeing what skills the individual is able to do. There are skills that are required to skip. Can the child balance on one foot and hop? Does the child have a dominant leg? Can they gallop or perform a different version of skipping? These are all good questions to ask when teaching skipping skills.

First, evaluate and observe the following gross motor skills needed for skipping:

  • Balance – check to make sure they can balance on either foot
  • Hopping – are they able to hop in place on each foot?  Are they able to hop forward on one foot?  Have them try to take 5 hops forward on either foot
  • Leg dominance – it may be helpful to know if they have a preferred leg for activities like hopping or kicking
  • Galloping – are they able to gallop? Can they gallop on either side?  This is more of a unilateral skill, which is often easier for kids who demonstrate difficulty with bilateral coordination skills.

If any of the above skills are weak, start with developing balance and hopping.  Then progress to galloping, followed by skipping. 

Then, use these strategies to teach skipping:

  1. To teach skipping, start by breaking down the steps for the child.  Provide a demonstration and simple verbal cues like “Step, hop, switch”.  You may need to provide a visual cue as well, using colored dots or markers on the floor, such as these (Amazon affiliate link) Little Polly Markers.

2. Once the child is able to complete the “step, hop, switch” sequence. This can be a very slow process at first. Some kids will need to think through the motor plan of each step. That’s ok! Use visual and verbal cues to work on the step with one foot, the hop, and the switch to the other foot.

3. Work to improve their fluency and speed of the step, hop switch sequence. Use these steps in an obstacle course or a relay activity to work on speed and gross motor coordination to improve fluent motor skills.

3. As they master the skill of skipping, you can encourage them to incorporate their upper body into the movement as well. Show them how to swing their arms in coordination with the legs. This will become more fluent and integrated with practice.  

Working on the coordination and motor planning to master learning to skip involves more than just a hop and a skip. Skipping is a complex task, but once you break it down and address underlying skill areas, it becomes easier. 

Skipping Activities

Here are some gross motor coordination games and skipping activities that address bilateral coordination and motor skills:

  • Obstacle courses – set up a simple hopping and jumping obstacle course inside or outside.  Use pool noodles to jump over with two feet, hop in and out of hula hoops, jump over cardboard bricks, etc.  Here is a post about Outdoor Lawn Games with lots of ideas for using backyard toys and equipment to address gross motor coordination skills.
  • This Ultra Dash Game (affiliate link) is fun for kids of all ages!  You can set up an obstacle course in various ways and then the kids have to race to match the colors from the wand to the colored base.  You could incorporate skipping, jumping, and hopping into this game to work on those skills in a new way.
  • Use gross motor toys to work on balance, coordination, motor planning, and core strength.
  • Use a long jump rope to hop over on one foot. 
  • Stand like a flamingo. Try freeze dance games with a flamingo theme. When the music stops, players have to hold one leg up like a flamingo!
  • Simon says- Incorporate the hop and jump tasks needed in the task of skipping. Use these Simon Says commands in therapy sessions.
  • Yoga is a great activity to build body awareness, gross motor skills, and bilateral coordination.  Here are several different kids yoga resources:
  • Skip ball (affiliate link)- this toy is a fun tool to practice skipping skills
  • Chinese Jump Rope (affiliate link) – who remembers this classic toy? Relive your childhood while passing on this great game
  • Mini Trampoline (affiliate link)- these are great to work on jumping, hopping, coordination, following directions, all great skills to teach skipping
  • Musical Hippity Hop Stick – this rotating stick encourages children to jump over the stick as it rotates by. If the stick touches them, the game is over. Practice this with two feet first, then try hopping over the stick
  • Hopscotch!  Don’t forget about this one!  All you need is some chalk and a sunny day to get outside and practice hopping and jumping.  This would be a great activity to set up on the playground for kids to work on skipping skills during recess. Not ready for outside play? Use painter’s tape down the hallway.

spring has almost sprung!

With Spring right around the corner, here are some Spring Gross Motor Activities to use with your students in the upcoming weeks to address gross motor coordination skills.

It’s time to get some “Spring” back in our steps!  Bring your kids outside and have some fun working on hopping, jumping, and of course…skipping!

Katherine Cook is an occupational therapist with 20 years experience primarily working in schools with students from preschool through Grade 12.  Katherine graduated from Boston University in 2001 and completed her Master’s degree and Certificate of Advanced Graduate Study at Tufts University in 2010.  Katherine’s school based experience includes working in integrated preschool programs, supporting students in the inclusion setting, as well as program development and providing consultation to students in substantially separate programs.  Katherine has a passion for fostering the play skills of children and supporting their occupations in school.