In occupational therapy, addressing upper body strength can iffy for some. All OT interventions must be functional and based on daily tasks that make up a person’s day. OT is occupation! So when it comes to upper body strengthening, the question can arise whether the strengthen is functional. BUT, when you think about functional tasks, upper body strength is a must. When upper body strength results in less function of daily occupations, upper body exercises relate back to the functional task, making skilled strengthening activities part of the OT treatment plan. Let’s look at upper body strength and upper body strengthening activities that are used in occupational therapy sessions.
These upper extremity activities for toddlers can get you started on some ideas for strengthening the upper body through play.
Upper Body Strength
The other day I was working on hand strength with a young child in one of my therapy sessions and I noticed how difficult it was for him to keep his arm in position while he was trying to complete the activity. I was reminded once again of how important upper body strength is when we are working towards improving fine motor skills.
Upper body strength is made up of the muscles in the upper chest, muscles in the upper back and muscles attached to the shoulder joint. All of these muscles work together to create stability at the shoulder joint. This shoulder girdle stability is essential for establishing a solid anchor for the rest of the arm. Without this anchor it is difficult to develop good control in the lower arm, hands and fingers. In therapy-speak we talk about developing proximal stability before we can achieve distal control.
The stronger body enables functional performance in purposeful activities.
Development of upper body strength
Upper body strength emerges as young toddlers and children engage in movement activities. In the first few months of life babies push up on their arms when lying on their tummies.
This early weight-bearing leads to strengthening and allows them to progress to four-point kneeling and eventually crawling. Upper body strength is very important as babies pull themselves into standing and begin to cruise along the couch or coffee table. This upper body strength continues to develop as children learn to climb jungle gyms, hold on to swings and learn to ride bicycles. The importance of play and movement in the early years reinforces the need for parents and caregivers to provide opportunities for young children to move and grow.
Read more about the power of play and the impact that the occupation of play has on strength development in kids.
Upper body strength remains vital in school-aged children as they tackle the challenge of refining their fine motor skills.
How to develop upper body strength
When focusing on developing upper body strength in children the vertical surface will become your new best friend!
Working on a vertical surface places extra demands on the upper body as these muscles have to move against gravity to complete the task. Working on a vertical surface has the added bonus of placing the wrist and fingers in a good position for drawing or writing.
A vertical surface can be a wall, a door, a mirror, a blackboard or a white board.
Have a look at the following activities (and purposeful, functional tasks) that you can complete on a vertical surface:
- Draw or color pictures
Use tape to stick a piece of paper or picture on the wall. Use chalk, crayons, pastels or pencil crayons to draw a picture or color a picture in. When working for upper body strength try to encourage big movements that incorporate a wide range of movement for the shoulder muscles. Big bold rainbows and large lazy eights work very well. Related, these are the best crayons to support development, based on age and motor skills.
Remember that the physical demands of working on a vertical surface are much greater than working at a table or a desk so give your child a chance to build up stamina and endurance.
Read more about coloring as a functional occupation and the development of coloring skills.
- Playdough press
I like to use a mirror or white board for vertical playdough activities. Playdough lends itself to endless creative outcomes and working against a vertical surface adds a new fun dimension. Playdough pieces can be used to fill in outlines of pictures or playdough creations can be stuck onto the white board. A large piece of playdough can be stuck onto the vertical surface and impressions can be made using everyday objects e.g. spoon, pencil. We have even had fun making handprint and footprint impressions.
Also try these play dough activities for improving upper body strength through play.
There are many reasons why stickers improve skills. Using stickers adds some refined pincer grip control, pinch strength, eye-hand coordination, wrist stability, shoulder girdle strengthening, and more. Place a page or picture on a vertical surface and use stickers to decorate. You can give verbal instructions to add listening skills and spatial concepts to the task e.g. place the blue sticker next to the cat.
Painting is another functional task that improves hand and upper body strength. Occupational performance includes leisure activities such as painting and art. Painting is a great functional way to improve upper body strength. Complete your painting activity on an easel or vertical surface.
- Shaving cream on a mirror
This fun, messy activity is a firm favorite with children. Spray a dollop of shaving cream into their hands and encourage them to spread it across the mirror to create a shaving cream drawing board. Draw pictures, shapes and patterns across the mirror.
- Whiteboard activities
Use whiteboard and white board markers to practice letter or number formations. To improve hand and upper body strength, use the whiteboard to play games like tic tac toe, word searches, and more.
- Tearing and sticking
Stick the outline of a picture or shape on the wall. Tear small pieces of paper from a magazine and use a glue stick to paste the pieces onto the shape to fill the shape. Tearing paper strengthens the hand, wrist, shoulder girdle, and upper body. To make this a functional task, try using junk mail as a paper tearing activity.
- Body shapes
This works well on a mirror. Ask the child to stand with their back up against the mirror. Use a Koki to trace the outline of the child. Encourage the child to add in the facial detail and clothing in order to complete the picture.
- Race tracks
Draw a race track on a chalkboard or on a large piece of paper stuck to the wall. Drive a small car along the race track. Older children can draw their own race tracks. Try this race track activity using wikki stix. Playing on the floor strengthens the upper body, core, shoulder girdle, and wrist. Using wikki stix to pinch and peel on the floor while incorporating upper body support is a great way to build upper body strength through play.
Kids also love this garage door activity where we used magnetic letters on the garage door. What a great activity for using a vertical surface to strengthen the upper body through play.
- Tic Tac Toe
This can be played on a vertical surface. Encourage your child to draw the grid before playing the game. Engaging in these activities on a vertical surface will contribute to the development of upper body strength. Many of the games and activities that you have at home or in the classroom can be adapted to ‘vertical’ activities with a bit of tape or prestik.
For more functional upper extremity exercises using functional activities to strengthen the upper body for pencil grasp, scissor use, dressing, clothing fasteners, and more, be sure to grab our seasonal Fine Motor Kits. Each one includes resources for upper body strengthening but can be used on vertical surfaces for shoulder and core strengthening.
These Heavy Work Activity Cards promote full body movement and strengthening through play. Add them to your therapy toolkit.
Contributor to The OT Toolbox: Janet Potterton is an occupational therapist working predominantly in school-based settings and I love, love, love my job. I have two children (if you don’t count my husband!), two dogs, one cat, two guinea pigs and one fish. When I am not with my family or at work I try to spend time in nature. The beach is my happy place.