Why Obstacle Courses


During the warmer months going to the playground, shooting hoops outside and even going on a nature walk are all wonderful ways to get sensory input in a natural, organic way. As it gets colder out playing in the snow, building snowmen and going on a nature walk are still viable options. However, it becomes more challenging to do this for longer periods of time and on a more consistent basis when braving the winter outdoor elements. Enter obstacle courses.

In therapy sessions obstacle courses are a common activity. By putting together a bunch of activities it makes it possible to give sensory input and achieve strengthening goals. Additionally it works on executive functioning and organization. Depending on the age and ability of the child, they may help set up the steps of the obstacle course and organize the items in sequential order. Often a therapist will have a child write the steps of the course to incorporate some handwriting in a fun and motivating manner. How can you recreate this at home?

Your first and most valuable asset to home obstacle coursing is your child. If they are currently in therapy they are likely familiar with the concept and the types of activities that work well. Your next best friend is animal walks (again something your child will be familiar with if they are in therapy). During the obstacle course institute the rule that you cannot “walk” anywhere. You may animal walk, cartwheel, forward roll, etc. Just by doing this you have given your child a good dose of proprioceptive, vestibular, and tactile input as well as the opportunity to strengthen important postural muscles.

The number of steps the obstacle course will have will vary on how much time you have available and how old/young your child is. Generally for younger children (preschool to kindergarten age) or shorter attention spans 3 to 4 step obstacle courses are ideal. For an older child (elementary school age and above) or someone who is familiar with obstacle courses 4 to 5 steps (and potentially more) is appropriate. These are not hard and fast rules, but guidelines to help you get started.

A sample course could look like this: walk across the balance beam, crawl through the tunnel, make a basketball shot, animal walk back to the beginning and start again. Now what do you do if you don’t have these items? You improvise. Put a piece of tape or a blanket on the floor for your “balance beam”. Instead of a tunnel put couch cushions or pillows on the floor to indicate a crawling space, and throw a toy/bean bag/pillow into a basket/bucket/cardboard box.

Other activities that we often use in our obstacle courses (along with suggestions for how to re-create at home) are as follows:

– Jumping up, over, or on: We use foam blocks and mini hurdles. You can use ottomans, couch cushions, cardboard boxes, laundry baskets, etc.

– Climbing the rock wall: Admittedly this is a hard one to recreate at home. Depending on your space and safety concerns climbing on the couch, up/down the stairs or up and over any of the items listed above is a good alternative.

– Monkey bars: This is another one that can be more challenging to create at home. If your child is small enough you can be a human monkey bar. Let your child hang from your extended arms. If this isn’t feasible, a pull up bar in a door frame is another nice option. If this also isn’t feasible, your child is likely showing you where they like to hang from already. Maybe it is a part of your house you wish they didn’t hang from! If you are okay with their hanging destination of choice incorporate it into the obstacle course. Hopefully when they are given the opportunity to hang throughout their day they will hang less at times when you prefer they didn’t. If you are not okay with the hanging location, consider purchasing a pull up bar to provide an alternative. To give a similar type of input you can instruct your child to push down on a stable surface (coffee table, side of couch, ottoman if stable enough) and lift up their feet. This could be a “station” in the obstacle course.

– Ball pit: A ball pit at home is an awesome idea but often not realistic. You can pile up couch cushions, pillows, blankets, bean bag chairs (anything soft and cushiony) to make a home (temporary) ball pit. Building a fort and then putting any of the above inside the fort can function like a ball pit. This is a great activity by itself on a day when going outside doesn’t work or when you already went outside and your child still needs more physical input. For a smaller child you can fill up a laundry basket with a variety of balls and small toys and place them inside the basket. Then have your older child push them around for heavy work (see below).

– Heavy Work: Often in an obstacle course a child will be instructed to carry a weighted ball or snake from one place to another or play “heavy basketball”. Although these materials are accessible at Target, Sports Authority, Amazon, etc. you can also make them at home. Have your child push a laundry basket full of laundry, canned goods, and bags of rice, anything heavy! You can make your own weighted items by filling a long sock or mitten with rice and beans.

In addition to strengthening and sensory input an obstacle course is a wonderful way to work other skill areas (fine motor skills, puzzle skills, etc.). As previously mentioned you can practice writing the steps of the obstacle course down. You can use this written log as a checklist and encourage your child to work more independently. This is a wonderful skill that can be generalized to organizing homework, morning/evening routines, and longer projects. You can put pieces of a puzzle at one end of the obstacle course and the puzzle board at the other end. This also will help to mark when an obstacle course starts and begin. Lastly, you can incorporate fine motor activities as a step in the obstacle course. For example, you can place tweezers with pom-poms container at the end of the course and have your child pick up 5 pom-poms prior to continuing.

Obstacle courses provide a fun way to provide strengthening and sensory input. As with many of our OT activities they are not a magical activity that can only be done during a therapy session. They are a wonderful addition to a home sensory diet. Children often have the BEST ideas for obstacle course. Use the ideas in this post to get started and then let us know where things take you by commenting below!

Happy Obstacle Coursing!


The Staff at Positive Steps.

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