Playtime Tips for Building Self Awareness

These fine motor activities are provided for the Melissa & Doug blog by Cindy Utzinger, pediatric Occupational Therapist.

“Where am I in space?”  “What is my body doing right now?” Those are probably not questions that you ask yourself very often. It is very important, however, that all of us have an awareness of where our bodies are and what they are doing in relationship to the world around us. Let me briefly explain why this is so important and then give you some ideas on how you can help your children develop this awareness through play.

To explain why these two concepts are so important, let me use the example of a young boy up to bat during a baseball game. He has to understand where he is in relation to the pitcher and the rest of the field in order to be able to judge how quickly the ball is coming at him, how hard to swing to try to get the ball to the outfield, and in what direction to swing. He also has to understand what his body is doing in order to hold the baseball bat correctly even though his head is turned away from the bat and toward the field, know how tightly to grip the bat, and calculate how much strength and force he needs to use to swing the bat.

For some, this awareness of where and what happens subconsciously and without a second thought. There are many children, however, who struggle with this awareness of where they are in relationship to the world around and with what their bodies are doing.  In an effort to gain an increased awareness, these children will seek out movement so that they can gather more sensory input in order to help them gain a clearer picture of  where and what. They may have trouble sitting still, fidget constantly, have trouble focusing, have difficulty controlling their impulses, and seek out faster or more intense movement. Children who struggle with this awareness may appear clumsy, have poor balance, and poor fine motor and gross motor coordination, as well. It takes having a good awareness of where your body is and what it is doing to have success with refined and coordinated movements.

How do children gain an understanding of where they are in space? Children gain this through their sensory systems (through seeing, smelling, hearing, moving, and touching) and interacting with the world around them. While seeing, smelling, hearing, and touching are senses that we all have at least a basic understanding of, let me briefly explain the sensory systems that are involved in our sense of  movement (the vestibular and proprioceptive systems):

  • Our vestibular system gathers information when we move in our heads in relation to gravity by processing the changes in our head position. This system helps us to develop a sense of and comprehend what our bodies are doing in relationship to the rest of the world.
  • Our proprioceptive system gives us our sense of position and helps us to understand our movements and gathers information through our muscles, ligaments, and joints.

How can you incorporate vestibular and proprioceptive input in to your children’s play time?  Let me give you some ideas:

  • Vestibular input: Activities that involve swinging, rolling, sliding, spinning, or being upside down (such as hanging from the monkey bars) provide children with vestibular input.

I like to use a tunnel to play rolling games. I will have a child crawl in to the tunnel and I will either roll them (if needed) or I will have them roll themselves to one side of the room and then back to the other. I work this into learning activities such as letter recognition, spelling, or math by putting letters or numbers on one side of the room and letting the child roll down to get a letter or number and then roll it back to me in order to spell a word, tell me what letter they have to work on letter recognition, or solve the math problem. I also like to do this activity with puzzles and rolling to retrieve puzzle pieces and then rolling back to put the pieces together.

Another fun way that I like to work vestibular input into indoor play time is with Bowling.

upside down bowling

I like to put a spin on it, though. I like to have kids do “upside-down” bowling. To do this, have your child turn so that their back is facing the bowling pins. The child then rolls the ball to knock the pins down by bending over and rolling the ball in between their legs, looking back at the pins through their legs as they do this.  This change in the position of their head is what gives them vestibular input.

  • Proprioceptive input: Activities that involve jumping, climbing, running, and using “heavy work” muscles (such as through wheel barrow races, crab walking, pulling or pushing heavy loads, etc.) provide children with proprioceptive input.


laundry basket carries


Some other ideas:

  • Hopscotch is a fun way to incorporate jumping into indoor or outdoor play.
  • Packing a small plastic bin with toys and pushing it (or simply scooting it around) provides children with opportunities to use their “heavy work” muscles.
  • This butterfly kid’s cart and Shopping Cart are other ways that kids can use their imagination, while filling them and get good proprioceptive input by pushing and pulling them.  Remember, the heavier the better (within reason, obviously)!

Working vestibular and proprioceptive input into play is so very important for children to develop the awareness of where their bodies are and what they are doing in relationship to the world around them.  The good part is, though, that these activities can be tons of fun.  You know the motive behind these activities but your children just get to enjoy quality time with you playing and using their imaginations and have no idea that there is an ulterior motive!


Cindy Utzinger is a pediatric Occupational Therapist, handwriting tutor, and founder of Building Write Foundations LLC.  She lives in North Carolina with her husband and two young children (a son and a daughter).  In her free time she can be found running through the streets of her neighborhood to get some exercise or enjoying time on the lake with family and friends.  Through her website ( she provides parents, teachers, and caregivers with information regarding the importance of building each and every child’s sensory foundation and provides ways to help build their sensory foundation and their foundation for learning.  Through her website she also blogs and tackles issues dealing with handwriting problems, ADD/ADHD, Sensory Processing Disorder, and diagnoses on the autism spectrum.

You can follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter and her blog!