Transforming PT into Play Time… — 5 Minutes for Special Needs

Transforming PT into Play Time…

by Michelle



The “to do” list during the day when you parent a child with medical challenges can be overwhelming. And long. Such a list can include everything from specialty feedings, to medications, to dressing changes, to management of medical equipment. And then of course there are all of those physical therapy and occupational therapy exercises that need to be squeezed in somewhere.

What about play time? What about time to just be a family?

At our house, when it came to the huge list of PT/OT exercises we were supposed to work our way through every day, it seemed that there just weren’t enough hours in the day. At least when I approached that “to do” list in a linear frame of mind.

While some things to require a very linear and organized approach (medications for example), other parts of the daily schedule, such as physical therapy, or occupational therapy exercises can benefit from a more creative approach. My favorite? Transforming the exercise list into play time activities so my child doesn’t even know she’s doing her physical therapy.

Sound complicated? It’s really not — here let me break it down for you.

In a typical day, here are some (just a few of many, mind you) of the exercises that my daughter is supposed to complete to increase the range of motion in the right side of her neck and to strengthen her right arm and shoulder:

1. Seated behind child – Press down on left shoulder while pressing head towards right shoulder. Hold for count of five. Repeat 5-10 times. Twice daily.

2. Have child practice turning head as far to the right as possible without moving upper body and hold for a count of five. 5-10 times. Twice daily.

3. Have child bring right ear to right shoulder and squeeze for a count of 5-10. Twice daily

4. Have child assume push up position and hold for a count of five. Repeat 5-10 times. Twice daily.

5. Have child reach right arm high above head 5-10 times and hold for a count of ten. Twice daily.

We. Could. Not. Do. This. I mean, seriously — have you ever tried to interest a child in dropping everything to complete two sets of push-ups a day?

Here are some of the things we did instead:

1. “Neck massage” while watching a favorite 30 minute TV show. Complete with Swedish accent. I also give my daughter a chance to be the masseuse which for some reason, she finds hilarious.

2. Laser hide and seek. We bought a cheapo laser pointer. While holding my daughter in my lap I flash it around the room (mostly in a direction that requires her to look to the right) and ask her to find it. Instead of boring stretching exercises that she hates, we get to play a fun giggle-filled game together.

3. Beanie baby keep-away. I place one of my daughter’s small stuffed animals on her shoulder and ask her to squish it between her ear and her shoulder. She then tries to keep me from tugging it away by holding on tight.

4. Crab-walk races through the kitchen with Mommy after breakfast and wheelbarrow races down the hallway with Daddy before bedtime. Lots more fun than push-ups.

5. Look for opportunities throughout the day to encourage reaching up high. When it’s time to pick up toys, I hold a laundry basket up in the air and she has to reach up to fling the toys in. We put letter magnets on the fridge for her to play with, but whenever she wants to play the rule is that all the magnets have to start out by being placed above her head. Sometimes I can talk her into wearing a wrist weight on her right wrist. Mostly with reverse psychology. Another of our favorite “reaching exercises” is window markers…


I can’t even tell you how popular this one is! The rule is that to use the window markers she first has to draw me a picture above a line that I draw on the sliding glass door. I get to tell her what to draw so I’m able to control the length of the therapy session (sneaky, huh?). Then, after my picture is all done, she gets a free-for all. Then when she’s done, I pretend that I want to do the clean-up all by myself with my cool purple spray bottle full of water and a paper towel. Which of course she talks me out of by convincing me that she can do it herself — which also just happens to be incredible exercise for her right arm and exactly what I wanted.

See? That wasn’t so hard, now was it? Basically, just look at that list of exercises and ask yourself, “How can I turn this into a game?”

And if you just don’t think you can come up with your own playful exercise substitutes, try chatting with a PT or OT therapist that specializes in working with children in programs like Early Intervention. They are a super creative folks and a great resource to help you come up with therapy solutions that will engage your child. With a little creative thinking and teamwork, you and your kiddo could be on your way to having a little less work in your day and a lot more fun!


Find out more about Michelle
Read Michelle’s weekly column
Meet Michelle here each Monday for Magic Marker Monday
Questions? Please feel free to email Michelle at childlif[at]gmail[dot]com or come and visit her at In The Life of a Child

Email Author    |    Website About Michelle

Michelle is a stay-at-home mom, wife to her wonderful husband, and mother of their two adorable and much-loved children. Through her blog, In The Life of a Child, Michelle has grown a passion for supporting families who are parenting children through extreme medical challenges. Her oldest child was born with a rare birth defect known as a lymphatic malformation and was also diagnosed with cyclic vomiting syndrome. Michelle and her husband share a common goal as parents: To treasure every moment and raise their children to be extraordinary individuals.

View all articles by


This post may contain affiliate links. When you use them, you support this site. Thank you!
See our Disclosure Policy for details.
1 Barbara February 20, 2009 at 1:16 pm

Exactly! Excellent! Extraordinary!

Kind of like “Try This Tuesday”, eh? I bet lots of parent do this and are searching for more ideas.

2 Heidi February 20, 2009 at 4:36 pm

Our list of activities is getting pretty long too! I know that I will need to start figuring out some more interesting ways to do things soon.

3 Becky February 20, 2009 at 10:24 pm

This post made me giggle out loud! “We. Could. Not. Do. This.” Hilarious! I read the whole post to my husband.

4 Awesome Mom February 20, 2009 at 11:34 pm

Awesome ideas!! I am going to have to try and give my son’s PT home exercises a boost of fun.

5 Michelle February 21, 2009 at 12:24 am

Barbara — Thanks! I didn’t even think about Try This Tuesday — I’ll have to link this up there next week ;)

Heidi — Yeah, it’s rough when there’s so much to do, and especially when they’re as young as your little guy. PT can be can be extra challenging at that age.

Becky — :D Adding giggles to your day just made mine!

Awesome Mom — I’d love to hear back how it works out for you ;) We have PT/OT exercises for oral sensory issues, neck range of motion, shoulder and arm strength, gait therapy, and facial palsy so if there’s anything I can help out with let me know.


Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: