There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted all of us in so many different ways. First and foremost, the number of people who have lost their lives or suffered devastating health repercussions from COVID-19 is alarming. In addition, the negative impact on mental health, business, family relationships and education has changed the landscape of our country and the world. As we continue to "hunker down" and "lay low" a little longer, there is a phenomenon that is becoming more and more apparent to both parents and professionals who work with children: children of all ages are moving less, using their hands less, and exploring their environments less than before the pandemic. And the result is a significant impact on motor development, skill acquisition, self regulation and mental health in children of all ages.
Pediatric OTs emphasize the benefits of daily movement, exploration of a multi-sensory environment and use of multi-sensory materials to build regulation, strength and skills. Oftentimes, much of this learning and development happens subtly at school. There is a multitude of underlying neurological development and motor learning that occurs organically and "behind the scenes" in a typical classroom setting. Transitions between classes are natural "motor breaks" for younger kiddos and are an opportunity for emotional connection and socialization for all- including older children in middle and high school. Participation in class lessons fosters attention, interaction and social skills for all ages. Circle time for preschool and early elementary aged children promotes core co-contraction, strength and upright posture. Picking up a pencil and writing, coloring or drawing promotes fine motor dexterity and visual motor integration. Dramatic play inspires creativity, problem solving and social development. And pediatric OTs, other medical professionals and educators alike all understand the extreme importance of recess and daily exercise to facilitate learning and development!
The 2020 school year features many varieties: hybrid, remote, in person shorter days, etc. with a heavy reliance on technology. This means way more sitting, screen time, use of keyboards and interacting with computers. While there is much debate about the most effective delivery model for balancing safety and learning with "2020 pandemic-style education", no one can argue the necessity of continuing to foster motor, sensory and social development through natural, movement based, physical, hands on experiences (with safety and social distancing measures in place). This sounds like a simple concept to implement, but consider the multitude of regulations, schedules, hurdles, and daily changes that families and teachers are currently juggling. So how do we do it?
DESIGN AND IMPLEMENT A DAILY DEVELOPMENTAL DIET AT HOME
Inspired by Sensory Diets (which are often recommended by pediatric OTs for self regulation and sensory processing), a pragmatic solution is to build a Daily Developmental Diet at home with a focus on Family, Function, and Fun! Although this unique concept is inspired by OT principles, an OT is not necessarily needed for a family to create their own Daily Developmental Diet at home. A Daily Developmental Diet should be personalized, meaningful and attainable, and creating this daily routine can be a fun family activity itself!
(1) FAMILY: Take Matters Into Your Own Hands and Lead by Example
Healthy habits develop when reinforced daily- and this starts at home. Block off a 15-20 minute block of time for the whole family to participate in "family exercise" every day- this can be as structured as sit ups, push ups, planks and burpees or as unstructured as TV Tag, hide and seek, or an impromptu dance party. Pick a time of day that the family can come together and spend time together on a semi-regular schedule. As a busy mom with 3 teenagers, I know this is not a small feat (to coordinate schedules and motivate teens) but leading by example can be infectious for children of all ages. If you can sustain this time for 21 days, a habit will be formed and you will notice the strength and mental health benefits for your children (and yourself too)!
(2) FUNCTION: Make it Practical
Practice writing by having your child make a grocery list. Build core and upper body strength by having your child help with laundry (pull sheets or towels out of the washer or dryer or push the laundry basket down the hallway) or bring in the groceries. Build shoulder stability and sensory tolerance by washing dishes with soapy water or by baking something together (make sure to include stirring and kneading dough). Functional activities are the foundation of development and have so many ancillary benefits, including teaching and promoting responsibility and participation in family roles and routines.
(3) FUN: Meaningful Activity is Motivational
The more you can tap into activities that your children enjoy, the more excited they will be to participate. Leverage your child's favorite activities and be creative- Does your child like to doodle? Paint a chalk wall in an area your home for vertical doodling and message writing (this is great for mudrooms)- or hang a white board or piece of poster board for a more temporary solution. Does your child like to sing and dance? Inspire each family member to create a "short play" or "dance routine" to share with the rest of your family (great for exploration of movement and sensory input). If your child likes to build, construct a fort using heavy pillows, couch cushions, chairs and blankets (building strength, executive functioning skills, planning skills and providing heavy work too).
These simple solutions are most effective when met with consistency and enthusiasm on the part of parents. We have to continue to embrace the path we are on, and develop creative solutions to dampen the ripple effects of the pandemic. By carving out quality time for families to "develop" together, we may find that Daily Developmental Diets become a part of the family routine, long after the pandemic is behind us- creating a silver lining and a positive outcome for the year 2020.
Dr. Amy Wheadon, OTD, OTR/L is a licensed and registered Pediatric Occupational Therapist, the owner of KidSHINE LLC in Rowley, MA and Amesbury, MA and the creator of the evidence-based KidSHINE Bootcamp Program and the Daily Developmental Diet. Please feel free to share your family's personal "Daily Developmental Diet" ideas with Amy and other blog readers in the comments below!