Summer time is beach time. When the weather gets hot, most of us want to plop down in a chair, sip an icy beverage, and wiggle our toes in the water. But young children do not want to relax at the beach. They want to play!
As a pediatric physical therapist and an early interventionist, I see many young children who are weak, intolerant of messy hands, and can’t seem to start talking.
As a pediatric physical therapist and an early interventionist, I see many young children who are weak, intolerant of messy hands, and can’t seem to start talking. I’m often asked for activities parents can do to help their child get stronger, tolerate messy hands, and begin to name objects. Since I live in Florida, a few miles from the beautiful Gulf of Mexico, I incorporate family beach time into my suggestions because going to the beach is what families do.
Here are three activities you can do with your child to build strength and coordination, increase his tolerance of various textures in the environment, and expand his vocabulary. These will also work at a beach beside a lake, a river, or even in your backyard sandbox.
Digging Holes in the Sand
It’s natural to dig holes in sand. Even adults do it. Sometimes we use our hands and other times we dig with our heels. Why do we do this? I guess it’s something to do, but to many of us it just feels good.
For children, it’s an adventure. Digging in sand, especially wet sand, builds strength in the hands, arms, trunk, hips, and legs. The heavier the sand, the more strength you build. It’s like lifting weights, except the weight isn’t a dumbbell, it is sand.
It is also useful to dig with tools, such as cups or shovels. This requires a bit more skill and eye-hand coordination. Dig alongside your child and help fill a bucket. Once the bucket is filled, your child can pick up the bucket, carry it a short distance across the sand, and dump it.
It is not unusual for young children to dislike touching sand. However, it is unusual for children to continue to be intolerant of it. A child’s unwillingness to get his hands messy or sticky may interfere with preschool or school activities, such as finger painting or playing with slime. Helping your child tolerate sand will be helpful to them later on.
In the early intervention environment (ages birth to 3 years old), we are seeing an increase in the number of children with weak hands. Research demonstrates some of this is related to extensive play on electronic devices and less time grasping and stacking blocks, holding crayons to color, or digging in sand. The gentle touch required to swipe a screen does not build strength or desensitize hands to the natural environment.
Building a Mountain
Since you’re digging a hole, you’ll need to do something with the sand your child has dug up. I encourage you to help her build a mountain. After a good-sized pile is created, it’s time to walk up and down the mountain and, while you’re at it, go in and out of the valley or hole you’ve dug. This common beach play is therapeutic for your child. She is learning to walk on uneven and mushy surfaces. Walking on sand improves her strength and balance, especially in the feet and hips. Hold her hand if she need some help or encouragement. Play along with her and talk to her about what she’s doing.
In the past decade or so of practice, I find many children can’t make up a game or imagine things. They play with a lot of electronic toys or ‘learning apps’ that entertain them and require little to no verbal communication from the child.
Use a singsong voice, not a boring one. Use phrases such as, “Let’s go up, up, up the mountain!” Naturally, she may decide to stomp, jump, or somehow crush the mountain. These activities build power in the legs and improve her balance as she stands with one leg raised to crash down on the sand pile. Jumping on sand builds strength, coordination, and endurance.
It is likely someone’s mountain will get damaged and feelings will get hurt. Use this opportunity to help her say, “I’m sorry” or “I forgive you.” These common phrases build vocabulary and teach manners and respect for others.
Making up a Story
Finally, building language and communication requires words. In the past decade or so of practice, I find many children can’t make up a game or imagine things. They play with a lot of electronic toys or ‘learning apps’ that entertain them and require little to no verbal communication from the child. Since I’m a writer, I usually engage children in making up a story about what they are doing. For example, (insert your child’s name) is the king of the land of sand. He has to build a castle to house all of his horses and equipment for battle. Or [your child’s name] is a superhero that flies in from outer space and crashes into the mountain. In order to survive in this sandy world, she has to dig a river for water. After she has water, then she can build a grand castle to live in.
Once you get your child started, he will usually begin to use his own imagination. Let him make up the storylines and you play along. Do not make him follow your story. Gently guide him in being helpful, instead of destructive. Encourage him to work with the aliens instead of squashing them. Help him identify and name objects, such as a yellow shovel or wet, sticky sand. Ask him questions, such as “What color are your horses?” Even if he only hears you say these words and does not repeat them or mispronounces them, you are building his vocabulary and his imagination.
Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it. Proverbs 22:6
Encourage your child to play with other children. And when disagreements arise, allow space for them to work out the problem. When feelings are hurt, as will likely occur, teach him the words and insist he apologize. These are windows of opportunity to teach social skills, such as cooperating with others, controlling anger, and making friends.
The Scriptures tell us to “train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it” (Proverbs 22:6 NIV). Not only must we train our child in godly character, but we also need to train her to tolerate and enjoy God’s world—the natural world of wind, sand, water, difficult people, and frustrating situations, so she can be an effective worker for His kingdom.
God our Father has given us such amazing environments—the beach may be one of His best designs. He also created children to play in the water, dig in the sand, and engage their imaginations. Our Father knows these activities entertain and help them in so many ways.
Our electronic virtual world was created by man. While it is interesting and addictive, it is lacking. Electronic screens primarily stimulate vision. They do little to engage the body in movement, to encourage the use of words to communicate, or to develop the social skills of your child. Your child needs these additional skills to be successful in school and in life.
Please take your child to the beach and dig holes, build mountains, and compose stories. These simple activities will build larger vocabularies, stronger bodies, and desensitize your child’s hands so he will enjoy touching God’s world. And, always be safe.