Kelley Harlan | June 8, 2023 | Physical Therapy

Let’s Make an Obstacle Course!

With the unpredictable weather and virtual school instruction, it can be hard to find ways to keep your child moving and active! Obstacle courses provide a great way to allow children to work on a wide array of skills with one fun activity and just a few simple household items.

Why Obstacle Courses Are So Beneficial:

Obstacle Courses allow children to address multiple skills they may need to practice in one activity. By selectively choosing specific activities in your obstacle course, children can engage in activities that challenge them and build their own self-confidence no matter their age or abilities. Obstacle Courses build multiple skills that children will utilize throughout their daily routines including:

  • Cognitive and Thinking Skills: planning, memory, following directions, sequencing multiple steps together, problem solving, adaptability, and creativity

  • Communication Skills: Identifying household objects, Turn taking, waiting patiently, cooperation, and asking for help when needed

  • Fine Motor and Vision Skills: Finger and hand strength, hand-eye coordination, spatial awareness, focusing on and tracking objects with their eyes

  • Gross Motor Skills: balance, strength (upper and lower body), postural control, bilateral coordination (using both sides of the body), and timing of movements and speed

  • Safety Awareness: following safety rules, safely navigating over equipment and household items, thinking about consequences of actions

  • Sensory Processing: provides multiple sources of sensory input to increase your child’s sensory processing abilities including tactile (touch), proprioception (jumping, pulling, pushing, lifting, climbing), and vestibular (movement in all directions up, down, and around)

Tips and Tricks to Build an Obstacle Course at Home!

Work together with your child to brainstorm fun activities to include in your obstacle course. Some children will love to pick a theme (ex: volcanoes, sharks) and use their imagination throughout the entire course! Help your child identify activities that will provide an appropriate challenge and a sense of accomplishment. Based on your child’s age and abilities adjust the number of activities you may include in your obstacle course. Younger children or those who are working on sequencing and memory can benefit from 3-6 step obstacle courses, while older children and those whose strengths include planning and memory may be able to complete obstacle courses with 5-10 different activities.

So what activities can you include to address specific skills your child may need to work on? Below are some ideas for you to try and to spark your own creativity!

  • Cognition

    • Sequencing-Have your child remember the steps of the obstacle course independently

    • Challenge your child to follow verbal or written directions

    • Incorporate riddles, math problems, colors, numbers, shapes to promote learning

    • Adaptability-provide a list of activities for your child to choose from and include in your obstacle course or once you have completed the obstacle course ask them to rearrange the sequence of activities

  • Balance

    • Walk on uneven surfaces

    • Balance on a string or a taped line on the floor

    • Sit on unstable surfaces such as swings and pillows

    • Stand or hop on one foot

    • Walk with eyes closed or blindfolded

  • Strengthening

    • Push or pull heavy items

    • Climb onto elevated surfaces

    • Carry heavy objects such as books or toys

    • Complete exercises such as push ups and sit ups

    • Have your child place the items you are using for your obstacle course themselves

  • Coordination

    • Jumping Jacks

    • Animal Walks

    • Playing catch or throwing items at a target

    • Running through or around cones

    • Dancing in patterns

    • Hopscotch jumping

    • Crawling on hands and knees

  • Fine Motor

    • Handwriting tasks: Have your child create a map of your obstacle course, record each step, create a “Start” and “Finish” sign or number each activity

    • Dressing tasks: buttoning, zippers, tying shoes

    • Manipulating small play pieces such as tokens and coins, play figurines, and stickers

  • Sensory:

    • Find items hidden in sand, beans, rice, or packing peanuts

    • Dive into stacked pillows, cushions, or mattresses

    • Spinning

    • Jumping

    • Climbing

    • Swinging

Materials Needed:

One of the great benefits of obstacle courses is that common household items can be used to foster challenges and fun for your child.

Try using:

  • Small balls for catching and throwing skills

  • Couch cushions, pillows, and mattresses to climb, crash, and jump

  • Placemats, construction paper, or wash cloths can be used as stepping stones or visual cues

  • Pool noodles, paper towel rolls, rope, stuffed animals, small bowls turned upside down can be used to make obstacles to step or jump over

  • Children’s step stools can be used to climb up and jump off

  • Jump ropes and tape can be used as lines to balance on or follow on the floor

  • Fill laundry baskets with heavy items and have your child push or pull the basket for heavy work

  • Use blankets over tables or chairs to create a tunnel for your child to crawl through

  • Challenge yourself to a no equipment obstacle course using exercises, animal walks (bear, frog, crab, etc.), games such as ISpy and riddles, Yoga poses, and incorporating a listening component (Red Light, Green Light)

Ways to Make Your Obstacle Course More Challenging:

  • Add more steps

  • Require the child to remember each step independently

  • Increase the number of reps for exercises such as jumping jacks

  • Have the child complete the entire course multiple times

  • Time the child to see how quickly they can complete the course

Ways to Make Your Obstacle Course Accommodating to Your Child’s Abilities:

  • Provide visual cues (maps, list or demonstration) and verbal instructions for each activity

  • Decrease the number of activities in your course

  • Provide plenty of verbal encouragement

  • Allow plenty of time for completion

  • Be available to help if the child begins to feel too challenged or is hesitant to engage in challenging tasks

Time to Take on the Course!

Before engaging your child in the obstacle course you have created, review each step to ensure understanding and safety rules. This is especially important for children who have difficulty with planning, memory, and sequencing. Then, run through your obstacle course with your child! Have fun and enjoy watching your child work towards their goals while engaging in active play!