8 Sensory-Motor Benefits of Aquatic Therapy

Summer is the perfect time to take advantage of all the therapeutic benefits of swimming and playing in the pool. Many children who have difficulty controlling their bodies for sports and gross motor activities will have success moving in the water. Its also such a calming and organizing sensory environment that it can provide a grounding experience for the child that can often last for the remainder of the day.

Eight  Activities to Enhance Pool Time

  1. Sensory Experience. Water provides 30x more deep pressure to the body than air and it is uniquely a full contact input to the body. Many children who become adept at swimming underwater will find it a very calming and organizing place to be. To encourage underwater swimming, have your child dive for fish or animal rings.
  2. Vestibular Stimulation. Moving through water creates controlled vestibular stimulation in various planes. All of this enhanced sensory input helps with body awareness development and motor learning. In addition to swimming, children can walk, somersault, or do angels in the water when supported on their backs. A hammock lounger can be used to support your child as she becomes more comfortable in the water.
  3. Oral Motor Skills. The water is a natural environment for children to improve their oral-motor skills. Blowing bubbles in the water, blowing through a straw, or blowing ping pong balls across the pool are fun ways to introduce blowing skills.
  4. Sensory Input. The intense sensory input in the water will often increase language and lots of singing in the pool will further enhance those opportunities. Fun pool toys, such as a dolphin baby seat, a large dalmatian rider, or an alligator float can enhance your child’s creativity in the pool!
  5. Muscle Strength. Water can either assist or provide resistance to active movement through all planes of motion, facilitating gains in strength for all major muscle groups. Encourage swimming and movement by tossing a ball or using a jumbo pool tube.
  6. Gross Motor Skills. The gravity-lessened environment of water can help children explore and practice movements and skills they are not yet able to perform on land. Children who have difficulty standing on one leg, jumping, or hopping on land can do so in the water. A basketball game, a badminton game,  or a splashing paddle ball game will make jumping and hopping much more fun.
  7. Walking and other Movements. Children who are learning to walk are assisted by the water because it slows down movements and gives the child more time to react. A fun way to practice these skills is to pretend to be different animals for a length of the pool: jump like a frog, paddle like a seal, float like a fish, gallop like a horse. For children who benefit from visual cues, bring a collection of plastic animals that the child can choose from. Your child can also pedal underwater while riding a jumbo whale.
  8. Motor Planning. Motor planning skills can be enhanced by experimenting with different ways to use a pool noodle, such as sitting on it like a swing, or a horse, or floating on back with the noodle under knees. Poolmaster carries a seahorse twister that is fifteen feet long and will provide your swimmer with lots of fun ways to sit, paddle, and move through the water. Similarly, see how many ways a child can use a kickboard, from sitting to kneeling to standing to holding it and kicking legs.
Focus on Fun!

Even when looking at swimming and playing in the water as therapeutic, as long as the child is moving in the water, they are getting a benefit. If your child is not yet swimming, take advantage of an easy-to-learn swim tube or a floatation suit to get him in the water. Focus on fun and all of the other benefits will come!

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Joni Redlich, DPT About Joni Redlich, DPT

Joni is a pediatric physical therapist who specializes in developmental disabilities, is certified in Neurodevelopmental Treatment, and has extensive experience with sensory integration therapy. She blogs at Kid PT.