Occupational therapy core exercises for kids help develop postural stability needed for fine motor activities in school and at home. Core strength also helps improve attention and focus in students. Free PDF printable available.
As a school based occupational therapist, I helped run a program for a school district’s kindergarten and first grade classes. The program started with a discussion about core strength and posture.
We talked to the students and teachers about the importance of core strength and its impact on their attention and fine motor skills.
The kids were attentive… they wiggled upright on the carpet into their best upright positions. They held them for a moment… before relaxing, shifting position, leaning for support, etc
We talked about how the shoulders need to be strong in order to help the hands. And then we shared simple exercises to help strengthen those muscles…
The teachers were shocked at how difficult the simple positions were for their students! It was eye opening.
Their students couldn’t hold their arms out to the sides in a ‘T’ position. Arm circles were torture! Holding any static posture was so challenging!
And MANY struggled lying on their stomachs in a prone position.
Why do Kids Need Core Strength and Core Stability?
Kids need core strength to help them sit with good posture in a chair. Good posture helps kids pay attention better.
Additionally, core stability helps kids use their hands functionally for fine motor tasks. They have more success during writing, cutting, and self-help tasks.
If children have good core strength and good core stability, they can sit upright without fatigue. If they’re not getting physically tired, they can focus and attend better.
As a pediatric OT, I see too many kids who lack core strength and postural stability. I see the impact that it has on performance in the classroom.
Students with a weak core have a hard time sitting still or sitting upright. They lean on their desks or rest their head in their hands.
Often times, teachers think that there is a “sensory difficulty.” This makes total sense because the kids are constantly fidgeting.
However, often the fidgeting and constant moving in the chair is because their muscles get tired. They simply have trouble sitting upright.
Their core muscles are weak!
Why Do Kids Lack Core Strength and Need Core Exercises?
In my experience, many avoidable factors contribute to weak core muscles in kids.
Changes in play, increased screen time, and decreased outdoor time are the biggest reasons that impact core strength and motor development.
These changes also in turn, impact gross motor skills, balance, visual motor development, and fine motor strength and development.
More and more babies are not getting adequate tummy time or floor time play that develops postural muscles. They are placed in “containers” with toys right in front of them where their bodies don’t have to move or work much against gravity.
Increased screen time in toddlers, preschoolers and kids greatly impacts development. It encourages sedentary play that does not stimulate a child’s body and brain for proper development. It prevents good posture from developing.
There is decreased outdoor play that impacts gross motor, core strength and balance skills. Decreased gross motor play activities impacts basic skill building opportunities for a child’s body and brain. Kids need movement to enhance learning!
These all contribute to decreased sensory motor development which impacts core muscle strength.
This is sad to see, but there are some simple ways to help kids’ bodies and brains:
CORE STRENGTH EXERCISES!
Core exercises for kids are easy, fun, and helpful. As a school-based OT, I see the importance of using these core exercises for all students. Add them to your brain breaks or use them in between lessons.
Preschool and kindergarten through middle school students can benefit from participation in these body strengthening activities.
40 Fun Core Strength Exercises for Kids
The core exercises for kids are organized into three categories: no equipment, using simple games / tools, and activities and gross motor exercises on the playground or at the park.
Easy Core Exercises for Kids – No Equipment Needed!
Stand or sit upright with arms straight above head. Lean slowly to one side and hold. Repeat on the other side.
2) Crab Walk
On the floor, stomach up, hands and feet on the floor. Have students move in a forward direction in the classroom for safety.
Arms straight. Hands and toes on the floor. Body straight from shoulders to heels.
4) Side Plank
One hand and same side foot on the floor. Arms are straight and make a T.
5) Knee Lifts Sitting in Chair
Sit tall, hold arms out in front. Lift each knee. Straighten legs or hold both legs up for an added challenge. When students gain core strength, draw letters or numbers in the air with the toes.
6) Leg Scissors
Sit on the floor or sit in a chair with legs stretched out. Lean back into arms. Hands support the body with arms next to the trunk. Straighten legs and cross feet over each other.
Great challenge for kids! Bear walk position: feet stay still while hands walk out as far as they can (into the plank position.) Then hands stay still as feet walk up toward the hands. Keep repeating. Move the hands, then move the feet.
8) Crab Kicks
Crab walk position on the floor. Kick legs up for counting or the alphabet. To cross midline, have kids tap their foot over the other knee.
If you want to keep the noise down, encourage kids to “control their bodies” and quietly tap their foot on the floor!
9) Bear Walk
Hands and feet walk around the room, to carpet or to centers with bottoms in the air. Again, cue them to be quiet baby bears!
10) Arm Circles
Stand and hold arms out in a T position. Make circles forward and then backward. Try small fast circles or large slow circles.
11) Military Crawl
On the stomach, pulling with the elbows and forearms.
12) Donkey Kicks
Hands and knees crawling position. Slowly and carefully kicks legs upward – one at a time. If space and skill permits, try both legs at the same time!
Hands and toes position. Kick and hold one leg back and above the body. Freeze for as long as possible. Repeat other side.
14) Bicycle on Back
Lie on the back with head and neck curled up. Bicycle legs in the air. Add opposite arm movements for an additional abdominal exercise.
Lie on the stomach. Lift arms, upper body, and legs off the floor and hold. The lower abdomen should be the only part of the body touching the floor.
16) Rocking Egg
Lie on the back. Bring knees up and hug with hands. Rock back and forth and side to side.
17) Vertical Surface Activities
Use empty walls or doors for paper pencil tasks. Draw and write on chalkboards or whiteboards.
18) Prone Activities
Lie on the stomach on the floor for activities. Encourage kids to keep their heads up and hands down.
19) Wheelbarrow Walk
Partner up for a wheelbarrow. The ‘holder’ also gets a core and shoulder workout!
Core Strength Exercises for Kids – Using Games and Simple Equipment
Stretching and holding positions in Twister are great for the core. Additionally, this game gives extra practice for left-right awareness.
21) Bouncing on a Hop Ball
Balancing while on a hop ball works on all of the core muscles. The bouncing and proprioceptive input wakes up and activates all the muscles along the spine.
22) Sitting and Bouncing on a Therapy Ball
A stationary ball can be used in the classroom or at a desk for homework. The added small movements while sitting keep the brain alert. Gently bouncing on the ball stimulates the postural muscles.
23) Rocking Side to Side on A Ball
Sitting with feet in front and rocking side to side improves balance and strength along the sides of the trunk.
24) Sitting on a T-Stool or Balance Stool
This requires more skill to stay upright. I’ve used t-stools made from a 2×4 board with preschool students. It’s amazing how much it helps with attention!
25) Balloon Kicks
Kids can hold a balloon hanging on a string and kick it (either standing or in a crab walk position.) Or they can try to gently kick the balloon while standing to see how many times they tap it before it hits the ground.
26) Paper Plate Skating
Each foot stands in the middle of a paper plate. Kids slide their feet to move. Easy way to transition down a hall or across a room. Add other scavenger hunt activities to make it a learning game.
27) Pass a Heavy Ball Down a Line
Kids stand in a line, shoulder to shoulder, facing the same direction. Encourage kids to keep their core still as the cross midline to pass the ball to the left or right. Add a challenge by having them stand in a line, one student behind another.
28) Sit on Scooter
Use a gym scooter; kids sit and hold the handles as they use their feet to move.
29) Prone on a Scooter
This is one of my favorite postural exercises that also provides great heavy work and proprioceptive inputLINK. Kids lie on their bellies on the scooter. They keep their feet in the air and pull ONLY with the arms.
30) Stickers on Shoes
Place 3-6 stickers on each shoe. Kids stand and take one sticker from each foot, one at a time (alternate feet.)
Core Strength Exercises for Kids – Using Playground Equipment
Sit on a flat thin swing. Hold on the sides and pump independently.
32) Disc Swing
Sit with ankles crossed and arms holding the rope. Move in a variety of directions.
33) Monkey Bar Knee Lifts
Hang on monkey bars with arms and lift and lower knees. For added work, keep legs straight.
34) Glider Knee Lifts
Hold on the glider bar and pull knees up before sliding across.
35) Ladder Climbing
Climbing a ladder is great for alternating leg and arm movements. It helps kids stabilize their core as they climb.
36) Rock Wall Climbing
Just like climbing but it adds stretching to the sides of the trunk, balance and problem solving.
37) Climbing up a Slide
This breaks the rules of some playgrounds but the heavy work is great for the arms. And it’s good for the core.
38) Pushing Activities
The core engages as the arms perform this heavy work task. Changing directions activates more core muscles.
39) Pulling Activities
Hold and pull heavy objects in various directions. The farther the hands are from the body, the harder the core has to work.
40) Rowing with a Stick
Sit on a swing and use a large stick. Place two hands on it and reach side to side to push off the ground. Or, use a large outdoor scooter; sit cross legged and use the stick to row.
That’s a wrap! Since 40 different exercises are hard to remember, a free printable was created for your convenience. All 40 core strength activities are listed on the handout. Click on the link below to get your free copy.
Do You Need More Exercises for Your Kids?
I’ve had great feedback on the 8-week classroom exercise program. It includes core exercises, crossing midline, sensory activities for learning, visual activities, hand dexterity, and more!
It shares a series of exercises to practice every day for 8 weeks.
Use these specific occupational therapy exercises to improve:
Attention… focus… core stability… crossing midline… sensory processing… visual development… & more… Click for more info!
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- Skill Building Outdoor Games for Kids
- Screen Time Effects on Development
- Correct Sitting Posture for Kids – An Important Tip!
- 30 Great Movement Activities to Enhance Learning
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