Promoting Motor Skills, Sensory Development, and Language Development with Outdoor Play

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Promoting Motor Skills, Sensory Development, and Language Development with Outdoor Play

Play is the work or occupation of children and it’s how children learn. Outdoor play is especially beneficial as it can improve mental health, increase activity levels and improve social-emotional skills. We can help provide open-ended play outdoors by giving access to different materials and environments.

May is Better Hearing and Speech Month so I teamed up with Jen Purdy, pediatric speech-language pathologist, at Central Rehabilitation in West Des Moines, to provide fun activities while promoting motor (physical) skills, engaging the senses, and improving language development. Here are our top five activities.

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Water Play

Children love playing and splashing in the water. When activities are highly engaging (AKA FUN!), children are more likely to be motivated to learn and retain new information. Use a water table or plastic pool for kids to scoop and pour water into buckets (coordination), squeeze toy animals (hand strength) use eye droppers to squirt water (fine motor/hand skills), and pour water over levers (coordination). 

Splash in a creek or a natural playscape, such as the one at Jester Park, (being renovated to open again this summer 2022), and enjoy sensory play in the water by washing rocks or leaves and jumping from rock to rock to work on balance. Your child can walk barefoot to increase sensory awareness through feeling the water and dirt beneath their feet as well as strengthening ankle and foot muscles. 

Use animal toys and name the ones that live in the water. Modeling adjectives such as wet, dry, empty, full, dirty, sink, and float helps to expand the child’s vocabulary as well. This is a great time to work on simple requesting skills. Hold desired items just out of your kiddo’s reach and wait for them to make the request on their own. 

Be mindful of your child’s current level of communication. They may request by looking at the toy, reaching toward the toy, naming the object, or using a phrase to request (“I want fish”). You can model the language needed and then pause to see if the child imitates you.   

Draw on the Sidewalk

Younger kids may enjoy “painting” the sidewalk or deck by dipping a brush or small sponge in water and making vertical and horizontal strokes or fun designs. This is a pre-writing skill and pinching helps with hand dexterity. Use sidewalk chalk to make shapes, letters, their name, people, or anything else your kids love to draw. Using shorter pieces of chalk, for preschool age and up, will help your child develop their pencil grip for writing. 

You can also use sidewalk chalk to create a board game or hopscotch and practice following basic directions. You can draw colored shapes and then give the child different directions to follow. For example, jump 3 times and then go to the next red heart, spin 1 time and then go to the green square. This incorporates both language skills and balance/coordination skills in the same activity.  Hopping and balancing engage our vestibular sense which helps us learn our body’s movement in space (if we are moving or standing, going fast or slow, and moving with or against gravity such as going upside down).

With older kids try working on word associations. Draw something with chalk (ex: banana) and ask your child to draw something that goes with it (ex: they could draw another kind of fruit or something that is yellow). Talk about how those two items go together. 


Gardening is such a fun activity as many kids enjoy playing in dirt and water. Practice sequencing using simple steps in repetition. Talk about how first we dig a hole, then plant the seed, then cover it with dirt, and last water the seed/plant. 

Use metal shovels for older kids, plastic beach shovels for younger kids, or even just plastic cups to add dirt to pots and dig holes to plant. Kids can fill up a bucket or watering can and improve strength and coordination while watering flowers. 

Carrying water buckets also engages the proprioceptive sense. Often known as “heavy work,” this sense helps us know our body’s position in space and the amount of muscle strength we need to use. 

Kids can improve fine motor (hand) skills by pinching off dead flowers and pulling ripe fruits and vegetables off the vine. 

Take pictures of your child during each part of the sequence and your child can retell the sequence later. This is a great activity to expose your child to less familiar vocabulary such as trellis, shears, compost, and pruning by modeling these new vocabulary words while gardening.


There are many great hiking trails to explore such as Browns Woods in West Des Moines or Center Woods near the Des Moines Art Center. Walking on uneven surfaces, balancing on a log, and stepping over roots and branches help challenge coordination and balance. Being in nature is a sensory-rich environment that is engaging through sight, smell, touch, and movement. 

Go on a nature walk scavenger hunt. You can make a list with your children of different items you might find outside. You can introduce new vocabulary and descriptive words in a fun and engaging way. Ideas for items to find might include butterflies, yellow flowers, small leaves, big leaves, and brown birds. 

On your hike, you can work on location words or prepositions. Find interesting things and practice pointing out where they are such as the squirrel is on the tree, the bird is in the nest, and the fish is under the bridge. A nature hike is a great time to expand on your child’s utterances and encourage different word combinations. If your child says “fish”, you could say “yes a blue fish” or “fish is swimming.”

You can also get involved with Hike It Baby Des Moines to complete easy hikes with other caregivers and children.

Visit the Playground

The Des Moines Outdoor Fun 2002 Central Iowa Trek the Parks Challenge started for the summer. It’s a great list of playgrounds and parks to visit. Each playground offers a variety of opportunities to challenge motor and social skills. Climbing ropes, ladders, boulders, and other structures improve balance, coordination, and motor planning (figuring out the physical steps to complete a task). 

Provide positive encouragement while your child is trying a new task, such as attempting to climb a rock wall. If they are struggling you can help improve motor planning by encouraging them to try a new idea (such as putting their foot in a different spot), make a plan to try it (determining where to place their feet and hands), and then actually practicing.


Swinging provides great vestibular input and challenges coordination as kids learn to practice bringing legs straight and then pumping them back to move the swing into the air. Spinning on the swing or on a merry-go-round, such as the one in Terra Park, in Johnston, also provides vestibular input. Your child should be in control regarding how fast and long to spin as this can be too stimulating for some.

Monkey Bars

Introduce the monkey bars by first hanging by both arms to work on strength and proprioceptive feedback and then practice swinging first with both hands. When your child is ready try coordinating opposite hands.


The playground offers many opportunities to build social skills. If you have a child that’s working on social learning, you can practice scripts that they could say to another child if they would like to play. They could initiate the conversation by saying “hi, I’m ___, what is your name?” or “Can I play too?” You can also encourage your child to include others in their play as well. 

All children like to play, but not every child feels comfortable joining in. Interact with the kids and model appropriate ways to be included and include others. The playground is a perfect place to work on turn-taking while using the different equipment where there are other children playing as well.

Enjoy all the opportunities for play that the outdoors has to offer while incorporating important skills! Interested in learning more about our 8 different senses, including the vestibular and proprioceptive senses, discussed in this post? Read my next blog post for an in-depth look.

Whitney Alaniz, MOT OTR/L

Whitney Alaniz, MOT OTR/L

Whitney Alaniz, MOT OTR/L is an occupational therapist turned (mostly) stay-at-home mom. She has worked with adults to young toddlers and has a special interest in early childhood development targeting fine motor skills, feeding, sensory processing, and coordination. She loves incorporating this knowledge with her own two little boys through play. When she’s not running after her little ones she enjoys traveling, cooking new recipes and eating chocolate from her secret stash.

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