Whether you’re working in a healthcare setting or as a school therapist, there’s a good chance you’ll be charged with helping to improve muscle tone. Low muscle tone, or hypotonia, refers to abnormally low tension or resistance to movement in a muscle. It occurs when the length of the resting muscle is slightly but atypically long, and muscle fibers do not overlap at an optimal level. With low muscle tone, there are fewer points where the fibers can attach and generate pull. Muscles then require more energy and stimulation to become active, increasing response time and negatively affecting performance and endurance.
Low muscle tone stems from medical conditions such as Down Syndrome, hypothyroidism, Cerebral Palsy, neurological conditions and sometimes has no recognizable cause. Common features include decreased strength, increased movement or “floppiness” in joints and the tendency to tire easily. School-based therapists may notice that students with low muscle tone prefer sedentary activities, so you’ll need to get creative when working to get them moving. Provide rewards when appropriate and plenty of encouragement! Here are some great activities to combat low muscle tone that you can try in your classroom or therapy setting.
Crunch, Chew and Blow
Low muscle tone can affect the mouth and face, so when this is the case, oral-motor activities are great for improving speech and language development. They can also help prevent choking. Blowing into a whistle or using a straw to blow feathers or tissue paper across the table can be fun and beneficial. Chewing on crunchy foods such as carrots and celery are also great ways to build oral muscle tone. Plus, they make for healthy pick-me-up snacks during the day!
Do Some Warm Ups
Warming up the muscles feels good and is helpful for children with low muscle tone. Kids love bouncing on a trampoline for a few minutes before sitting at a desk and it can do wonders to improve posture and even concentration. For students in an occupational therapy classroom, playing with molding compounds like clay before taking on a writing assignment is a great way to improve the fine motor skills needed to correctly grip a pencil. Activate the upper and lower body with some star jumps which are done by lifting both arms while jumping and landing with feet approximately hip width apart. Aim for ten stars!
Work the Core
Without a strong core, it’s difficult to balance, perform coordinated movements on both sides of the body, sit up straight in a chair, hold a pencil, control scissors, and much more. There are many great core-building exercises that school-based therapists can introduce to children on their caseloads. The key is to ensure the students are breathing correctly while performing the exercises – that way, they’re actually working the muscles in the abdomen and pelvis rather than compensating by holding breath. Make the following activities more fun by creating a game or issuing a challenge to give them playful purpose.
- Make a Bridge
Have children lay on their backs with knees bent and feet flat on the floor before pushing through their heels to raise their bottoms up. Head and shoulders should stay on the ground. Can your student keep their favorite stuffed animal squeezed between their knees while holding the bridge? Try zooming some cars under the bridge—how many make it through before the bridge falls?
- Fly Like a Superhero
This activity can be done on the floor or with help on a swing or large ball. Have the child lie on her stomach and lift arms and upper chest. For an extra challenge, try the legs or both arms and legs at the same time. To kick it up a notch, challenge her to hold a ball between her hands or feet while lifting. Or place a stuffed animal on the child’s back to see if she can lift with enough control to keep it from falling.
There are so many ways to help combat low muscle tone, including good old fashioned games that are often forgotten about in today’s screen-obsessed culture. No kid can resist climbing up a slide at a playground and it just happens to be an excellent core builder. A friendly round of tug-of-war can be a great excuse to get outside, work together and improve muscle tone. Enlist your students to help you create a simple obstacle course that will challenge their abilities.
Always pay attention to which activities your students and patients gravitate towards most and provide opportunities to succeed at what they love doing. And never forget that your gentle reinforcement and encouragement makes each and every one of the activities described above that much more effective—both physically and emotionally for those you serve.
What are the most popular muscle-tone builders you’ve used? Tell us what you think of these ideas – or any other variations that have worked well in your special education classroom or therapy sessions.