Beating the Winter Blahs

Janna Stup Barrick, M.S., OTR/L

In his poem “Ode to the West Wind,” Percy Bysshe Shelley inquired, “…if winter comes, can spring be far behind?” This expresses exactly the feelings of parents, therapists, teachers and many other providers who work with children during the winter months. Children spend much time in winter involved in sedentary activities, cooped up inside school and home due to the inclement weather and illnesses associated with this time of year.

Due to the lack of physical activity and decreased exposure to sunlight and vitamin D, even easy-going students can experience behavioral difficulties during the winter. Add in the stress and schedule changes from holiday events or school closures, and winter can be a very difficult time for children with developmental, behavioral or sensory concerns. What can the various people involved in the students’ lives do to mitigate the effects of being “cooped up” on everyone?

Move it or lose it
Even as an adult, you may give yourself “movement breaks” by crossing and uncrossing your legs or doodling during a long meeting. Children may not yet have an awareness for this need, and students with sensory difficulties have an even greater need for developing mindfulness.

You may need to relax and allow for more physical indoor play than usual. What areas in your home/school/classroom can you use safely for physical activities? Is there a time that you can use a large, cleared area, such as a gym, activities room or basement for indoor physical activities?

Many adults make New Year’s resolutions for increasing healthy habits, and studies have shown that a “buddy system” can increase success via accountability. By involving your whole family or class, children gain some very valuable physical input, and you may not break that resolution you made!

What to do?

You don’t need to purchase or borrow a lot of large, expensive equipment; many homes and schools already have items for movement. Move or put away any breakable or valuable items and establish safety rules and expectations with participants prior to starting activities. Brainstorm with the child(ren) prior to starting—they might surprise you with what they want to do!

A younger child may be able to ride a tricycle or roller-skate with appropriate safety equipment in the basement. Older students may enjoy using an exercise ball for Pilates, or learning yoga. Easy options for indoor recess may include Simon Says, Seven Up or charades. Consider making some sensory bins or tables, such as finding felt snowman parts in beans or corn (something larger that isn’t as messy if spilled). Can children ride a scooter board to turn in papers or go down the hallway to get breakfast?

Get creative! Have your child(ren) design an obstacle course using household items. They can use craft supplies to turn a large shipping box into a tunnel they can crawl through into a chair-and-blanket tent. Writing or drawing on a vertical surface or in a different position recruits different muscles. Or, turn on some music and have an impromptu dance party. After participating in various activities, talk with participants to see how moving around made them feel. By processing what you’ve done, you’ll be able to plan better for next time, while developing awareness of the benefits of sensory strategies.

New activities

There are many exercise videos available online or via subscription services to allow people to try a form of exercise before investing in a series of classes/lessons. Preview the video prior to showing it to others to ensure the instructor demonstrates or gives clear instructions at a good pace for other participants. Another advantage to videos is that you can also pause them for students with difficulties with auditory processing or motor planning. You may also be able to rent or borrow (before purchasing) some of the exercise or sports video games for the movement-based consoles, such as the Wii, Wii U, PlayStation Move, Xbox 360, or Xbox Kinect.

If your child wants to participate in an activity that you can’t do at home, or advances beyond your or a video’s expertise, there are many options available. Consult your local parks and recreation department for inexpensive winter physical activities; you might be surprised at the breadth and depth of the offerings.

If you are concerned about your child’s ability to participate, ask others for recommendations of classes or meet with the instructor(s) to discuss concerns. Many places will allow you to take a free trial class, or try the (usually more expensive) pay-only-when-you-attend option. Often, places will have an open house, or you can investigate whether they offer a one- or two-session workshop/class for children to familiarize themselves with the environment prior to signing a long-term contract. Older children may enjoy volunteering to help with a class somewhere to “get their feet wet.”

Another option to add physical activity without long-term commitment is to look into local indoor gym/pools/trampoline/bounce/play houses, many of which offer “open play” times. Look at local children’s publications and coupon books, or sign up for the mailing list for discounts or last-minute “snow day” openings.

Above all…

Take this as some time to have fun together: you may learn some new things about yourself. By putting your heads together and using some creativity, you can beat the winter doldrums.

Janna Stup Barrick, M.S., OTR/L is a pediatric occupational therapist at Amber Hill Frederick Pediatric Therapy, located in Frederick, MD. Please visit our website at