Guest Blog

MOVING AND LEARNING: Physical Intervention for Children With Special Needs

22 Feb 2017

By Yuji Oka

The sensorimotor period is an important pre-cognitive stage where children learn how to interact with the environment through their own physical experience. Many children with special needs are non-verbal and remain in this stage much longer than typical children. This extended sensorimotor learning is important for them to build a foundation of self-awareness and self-regulation that they can use to support their cognitive, emotional, social and motor progress.

When my partner and I received an arts grant in 1996 to work with children with emotional disturbances at a large mental health agency, we found only rudimentary motor programs were in place and there was a lack of sensorimotor learning. Children had access to playgrounds, gyms, and motor equipment, but most of the motor time was unstructured and unsupervised. Specialized services such as Occupational Therapy or Physical Therapy were usually individual-based and not integrated fully into the curriculum. Despite some advances, things have not changed much since.

The Need to Integrate Physical Interventions in the Classroom

Physical intervention is a term that describes a new holistic way to work with children with special needs. Rather than focus on linguistic or academic learning, one attempts to reach children through experiential activities that help them understand new concepts through their own bodies. Physical interventions can be taught to whole classrooms of children with special needs. This is important as children themselves become active participants in a collective learning process. They participate in motor activities and watch each other, share body weight, try to synchronize their movements, take turns, and practice other pre-academic skills. These experiences can profoundly change a child’s attitude towards learning, because they see for the first time that they can understand in a simpler and more direct way.

What are Some Examples of Physical Interventions?

Having worked with hundreds of children with special needs and disabilities in both Canada and the US, we have learned one fundamental thing: all kids love to move and experience life through their bodies. Physical interventions can be used for all people in the special needs population, from infants to young adults. The techniques can be simple or sophisticated depending on the situation, but they must be concrete and something children can understand.

For example, in our MOVEMENT! programs, we teach children a base vocabulary of movement skills, which they then learn to apply different physical operations to. They may learn how to sequence the movements, variate them in speed, energy or spatial configuration or synchronize and/or partner them with other children. This playful exploration of movement coordinations, patterns and sequences allows them to learn many valuable lessons about the nature of cognitive structure, but also of self-regulation and group dynamics.

For children with disabilities, we often use bodywork as a means for children to learn about the most fundamental aspects of motor control. Through simple somatic release techniques, teachers can learn how to help their children relax their bodies so that they feel less tense and more calm. More sophisticated techniques can be used to help children awaken contracted areas of their body and learn how to re-initiate movements, often dramatically — we have had children with cerebral palsy, partial paralysis or ataxia learn new movements through re-patterning activities.

Finally, we often make use of touch techniques at the end of classes to help children make the transition from motor play to other activities. Touch techniques involve the use of different massage textures accompanied by songs and/or stories. These simple touch techniques can be performed by virtually anyone and are very helpful to teachers, parents, or caregivers in calming and relaxing their children.

The Future of Physical Intervention 

As our children spend more time in front of TVs and computers in this digital age, there is more and more of a need for them to reconnect to their bodies and discover a simpler approach to learning. Many curricula have begun to include programs such as adaptive yoga, sensorimotor rooms, and expanded motor facilities, but we believe there is still a disproportionate emphasis on abstract and symbolic learning in the classrooms. This must change in the future.

We encourage teachers and caregivers to creatively begin to use physical interventions in their relationships with children. And remember this also can mean even simple gestures such as lifting, carrying and hugging! The sense of care and trust that can be conveyed through simple physical gestures can often, by itself, help a child with special needs gain the confidence to move to the next step in their own progress.

Stephanie Gottlob & Yuji Oka are currently co-directors of the Spiral Movement Center where they use their innovative somatic techniques to help children with special needs and disabilities. For more information please visit