TEANECK, N.J. – When Dr. Chaye Lamm Warburg observed the fragile swiping motions exerted by the delicate little hands of preschool kids against their parents’ smart devices inside classrooms in various public and private area schools from Hackensack to Paramus, she saw a need existed among children to fortify body and mind.
“Instead of playing with blocks, some kids are swiping and looking at pictures,” explained Warburg. “When kids aren’t playing the way they typically do in this generation, there’s a lot less desire to play outside. They don’t develop their core and fine motor muscles the way kids used to.”
Bodies lacking proper exercise, she continued, could impede children from being prepared for grade school-level learning.
“Demands are higher than they used to be for early academics, but bodies are not prepared,” she said.
Acknowledging the inescapable wave of 21st Century technology and the usage of it by children as young as toddlers, Warburg, director of pediatric occupational therapy services at Yeshivat He’Atid School in Teaneck, introduced innovative curriculum in the form of an occupational therapy workshop designed to bridge that gap by “proactively preparing kids’ bodies to benefit from education going forward.”
“I developed this notion on my own through experiences treating a variety of local kids referred to therapy and lacking skills kids used to come to school with,” she said. “So many kids in typical classrooms have poor posture. A lot of the children come to school with a core that is too weak to hold them up at 4 years old.” Warburg added that she also observed certain hand skills were lacking including individual finger strength. These weak muscles, she added, could give way to injury.
The workshop, which began this year in the school on Queen Anne Road, is being offered for a half-hour once a week throughout the school year and alternates with different activities. Inside the private school’s sensory gym, in a cushioned, colorful wonderland of sorts, three therapists work with a classroom of 20 preschoolers to hone their gross motor skills and strengthen their backs and tummies with a fun obstacle course activity where kids strengthen their core muscles from a series of jumping, rolling, crawling, climbing and tossing activities to simultaneously work on hand-eye coordination.
“In this day in age, kids are married to their devices,” said Warburg. “They’re not getting this typical kind of activity. We’re working from the strong development perspective, so we know what kids need to function in the classroom.”
She continued, “We’re not looking to create super kids, but to just give them the skills they need to manage appropriately in school and in life.”
The activities, she explained, improve stamina on both a mental and physical level, enabling children to sit upright through story time and increase their focus and attention throughout. The same, she said, can be applied to sitting at a table and freeing up their hands to work skillfully. At these tables, therapists also give children putty to play with and mold, thereby strengthening all digits. These exercises prime little hands to precisely apply stickers and obtain a better grip as they hold their crayons and thoroughly and accurately color in between the lines.
It may sound like work, but they’re activities kids love, Warburg said.
“They love it. Everything is in the context of play. Nothing is an exercise,” noted Warburg. “I think this is how little bodies learn best.”
Apart from the sensory gym, the school also has a sensory hallway. Sixty feet in length, kids can use the corridor to take a “meaningful, three-minute movement break” to achieve a “calm alert state” to regain attention and focus to return to classrooms feeling refreshed and alert. It is here where kids can learn intense movement from frog jumps and leaps and end with a deep-breathing activity like holding a yoga position. Other area schools that offer sensory hallways include Byrd and Hamilton Schools in Glen Rock.
In the last month, Warburg said children are “moving more smoothly and more quickly.”
Before the program became a part of the curriculum, Warburg helmed a Fine Motor Boot Camp, which she extended to the classroom on the heels of its success. She hopes the Teaneck school’s occupational therapy program will be a model for other schools to follow and also implement in their own districts.
“I’m so excited to be doing something proactively rather than coming after the fact,” said Warburg. “I think it can make such a positive difference for kids in classrooms where teachers can observe and learn big differences in the classroom and use these ideas in the classroom. I think it’s where occupational therapists need to be.”