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6 Ways to Use Movement for Social and Emotional Development During Covid-19

Using Movement To Promote Social And Emotional Development During Covid-19

Humans are social beings. We are designed to live amongst communities and socialise with other humans on a daily basis. Social isolation has been protecting our physical health from contracting the Coronavirus. However, having to isolate is having a great impact on our social health, emotional health, and psychological health.

For our children, social interaction with other children, and exploring their environment through play, are the foundations of learning. Unfortunately, most children have been restricted to learning with their class on a laptop or device, with less opportunity to explore, socialise, play, move, and run.


As a mum of three children aged 8, 8, and 4, my own anxiety and depression has been impacted by extensive social isolation. Just watching the news each day gives me anxiety, and not having sufficient vitamin D has impacted my mood and depression.

I know that many families with young children are doing it really tough at the moment. One or both parents have lost their job or businesses, some parents are trying to juggle working from home while also being their child’s teacher. The juggle is already stretched for families who work, yet COVID-19 has given us a whole new challenge, with more demands and less support from our family and friends.

As a Melbournian, now being in round two of lockdown, I have been determined to put my own emotional and psychological health as a high priority as well. I share my tips and strategies for helping to keep all members of your family sane as you navigate the pandemic. I also extend my compassion and understanding, as I know that some days will be easier than others and some days you may not be able to find the time, motivation, and energy to implement the ideas below.

ACTIVITY 1 - Go on a sensory walk

As we feel ‘stuck’ in our homes and backyards, it is important to use the natural environment that surrounds us. I strongly encourage every family to go for a walk each day, or at least every second day to experience the environment around them and give their physical and psychological health a boost.

The benefits of walking outdoors include:

  • Getting the vitamin D from sunlight that is crucial for our health and immune system.
  • Getting physical movement that is crucial for our heart, lungs, joints, and muscles.
  • Giving our mental health a boost by not feeling so isolated within the four walls of our home.
Susan Papworth Flowers

Finding the motivation to walk can be challenging but try to make it a part of your new social isolation routine. If you have young children, you can make the walk more interesting and educational by:

  • Collecting flowers, sticks, rocks, or leaves to use in a mandala or craft activity.
  • Counting how many birds you see along the way.
  • Writing down the directions that you take on your walk. For example, on my local walk, I turn right out of my laundry door, walk straight up my driveway, then turn left towards the trail.
  • Draw a map of your walk.
  • Give yourself challenges along your walk. For example, hop 5 times up your driveway, jump with both feet 5 times along John Street, etc.
Susan Papworth Looking At Flower
Susan Papworth Logs

ACTIVITY 2 - Set physical activity challenges with your friends

We are all living in a virtual world at the moment. We’re having remote learning meetings with teachers, Zoom sessions with colleagues, Skype chats with our friends and family. It is essential we stay connected with them online as much as possible by chatting via video, sending positive messages and photos, or engaging in fun online activities. Of course, safety is extremely important so all online communication with children must be supervised by an adult.

A way to add physical activity into your online sessions with friends and family is by creating daily movement challenges. 

For example:

  • Ask grandparents to teach their grandchildren simple dance steps, such as the jive, cha-cha, etc.
  • Set up daily challenges with family or friends. For example, 10 push-ups, 10 star jumps, 1 round of hopscotch with aunts, uncles, and cousins. Encourage them to share videos or photos of them completing the challenges.
  • Have children exercise together in a google meet, or via Facetime by following a daily movement routine of your choice. I have a range of free movement routines on my website
Children Exercise Videos
  • Draw a map of your local walk route, share it with a neighbour and see who can complete the walk in the quickest time, while maintaining social distance of course.
Susan Papworth Jogging With Baby
  • Design a workout routine for your friend or a family member (10 squats, 5 wall push-ups, 5 star jumps, 10 spins on the spot) and have them record the completion of the workout. Make the workout under 5 minutes in length and achievable for the person that you’re sending it to. We don’t want to wear our nanny or grandad out!

You can use an activity like this as part of your home-schooling experience by having children design a routine, draw a map or record and plot data.

ACTIVITY 3 - Dance in the living room with your family

This activity is one of our family favourites! I have asked my twins to create a ‘lockdown playlist’ and at 4pm every day we dance to two of the songs on the playlist as a family. My reason for choosing 4pm as our ‘dance time’ is because this is the time where I am usually at my grumpiest, and the time when my 4-year-old is usually most challenging.

I have found that after dancing to two songs we are all smiling, laughing, and huffing and puffing. Our bodies are getting the movement they need for healthy joints, organs, and muscles. Our minds are receiving oxygen and releasing chemicals needed for improved mood and sleep, and I feel more capable psychologically to finish my afternoon as ‘mum’.

This movement activity could include a virtual element by dancing with family and friends at the same time via Zoom or Skype. You can also record your dance moves to keep happy memories for those moments during social isolation when you need to reflect on fun times.

Susan Papworth Kids Dancing Together

ACTIVITY 4 - Paint or draw with chalk to music

I learnt this activity from my friend who is an art therapist. I have found it helpful for the whole family on days we're feeling overwhelmed with stress and the unknowing of COVID-19.

The activity requires your favourite music, a large piece of paper, and a pencil. If you can go outside, you'll need a piece of chalk, the pavement, and your music. The larger the area you have to draw or scribble, the freer your movements can be. However, don’t worry too much about how much space you have available. Any movement is better than no movement at all.

Simply turn on the music and set the volume at a level that makes you feel energised. For times when you need to feel calm, choose slower music that will help you slow down your heart rate and breathing. For other times when you need a boost, choose music that has a faster beat to help wake up your senses.

With a pencil or piece of chalk, draw lines or swirls to match the beat of the music. The key component of this activity is that there are no rules. If you’re a perfectionist like me, close your eyes and don’t look at your drawing/scribble. Just move your hand freely to the music and try to let go of any expectations that you place on yourself.

Encourage your children to also participate in this activity. You may find that you’ll create masterpieces that can be celebrated on your wall or fridge.

Susan Papworth Painting Outside

ACTIVITY 5 - Create an obstacle course

The whole family can join in the creation and action of an obstacle course.

The materials for an indoor obstacle course may include:

  • Cushions
  • Pillows
  • Floor markers (as pictured in image below)
  • Paper instructions (i.e. 5 hops, 3 star jumps, foot prints, hand prints)
  • Fortes or tunnels made from blankets
  • Tables to crawl under
  • Teddy bears to throw or catch
  • Baskets to throw socks or a teddy bear into
Susan Papworth Indoor Obstacle Course
Susan Papworth Feet
Susan Papworth Indoor Obstacle

The materials for an outdoor obstacle course may include:

  • Logs
  • Sticks
  • Planks of timber
  • Rocks
  • Pool noodles
  • Balls to throw at a target
  • Chalk drawn shapes, letters, numbers
  • Hula Hoops
Susan Papworth Outdoor Obstacle Course
Susan Papworth Outdoor Obstacle

The movements that you can incorporate into your obstacle course design can include:

  • Crawling
  • Jumping
  • Running
  • Throwing
  • Heel-to-toe walking (like on a pretend tight rope)
  • Catching
  • Skipping
  • Side stepping
  • Hopping

To engage older children in the obstacle course and add an educational component, ask them to write down the instructions for each obstacle, or draw a map of the course with instructions. If older children would prefer to type out the instructions that’s also a great idea.

To engage younger children, ask them to help collect the materials for your obstacle course. Be sure to double check the safety of the course first, before children participate. The goal of the obstacle course is to encourage children to be physically active, not to put their health and safety at risk. 

To add mathematics into the activity, simply ask children to time how long it took them to complete the course or ask them to count up the number of jumps or hops that they completed. You can also add maths by creating the level of complexity or allocate points for each obstacle. Older children can make a chart to plot their time whenever they participate and see how much they have improved.

ACTIVITY 6 - Throw or tear paper when you feel frustrated

Some days during social isolation will be harder than others. Particularly those days where we are trying to juggle the demands of remote learning with working from home deadlines. On the days that feel overwhelming, remember this activity. It’s my favourite self-regulation activity.

Create a box filled with scrap paper or old magazines. Ask your children to decorate the box with the wording “When I feel annoyed”. When you or your children feel frustrated, pick up a piece of paper and either tear it into tiny squares, or scrunch it into a ball and throw it at a word on the wall, bullseye or into a laundry basket.

Tearing paper helps us feel better by giving our body sensory stimulation that helps us to feel calm. Throwing scrunched up paper balls helps us to improve our mood by encouraging our body to move, and to also give us an outlet for releasing our negative emotions.

Tearing and scrunching paper can also be used on our happy days. But I do find this activity works best as a self-regulation activity for moments when social isolation becomes frustrating.

Susan Papworth Paper In Bin

To help you and your family integrate the activities above into your busy days, I have highlighted 5 of my favourite motivation strategies below.

Plan out your days

My first suggestion for you is to make a timetable for your upcoming weeks. It might be as simple as a piece of paper stuck to your fridge or as elaborate as a google calendar on your computer. I purchased a magnetic weekly planner from Officeworks and under each day I have written activities such as yoga, meditation, going for a walk, playing badminton, and toasting marshmallows by the fire. I haven’t included specific times for these activities, as I find worrying about the time escalates my anxiety. But you may prefer to have set times for each activity. The main purpose of the calendar or timetable is to remind you of activities that ‘fill your bucket’, or make you smile each day.

We can all get stuck in the daily grind of dishes, working from home tasks, laundry, and endless snacks. Making time to complete activities that you enjoy each day is important for the emotional and psychological health of you and your whole family.

Social And Emotional Learning Resources From Ripple Kindness Project

Set a timer

To help me with my perfectionism I set a timer for 5, 10 or 15 minutes for each of my activities. I used to stress about making my activities perfect and only participating in yoga if I could find 15 minutes to complete a full yoga session. During lockdown round 2, I have committed to setting a 5-minute timer and if I am enjoying my yoga and want to continue with the remaining 10 minutes then that’s great, but if I can only fit in 5 minutes, then that’s fine too.

I also set timers for my children. After 5 minutes the timer will sound, and the screens will be switched off. After 20 minutes of snack time, the timer will go off and we will go on our daily walk. Timers become the ‘boss’ and ‘motivator’ for our family, instead of me having to nag my children to move on to the next activity.

Make the activities the same time each day

Some of us respond best to a consistent daily routine. You may find you and your family are more motivated if you complete similar activities at the same time each day. For example, we dance to two songs at 4pm. We also go for a bike ride if it’s not raining every day at about 12 noon. The time doesn’t need to be exact but I have found that if we go for a bike ride before lunch and have a silly dance together before dinner time, our mental health and focus is better throughout the rest of the day.

Robyn Papworth Activities

If you have older children, encourage them to organise your days to include their remote learning activities as well as some of these fun physical strategies. You might not schedule a sensory walk or scribbling to music every day, but you may like to organise outdoor activities in the morning and indoor activities in the afternoon. By writing down a rough daily routine, it can reduce the stress and overwhelm of not knowing what activities are coming up next in your day.

Make use of technology

Screen time can become a challenge for all of us as children are spending more time on laptops during remote learning, and us adults are spending more time in front of laptops for work. It’s hard enough encouraging my 4-year-old to step away from her smart device, let alone encouraging her to come and play outside with us while my older children play badminton in the front yard.

However, we can use the positives of technology by participating in online yoga sessions, children’s dance and karate classes that are currently being provided online, or one of my daily movement routine YouTube videos

Of course, outdoor physical activity sessions are most ideal so that children have access to fresh air and vitamin D, but on days where the weather is cold and rainy, or you need to complete work from home, following along to an online exercise video will still help children’s physical, psychological, and emotional health and development.

Dear parent, join in.

As overwhelmed and as stressed as we currently feel, it is important to still find time to play, move, be silly, and laugh with our children. It’s surprising how quickly our mood changes when we all have fun together.

Robyn Papworth Planking

For example, roll a ball back and forth with your children in plank position, have a crawling race with your family, join in the obstacle course that your children created, dance to your favourite music in your lounge room, throw teddy bears around the room then race to collect all of the teddy bears.

Children are watching our behaviour to see how they can cope during this challenging time. So, try to schedule time into your day where you connect with your children through movement and play.

Robyn Papworth Tv

Final reminder

As overwhelmed and as stressed as you feel right now please know that:

  • You are not alone - connect with your friends and family online as much as possible
  • Be kind to yourself - talk to yourself like to would share advice to your friend
  • You are stronger than you think
  • You’ve got this!

If you have any questions about the activities above, or just need support, come say hi on Facebook or email robyn@playmoveimprove.com.au.

Take care,


Robyn Papworth Head Shot

AUTHOR: Robyn Papworth - Play Move Improve
Robyn Papworth is an accredited Exercise Physiologist, Masters qualified Development Educator, mother of three children, and a passionate advocate for children who have learning difficulties and developmental delay. When you follow Robyn on her social media challenges, you will quickly be introduced to her son Hugh who was born with developmental delay and has been Robyn’s motivator for establishing her business Play Move Improve.

With more than 10 years of experience as an Exercise Physiologist, Robyn designs and implements play strategies and motor skills programs that help children achieve developmental milestones.

Through valuable play strategies and movement routines, Robyn uses her expertise and creativity to ensure children work towards mastering the crucial skills that lay the foundation for participation in both school and life, such as handwriting, doing up buttons, participating in physical activity, and other fine motor skills.

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