core strength

The Benefits of Working on a Vertical Surface

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By: Madelyn (Maddie) Girardi, OTD, OTR/L
Occupational Therapist, NESCA

What do you mean by a vertical surface?

If you think about it, most of the activities children do day to day are completed on a horizontal surface, where toys and tools remain static, in one position. Picture a vertical surface, whether it be a wall, window, or an easel. Working in this anti-gravity position activates new muscles and makes activities more challenging for kids. Think “tummy time,” but for our elementary-aged kids.

What are the benefits of working on a vertical surface?

  • Shoulder, wrist, and elbow stability – These activities require a child to practice bigger arm movements that may not be utilized on a traditional, flat surface. These movements promote both strength and flexibility in the joints and muscles of the upper extremities.
  • Core strength & postural control – If a child is completing vertical work in standing, he or she must reach outside of their base of support, activating those core muscles. Further increase the demands of the task by having the child complete the task in kneeling or while sitting on a therapy ball. This promotes balance and use of the stomach and leg muscles. Building this solid ‘core’ foundation is extremely important so that a child can develop more controlled movements in the upper extremities.
  • Hand strength – Working against gravity requires a child to exert increased effort while building hand strength and endurance with a utensil.
  • Visual spatial awareness & crossing midline – Working on a large vertical surface means more space to cover. This requires a child to visually scan a greater distance left to right, reaching across the imaginary “midline” of our body. Crossing midline is essential for developing bilateral coordination skills.
  • Wrist extension for pencil grasp – This is a big one! Writing on a vertical surface naturally puts the wrist in extension, the ideal position for handwriting. In contrast, a flexed wrist limits finger mobility and control.
  • Proprioception & force modulation – When performing a task on a vertical surface – think stickers or drawing – the child is required to practice grading movements so that he or she can apply the right amount of pressure for success (Boitano, 2020; Drobnjak, 2015).

What pediatric population benefits from this?

All kids would benefit from participating in these kinds of activities! Working on a vertical surface work can particularly help children to further develop the essential fine, visual, and gross motor skills. Sensory integration can also be targeted, as these kinds of activities allow a child to explore and develop proprioceptive, tactile, and visual processing skills.

Activities that can be done on a vertical or slanted surface (Boitano, 2020; Drobnjak, 2015)

  • Writing
  • Drawing/coloring
  • Tracing (stencil) activities
  • Stickers
  • Painting (finger painting or with brush)
  • Magnets
  • Spray bottle activities
  • Squigz or suction cup games
  • Felt or Velcro boards
  • Chalkboard, easel, or whiteboard activities
  • Shaving cream
  • LEGO wall
  • Window or wall washing using sponge



Boitano, C. (2020, April 20). The benefits of writing and working on a vertical surface! OT Outside. Retrieved October 6, 2021 from https://www.otoutside.com/news/2020/4/19/the-benefits-of-writing-and-working-on-a-vertical-surface.

Drobnjak, L. (2015, June 27). Why Kids Should Work on a Vertical Surface. The Inspired Treehouse. Retrieved October 6, 2021 from https://theinspiredtreehouse.com/motor-skills-and-more-working-on-a-vertical-surface/


About the Author
Madelyn (Maddie) Girardi is a Licensed Occupational Therapist in Massachusetts with experience in both school-based and outpatient pediatric settings. Maddie received her undergraduate degree in Exercise Science/Kinesiology at The College of Charleston in South Carolina and  earned her Doctorate degree in Occupational Therapy from The MGH Institute of Health Professions in Boston.

Maddie is a passionate therapist with professional interest in working with young children with neurodevelopmental disorders, fine and gross motor delays and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

To book an appointment or to learn more about NESCA’s Occupational Therapy Services, please fill out our online Intake Form, email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.


Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.


Learning to Ride a Bike: A Rite of Passage

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By: Jessica Hanna MS, OTR/L
Occupational Therapist, NESCA

If there is one positive takeaway from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s the ever-growing love for being outdoors. It’s spring, the flowers are blooming, the sun is out, and the air is light. Everything in our body is telling us to go outside and play.

For many kids with and without disabilities, bike riding is meaningful, liberating, and a rite of passage. Close your eyes and try to remember the first time you rode a two-wheel bike. Can you remember the color of your bike? The smell in the air? The complete joy it brought you? That was the day we all felt a bit more confident and like we grew a bit taller.

So how do we help our children achieve this meaningful occupation? The days of running behind our children while holding onto their bike seat, telling them to pedal, not to stop, and hoping for the best and that they will forgive us when we let go (when we clearly promised we would not let go!) should be far behind us. But are they?

A lot goes into learning how to ride a bike, so do not let your child give up so soon when it takes more than a couple of days, weeks, or months to get it right. Consider the following skills that are addressed in learning to ride a bike:

  • Attention and concentration
  • Bilateral coordination
  • Balance
  • Body awareness
  • Core strength
  • Hand-eye coordination
  • Motor planning
  • Postural stability
  • Sensory processing
  • Upper and lower extremity strength
  • Visual scanning

Children as young as five years of age will begin to acquire and develop the skills needed to ride a two-wheel bike, and still others may not feel ready until they are pre-teens or even into adulthood.

Before getting started, here are a couple things to consider regarding the equipment involved in learning how to ride a bike:

  • Bike – The height of the bike is a crucial element to success when learning how to ride. When seated on the bike, your child’s feet should be firmly planted on the ground. The bike seat may appear too low and the bike too small; however, this technique enables movement security, engages proper core and postural stability, and increases confidence.
  • Braking System – Be sure to learn the difference between hand brakes vs. coaster brakes (using feet to backpedal). Both braking systems have pros and cons. Hand brakes are a personal favorite. They are more flexible to position, offer better control, but require adequate hand strength and coordination to manipulate. Coaster brakes (using your feet to pedal backward to brake) use an intuitive motor planning motion for children. When you pedal forward, you go; when pedaling backward, you stop. They are helpful for children who lack the hand strength skills to wrap and squeeze their hands around a hand brake; however, they provide awkward foot positioning and the constant tendency to backpedal.
  • Helmet – Safety, Safety, Safety! When handling a bike for any occasion (i.e., walking a bike, doing balance drills on a bike, or riding a bike), it should become an automatic habit to wear a helmet. Your child should be in charge of putting on and taking off their helmet independently. There is nothing more important than wearing a helmet that fits correctly with fasteners that can be easily manipulated. When choosing a helmet, be cognizant of the type of fastener/clasp it comes with and if your child has the fine motor skills to adjust it (this skill could take time to learn).If you are unsure if your child’s helmet is a good fit, any cycling store will be more than pleased to assist in finding your child the most appropriate size. 
  • Pedals – When learning to ride for the first time, the removal of pedals should be highly considered. It provides the opportunity to address balance, core, and postural stability for both younger and older children while also increasing movement security.
  • Training Bike – Which is best…balance bikes vs. training wheels? Balance bikes are light in weight and can be introduced to children at a much younger age than a pedal bike. They promote core strength and increase motor planning, sequencing, and balance training skills, making the transition from a balance bike to a two-wheel pedal bike more fluid and easier to manage. Training wheels promote ease in learning motor planning techniques to push on pedals while providing assisted balance. It’s important to note that removing the balance component can be disadvantageous when transitioning from training wheels to a two-wheel pedal bike.

Overall, the literature supports the observation that, for children with and without disabilities, learning to ride a bike is a popular activity that increases confidence, provides opportunities for shared recreation with families and peers, and promotes social inclusion (Dunford, Bannigan, Rathmell (2016).

Several of the many clinical diagnoses of children who can ride a bike follow here; however, this list is certainly not inclusive of the many other diagnoses that do not preclude children from bike riding:

  • ADHD
  • Anxiety
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder
  • Cerebral Palsy
  • Developmental Coordination Disorder
  • General learning disability
  • Hearing impairment
  • No diagnosis

The art of bike riding can be broken down into various steps, from learning how to use the kickstand to the act of pedaling. Each step deserves attention, because through repetition and practice, confidence is achieved.

If using these tips feels difficult or is not helping your child with the level of focus and skill they need to successfully achieve their goal to use a bike, we recommend reaching out to your occupational therapist or getting an occupational therapy evaluation. If in-person direct services continue to be a concern, biking riding skills can be offered via telehealth from the comfort of  your home. Jessica offers successful biking riding drills and adaptive home exercise plans through telehealth that address the skills required to learn to ride a bike. Contact NESCA’s Director of Clinical Services Julie Robinson, OT, to learn more at: jrobinson@nesca-newton.com.


Dunford, Bannigan, Rathmell (2016) Learning to ride a bike: Developing a therapeutic intervention. Children Young People & Families Occupational Therapy Journal 20(1) 10-18


About the Author

Jessica Hanna has over 10 years of pediatric OT experience in conducting assessments and providing treatment of children and adolescents with a broad range of challenges and disabilities, including autism spectrum disorders, sensory processing disorders, visual impairments, cerebral palsy, executive function deficits and developmental disorders of motor function. Prior to joining NESCA, Jessica trained and worked in a variety of settings, including inpatient and outpatient hospital settings, private practice, schools and homes. She has served on interdisciplinary treatment teams and worked closely with schools, medical staff and other service providers in coordinating care. In addition, Jessica provided occupational therapy services at Perkins School for the Blind and Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital pediatric inpatient unit, where she conducted comprehensive evaluations and interventions for children with a broad range of presentations.


To book an appointment or to learn more about NESCA’s Occupational Therapy Services, please fill out our online Intake Form, email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.


Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.


School-based Occupational Therapy at Home

By | NESCA Notes 2020

By: Sophie Bellenis, OTD, OTR/L
Occupational Therapist; Real-life Skills Program Manager and Coach

While school districts and government officials work to plan for the current “new normal,” no concrete decisions have been made about the delivery of special education and provider services. As parents take on the huge task of educating within the home, it is important to consider how we can bolster some of the skills that are continuously targeted in the school setting. As an occupational therapist, I have provided direct services and worked with teachers who are adeptly teaching a class of 20, while simultaneously making sure that their two students with OT needs are being provided appropriate accommodations and motor practice. Here are some activities that can be done in the home to keep the development and learning going!

If your child’s occupational therapy (OT) evaluation mentions difficulty with fine motor coordination, consider incorporating these activities into your day.

  • Sort marbles, pompom or coins. Using fingers to pinch and pick up small objects helps to build strength and solidify grasp and grip patterns. Increase the difficulty of this activity by having kids push pompom and marbles through small holes or manipulate coins through slits in a tub or box.
  • Play with playdough or putty. Make shapes using cookie cutters, push beads into putty and pull them all out, roll playdough into a snake and use different pinches to create patterns from head to tail. Pinches to consider include: thumb and index finger, thumb and index+middle finger and thumb against the side of the index finger (lateral pinch).
  • String beads, cheerios or pasta with holes. This activity promotes bilateral coordination, fine motor control and grasp patterns. Scaffold this activity by starting with threading on pipe cleaners, moving to dry spaghetti and finally working to thread onto string.
  • Practice using tweezers to pick up small objects.

If your child’s OT evaluation mentions difficulty with visual perception or visual motor integration, try these!

  • Puzzles! Doing a puzzle requires multiple visual perceptual skills, as well as the fine motor precision to fit pieces together.
  • Word searches. Word searches require horizontal and vertical tracking, letter discrimination and visual figure ground ability. Consider scaffolding this activity by finding word searches that only have horizontal words, have both horizontal and vertical, or have horizontal, vertical and diagonal words.
  • Sorting activities. Objects can be sorted by color, shape, size, texture and a plethora of other characteristics. Consider using objects found in the home, such as pens, buttons, silverware or simply items in a junk drawer for sorting activities.
  • Mazes, Hidden Pictures and Spot the Difference activities can all be found online.
  • Copying activities. Draw pictures using horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines, circles, squares, triangles and crosses and have your child try to copy them exactly. This activity works on visual motor integration specifically.

If your child’s OT evaluation mentions difficulty with endurance, postural stability or core strength, try these!

  • Draw or play while lying on the ground. Tummy time is often thought of as an activity to help our newborns, but lying on your tummy and using the muscles needed to keep the upper body and head stable can be beneficial for building strength in most of our kids.
  • Yoga! Incorporate an online video or movement break into your daily routine.
  • Pretend to be different animals! Walk like a bear, slither like a snake, hop like a frog or trot like a horse. Mimicking these animals is a great activity to do while listening to music and uses all different muscles.

While it can be difficult to target our children’s specific needs without direct access to therapists and our usual resources, building in small activities throughout the day can help to maintain strength, skill development and the foundational abilities needed for academic growth.


About the Author

Dr. Sophie Bellenis is a Licensed Occupational Therapist in Massachusetts, specializing in educational OT and functional life skills development. Dr. Bellenis joined NESCA in the fall of 2017 to offer community-based skills coaching services as a part of the Real-life Skills Program within NESCA’s Transition Services team. Dr. Bellenis graduated from the MGH Institute of Health Professions with a Doctorate in Occupational Therapy, with a focus on pediatrics and international program evaluation. She is a member of the American Occupational Therapy Association, as well as the World Federation of Occupational Therapists. Having spent years delivering direct services at the elementary, middle school and high school levels, Dr. Bellenis has extensive background with school-based occupational therapy services.  She believes that individual sensory needs and visual skills must be taken into account to create comprehensive educational programming.

To book an appointment or to learn more about NESCA’s Occupational Therapy Services, please fill out our online Intake Form, email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.


Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.