Dance like nobody’s watching…except for your occupational therapist.

The best part of being a pediatric OT is being able to do some of my favorite activities while I’m at work, and adding a therapeutic twist to address my client’s goals. Dance has always been a huge part of my life. I started dance classes when I was four years old, and have tried everything from ballroom to Irish step dancing.

The act of dancing is a dynamic process that requires a balance of physical, social, and cognitive skills.

Due to its complex nature, you can use dance to work on a variety of skills at the clinic, at home, and in the community.

Range of Motion, Endurance, & Strength

By its nature, dance involves moving the body around in a variety of ways. This requires use of full joint range of motion. You can work on building both active range of motion (your child’s ability to move a joint), and passive range of motion (assisted movement or stretching through a joint) by incorporating choreographed movements that require movement of a targeted joint.

Any kind of dancing has the potential to be an aerobic workout. You can encourage your child to build endurance by challenging them to dance for longer periods of time, or to music with more intensity.

Although high impact, high intensity dancing on its own can build muscle strength, you can add in extra therapeutic challenges by having a child wear ankle weights while dancing, or adding heavy props to carry during a routine.

Balance and Coordination

Your child’s balance and coordination skills are challenged at different levels, depending on the complexity of a dance. Even a dance as simple as the Hokey Pokey requires balancing on one foot, shifting your weight, and reaching outside of your base of support.

While most dancing occurs on your feet, you can work on both standing and sitting balance through dance incorporating moves that require a child to reach high up in the air or out to the side. You can work on coordination skills by having your child follow you or another child as you complete a series of movements. For an added challenge to balance, try having your child stand on a dynamic surface, such as a couch cushion, while doing a familiar dance such as the “YMCA” or “Head Shoulders Knees & Toes” without falling over!

Cognitive & Executive Function Skills

Dance addresses almost too many cognitive and executive functioning skills to list. Here are some of the most important skills you can work on with your child while engaged in dance:

  • Sustained attention to task: Keeping your body with the group, attention to the leader
  • Sequencing: Coordinating a series of movements in the order they were taught
  • Working memory: Recalling a movement sequence within a short period of time
  • Long-term memory: Recalling choreography across dance sessions/opportunities
  • Inhibition: Turn taking during dance; understanding when to begin by listening for music cues
  • Teaching movement concepts: go/stop, fast/slow, right/left, heavy pressure/light pressure
Social Skills

Have a dance party! This is the perfect opportunity to work on expected peer interaction. You can have your child work on turn taking by allowing several children to take turns being the dance leader, while others follow their moves. You can get your child involved in planning a dance, and asking peers to join him or her. Is your child is planning to attend a school dance? You can work with your child’s therapist to use a social story to help prepare them for the social expectations that go along with that experience.

Body Awareness

In order to move your body around with the coordinated movements dancing demands, you have to be aware of where your body is in space and how it moves around. Dancing in a group can bring heightened awareness to the amount of space your body takes up, especially when it is moving. Using visual anchors on the floor such as colored tape to block off a box of space that is designated for each child to dance in can help with this. Dance also frequently requires touching peers in an expected way, such as holding hands, linking arms, etc.

Many children who have difficulty with body awareness experience differences in proprioceptive processing (understanding the input related to movement through your joints). This frequently leads to individuals using an unexpected amount of pressure when engaging in activities (i.e., hugging too hard, bumping/crashing into objects). Dancing in groups or with a partner is a great opportunity to practice using appropriate pressure, as well as to reinforce the social expectations related to physical interactions with peers during dancing.

Access Training

Even children with limited physical movement can be highly engaged in and motivated by dancing. Kids who use power wheelchairs can practice navigation and mobility skills by driving their chairs with appropriate speed and timing to various parts of the dance floor as the choreography demands.

A child learning to access their environment with a switch can control the music or lights, using an environmental control unit such as a computer switch adapter or the IR controls from their augmentative alternative communication device.

Dance is also a great opportunity to reinforce the use of purposeful movement patterns that these children may use to access switches. For example, if your child accesses a switch by turning their head to the right, making this movement a recurring part of a dance can be a motivating way to practice.

Dressing Skills

Because you can’t dance without your dancing shoes! Dancing is such a fun opportunity to dress up, whether in the clinic, out in the community, or at home with family and friends. Kids who are working on improving their dressing skills will be far more motivated to put on a cool dance costume than practicing putting on their own shirt 5 times. The more costume changes, the more opportunities to practice an adaptive strategy learning in therapy!


My new favorite resource to use when dancing with kids in therapy is the KidzBop Dance Along channel on YouTube.

Written By: Annabeth Martino, MS, OTR/L, Occupational Therapist