Welcome to the Upper Body Exercises page. These shoulder stability and arm strengthening exercises are beneficial to those with a physical disability.

This page is for those Busy Butterflies who spend much of their time in their wheelchair for play and mobility and have mild or no learning difficulty.

This page gives advice and activities which will help strengthen your child’s shoulders, hands and fingers.

  • We need good shoulder, elbow, wrist hand and finger strength to carry out our hand and fine motor activities including playing and activities of daily living such as eating.

  • If your child has some difficulties with using their hands, then strengthening their shoulders, arms and hands may help them with their hand function. 

  • Before trying these exercises, take a minute to prepare your child. If their arms and hands are tight then stretch them out. To wake up their muscles it can be a good idea to wake up their skin. This can be done by squeezing their hands, tips of their fingers and their arms and shoulders. You could also use a brush along their skin, or a vibrating massager to give them lots of stimulation. All of these can help to make your child more aware of their fingers/ hand/ arm which can then help them be more accurate and use their arms/ hands more effectively. 

  • Use this sequence to progress your child’s arm strength. They may start at the beginning or half way down – wherever you think your child will be successful but still be challenged. If your child is not ready to attempt a certain activity, look at those either before or after which may suit them better.

  • Make sure your child is successful in their activity as this will motivate them to continue. As you push them to get to the next level, they should be able to be successful for a few of their attempts to keep motivated-even if they are not successful at all of them.

  • Remember to praise the effort rather than the result to motivate them to keep putting in effort and not be put off if they don’t succeed.

  • Most of these activities will feel like fun anyhow but feel free to adapt the exercise to make it more entertaining for your child.

Upper body exercise ideas for your Busy Butterfly

Shoulder and elbow strengthening

1) Help your child onto a roll or a wedge with their hands out in front of them or on the ground and their shoulders over their hands.  Use cushions if you don’t have a roll or wedge at home. Try to encourage them to lift their head which will in turn make them push through their hands. Books or the TV are great for this activity.

2) To progress this, encourage play in this position so they lift 1 hand. This could be helping to turn a page of a book or playing with balls. 

3) If they manage this then move them further forward over the roll or wedge (or cushions) so that more of their weight comes over their hands. Try lifting a hand again for play. 

1) Start just trying to maintain a hands and knees position. It may be easier to start with the child sitting back on their heels and just balancing through their arms.

2) As they get stronger, move their bodies forward until their shoulders are over their hands and their hips are over their knees. While they learn to hold this position, watching activities are the best – watching a tablet, reading a book etc so they don’t have to move their arms.  

3) Once they are stable on their hands and knees, practice lifting 1 hand to play. They could play on a tablet with 1 hand or play with rolling balls.

Wrist, hand and finger strengthening exercises 

For all of these you may need to help your child. If you use your hand over their hand, you can show them what they need to do and they will start to get the idea by experiencing the movement. 

  1. See this ‘Our Home’ video on hand strengthening with playdough – kneading, pulling apart, squashing or wringing the playdough can all be great hand strengthening exercises.

2. For finger strengthening, try hiding objects in the dough and your child has to manipulate it to get the toy.

  1. Squeezing bottles is a lovely way to strengthen fingers. Fill an empty toothpaste tube with liquid or yogurt or a bottle with a spout with any liquid and your child can play with squeezing it all out.

  2. Put soft salt/playdough in a plastic bag and make a small hole – squeezing it out can make a lovely snake of dough.

3. Squeeze stress balls – Encourage your child to squeeze this or just poke into it with their fingers. See our ‘Our Home’ video to find out how to make stress balls at home.

  1. Have fun with clothes pegs – cut a large piece of card into a head shape. Use the pegs as hair and make a face.

  2. Do a scavenger hunt. Clip pegs around the house on bits of material, paper, drawer handles etc. The child can then go around the home or the room with or without you pushing them (depending on their mobility) to find the pegs and take them off. See this ‘Our Home’ video which shows how to use a tablet to set up a scavenger hunt. 

  1. For the whole hand use kitchen or BBQ tongs and ask your child to pick up bigger items such as socks, soft toys, small cushions. Lots of ideas for hand strengthening and shoulder stability

  2. You could set this up as a scavenger hunt too. Take photos of objects they need to pick up with their tongs from around the home/ room and they can go find them, take them off and bring them back to the start. If your child can’t wheel themselves or move on the floor, give them options of ‘right, left and forward’ in their communication aid or by sticking paper on their trays so they can instruct you where you need to go to find the item. 

  3. For finger strengthening, get your child to use tweezers instead of tongs and pick up small items such as coins. See how quickly they can pick up 10 smaller objects and put them in a bowl.

  1. Use any spare nuts and bolts (and washers) you have around the house to make shapes with card. Just draw the shape of a dinosaur, snake, tree etc. Cut holes or slits in the card and your child can amuse themselves screwing the nuts and bolts together to make great pieces of 3D art. 
  1.  Use a large piece of newspaper and ask your child to scrunch it into the smallest ball they can with 2 hands.

  2. Now ask them to do it with 1 hand.

  3. The manipulation needed for this will strengthen all the small intricate muscles of the hands. 

  1. Using scissors is a great way to strengthen hands. You can start by cutting dough as this teaches the right way to cut. Make a snake out of dough and ask then to cut it into pieces.

  2. Move on to cutting straight lines on card and/ or paper. See our video for a great paper chain man using only straight line cutting.

  3. As their skills develop you can be inventive with your cutting and draw interesting shapes for them to cut. These activities should be supervised at all times. 

  4. Have a look at our ‘Our Home’ video on how to make a paper Minecraft man! 

More helpful Busy Butterfly resources

Here are a selection of suitable Our Home videos

Silly Socks and a bit of Boccia

Boccia is a game that can work arm and shoulder muscles.

More Fine Motor Skills

This video gives some more ideas for strengthening those fingers using salt dough

Thank you for visiting Gympanzees’ website. All information provided by Gympanzees is of general nature and for educational / entertainment purposes. It is up to you as the parent or family member to judge what is appropriate and safe for your child. No information provided by Gympanzees should replace any professional information and advice that you have been given and speak to your therapist or doctor if you are unsure of anything. Should you use any of the information provided by Gympanzees, you do so at your own risk and hold Gympanzees harmless from any and all losses, liabilities, injuries or damages resulting from any and all claims.