How pediatric physical therapists design care for kids

November 8, 2023 Swedish Health Team


In this article:

  • Pediatric physical therapists provide highly specialized care to help children succeed in therapy.

  • Swedish physical therapists deliver age-appropriate, play-based care in a kid-friendly environment so all children can be safe and have fun at their appointments.

  • By involving parents or other caregivers, physical therapists can ensure kids are getting the assistance they need at home.

When it comes to kids’ health care needs, they aren’t just little adults. They are constantly growing, changing and developing. So their physical therapy needs are different from those of adult patients.

“A pediatric physical therapist must have a deep understanding of the typical and atypical growth and development of children,” says Sylvie Sanguin, physical therapist at Swedish. “They need to constantly adjust and customize the child’s goals to address the patient's needs while respecting their body’s physiology at that time of their life.”

At Swedish, the pediatric physical therapists have all received extensive training to take care of the needs of the pediatric population, from birth to age 17 years. They are passionate about ensuring each child receives care that will help them thrive and use multiple strategies to get kids moving as they should.

Turning treatment into play time

For kids to get the best results from therapy, they have to be active participants. And the best way to get kids moving is to make therapy play-based.

Pediatric physical therapists often set up an activity using the child’s favorite toys and then use hands-on techniques to help them move. For instance, a child may need to bend down on one knee to reach a ball, then stand to put it through a basketball hoop. Though this exercise looks like playing, it actually strengthens the legs and core while improving balance.

“From the outside, someone could think that PT is just randomly playing with the patient,” says Sanguin, “but the way the activity is set up, the way the therapists place their bodies, are all specifically chosen to encourage a desired movement.”

Therapy is also specialized based on a child’s current communication skills and cognitive skills. Younger children complete simple activities, while older children can play more complex games. Physical therapy for infants involves moving their limbs gently for them, while an older child can be challenged to complete tasks independently. A pediatric physical therapist understands how to keep therapy interesting as kids’ abilities change.

Getting caregivers involved

Part of helping a child succeed is also educating and empowering their parents or other caregivers. While a child may spend an hour a week in physical therapy sessions, they spend much more time at home. Caregivers need to know how to safely encourage exercise at home so a child can continue to make progress.

“Part of the pediatric physical therapy session will be dedicated to education so the caregiver will leave the clinic confident that they are able to help the child,” says Sanguin.

The therapist may teach the caregiver about equipment the child uses, recommend toys or activities for at home or just teach the caregiver about why certain movements help their child.

Watch video: A Seattle Sounders FC star visits Swedish Pediatric Therapy Services

Seattle Sounders FC forward Fredy Montero toured Swedish Pediatric Therapy Services in late September. At Swedish, pediatric physical and occupational therapists and speech-language pathologists provide care for children with special needs, as they recover from serious injury or overcome aspects of long-term disabilities.

Creating a kid-friendly environment

Swedish’s pediatric physical therapy facility is made just for kids, with a gym that includes:

  • A play area with a slide, monkey bars and rock wall.
  • A treadmill and training bike for older kids.
  • A sensory gym with swings and a ball pit.
  • Plenty of toys and games.
  • Equipment that helps all kids fully participate in therapy.

“The facility offers all that a child may need to receive the best care in an adapted environment,” says Sanguin. “The children will make progresses towards their goals while feeling safe and having fun.”

Specializing in the conditions that affect kids

While adults often seek physical therapy for injuries or after a surgery or illness; for kids, therapy is prescribed for a variety of congenital conditions. Pediatric physical therapists often help children with conditions such as:

  • Premature birth
  • Torticollis
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Foot or limb deformities
  • Motor delays
  • Gait abnormalities
  • Neuromuscular disorders such as muscular dystrophy
  • Autism

Physical therapists perform a comprehensive evaluation during your child’s first visit, including observation and input from caregivers. Once the therapist has all the information they need, they can work with caregivers to set individualized, reachable goals for each child. “Our goal is to have all our patients thriving in life, to be able to fully participate to age-appropriate activities,” says Sanguin. “We want them to feel empowered, to feel proud of their strengths and to dream big.”

Learn more and find a provider

Find a pediatric physical therapist to help your child thrive and learn more about our services.

Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow up as needed. If you need to find a physician, caregiver or advanced care practitioner, you can use our provider directory.

Related resources

Swedish is a destination for innovative, world-class care

Providence Swedish clinicians named to Seattle Met’s 2023 Top Doctors list

More than 100 from Providence Swedish recognized as Seattle’s “Top Docs”

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

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