Occupational Therapy, It’s Not Just Play!

DSC_2988Occupational therapists love to come up with clever ways to help their young clients thrive. Tapping into a child’s motivation is the key ingredient in our recipe for therapeutic success. Our sessions can look a lot like simple playtime: your little one’s therapist may be on the floor playing with your child, or pushing him on a swing, or creating elaborate obstacle courses. But there’s a lot going on beneath the surface: the therapist is challenging your child’s sensory system, gross and fine motor skills, visual-motor coordination, balance, and self-regulation.

Playing

You’ll often hear us referring to play as a child’s occupation. Playing is how children process the world and learn from it. By entering their world, we can gently guide children towards achieving their developmental milestones and better function. We engage them by being on the floor besides them, copying their activities, participating in their creative scenarios, and gently challenging them to communicate with us. This activity builds the trust necessary in any relationship, especially a therapeutic one. Although the therapist makes it look easy, she is calibrating her actions based on what she observes your child doing. She then guides the play to work toward his specific goals. Here are some uses for play in occupational therapy:

    • Increasing communication and interaction
    • Improving fine and gross motor skills
    • Increasing emotional tolerance and self-regulation
    • Improving sensory tolerance of a variety of inputs
    • Teaching social skills
    • Teaching turn taking
    • Teaching how to cope with transitions

Swinging

Parents often ask if it’s normal for their child to want to swing for hours, or in some cases, to be so terrified of swings. The answer is always yes. A child’s ability to swing says a lot about her unique vestibular system (sensory system that communicates balance and spatial sense to our brain). A child should never be forced to swing. Swinging in occupational therapy is used as a modality–that is, a therapeutic tool. In other words, it is used as a way to recalibrate the sensory system. Because it has such a powerful effect on the nervous system, the therapist watches carefully for signs of distress, over-excitation and vestibular overload all the while engaging your child in the activity. Here are just a few ways swinging can be used to help a child:

    • Helps organize the sensory system
    • Prepares the brain for more structured activities
    • Calms the nervous system
    • Helps recalibrate the vestibular system
    • Increases spatial input to the brain
    • Engages core muscles
    • Increases muscle tone
    • Engages proprioception (pressure receptors in your joints that send message to your brain)
    • Increases focus

Obstacle Courses

Tunnels, stepping stones, bean bags, ball pits, giant tires, scooters, and ropes. Your little one leaps from one challenge to the next. It looks like so much fun. But behind the giggles, this activity helps your child in many important ways.

    • Improves gross motor planning and coordination
    • Exercises visual-motor coordination
    • Builds muscle strength and endurance
    • Increases core strength
    • Improves posture
    • Challenges balance
    • Strengthen the vestibular system
    • Increases input to the proprioceptive system
    • Organizes information processing in the brain
    • Increases a child’s ability to focus
    • Teaches child to follow directions
    • Engages listening skills
    • Encourages communication
    • Exercises the child’s problem-solving skills
    • Engages bilateral movement

Occupational therapists can play a key role in helping your child overcome developmental difficulties. They use play as a tool to build on your child’s strength and help him achieve his goals. Although therapy is purposely fun, it has a clear therapeutic purpose. Want to do some of our play activities at home with your little one? Check out our article on Cooking with Your Child, tips from an Occupational Therapist.

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