JKP author Cara Koscinski MOT, OTR/L, The Pocket Occupational Therapist for Families of Children With Special Needs, explains how play can benefit your special needs child.

Occupational Therapy, Developing Skills Through Play

Occupational therapists are fortunate enough to be a critical part of the treatment team for children with special needs.   Any difficulties children may face as a result of having a developmental delay should be addressed by incorporating play into their daily routine.  While working with the adult population, occupational therapists focus on remediating skills for daily living and for work related tasks.  When assessing the skills of children, the therapist must look at the child’s play skills.  After all, when children are not asleep they are Categorieslearning about their environment through the various play activities they engage in during their day.  Even completing the tasks of building blocks, completing a puzzle, and drawing pictures will yield skills that the child will use throughout his lifetime.

When caregivers attend occupational therapy sessions, most inevitably ask, “Why does it look like you are playing during the session?  How is this therapy?”  The occupational therapist should explain therapy goals and how she will work to achieve them during the course of therapy.  It is important for caregivers to feel comfortable asking questions about activities to complete at home to help to facilitate therapy progress.  Most caregivers want to help their child to achieve his goals and are willing to participate if given the chance.  It is by asking questions and through home programs given by the therapist that caregivers can be key partners in a child’s success on building skills that will propel him through his lifetime.

The most important thing to remember when working with your child at home is to begin at a level where he can be successful.  Each success will help to build his confidence. No one wants to fail at a task and oftentimes, a child with special needs may lack the confidence to re-try something at which he has previously failed.  Be sure to watch your child as he plays to determine which activities he prefers.  For example, note if he prefers to engage in messy play or dry play.  Does he enjoy colors, shapes, letters, or numbers?  When seeking items for your home play time, be sure to remember his favorite color or movie character.  His excitement will help him to have fun while learning.

Fine-motor coordination involves tasks of the hands and fingers such as holding a writing utensil, using a fork, buttoning, and shoe-tying.   It is a good idea to help your child to strengthen his fingers for these tasks.  Set up activities that you know he will enjoy and have success with.  There are many different types of dough recipes that can be found on the internet.  Make some dough and add his favorite color to it with a small amount of food coloring or add glitter.  Mix two different colors of dough together and see what colors you can make.  The addition of different scented oils can heighten the activity to a new sensory level.  Peppermint and vanilla oils are commonly found at the grocery store.  Note which scents your child prefers.

Most children love to open and close things.  Be sure to save containers of all shapes and sizes. After cleaning them out, place a special prize inside.  Ask your child to open each and find the prize.  Prizes can be food, pom-poms, treats, or anything that will be motivating for him.  Cut a slit in the top of the lid and ask him to put coins or bingo chips inside the container.  This will give him the opportunity to develop good coordination skills.  Also, use different eye-droppers or a turkey baster to transfer colored water from cup to cup.  Switch from hand to hand or have a race to see who can fill the cup up first.

Gross-motor coordination and building up a strong core muscle system will be key factors in determining success with future activities such as bicycle riding, hopping, and playing sports in the future.  Even when children are infants, supervised tummy time is important to help muscles work against gravity.  Place a motivating object near baby so that he has to lift his head to see it.  Use lots of praise and encouragement.  To help develop core muscle strength as children get older, it is important to revisit tummy time.  Ask your child to watch a small portion of his favorite television show while lying on his belly.  As he gets stronger build up the time.  Pretending to be animals like snakes crawling in the grasslands is a fun game for older kids.

Crawling is a stage often missed by children with developmental delays.  The act of crawling helps to strengthens muscles, works to help to integrate the sensory system, and develops coordination of the arms and legs.  Often, we need to give extra help to learn to navigate their bodies in the quadruped, or crawling, position.   We can get down on the floor with our children and crawl together through mazes made of cushions; under tables; and along paths taped with masking tape.  Make sure to encourage fun so that your child doesn’t realize he’s working on skills that may be difficult for him.  Allow him to rest when he needs to.

Oral-motor skills are critical to eating, drinking, and speech.  Often times the local thrift store is full of affordable tools for building strength in the muscles of the mouth.  Straws of different shapes and diameters should be used for drinking or blowing bubbles into a pan of water.  Have races by blowing cotton balls and other light items off of the table.  The use of age-appropriate whistles is a fun way to get immediate reward as the child learns to produce sounds by blowing.  Place whipped crème onto the child’s lips and ask him to look into a mirror and use his tongue to lick it all off.  This will help him to strengthen the tongue muscles and become more aware of its movements.  Try it with him and have a race.  Use different tastes and textures such as chocolate syrup.

As you think about your child, keep in mind that he is a child first and he learns critical skills through playing.  It will benefit him many fold if you provide him with opportunities to work on his areas of weaknesses while he has fun doing so. The memories and skills you build together will last a lifetime.

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