The first time I heard the term ‘occupational therapy’, I had no idea what it meant. I assumed it had something to do with providing therapy to adults in the workforce, and while occupational therapists can (and do!) help improve the lives of adults within work settings, occupational therapy (OT) benefits people of all ages. Whether an individual is suffering from the effects of an injury or illness, or was born with developmental delays like autism, sensory processing disorder, or cerebral palsy, the main purpose of occupational therapy is to help them develop the skills needed to live an independent and productive life. Through the use of various occupational therapy activities, OT can improve a patient’s sensory, motor, and cognitive skills, which in turn improves their quality of life and boosts their self-esteem
What I love most about occupational therapy is that it’s fun. By assessing a child’s challenges and using relevant occupational therapy activities that address their needs, occupational therapists are brilliant at finding ways to get kids to practice the things they find difficult without them even realizing it!
What’s even better is that there are tons of occupational therapy activities you can do to support your child at home and at school, most of which cost next to nothing to set-up and provide meaningful ways for you to connect and have fun with your child while simultaneously helping him or her overcome their challenges.
Whether your child has sensory sensitivities, struggles with fine, gross, and/or visual motor skills, needs help with handwriting, or could benefit from core strengthening exercises, we have 56 activities and tips you are going to LOVE!
Proprioceptive Sensory Diet Activities
The proprioceptive system is responsible for helping us understand where we are in relation to the space around us. Our proprioceptive receptors exist in our muscles, joints, and ligaments, and these receptors are what enable us to sit, stand, stretch, bend over, climb stairs, run, etc. There are heaps of activities you can get your child involved with at home to help develop his or her proprioceptive system. Here are some simple ideas to get you started:
- Carrying groceries from the car to the house
- Carrying laundry up and down the stairs
- Pulling a blanket with toys or pillows on top for added weight
- Jumping on a trampoline
- Animal walks
Vestibular Sensory Diet Activities
Often referred to as the ‘sixth sense’, our vestibular system is located in our inner ears and is responsible for our spatial awareness. It allows us to coordinate balance with movement and, when performing correctly, it works in conjunction with our other senses to ensure we feel safe in our environment. A child with vestibular processing challenges may avoid or seek vestibular input. They may appear clumsy, prefer sedentary activities, and have difficulty with fine motor tasks like handwriting, or they may be hyperactive and impulsive due to a constant need for movement. These activities offer a great way to develop a child’s vestibular system:
- Bike riding
- Jump rope
- Egg races
Tactile Sensory Diet Activities
If your child has tactile sensitivities (think: textures, temperature, vibration, pain, etc.), engaging him or her in tactile sensory integration activities will help teach them to understand which tactile stimuli are important (the feeling they get when they cut their finger) and which aren’t (the feeling of the tag on the back of their shirt). Here are some of our favorite tactile activities:
- Playing with playdough
- Finger painting
- Water bead sensory bin
- Sensory sand set
- Non-toxic slime
Auditory Sensory Diet Activities
Our auditory system is responsible not only for enabling us to receive auditory input from our environment, but it also helps us to recognize which sounds are important (the sound of mom calling your name), which ones keep us safe (fire alarms), and which ones we should ignore (the hum of the fridge). Some children with auditory processing disorder may be hypersensitive to sounds, causing them to become upset in the face of loud noises and cover their ears in public settings, while others may be hyposensitive and seek out loud noises. If your child has auditory processing challenges, consider some of these simple, yet fun auditory activities:
- Simon Says
- Scavenger hunt with sounds (instead of looking for objects, listen for sounds!)
- 1-, 2-, or 3-step directions (found on Little Bins for Little Hands)
- Listen to calming music
- Match the Sound Game (found on Strings, Keys & Melodies)
Oral Sensory Diet Activities
Our oral system allows us to communicate with others, and also allows us to chew, swallow, and experience different textures and tastes, but what few of us realize is that our oral system is also closely related to our proprioceptive system. For example, you might notice that your child is constantly chewing and biting things (oral seeking behaviors), or your child might avoid certain food textures, have problems swallowing, and be very reluctant to try new foods (oral avoiding behaviors). If this sounds like your child, consider some of these fun oral activities!
- Blow bubbles
- Chew gum (I prefer Epic Dental Gum as it’s sweetened with xylitol and free of aspartame)
- Spider Races (found on Still Playing School)
- Blow bubbles in water using a straw
- Blow up balloons
Fine Motor Activities
When teachers and therapists talk about a child’s fine motor skills, they are usually referring to their ability to control the small movements in their hands and fingers, but fine motor skills are also essential in helping children make small movements with other parts of their body, like their feet, toes, lips, and tongue. When a child can’t control the small movements in their hands and fingers, they will not only have difficulty in a school environment, but they will also struggle with basic life skills like getting dressed and feeding themselves. The good news is that there are tons of things that can be done to help develop fine motor skills, and early intervention is key. Here are some great fine motor activities you can do at home to help strengthen your child’s hands and fingers.
- Scissor Cutting with Play Dough. Play dough offers a great way to develop a child’s fine motor skills while simultaneously developing her scissor cutting skills. The OT Toolbox gives step-by-step instructions on how to set this activity up in such a way as to teach your child correct scissor cutting techniques.
- Pipe Cleaner and Colander Activity. This activity sounds too good to be true, but you will be amazed at how much fun your kids will have stringing pipe cleaners into your kitchen colander. It will keep them entertained long enough for you to get dinner on the table while simultaneously developing their fine motor skills!
- Lacing Activities. There are so many inexpensive ways to setup lacing activities at home. Whether you use a bit of string and different types of pasta, or invest in a set like this Learning Resources Beads and Pattern Card Set, you can’t go wrong.
- Erasing Letters with a Q-Tip. This Q-Tip Activity by Gift of Curiosity is awesome. All you need is a white board, dry erase markers, and some Q-Tips, and you can find all kinds of ways to not only work on your child’s fine motor skills, but also teach concepts like letters, numbers, and shapes.
- Fun with Paper Clips. Yup, you read that right. Paper clips can double as a fine motor activity for kids! Check out these paper clip ideas on Powerful Mothering.
Gross Motor Activities
When teachers and therapists talk about a child’s gross motor skills, they are usually referring to their ability to control the large movements in their body required for things like walking, running, and jumping as well as the hand-eye coordination needed to ride a bike, catch a ball, or kick their legs in a swimming pool. When a child can’t control the large movements in their bodies, they will find it difficult to sit upright at a classroom desk, navigate the playground equipment at recess, and feel in control of their movement. Here are some gross motor activities you can do at home to help develop your child’s gross motor skills!
- Balloon Tennis. Grab a couple of fly swatters and blow up some balloons and then check out this fun balloon tennis activity over on Little Bins for Little Hands!
- Stair Scavenger Hunt. Using 2 puzzle sets (for example, you can use this wooden number set by Hapeas well as this wooden number puzzle by Lanka Kade), create a scavenger hunt on your staircase (in this example, your child would be matching numbers). Have your child choose 1 puzzle piece from a bucket and then walk up the stairs to find the matching piece. Ensure she doesn’t use the hand rails while walking up and down the stairs, and that she crouches down into a squat position when picking up each puzzle piece. As an added twist, have her assemble both puzzles on the floor while standing on a stepping stool.
- Animal Walking. Write a bunch of different animals on different pieces of paper, throw them into a hat, have your child randomly choose a few, and then have her walk across the living room while pretending to walk like the animal she chose and see how long it takes the rest of the family to figure out what the animal is. Make sure to include bunny rabbit, snake, bear, and crab in your choices and demonstrate the moves ahead of time so she engages her core properly.
- Egg Races. You can make this as easy or as hard as you want to. Start with a simple race across your living room, and then make the game more difficult by putting blankets and pillows on the floor. You can also have your child switch between her right and left hands to add an even bigger twist!
- Waddle Like a Penguin. This gross motor activity on Brilliant Beginnings Preschool doubles as a great boredom buster for bad weather days!
Visual Motor Activities
Also known as hand-eye coordination and visual motor integration, visual motor skills enable our hands and eyes to communicate effectively so we can write, draw, cut, etc. If your child struggles with handwriting or other activities that require hand-eye coordination, these activities offer a fun way to strengthen their skills:
- Copy the Clay Monsters. If your child enjoys playing with play dough, pipe cleaners, and googly eyes (who doesn’t?!), this copy the clay monsters activity by Your Therapy Source is sure to be a hit!
- Shape Copying and Cutting. Draw shapes on a piece of construction paper, and have your child not only copy your drawings, but cut them out with a pair of scissors.
- Osmo Tangram. My daughter received the Osmo system for Christmas, which I recommend to every single parent of kids over the age of 6. It teaches so many important concepts like letters and numbers in a fun and creative way, and if you’re looking for visual motor activities, the Tangram game is one of my absolute favorites!
- Lite Brite. An age-old classic, Lite Brite is another great activity that will help develop your child’s visual motor skills. With 6 reusable templates, kids can copy designs for independent play, or create their own.
- Visual Scanning Exercise. There are heaps of different visual scanning exercises you can engage your kids in, and these ideas by The OT Toolbox will give you lots of inspiration!
- Hand Strengthening Activities. Before you can teach kids to write, you need to make sure they have an opportunity to develop proper hand strength, and this collection of fun activities by The Inspired Treehouse is a great place to start!
- Make Your Own Thera Putty. Thera Putty provides a fun way for kids to strengthen the muscles in their hands needed for fine motor skills like handwriting, and this recipe by Everything Pretty offers a simple and inexpensive way to make your own! Don’t have the ingredients on hand, or feeling too lazy to make your own? I like this pre-made thera putty by Vive.
- Pencil Control Activities. If your child struggles with pencil control, this fun activity on The OT Toolbox will help!
- Writing with Shaving Cream. Spread a bunch of shaving cream on a cookie sheet, and have your child practice his letters and numbers either from memory or by copying a sample written by you. This doubles as a great sensory activity, and is heaps of fun!
- Alphabet Picture Tracing Pages. Tracing pages offer a great way to work on a child’s handwriting skills, and Free Homeschool Deals has a bunch you can download for free!
- Erasing Letters with a Q-Tip. I’ve already included this Q-Tip Activity by Gift of Curiosity in my collection of occupational therapy activities for kids, but it’s so awesome it bears repeating! All you need is a white board, dry erase markers, and some Q-Tips, and you can find all kinds of ways to not only work on your child’s fine motor skills, but also teach concepts like letters, numbers, and shapes.
- Window Writing. If your child struggles with handwriting, and you want to find ways to make it fun, grab some window markers and let them practice on the windows of their bedroom!
Note: If your child struggles with pencil grip, there are a lot of different props you can purchase to help your child learn how to hold a pencil correctly, but with so many different options to choose from, it’s hard to know which one is best. Most teachers and occupational therapists prefer to teach children how to write without the aid of pencil grips as they serve as a bandaid rather than a solution to poor pencil grip and have a tendency to get lost (!!!!), but if you are interested in giving one a test drive, here are 3 options to consider:
- The Writing CLAW. What I love about this grip is that it can be used with pencils, markers, paint brushes, and eating utensils, and it’s touted as a top-pick for kids with special needs who struggle with the fine motor skills needed for handwriting.
- The Pencil Grip. Unlike older pencil grips, the soft, flexible material of this grip offers a comfortable way for kids to learn how to maintain the proper tripod grip needed for handwriting, and the ergonomic design helps reduce hand fatigue.
- The Grotto Grip. Designed by an occupational therapist, this pencil grip will ensure your child’s fingers don’t slip while she’s writing, and based on the reviews I’ve read online, a lot of teachers and parents swear by it!
Core Strengthening Activities
- Tightrope Walking. All you need is a bit of masking tape and a little imagination, and you can make all kinds of tightrope obstacle courses using your child’s favorite toys. A simple example is to have her walk from one end of the room to another with an object in each of her hands, and then have her stand on a step stool at the end of the ‘tightrope’ and bend over to place each object into a bucket. Simple, easy, and effective!
- Twister. If your child has weak core muscles, this classic party game offers a brilliant way to engage her core while still having fun!
- Planks. While boring on its own, engaging in a contest to see who can hold a plank the longest can make this core strengthening exercise a little more exciting, and you can step it up even further by having fun wind-up toys walk beneath your child while she holds the plank position.
- Fun with Pillows. You can do a lot of core exercises for kids with pillows! If you have a couch with big pillows, set them up on the floor and ask your child to turn them over as many times in a row as she can. You can also have her drag them from one end of your living room to the next and place a couple of toys on top along the way to see how long she can go without dropping them! Don’t have large couch pillows? No problem! Grab a couple from your bed and have your child walk up and down the stairs while holding the pillows in her arms and remind her NOT to use the handrail for better core engagement.
- Superman Pose. Core exercises for kids have never been easier than with the superman pose. Have your child lie on her tummy and then lift her arms and legs off the ground and see how long she can hold the pose. She can do this on the floor and on an exercise ball, and you can keep her giggling by running race cars over her back!
- Square Scooter. Square scootersaren’t just fun – they also help create a ton of different core exercises for kids. For example, you can have your child lay with her tummy on the scooter, and then ask her to navigate around your living room using only her feet while she picks up various objects off the ground with her hands. Another idea is to have her sit cross-legged on the scooter and then move herself around the room using a broom while singing, ‘Row Row Row Your Boat’!
- Leg Kicks with An Exercise Ball. Have your child lie on her back with her hands at her side and her knees tucked into her chest. On the count of three, gently throw an exercise ball toward her, and have her straighten her legs in front of her so she can kick the ball back to you with her feet. It’s challenging to get the hang of, but it can be lots of fun!
- Fun with Blankets. Have your child pull something heavy on a blanket from one end of the room to another. This could be a sibling, a pet, or a bunch of her favorite books. It isn’t easy, but if you cheer her own from the sidelines, she may surprise you with her strength!
- Therapy Ball Exercises for Kids. If you’re looking for simple core exercises for kids you can do at home, an exercise ball is a fabulous tool as you can do so many different things with it. Ask your child to lie on her tummy on the ball and sort objects from one container to another, have her sit on the ball and then lie backwards and reach her arms above her head so she can retrieve objects off of the floor, see how many times she can crawl over the ball, ask her to give you a ‘massage’ by lying on the floor while she rolls the ball up and down your back, get her to push the ball up a flight of stairs…the possibilities really are endless!
Mark Twain once said, ‘The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking down complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.’ I love that quote because it reminds me that, no matter how difficult the situation, there’s always a way forward.
I hope this collection of occupational therapy activities inspires you to help the exceptional children in your life!