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Teach Me Please! What Exactly is Occupational Therapy, and Does My Child Need It?

Occupational therapy continues to confuse the best of us – even the most informed parents can feel lost at times. So, what is it, and do our kids need it?

To understand occupational therapy, we must begin with the use of the word “occupation.” A quick online search will tell you an occupation refers to your job, or a “principal activity.” For your child, their “occupations” are their daily activities, regardless of their skill level. The goal of occupational therapy, therefore, is to work on the performance of these daily activities, and their incorporation into the family’s lives.

What are examples of activities?

Activities aren’t necessarily physical. They can also be cognitive and sensory. Let’s break each down:

PHYSICAL

Depending on your child’s skill level, working on their physical occupations could mean practicing their ability to grasp objects. For a child with more physical ability, a form of this might mean grasping a crayon and practicing drawing, or, further still, coloring inside the lines. Other examples:

  • Eating: Practicing grasping a bottle, or correctly using a fork, can help hand-eye coordination.
  • Indoor obstacle courses: Practicing rolling or jumping over soft objects can help gross motor skills.
  • Playground: Climbing, swinging, and sliding can improve coordination and balance.

Your occupational therapist will develop the most appropriate physical activities that you can practice with your child.

Father holding child, both smiling
Credit: iStock / Alvarog1970

SENSORY

Sensory activities are meant to improve your child’s tactile, visual, and proprioceptive senses.

  • Tactile refers to your child’s sense of touch. Touch is not only with textures, but also includes pressure, temperature, vibrations, and even pain. Tactile input is important for reasons more than what you’d think – tactile input is tied to your emotions. Imagine the comfort of a hug, the softness of a blanket, or the feeling of calm you may have when holding someone’s hand. These are all tactile sensory inputs. Practicing any tactile activity, even the popular touch-and-feel books, helps your child to develop this sense, which can also be emotionally rewarding. Occupational therapists also work on regulating this sense, as many children may be hypersensitive to tactile stimulation, whereas others may have a reduced sensitivity (hyposensitivity).
  • Visual refers to not just the ability to see the world around you, but the ability to gather information about shapes, colors, patterns, distances, and so on. It also concerns the sharpness and clarity of our vision, and our ability to focus on objects. An occupational therapist considers your child’s visual sense throughout their daily activities and works to improve it. This could mean practicing the tracking of objects, developing depth perception, or working with differently-sized objects.
  • Proprioceptive refers to our body’s way of telling our brain about the position, movement, and orientation of our body parts, in relation to each other and the environment. It’s what keeps us balanced and allows us to walk and navigate with ease and precision. If a child has a problem with their proprioceptive sense, he might avoid certain sensory inputs. Examples might include avoiding walking on uneven surfaces, avoiding games that involve sudden or fast movements, or feeling uneasy in crowded or confined spaces. Occupational therapists might use joint compression and resistance to regulate this sense, which would include activities involving pushing and pulling, squeezing objects, or carrying heavy objects, which have a calming effect on the central nervous system.
Mother and child reading
Credit: iStock / Yana Tikhonova

COGNITIVE

Cognitive activities work on cognition, which could include attention, memory, problem-solving, and reasoning. As with other aspects, activities are built around your child’s unique needs. Activity examples could be:

  • Music: Music is a great example because it can be applied to most children. Indirect activities could be being held while the parent/therapist dances, or using the child’s hand to stroke a toy (or real) piano. Direct activities could be learning a new song or instrument. Any of these activities can enhance memory, attention, and auditory processing.
  • Games: Puzzles, memory games, brain-teasers, and board games can promote problem-solving, critical thinking, and reasoning.
  • Apps: There are apps specifically designed to improve cognitive function, such as the Cognition Coach app, found on the App Store, created for toddlers aged 1-3 to adult.
  • Reading: Reading is another great example that can work for children of all abilities. Whether reading to your child or having your child read, improvements can be seen in cognitive engagement, memory, and comprehension.

All in all, many children with disabilities or delays can benefit from occupational therapy. We encourage you to speak with your doctor or with an occupational therapist for an assessment to understand the possibilities for your child.


References and Further Reading:

American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA), n.d., What is Occupational Therapy?

Child Mind Institute, 2023, Arky, B., Occupational Therapists: What Do They Do?

Disclosure: Occasionally, we include links to recommended products. When you purchase a product through a link, we may earn a small percentage of the sale, at no cost to you. These sales contribute to the operation of our site, and help to keep content free to read.

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