If your child has been getting occupational therapy, this social distancing thing has probably put a wrench in that plan. Some kids are able to do OT via video conferencing, but not all. So, I’m here to give you some ideas on how to work with your child at home.
First of all, you may want to hunt the blog for posts on your child’s diagnosis or OT needs. I have many posts to share including ones on sensory integration and handwriting skills, where I tell you all my tricks.
What is OT?
The core of occupational therapy is to start with a person where they are and have them gradually do harder skills that build up what they need to be able to do more. The most essential part of that skill-building though is to do something worthwhile. Make a craft. Bake a cake. Put on the clothes you want to wear. Win a game. Do something that you feel good about accomplishing. That is the goal I have for your child when I give them OT. I want them to leave OT feeling good about themselves. If they don’t even realize we were improving their coordination and direction following skills, all the better.
How do I work that magic?
In an OT clinic, I have shelves full of interesting toys to play with and create interesting games to get your child to stretch themselves. I rig the games, at least half the time, and let them win. I challenge them to try toys they don’t have at home.
Doing at least some of that at home, as a parent, is impossible. But what can you do? Create chances for your child to do novel things with you. My favorite is cooking. Most kids are happy to learn to bake cookies, cake or some other favorite food. And while they do that, they can build a world of skills. Wondering how? Let me break it down for you.
Let’s Bake Brownies
Step 1: Let your child read the directions and get out the ingredients.
This requires direction following, short term memory skills, and some coordination as they pull out what they need without dropping it. Help them set the oven to preheat. If they can do it, let them. Only help if you are needed. If your child has forgotten something, gently ask them a leading question to help them get there.
You: “Do you have everything?”
You: “Okay, what should we mix up the batter in?”
This kind of prompting lets your child work on their problem-solving skills, instead of you just getting out the bowl and spoon they will need. Those things are often not actually listed in the directions, so your child has to reason it out.
Step 2: Be patient.
Pouring, measuring and mixing all require motor coordination as well as arm and hand strength. Your child may need to stir much longer than you would to get the batter to come together. They may accidentally crack the egg everywhere instead of over the bowl.
Occupational therapy is messy. Good learning is messy. Either let your child clean up as you go, or figure out if you need to just clean the kitchen when you are all done. The best course depends on your child, not what you really want to do. You want to encourage your child to do all they can, without pushing them to the point where they become upset and quit. Asking questions like “Do you want help cleaning that up before we move on?” lets your child be in control.
Step 3: Bake the brownies.
As the adult, you should be the one to put the brownies in the oven and get them out. I taught my oldest how to get brownies out of the oven by having her practice getting a pan full of water in and out of a cold oven. So, if your child wants to learn that skill, talk to them about practicing when there is no chance of getting burned. Using potholders and lifting a heavy pan can be tricky.
Now, while the brownies bake, this is a great time to challenge your child to a dance-off, followed by a board game. Dancing is a great whole body work out. Having your child attempt to mimic you as you teach them a dance move is great for their coordination and balance. If they aren’t up to complex dance moves, try Shaking It Off with Taylor Swift or doing the Twist.
After a few songs and you both start feeling tired, switch to a game. Games like Connect Four require planning, fine motor skills and use a nice pincher grasp. Card games like Uno require color matching, holding several cards and pinching those cards to place them. Honestly, any game that is not on a tablet will require some good fine motor coordination. Except of course for Twister, which is also great for gross motor skills, and also worth playing.
Step 4: Serve Them Up.
Once your brownies are cool, teach your child how to cut and serve them. This will be messy. It’s okay. They need to learn this skill and it isn’t a wedding cake. Using a plastic knife makes brownies easier to cut and reduces the risk of injury for your child. Again, this is an important life skill that uses a lot of coordination and unique muscles your child needs to develop.
Step 5: Eat and enjoy.
Silently, congratulate yourself on how patient you were! Verbally, praise your child and their cooking. This will lead to them being willing to try this adventure with you again.
You can apply this same basic strategy to many different things you are already doing at home with your child. There are countless ways to keep working on your child’s skills at home. If your child has an OT home program, be sure to pull that out and give it a try. But don’t beat yourself up that you can’t do what an OT can do. We can’t do what you do, either.
About the Author
Laura Sowdon, OTR/L is an occupational therapist, writer, speaker, educator and creator of the Five Senses Literature Lessons homeschool curriculum. She has worked as an occupational therapist with children in public and private schools, as well as private practice. Laura has taught and managed homeschool co-ops as well as homeschooling her own three children. Laura is dedicated to the idea of educating children at a pace that aligns with brain and physical development milestones and respects neurodiversity in all its forms.