by Danielle Carter, MS OTR/L

This is the time of year that therapists are often asked for holiday gift ideas from our families. Occupational Therapists are trained at looking at a toy or activity and breaking it down into specific skills that help children reach their full potential. I definitely have some favorite tools for working on fine motor, visual motor, play and sensory skills. Here are my top 10!

1. Squigz: Squigz are one of my favorites for working on bilateral hand skills, recognizing colors, and playing on a vertical surface. Kids can creatively build tunnels and other structures while they use two hands in play. Pulling them apart and pushing them together provides proprioception for those needing calling sensory input or body awareness work.

2. Tunnel: There are so many ways to play with a tunnel. Crawling is a great way to work on trunk strength, shoulder girdle strength, and weight bearing through hands which are all important building blocks for the development of refined fine motor skills. The change in head position and pressure on muscles and joints helps with self regulation and the development of visual motor integration (push a ball through with only your head for extra sensory integration). You can play engagement games by playing peek a boo with a parent.

3. Water Doodle Mat: This is a fun, low mess way to work on fine motor skills. You can tape it up on a window for vertical surface play or play on your tummy for added proprioception and shoulder girdle strength. Have your child practice imitating horizontal, vertical, and circular strokes. You can then progress to imitating simple smiley faces, and eventually to copying or writing their name for older children.

4. Velcro food: There are many varieties of velcro play food, but the Melissa and Doug brand is one that I know is reliable in terms of the amount of resistance the velcro provides as well as the durability of this brand. With this activity I love that bilateral hand skills and proprioception are embedded into pretend play skills. Other ideas for adding resistance and bilateral hand skills to play is to adapt wooden knob puzzles by adding velcro dots to the pieces and holes so children have to use two hands and get added proprioception as they work on visual motor and fine motor skills.

5. Mr. Potato Head: A simple toy that most of us are familiar with, but I am including him here because there are so many ways to support therapy goals using this guy! Children need two hands to push and pull his pieces in, while also benefiting from proprioceptive input. Parents can help their children recognize and label body parts during this activity. Putting Potato Head together also helps kids who struggle with spacial and body awareness develop the skills needed to create a face.

6. Easel: Playing on a vertical surface is a great way to practice wrist extension and strength needed to develop mature grasp patterns. Playing on a vertical surface, especially if they have to shift their gaze to a horizontal surface such as the table or floor and then resume vertical play, helps practice shifting visual attention needed to later copy from the board in a classroom setting. Other ways to work on this are: Window crayons, bathtub crayons, and Window clings.

7. Kinetic sand: Kinetic sand is a sensory activity that doesn’t stick to children’s hands so it is more easily tolerated than wet play textures. It provides some resistance and proprioception as you squeeze it so it has a calming effect on some kids as well. Other tactile ideas that have similar properties are Play-doh and thinking putty.

8. The Nugget: One of my newer favorites that I have seen more and more in families’ homes. The nugget is a more expensive item, but it provides endless ways to move our bodies and use our imagination in different ways. I am sure your OT would love to help you come up with ways to use this, but some of my favorites are walking on it to practice stepping between surfaces, jumping down a small step, using a flashlight for visual tracking under it, building tunnels to climb under and over for strength, proprioception, and stability, pretend play in a fort or a tunnel to push cars through. The possibilities for sensory, motor, visual, and pretend play are really immense with this open ended toy.

9. Dress up clothes: For children with self-care, body awareness, play, tactile, balance, crossing midline, or bilateral hand skills goals (to name a few) dress up clothes are a great tool! While kids are engaged in play, your OT can help you find ways to target many many different skills. Many kids have interests in specific characters or roles and dress up clothes can be a nice way to tie interests into therapy goals. Of course your morning and bedtime routines, along with getting coats and boots on to leave the house, are naturally great times in the day to work on these things as well.

10. Body sock: The holidays can be a dysregulating time of year for our sensory seekers and avoiders. I like the body sock as a way for kids to get proprioception and regroup on their own, but I also like it as a way to encourage engagement. Sit inside with your child (covering your heads or not based on child preference) and sing songs like row row your boat while you rock back and forth. Or hold onto it while playing games like ring around the rosey.

While the above are some of my favorites, the most magical way to build on a child’s strengths is through their own interests and activities that are motivating to them. Don’t be afraid to ask your OT how to use your child’s favorite toys in new ways to specifically target therapy goals. Problem solving with you at home using your child’s play interests and daily routines is our most favorite way to support families in meeting therapy goals! Wishing everyone a happy and well regulated holiday season!