Occupational Therapy

(Versus "Therapy Activities" At Home)

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Many parents wonder whether their child really needs occupational therapy, or whether doing "therapy-type activities" at home is enough to help their child.

To answer this question, I need to explain a bit about how occupational therapists work and, therefore, the impact they could have on your child.


Occupational therapy is about helping people become functional (or be restored to function) in every area of their lives. And we use “purposeful activities” in order to do this.

An OT would look for an activity that is meaningful to that person and use that to develop the skills needed.

For example, as a student, I was working with a lady who was recovering from a stroke in rehab. She was proud to be a housewife, and was worried about how she would be able to do her tasks again when she got home.

I used hanging up laundry as an activity to strengthen her upper body, relearn correct movement patterns and figure out how to adapt the task so she could cope with the laundry when she got back home again.

So our session together was so much more than just exercises, it was about enabling that lady to resume the functions that were important to her.

For young children, their primary occupation is play, and so an OT would use play to help the child develop the skills they need.

Older children need to be functional in life skills and school skills, so an OT will also work on those, often using play as a means to an end.

Playing a game with a child to develop her visual perception skillsUsing play to develop skills.

There has been much discussion among OT bloggers about what makes an occupational therapy activity stand out from a regular activity, and why doing a therapy-like activity at home does not mean you are doing therapy at home! Even doing an activity suggested by an occupational therapist (whether the suggestion was made in person or on a website) does not make it therapy!

During the planning and execution of an occupational therapy session, there is a lot of analysis and adaptation to make the activity “just right” for your child.

And while an OT can recommend activities for parents to do with their kids, the parents need to keep checking in with the OT to make sure the activities are still “just right” for meeting the child’s needs and offering just the right amount of challenge.

Holding a child's hand to guide him through the movements needed to trace a triangle shape on a boardFacilitating the correct movement.

So I am going to take this opportunity to remind my readers that just because I have an occupational therapy background, does not mean that your child is getting therapy through doing the learning activities I suggest on my site.

You can supplement the therapies your child is receiving, with your therapist’s approval, and you can definitely do your best to help your child develop the skills they need in order to cope in school, but there is no way that a website can be a substitute for evaluation and treatment by a qualified occupational therapist!

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Using Fine Motor Activities As An Example

There are lots of awesome mommy bloggers and teacher bloggers out there who have incredibly creative and resourceful ideas for activities that use fine motor skills. The Web is swimming in funky fine motor ideas!

But if your child has poor fine motor skills, those activities may not necessarily help them get better.

An occupational therapist, on the other hand, will analyze exactly which components of fine motor skills your child is struggling with, and then comes up with an activity that is just right to meet those needs.

To help you understand the distinction, please read my article on why some fine motor activities are better than others!

Why some "fine motor" activities don't actually help your child, and just frustrate them

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Adapting Activities To Meet Kids' Needs

One of the key principles of occupational therapy is adapting an activity to meet the needs of the person we are working with.

An OT will often use one activity (say, playdough) in a completely different way with 5 different children in one day!

Using playdough during a therapy session to help develop a child's fine motor skillsPlaydough Therapy Activity

Take a look at a few ways an occupational therapist will use playdough in his/her sessions:

  • One child may need to explore playdough to meet sensory needs (as in sensory processing disorder)
  • One child may need to pound the playdough rhythmically and roll it out symmetrically to work on bilateral coordination skills.
  • Another child may need to strengthen weak hand muscles by doing specific stretching, pulling and squeezing exercises with the playdough.
  • Yet another child may need to work on finger dexterity by rolling tiny balls of playdough.
  • And a resourceful OT may even build a specific object using balls and sausages and get a child to copy her design to work on motor planning and spatial perceptual skills!

And I have not even begun to cover how an occupational therapist could use the playdough differently with a child who has cerebral palsy or is recovering from a bad car accident!

So just “doing playdough” is not a therapy activity. It is how an OT uses the playdough that makes a difference to a child’s development.

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More Than Just A Session of Activities

Pediatric occupational therapy is more than just planning and carrying out a session of fun activities with a child.

It also involves gaining a deeper understanding of the child's struggles and strengths, and then conveying that understanding to the significant people in the child's life.

And then helping those people (parents, teachers, caregivers) to help the child get the best possible support in all areas of his/her life.

Read about why some children may need additional support.

an occupational therapist facilitating the correct movement in a child doing a gross motor activityAn OT facilitating the correct movement

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Loving Occupational Therapy!

April is Occupational Therapy Awareness Month in the USA and there is always much excitement and sharing among OT bloggers during this month each year! We love to share our favorite therapy moments, or the reasons why we are doing OT.

My absolute favorite aspect of occupational therapy is getting to play with kids in order to help them. It is especially wonderful when working with kids from deprived backgrounds, who are usually just trying to survive a hostile environment. For them to discover the joy of play while working on their skills is very special.

The best quote of my career came from a little boy in first grade, who was in therapy for his poor gross and fine motor skills. After doing some activities with the big therapy ball, we settled down to do a cutting activity.

And the conversation went like this:

Boy: “Do you have a real job?”
Me: “This is my real job!”
Boy: “You mean you just play all day?”

I still laugh as I remember the incredulous look on his little face!

It must have been his dream job! It certainly is mine!

Even though I am currently taking a break from occupational therapy practice to homeschool my 3 kids, I often use my "OT brain" during their homeschool lessons and with other kids in my life. I have also been putting occupational therapy principles into practice during my work over the years with needy children in our local community.

I hope this page has given you some insight into how an occupational therapist can benefit your child and that doing the activities on my site is NOT a substitute for an evaluation and treatment by an occupational therapist!

By all means do some of the activities from my site to help your child develop skills, but please don't call it therapy!

Please contact your health professional to get a referral to a pediatric OT near you.

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Some Helpful Resources

  • Really Good Books
    If you are a parent in need of support, or a new OT needing some ideas and information, these books were really helpful to me as a parent and as a therapist. These are my reviews and recommendations!

  • My Own Resources
    I have compiled all the fine motor and gross motor information on my website PLUS much more into affordable, downloadable, printable resources for parents and teachers (and therapists!).

  • Occupational Therapy Products for Parents and Teachers
    This page of OT Resources is full of products that are useful to parents and teachers as well as therapists. Check them out!
free information downloads for parents and teachers

I hope you found this article about occupational therapy to be helpful.

All the best as you strive to help the children in your life!

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Pin this page: Doing "therapy activities" at home is not the same as getting occupational therapy - here's why!

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Books written by occupational therapists that are helpful for parents, teachers and new therapists!
Occupational therapy resources that parents and teachers can use
Why some kids need additional support in the form of extra learning activities such as the ones on this website.

Didn't find what you were looking for? Try a search of my site!