By Macaile Hutt
In our day and age, we are surrounded by so much information at any given moment that it can be overwhelming. Parents are told to do this but not that, always do one thing but never another, and mom and dad shaming is a real thing that has inundated social media. I am not a parent myself, but as a pediatric occupational therapist, I feel the shame and guilt that comes from wanting to do things “right” on a daily basis.
Once you add the word “therapeutic” or “educational” to something, the product or service always doubles or triples in cost. This can be overwhelming to families doing their best to satisfy the basic needs of their children and only further perpetuates that shame and guilt.
In this article I want to share some activities and tools I’ve learned over the years that can be completed with even the most basic household items and objects. All we have to do is put our creative goggles on, and the whole world becomes a therapeutic “clinic.”
Gross motor: We will start with the big body exercises, or “heavy work,” as we like to call it in the clinic. Heavy work involves large muscle groups and joints and promotes a calm body, a focused state, and is great to sandwich around fine motor or tabletop focus tasks for wiggly bodies experiencing a hard time sitting still. There are tons of ways to incorporate gross motor activity without having to purchase new equipment. They include:
• Crash corners: Crash corners consist of a safe space to allow our bodies to literally “bounce off the walls.” These can be created with pillows, old mattresses that are no longer being used, bean bags, or pieces of foam / Styrofoam from packaging. This also creates a designated safe space for wiggly bodies in order to compartmentalize that behavior in one area, so we can redirect our kiddos to that space when they need to get some wiggles out.
• Obstacle courses: Obstacle courses can be created with all household items. When we put our creative goggles on, we will see couch cushions as hurdles to jump over, paper plates as “ice skates” to coast along the floor, yarn as a laser maze, painter’s tape as a way to create easily removed hop scotch squares (or other jumping activities), and two different floors coming together (carpet and linoleum, for example) as a place to hop side-to-side to complete ‘ski jumps’ with visual feedback. Creating an obstacle course from household items allows the whole family to get creative in setting up a course and completing it together.
• Using our bodies: My last suggestion for adding safe gross motor activities into the day is to get creative with how we transition from place-to-place. When it’s safe, allow your kids to run. Running gives great feedback to our joints and muscles and burns pent-up energy. When running isn’t a safe option, try bunny hopping, wheelbarrow walking, skipping, crab walking, bear walking, or army crawling. These gross motor movements give our bodies feedback about where our bodies are at in space and allow us to get wiggles out in between our daily tasks.
Fine motor: Getting creative with fine motor tasks is fun, and most households are full of ideas and activities that help strengthen the tiny muscles in our hands and arms. Examples include:
• Broken crayons: Broken crayons facilitate a more efficient grasp, as they aren’t long enough for us to hold them in a fisted grasp and we have to use our fingers. Using broken crayons and small pencils are great for small hands and for building the tiny muscles that we need for grasping and gripping efficiently.
• Everyday items: If we put on our creative goggles, we will see tons of options for fine motor dexterity and precision tasks all around us. Saving old milk jugs, cans, jars, and containers as well as using age-appropriate small “manipulatives” such as beans, buttons, beads, and dry pasta can make for really fun fine motor tasks.
I love to use a Pringles container by slicing a small slit in the lid and then pressing popsicle sticks through the slit. This works for bilateral skills, grasping, visual motor skills, and dexterity. When the lid is removed, the container can hold the popsicle sticks and it keeps everything together really nicely. You can also cut a slit in a tennis ball and glue eyes on it to create a face, then squeeze the ball to open the mouth and “feed” it tiny erasers, beans, or any other small items. I also really like to create sorting tasks with different colored items to address color identification, matching, and visual motor skills.
Sensory: Sensory play is really important to help develop a child’s tactile system as well as help to avoid tactile defensiveness, which is when a child avoids certain feelings or textures on his or her skin. This can be addressed by playing in everyday items such as shaving cream, hair gel, pudding, whipped cream, or slime.
This can also be an oral motor experience if a child is given an edible item and a safe place to explore this in a tactile way (with their hands) as well as orally (with their mouths). This can help picky eaters learn that food can be enjoyable by taking the pressure off of them having to eat the food and allowing them to play in it first and foremost. I love artist’s smocks for this type of play, because the smock can be removed and thrown in the sink and makes cleanup really easy. This can become a total body experience by placing the textured item in a bathtub or on linoleum or hardwood and then wiping it up once the child is done, or simply turning the bathtub on and cleaning the bath and the child after messy play is complete.
If the child is really defensive at first (pulls away, cries, gags, or refuses to engage), a “barrier” can be used to touch the item. This could be gloves, a straw, a popsicle stick, or a motivating toy such as a car, Barbie, or dinosaur. This takes the pressure off the child and allows him/her to first explore the tactile medium with something other than his/her body before exploring it with the skin.
This information can seem overwhelming at first, but once you have the hang of putting your creative glasses on, almost all everyday tasks become a therapeutic experience. Get your kiddo in the kitchen to help with meal prep or cleanup, have your child help with organization by sorting same colored or sized items, and encourage frequent body breaks where your child can help create obstacle courses or fun ways to transition from task-to-task or place-to-place in new ways.
Good luck and happy creating!
Macaile Hutt is an occupational therapist in Boise, as well as a writer and contributor for The Sensory Project. Her therapy style takes a holistic and child-directed approach, with the goal of children succeeding across multiple environments. She holds a master’s degree in occupational therapy from A.T. Still University and has received continuing education in Handwriting Without Tears, pediatric kinesiotaping, Interactive Metronome, and Beckman Oral Motor. She is co-owner of the company Human Code, a candle and retail company with a larger purpose of promoting kindness and generosity. In her free time, she enjoys creative writing, backpacking, and traveling.