The Importance of Play in School-Based Occupational Therapy

Play in occupational therapy has a positive contribution to make in schools. School-based occupational therapists often use various toys, apps, and games during therapy sessions. Among the benefits of including play in therapy sessions are that it can be an effective way to assess students, help them work towards goals, and keep children engaged in therapy.

Here are the details as to the importance of play therapy, effective types of play in occupational therapy, and ideas you can use in incorporating play into your programs.

What is play in occupational therapy?

Using play in the context of occupational therapy is the essence of what play therapy is. Play is an important tool in achieving school-based occupational therapy goals, be they physical, behavioral, cognitive or emotional.

What are some examples of play in occupational therapy?

The types of play in occupational therapy can vary tremendously. Some common techniques include having a child use dolls or puppets to act out an event that was stressful or scary to them. You can ask a child to tell a once-upon-a-time story that takes what happened to them and puts it into another place and time with other people. Asking a child to draw a picture and explain what is happening is another way to get insights into what they are thinking and feeling.

Why do occupational therapists use play therapy?

Children often struggle to explain the complex and sometimes overwhelming feelings they may be experiencing. They may fear the consequences of saying something.

Play is intrinsic to humans from the very beginning. Play is how we explore the world and our own feelings. People of every age are freer when playing. They let down their guards. They explore alternative ideas.

When it comes to children, play is core to their development. Occupational therapy play is particularly beneficial. Playing and learning are intertwined. It is through play that children learn about the world around them. It promotes their emotional development, problem-solving skills, and imagination. And most of all, it gives you, the therapist, a view into the child’s reality.

Types of play in occupational therapy for children by age

Play in pediatric occupational therapy can work at any age. The child’s developmental phase will affect what types of occupational therapy play are appropriate in a school-based program.

  • Solitary play (0-2 years). Children in this phase are pre-verbal. Play is exploratory, experiencing touch, sights, sounds, and taste. Children at the older end of this phase may enjoy playing peek-a-boo and handling blocks, sorting toys, and interacting with things that make noise and have various textures.
  • Parallel play (2-3 years). Toddler years are when children enjoy pretend games and start playing with others. They can take on roles like “mommy” or “firefighter.” They enjoy interacting with tools, putting things together, playing with cause and effect toys, and expressing themselves with crayons and paint.
  • Preschool creativity (4-5 years). Kids at this age learn to play with others. Running, jumping, rolling, and spinning, are a source of fun in occupational therapy in preschool settings. Kids are creative with blocks, crayons, paint, scissors, glue, sand and dirt. Imaginative play becomes more important, as does interacting with others.
  • Cognitive play (6-12 years). School age kids are learning the complexities of relationships. Winning, losing, sharing, and helping games are helpful. Games with rules, from board games to sports, help them build executive skills and problem solving. Relationships with friends and being on a team are also important.
  • Teen years (13-18 years). Play is still fun, but is more purposeful and directed. The benefits of working effectively with teens is that kids learn useful skills, like crafts, cooking, and fixing things. Board and video games are more sophisticated.

7 benefits of play in school-based occupational therapy

Reasons why play is important in occupational therapy for children.

The role of play in occupational therapy can be enormously helpful to you and the children with whom you work. Among the benefits of occupational therapy for children is that as their trust in you grows and they become more comfortable with the activities, you will be able to make progress across several areas.

1. Develops important cognitive and motor skills

Young children and developmentally challenged children can develop fine motor skills that involve small muscles in the hands and fingers, as well as gross motor skills that involve moving limbs and their whole bodies. Examples include:

  • Writing and drawing
  • Tying shoes, using zippers, buttoning buttons
  • Brushing teeth and combing hair
  • Walking, running and skipping
  • Climbing stairs
  • Riding a bike
  • Catching and throwing a ball

2. Strengthens communication and social skills

One of the areas where the importance of play in occupational therapy is well recognized is in helping children communicate better and interact more effectively in social situations. It helps them learn what is expected in different situations and lets them practice behaviors, from sharing to solving conflicts. Play can help children with:

  • Perceiving what others are thinking and feeling
  • Expressing their needs and wants
  • Joining into play and activities with others
  • Sharing, taking turns, and compromising
  • Solving problems and gaining cooperation

3. Encourages physical activity and exercise

Getting students to move helps them physically and psychologically. Kids gain self esteem as they develop fitness. For so-called “kinetic learners,” moving as they acquire new information helps them stay focused and retain what they learn. Physical games are an important part of what play therapy is and can help improve:

  • Balance
  • Strength
  • Coordination
  • Stamina and endurance
  • Range of mobility
  • Confidence and sense of achievement

4. Improves executive functioning in students

The importance of play in occupational therapy extends to its ability to improve your students’ executive functioning. They can learn and practice:

  • Self-control
  • Attention and focus
  • Organization and time management
  • Goals setting and planning
  • Remembering instructions
  • Cognitive flexibility

5. Enhances problem-solving and creative thinking skills

Solving problems requires a complex set of skills, including accurately perceiving situations and how people are reacting to them, what might happen given various scenarios, identifying and evaluating possible actions, and more. Problem-solving takes a mix of empathy, observation, planning, and creating thinking. Games that can work are treasure hunts, puzzles like Jenga, and what-would-you-do situational challenges.

6. Helps students feel more confident in themselves

Play-based occupational therapy instills confidence by giving students a chance to try things in a safe environment. When a child knows what might happen and then what they should do, they feel much less anxiety.

For a young child, they can explore a situation like what to do if another child takes your toy away or how they can hang up their own clothes. For an older child, it could be about what to do if you miss your bus or need to make your own lunch.

7. Makes occupational therapy more fun for students

School-based occupational therapists can use play to make therapy techniques and exercises more fun. Instead of being resistant and untrusting, children can enjoy playing while therapy goals are being addressed or functional activities are improving abilities. Children have fun during therapy without it actually feeling like work.

Tips for incorporating play into occupational therapy sessions

If you are working as a school-based occupational therapist, consider these things when incorporating play into therapy sessions.

1. Consider the occupational therapy play goal being addressed

Start with the goal of your therapy and the skills you need to address when choosing games, activities, and toys.

For fine motor skills and dexterity, puzzles, playdough, and beads encourage manipulative play.

Improve gross motor skills by creating an obstacle course with pillows, tunnels, and blocks for children to climb through and jump over. In the process, your students will build body awareness, balance, and strength.

2. Incorporate a variety of play therapy games and activities

Avoid presenting the same games and toys at every therapy session. Instead, use a wide variety of props for pretend play, such as puppets or dolls. Alternate toys for sensory play with toys that work on motor control or sequencing. Rotating toys and games keeps therapy fun and helps kids work on different skills.

3. Move some of your occupational therapy sessions outdoors

If possible, mix things up by moving therapy sessions outdoors. Going outside may allow you to use occupational therapy tools, such as swing seats and jumping and bouncing products. In some cases, you may have access to adaptive playground equipment.

4. Encourage students to use their imagination

Sometimes less is more when it comes to toys. A child’s imagination may be all that you need to have a fun and effective therapy session.

Playing different roles lets kids imagine themselves in another person’s reality, building their empathy. They can play out multiple outcomes and pretend objects are something else. Pretend play stimulates language development, sequential thought, and creativity.

5. Take sensory stimulation into account

Sensory stimulation enhances play. Balls that turn colors when bounced, levers that ring a bell when pushed, and materials that crinkle, create interest and encourage cause and effect thinking. Sounds, visual stimulation, and textures can also enhance comfort, offer a challenge or become a reward in play.

Sensory stimulation does not have to be real. You can pretend the floor is hot lava and have kids try and cross the room without falling in. And “I-spy” is a great way to turn any room into a puzzle.

Working with kids can be tremendously rewarding. Explore things to consider before accepting an occupational therapist job in a school. It is also important to explore the benefits of being a school-based occupational therapist to see if the role is a fit for you. Ready to start job-hunting? Search available school occupational therapist jobs.

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