The JumpTherapy Blog:
Sensory Processing, Motor and Social Skills Resources
for Parents of Special Needs Children

Playing to Their Strengths: Developing Sensory Skills

The best results come when therapy is fun!

Part 2 of 5: Play therapy

girl playing w 3 dolls
It’s (more than) child’s play
Why is play important? 
Play is how children experience and learn about the world around them. When they play, they are acquiring and practicing all kinds of skills, everything from movement and motor planning to physical dexterity (fine motor) to visual perception to social interaction. They gain understanding of how to interact with people and objects that are constantly providing stimuli. As they succeed at play, they gain confidence in themselves along with each new skill.

Your child’s occupational therapist can get you and your child off to the right start. Follow his or her guidance to learn how to help your child maximize his abilities through therapeutic play, so you can reinforce the ‘fun and games’ at home. Ask questions if you feel unsure about anything; it’s your OT’s job — and pleasure — to help you help your child reach his full potential.
Toy story
Toys that stimulate creative and imaginative play teach your child so much about coping with the world. Think about how you and your child can interact while playing with a pretend kitchen set or building tools and a workbench. They gain social skills and strategies, such as taking turns and problem-solving, along with fine motor coordination. 
Would your child enjoy dressing a doll or stuffed toy, buttoning and unbuttoning, tying its shoelaces, changing its outfits, perhaps stringing a bead or macaroni necklace for its neck? He probably won’t realize the strides he is making in his self-care skills while he decides what the monkey would like to wear today.
And toys like ride-on horses and cars are great for races — and gross motor skills. She won’t know that along with winning a race, she won improvements in balance, strength, and range of motion and movement. But you will.
Playing a role
Your child might open up to a hand puppet with a funny voice — and you might learn a lot from what he confides to the sympathetic squirrel at the end of your arm. Talking to a puppet, stuffed animal, doll, or on a pretend telephone, gives children a safe space to express their emotions. What the toy “replies” helps your child learn and cope, as well as improves the bond between you. And if your child has a hard time articulating what she’s feeling, a non-threatening furry friend can draw her out gently without the pressure of a more formal parental interaction. Finally, a puppet can change the mood — it’s hard to stay angry when a silly-voiced parrot is asking for attention. Overall, interacting with your child through puppets, toys, and dolls is a great opportunity to practice social skills and encourage creativity.
Take a break
Does your child have trouble tuning out environmental stimuli in order to concentrate on a task? Try a game of Simon Says! Or hide and seek. Or see who can hula hoop longest or do the most jumping jacks. What about a race across the room while balancing (lightweight, please!) books on your heads? or while holding a marble in a spoon? Focusing on the fun (for a few minutes) can improve focus (and physical skills too).
Re-set the bar
Sensory kids may play differently from their typically-developing peers — and that’s okay. They may be less spontaneous and more repetitive or rigid. They may need to be shown what to do, and toys or games may need to be modified to avoid frustration. It’s the therapist’s, and your, job to modify the toys and games to your child’s developmental and maturity level, and to help your child adapt and succeed. 
How do I do this?
Choose toys that are related to what your child has expressed interest in. Maybe she’s fascinated by the cement mixer? The shelves at the toy store are full of similar trucks. Maybe he loves to push his stroller? Get him a doll’s stroller. 
Select toys that are right for your child’s developmental level. Don’t worry about the age written on the box; opt for whatever is going to work in your child’s life at this point. And adapt it if necessary to provide the “just right” level of sensory stimulation for your particular child to develop particular skills.
Your child may not be ready to play a game “the right way.” Forcing him to is only going to end in tears and frustration (most likely for both of you). So change the rules. Use only some of the pieces. You can always introduce more pieces and more steps, gradually, as your child becomes ready. Take it the proverbial one day, or, better yet, one step, at a time. You’ll still get there, even if it’s a little more slowly, so you might as well relax and enjoy the journey.
Please note: Always be aware when your child needs to be supervised with a particular toy or game, especially if she is likely to put small objects in his mouth and swallow them. It’s best to avoid toys with small parts, or that can break easily, if this is an issue.
Here are some recommendations from The American Occupational Therapy Association, Inc. for age-appropriate toys and activities:
Good toys for infants
Rattles, mobiles, playmats, mirrors, crib toys, infant swings, teething toys, busy boxes, squeeze toys.
Good toys for toddlers/pre-school aged children
Blocks, stacking rings, pegboards, shape sorters, push and pull toys, balls, books, sand and water toys, large beads, movement games, toy cars and trucks, train sets, musical toys.
Good toys for school-aged children
Building sets, books, bicycles, roller skates, ice skates, board games, checkers, beginning sports.
Good toys for middle-school children and young teens
Athletics, books, hobbies, crafts, electronics.
Introduce “just right” challenges
Create challenges that are right for your child’s developmental stage. Too easy and she’ll get bored. Too difficult and he’ll get frustrated. Build on every successful step and provide lots of praise. Each small triumph motivates another.
Keep a close eye
Finally, don’t overdo it. Watch your child for clues and end the play session before she gets frustrated, tired, or overwhelmed. It’s better to have many small successful play sessions throughout the day than one long one that ends badly.
Looking ahead:
In the next post, we will move on to movement therapy and how you can incorporate it at home.
What does playtime look like in your home? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below. Also, let me know there or via email what topics you would like to discuss or hear more about. 
Feel free to share or quote from this blog (with attribution, please, and if possible, a link), and to repost on social media.
I look forward to hearing from you!

All the best,

About Miriam:
Miriam Skydell MS, OTR/L is a pediatric OT with 30 years experience and a strong commitment to empowering every child and every family with the skills, confidence and emotional stability necessary for a meaningful, independent life. In addition to her Masters degree from NYU (1986) and membership in the AOTA (American Occupational Therapy Association), Miriam is a licensed Interactive Metronome®,  HWT (Handwriting Without Tears®), and TLP (The Listening Program®) provider.

Miriam performs preschool screenings, contracts experienced OTs, PTs and STs to schools, helped implement the HWT curriculum, and lectures extensively for parent and support groups and at teacher conferences for public and private schools throughout New Jersey. Through her private practice in Fair Lawn, Miriam Skydell and Associates, established in 1995, Miriam has helped countless children with a wide range of diagnoses improve functional living skills, manage the impact of sensory processing dysfunction, and meet their individual potentials.