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Occupational Therapy: Helping children learn to play

8 min read
Occupational Therapist and child

If you thought occupational therapy was just rehabilitation programs and exercises for adults in recovery from workplace or sports injuries, then think again. Occupational therapy (or OT for short) is a catch-all term for treatment strategies to help people of all ages overcome challenges, (physical or mental) to live as independently as possible.

But did you know OT helps kids of all ages — even newborns?

OT is a positive game-changer for many children and it can help overcome many issues for a variety of things — everything from autism to cancer. Occupational therapy is particularly useful for kids with developmental delays, ones recovering from injuries, or kids with sensory processing issues. In addition to progressing skills, OT also can help improve children’s confidence or self-awareness. By working together as a team with families, OT’s can also improve kids’ overall quality of life by helping them to engage in enjoyable and purposeful activities.

But the reality is not everyone knows, or has even heard about OT, and the benefits it can have for children.

So BC Parent Magazine interviewed two local OTs, Katie Metz of We Play Kids and Pratibha Umrariya, Senior Occupational Therapist at Monarch House.

We got these two experts to divulge exactly what OT is, so that our readers have the facts on the benefits of this treatment option for their kids.

What exactly is OT?

“Occupational therapy is basically therapy to help you with things that occupy your time.

As an adult, this most often means your job. When we are young, as children, we occupy our time by playing, and so as OT’s, we help kids at their level: we intervene with play.

So if a child has difficulty with any aspect of their occupation, an OT can help. 

For example, life skills: how they brush their teeth, eat, put on their clothes, get ready for school, we help kids with OT strategies for these life skills or if they have difficulties for whatever reason.” Says Umrariya.

How do you know if your child needs Occupational Therapy? 

Both OT’s agreed that there are several ways to find out if your kid is a candidate for OT. Pediatricians may refer kids to an OT when a child needs help with fine motor, gross motor, or sensory processing skills. But parents can ask their pediatrician if they have concerns, or they can also make an appointment with an OT themselves.

“Although some children do not necessarily “need” OT, (meaning they may not have a diagnosis of any kind), OT can help when a child has difficulty with daily activities; such as getting dressed, handwriting, working in a group setting, staying organized at school, or participating in leisure interests. OTs can help by giving the family strategies or tools, and practicing the activities with the child.” Says Metz.

Umrariya says the best thing to do for your children is to keep an eye on them and make sure that they are hitting all the usual developmental benchmarks – and if you have any concerns, speak to an OT directly or ask your pediatrician for more information.

What happens in a typical Occupational Therapy Session?

A typical pediatric OT session might look a lot like playing! 

In an OT session kids will work on skills in the context of activities that are important to the child in terms of improvement. This might include things like playing with toys and games, navigating playground equipment or building obstacle courses, completing mazes or puzzles, making crafts or writing stories, or exploring different sensory experiences like textures, sounds, and movements. 

“The therapist sets up the activities or environment in a way that supports the child’s participation; for example, using different types of seating (like a “wiggle cushion”) to help the child focus on tabletop tasks. Parents are involved at the start and end of each session, to discuss the child’s current situation and progress with the therapist, and they might also join for the whole time to participate or support in the activities as well.” Said Metz.

In a first session, the occupational therapist will begin by assessing your child. The therapist will use standardized tests, purposeful play and other planned activities to examine your child’s ability to do the tasks that enable him or her to learn like other children of the same age. For example:

  • A baby needs to explore the world by moving his limbs and using his senses to touch, see, hear, taste and smell.
  • A toddler needs to practice skills, such as eye-hand coordination, control of muscles, and attention that she will use in a variety of learning situations.
  • A school-age child must be able to participate in as many activities as possible, both in and out of the classroom.

Occupational Therapist with boy

How long does an OT therapy session/course of treatment last for?

The course of treatment and sessions really depends on each individual child, and progress largely depends on if the child and their family can do homework between sessions, said Umrariya. “For example, if an OT is seeing a child once a week, that’s not usually enough to make a difference, so we usually advise parents at the end of each session on activities that they can try at home, which becomes their homework for that week. As the treatment progresses, we provide further activities both in OT sessions and for homework, to help the child’s progress.”   

The number of sessions depends on what the diagnosis is too: if a child needs help with a writing-based concern, Umrariya said she might suggest sessions for three to six months, but if she felt a child had a bigger developmental concern then she would recommend ongoing therapy.

How do you find a ‘good’ OT? 

All occupational therapists in Canada are regulated through provincial colleges, to make sure they meet the standards for education, ethics, and ongoing practice. You can search a database of OTs in British Columbia on the College of Occupational Therapists website.

Metz also said, “Another factor to consider when selecting an OT for your child is the personality fit and whether their approach or past experiences matches with your goals.” 

Is OT covered by MSP?

Unfortunately, at the time of writing, OT services for children are not covered by MSP.

If your child has an illness or injury from a motor vehicle accident, occupational therapy services may be covered under your auto insurance plan (i.e. ICBC) and some extended health benefits plans in BC cover occupational therapy services. 

And Umrariya says if your child has a medical diagnosis, some organizational and charities help parents offset the costs of OT treatment plans — the trick is to do your research.

What kind of OT exercises/strategies can parents use with their kids to help attention/organization at home? 

There are plenty of ways parents can implement OT strategies at home with their children.

To help with attention, consider things in the environment that could be distracting, whether it’s noises, clutter — even just knowing that the TV/computer or iPad is close by can be a distraction. Metz said that giving children movement breaks between sitting tasks can help kids regulate their energy levels to stay focused on schoolwork or hobbies. 

She said another strategy that can be helpful for lots of different activities is using visual supports, such as pictures of the steps of an activity or routine, so that kids can see what they are expected to do and in what order. 

What kind of kids can OT help?

Occupational Therapists Nearby

Monarch House

Burnaby. Surrey, Port Coquitlam, Abbotsford
At Monarch House we provide evidence-based treatment for individuals throughout the lifespan requiring services in the areas of speech, language, communication, motor skills, recreation, vocational skills, daily living skills, social skills, and overall learning.

Play 2 Learn 4 Life

3369 Fraser St #212, Vancouver, BC V5V 4C2
Our clinic is located centrally in East Vancouver, and is open Monday-Saturday, 8am-7pm. Our team of 10 includes OTs,  SLPs, Therapy Assistants, and a Behaviour Consultant. Our sensory-motor gym develops coordination skills. Our expansive game collection encourages a child-led approach.

We Play Kids Gym

Unit 1 – 3238 King George Blvd, Surrey, BC
Our Occupational Therapy team ​uses a child and family centred play-based approach to child development. Our OT’s help to promote activity and function through assessment and direct intervention, and by providing strategies, tools, and education.

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