Count how many times a day you use fine motor skills to accomplish small tasks and you’ll find the list never ends— from eating, dressing, and brushing teeth to writing, turning a key or completing a simple screwdriver repair. There’s a good reason why hand eye-coordination training and the strengthening of muscles that control grip and finger grasp are key to so many therapeutic programs.
As an occupational therapist, you can never know too many occupational therapy activities to help build these skills, whether you’re working as a school-based therapist. There are plenty of fancy toys and gadgets that promise results—and some of them are great! But you don’t need expensive specialty items to get the job done. Sometimes, the simplest everyday ideas do wonders, while keeping children engaged for long periods of time.
These occupational therapy activities incorporate readily available items and can be adapted for many abilities:
- Straw Necklaces
So many benefits and a sweet piece of jewelry to boot! Simply gather colored straws, kid scissors, and some yarn. Cut yarn long enough to make a necklace and tie a knotted loop to keep the straw “beads” on. Depending on the abilities of the children you’re working with, you can show them how to cut small pieces of straws. Or have the pieces precut. Demonstrate how to string the yarn through the end of the loops and voilà! For more advanced skill building, have children sort pieces of straw into piles by color. You can also use this activity to help them get their feet wet with pattern making, a key skill for early math development.
- Pompom Push
Grab some soft colorful pompoms along with an empty container and lid. Cut holes in the top of the container lid. If you’re using pompoms of all sizes, don’t forget to cut varying size holes. Kids can work at picking up the pompoms and pushing them into the container through the holes. When they’re all in, pop the lid off, dump them out and start again. Another variation of this activity is to use a water bottle instead of a container, and to promote more refined finger grasping, use coins—real or play—and a container with slits cut into the lid.
- Pouring Play
Pouring small items from one container to another takes hand-eye coordination and control. It’s also fun! Children can pretend to cook or mix items—rice, pasta, or even pebbles. Plus, the “clink, clink” auditory feedback these solid materials provide when poured adds to the experience. Throw some wooden spoons, funnels, and measuring cups into the mix to make pouring more interesting.
- Brushless Painting
Help your students create beautiful and original paintings without brushes. Provide pompoms of varying sizes, small sponge squares or both! Set up shallow bowls or plastic plates with a few different washable paint colors. Using a thumb/forefinger grip, children can gently hold and dip their “tools” into the paint and dab or drag on a piece of paper. Demonstrate what happens when you use more or less paint. Experiment with how the amount of finger pressure affects the way the paint goes on the paper.
- Shoebox Birthday Cake
You don’t have to pretend it’s a cake, but once you try this activity, you’ll quickly see why it adds to the fun. All you’ll need is a shoebox and some markers. In fact, this is a great way to recycle markers that have dried up. Poke holes in the box and have clients place markers in the holes. Decorating the box to look like a birthday cake is completely optional. And so are counting candles, singing Happy Birthday and pretending to serve cake.
- Pipe Cleaner Poke
Nearly every household has a colander or two, so this one is great for therapy sessions, classrooms and also for a home-based therapy job. Aside from this common kitchen tool, all you’ll need are pipe cleaners. Then, simply challenge students or clients to grasp and push the pipe cleaners through the holes in the colander.
- Faux Stained Glass Vase
Best suited for older children, this craft requires a variety of fine motor skills and makes a beautiful handmade gift. All you need is a clean glass jar (pickle jars work great), clear-drying glue, colored tissue paper, and a paintbrush. Have children cut or tear small pieces of tissue paper. Or you may decide to have the pieces ready to go. Pour a puddle of glue on a paper plate or other mess-friendly surface. Have children dip the paintbrush into the glue and coat the jar with a thin layer. We suggest doing this in small sections to prevent the glue from drying before tissue pieces can be applied. Demonstrate how to create interesting patterns or shapes on the glass jar by sticking on different pieces of tissue paper. Overlapping colors will enhance the effect! When the entire surface of the jar is covered, lightly coat the tissue paper with another layer of glue. Allow the vase to dry. In conjunction with this activity, you may want to talk about recycling and up-cycling. When displayed at home or in the classroom, these one-of-a-kind creations are sure to inspire self-pride in young artists.
- Play Garden
Consider saving those Styrofoam blocks used for packing to bring a little flower garden into your classroom or therapy setting. Aside from the Styrofoam, all you’ll need are some artificial flowers or plants. Invite children to press the firm wire stems from the fake flowers into the blocks. Some kids will easily be able to press the flowers in, but for those who cannot, pre-poke some holes. To make this activity more challenging, incorporate counting and pattern making by alternating flower types and colors. Where applicable, take the opportunity to talk about planting seeds and how to care for plants. Don’t forget to provide an empty watering can for imaginative play!
For as many times a day as we use our thumb and index finger to complete tasks, there are innovative occupational therapy activities to help sharpen fine motor skills. Ask friends and family members to save safe utensils such as–spoons, tongs, and colanders—instead of throwing them away. And keep a small supply of containers, shoeboxes and other recyclable items on hand to try some of these fun ideas for occupational therapy activities. After all, learning from everyday objects is not only great for our students but also good for our environment and our budgets!
Have you introduced occupational therapy activities with everyday items into YOUR therapy sessions? If so, we’d love to hear about it!