Occupational therapy is a term becoming increasingly known to South African parents as one of the fields recruited to assist with early childhood development, particularly in the areas of play, motor and perceptions skills. A child’s occupation is play and they develop and learn through play.
OT specialist Ray Anne Cook offers this advice around concerns related to too much screen time: “When children sit in front of a screen, they are not developing holistically; they are not using their bodies to move. The screen is simultaneous visual and auditory stimulation which is not calming or soothing for a child as much as movement and resistance activities are.”
The first two years are important
According to Cook, the first two years in a child’s life focuses on sensory development, followed by sensory motor development from ages two to four years which explores touch. “At the age of two, a child does not yet know where their body is and they need to explore and see how their bodies can move in a three-dimensional world.
“This is where motor planning skills becomes important so that children can learn to problem solve. Cook highlights the need for traditional play time with educational toys that can encourage problem solving skills. She believes that a child who does not learn to problem solve in the classroom, playground or at home and in the community will have trouble tackling issues later on in life.”
Cook further stresses the importance of nurturing a child’s interest when it comes to toys, and to not force children onto toys that a parent thinks he or she should be playing with. If the toys or games speak to the child’s interest, the child will be more inclined to play.
Children need to learn from their surroundings
Children need to learn from a very young age how to react to the world around them and playing with toys such as dolls and action figures can help with understanding feelings of empathy, as well as help to build social skills.
“Play is relationship building. This is the space where social skills are developed and parents must be mindful that it’s not about getting the game right, it’s about the experience the child is having. Never force a child to play, let them discover their surroundings” says Cook.
Giving your children the freedom to move during play will increase their sense of understanding of their bodies. If a child is frequently knocking into things, it is more than likely that his or her sense of touch and body space awareness is underdeveloped.
Cook explains that even doing something as simple as pulling a child on a blanket across the floor will not only be fun for the child, but will teach him or her about the sense of balance.
What kinds of toys do your kids need?
For many parents, knowing what to look out for in their children when assessing their needs for further skills development or occupational therapy can be daunting. Cook advises that generally, if a child does not enjoy an age appropriate game or activity, has difficulty engaging with his peers in play, is unable to participate actively in everyday classroom tasks and is struggling to develop independence in age appropriate tasks at home, i.e. play, dressing, feeding, toileting etc., there may be a deficit or delay in skills development.
She also explains that often children’s resistant, controlling or avoidant behaviour can be the first sign that they are finding something challenging.
The types of toys that can assist in a child’s development at home
The below provides a guideline of what sorts of toys are suitable for children being treated with OT and how they can assist in building skills:
- Toys that encourage problem solving – building blocks and toys that encourage the ability to put parts together to make something are a good choice for developing children’s motor and problem solving skills on a fine motor level, as it gives them a chance to try and figure things out for themselves. It’s important to also consider toys that will help build strength in children’s hands, e.g. play dough and scissors. This strength will be necessary to take on writing, amongst other daily activities.
- Things that feel ‘weird’ – toys with sticky or slimy surfaces help children to experiment with texture. You can start with nature such as mud, water and sand and then move to the synthetic feels. This can be beneficial in ensuring children are more open to putting textured foods in their mouths, and is also a great way for them to get their hands working.
- Toys that require the use of both hands – learning to use both hands well can help with colouring, cutting and writing. Wind-up toys are a good example or even simply tossing and catching a ball.
- Toys that encourage pretend play – fantasy and play have long been used to stimulate creativity as well as social skills in children. By pretending to do or be something different, the child is practising both verbal and non-verbal communication, harnessing the skills to socialise and cooperate with other children and adults.