Play with a Purpose: Occupational Therapy for Kids

Healthy Living

October 11, 2019
  • All your daughter’s friends have been tying their shoes for months, but yours just fumbles with the strings.
  • Taking your son grocery shopping always turns into an ordeal because he becomes overwhelmed by the lights and the sounds as soon as he walks into the store.
  • Playdates at the park tend to end with bandaged knees because, more often than not, your child’s feet get tangled up as he runs.

Poor fine motor function, sensitivities to sensory input, lack of gross motor coordination and more. If you can relate to any of these scenarios – or you feel that your child is experiencing developmental delays of another sort – you might consider asking your pediatrician about occupational therapy.

Occupational Therapy and Your Child

Occupational therapy (OT) is a type of intervention that can help people improve their performance of everyday tasks and activities. People of any age can benefit from this type of therapy, but nearly a third of occupational therapy services are directed at children. Kids with developmental delays often participate in occupational therapy to help them gain or improve on needed skills.

OT often focuses on building motor skills, either fine or gross depending on the delays involved. Some kids need help with maintaining their balance, navigating the stairs or keeping up their endurance during physical play. Therapy that focuses on gross motor skills may help kids catch up with their peers in these areas.

Fine motor skills can benefit from OT as well. Kids who have a hard time grasping objects, using the “pincer grasp” during infancy or writing neatly when the time comes may be advised to see an occupational therapist. The same goes for children who have trouble getting dressed, cutting with scissors or eating with utensils.

Occupational therapy can also benefit children with sensory struggles. Doing therapy exercises can make a difference for kids who become easily overwhelmed by too many sights, sounds or other stimuli in their environment. Therapy can also be helpful for kids who seem nearly immune to what’s going on around them, even when they’re hurt. With occupational therapy, children on both ends of this spectrum can learn to appropriately cope with and respond to sensory inputs.

Other concerns that may improve with OT include:

  • Learning disabilities
  • Visual processing issues
  • Lack of age-appropriate play
  • Feeding concerns
  • Inability to relate well to others
  • Executive functioning disorders

Pediatricians may suggest OT services for a variety of concerns because it can be an effective early intervention, mitigating the need for more invasive or long-term treatments later in life.

What Kids Do at Occupational Therapy

Each child’s experience in occupational therapy differs because therapists use a variety of techniques to help their patients, developing treatment plans based on the diagnosed or perceived delays. In other words, an occupational therapist will treat your specific child based on what he needs.

To an outside observer, much of what a child does during therapy may appear to be nothing more than play. It’s true that many therapy activities are meant to engage a child in fun ways, but each one has a specific purpose.

Examples of activities that an occupational therapist might employ include:

  • Swinging exercises, such as from a tire or rope
  • Jumping on a trampoline onto a soft surface
  • Climbing padded structures
  • Running through a padded obstacle course
  • Tracing letters in salt or shaving cream
  • Performing dry-brushing techniques
  • Playing with fidget toys

There are countless activities that an occupational therapist can use to help their patients. Sensory bins are a common and effective technique that involves filling a large bin with sensory objects – like dry beans, rice or pasta – and small objects, like plastic coins, and letting kids dig for the small items. For children with sensory input issues, sensory bins can help them overcome aversions to different textures.

How to Get Started with Occupational Therapy

For school-age children, including those in preschool, the first recommendation for occupational therapy often comes from someone at school. In fact, a child with an individualized education program (IEP) may have occupational therapy built into her education plan. If your child qualifies for special services, free occupational therapy might take place during the school day.

But occupational therapy isn’t just for children with learning or developmental disabilities, nor is it only for school-aged kids. If you notice that there are gaps in your child’s skills or that she seems behind her peers in some areas even as an infant, you don’t have to wait for a recommendation from a school before you can seek this kind of help for your child.

Typically, your best starting resource will be your child’s doctor. By sharing your concerns with the physician, you can get her take on whether therapy might be beneficial, and the doctor can refer you to a therapist. Pediatricians usually screen for development delays anyway at each well-child visit, and your doctor may be the first person who suggests OT as an intervention.

It’s possible that you’ll find an occupational therapy center in your area that takes new clients without a referral, so you could begin by contacting a center directly. However, you may still need a referral from a physician for insurance purposes. It’s also a good idea to include your pediatrician in any discussion of therapies – occupational or otherwise – so she can make recommendations and monitor your child’s progress. Doctors treat patients better when they have all the facts.

When first entering an occupational therapy program, your child will undergo a thorough evaluation. This process will assess any delays or deficits and provide insights into what therapies will be most helpful.

Paying for Occupational Therapy

If you don’t plan to go through your child’s school for occupational therapy, or he’s not school-aged, paying for occupational therapy treatment can be a concern. But you do have options, and you might not have to pay anything out of pocket depending on which route you go, your health insurance and the resources available in your state.

Children three and under may qualify for occupational therapy as part of an early intervention program. These state-based programs focus on children with disabilities or delays. You may be able to receive entirely free therapy services through early intervention, or your state may require that you or your health insurance company pick up a portion of the cost.

Early intervention isn’t an option for everyone, but health insurance plans often include coverage for occupational therapy. Rehabilitative services, which can include occupational therapy, are considered essential health benefits under the Affordable Care Act. However, details about coverage, such as the number of visits covered per year and the particular therapies included, can vary.

If you anticipate needing occupational therapy for a family member, it can be a smart idea to sign up for a major medical insurance policy at your next opportunity, such as the fall open enrollment period. When evaluating a health plan, consider how many therapy sessions the insurer will cover annually and what your copay or coinsurance for each visit will be.

Will occupational therapy be worth the cost? It can be hard to know ahead of time exactly what difference therapy will make for your child, but this kind of intervention may help him get on track for development and adjust more readily to life’s challenges as he gets older. Think of the time and money spent on occupational therapy as an investment in your child’s future.