Because occupational therapy centers around everyday life, it is a natural option to practice occupational therapy at home. Here’s how do it.
The first time my son and I walked into an occupational therapy gym, I had no idea what to expect.
He was nine years old and had been struggling for years.
Noises – loud or repetitive.
Smells – good or bad.
He was overwhelmed by the world and had been for a long time.
When my son was formally evaluated that day, the occupational therapist asked me if I had ever heard of Sensory Processing Disorder. I hadn’t. She looked at me, carefully and said, “Your son clearly has it.”
Five years, countless books, appointments, conversations and internet searches later, we no longer participate in structured occupational therapy.
My son clearly benefitted from his time in the gym, and I clearly benefitted from the knowledge of our trained OT. Eventually, however, as he grew both physically and behaviorally, the gym didn’t suit his needs anymore.
Three years ago, we made the decision to implement occupational therapy in his days at home.
What is occupational therapy?
One formal definition is, “A form of therapy that encourages rehabilitation through the performance of activities required in daily life.” I like the definition our therapist gave us in our first meeting. “OT is about figuring out what works for you and what doesn’t. It’s about getting to know your body and helping it feel more comfortable in everyday life.”
Because occupational therapy centers around everyday life, it is a natural, excellent option for practice at home (rather than in a gym or office).
Can You Do Occupational Therapy At Home?
Please know, I am not a doctor or an expert. I am a mom, just like you.
I do think that seeing an OT can be very valuable (it certainly was for us) and would never insinuate that it is easy to transition to a home environment. But I do want to encourage you that it can be done and done well.
What Activities Are Done In Occupational Therapy?
Our OT spent our first few sessions just figuring out what worked and what didn’t work for my son. He liked heavy pressure, but not a light touch. He loved the feel of lycra on his body, but never on his feet. He wanted stuffed animals to be thrown at him while he jumped on the trampoline, but didn’t like the feel of the fur next to his face.
Once she was armed with this knowledge, our OT then put together a “sensory diet” to provide regular input to his sensory system. She also formulated ideas for fine motor skill practice. This sensory diet became part of our normal daily routine.
There are several wonderful books that can help you determine how best to help your child and provide more information and education for you as well! (Please know, affiliate links are included below.)
My two favorites are:
Getting started at home requires you to take the same steps as an OT. Part of it may include educating yourself, but honestly, most of it is paying close attention. You know your child. You see first hand what works and doesn’t work. Use this knowledge to determine what activities to implement as part of a sensory diet at home.
10 Occupational Therapy Activities To Try At Home
I would like to share some of the activities that have worked for us, but only with this caveat – what works for my son, may not be what works for your child. In my experience, trial and error help more than anything else.
Just try the next thing – whatever it is. And then the next. And the next.
Here is what has worked best for our family.
1. Lycra – it saved our life. We have his sheets and we also have large swaths of it in the house. At one point, my son asked us to wrap him up in it tightly and then wanted to go jump on the trampoline. He was calm and focused for the rest of the day.
2. Trampoline – Almost every family I know with sensory needs has one or regularly visits someone who does. Something about the bouncing makes a tremendous difference for our children. But be warned, if you buy one, they will wear out with daily (sometimes three-four times daily) use. We are on our third in as many years, and I know another sensory family that is on trampoline #5.
3. Cleaning Routines – Because my son has tactile defensiveness (and I suspect my youngest son is a seeker), I have learned to incorporate water and child safe cleaning products into our daily routine. For example, in the first picture above, my son is “helping me” mop the floor. You know, with his entire body and a mild soap, but mopping just the same. Shave cream makes a great shower cleaner, but can also be used for drawing and writing, squishing between fingers and toes, and rubbing on arms and legs. The good news? You can always rinse it all off your child when he is finished up, he will be happily occupied for an hour, and your house will be cleaner as a result.
4. Cooking – Baking cookies and hand mixing the dough, making meatballs or hamburger patties, getting the heavy mixer out from the cupboard and lifting it to the counter – all have helped us incorporate a sensory diet into our day.
5. Gardening – Getting hands dirty and learning to not freak out, lifting bags of soil, dragging a hose, and smelling different plants/fertilizers have been some of the activities that have helped my son in our own backyard.
6. Wrestling – My son loves to “wrestle”. However, most of the time, it involves more of my husband standing firm, and my son throwing himself against him.
7. Massage – We have incorporated massage into our days as much as possible. Foot massages help with his tactile defensiveness (so much so that every once in a while, my son asks to wear real shoes instead of crocs!) and allow us to experiment with different essential oil blends. Also, a deep pressure back massage helps my son when his body feels out of control or sluggish.
8. Fine Motor Activities – Sewing, using Japanese brush pens, practicing pencil grip, and puzzles with tiny pieces are all activities we incorporate into my son’s sensory diet to help his fine motor skills.
9. Swings – Adding a swing to our porch has been an excellent sensory option for both of my children. It syncs up the vestibular system and helps them self-soothe.
10. Sensory Bins – Although technically my children are way too old for sensory bins, they still love them. Beans in a bucket is tried and true a favorite. (Incidentally, supervision is always a good thing with sensory bins. One time, my son decided to dump the dried beans out on our living room floor and roll around on them. It was an excellent sensory activity, but years later, I am still finding random beans. In hindsight, I still would’ve allowed him to do it, but outside and on a towel!)
Can OT Be Done Virtually?
While this was not an option when we were first starting out, there are virtual options for occupational therapy, with a licensed professional.
For example, at one point we had the option of virtual occupational therapy to help my son with the fine motor skills associated with writing. She walked him through the various tasks. As he completed them, he showed her his work by holding it up to the screen. She was easily able to give feedback, and I was on hand to help as needed.
This video provides a quick look at OT at home.
Can Occupational Therapy Help With ADHD?
Because so many children with ADHD have sensory issues in need of support, occupational therapy can be a wonderful addition to an overall education plan. You’ll find more information on helping your child with ADHD at home in this resource: Homeschooling A Child With ADHD: A Comprehensive Guide
Find More Occupational Therapy Activities and Encouragement
While this parent’s guide is enough to get you started, if you would like more in-depth resources and support, you’ll find it here:
- Why Sensory Processing Is A Big Deal For Our Kids
- Homeschooling A Child With Sensory Issues: A Closer Look
- Q-Tip Painting: A Fine Motor and Sensory Skill Development Activity
Shawna Wingert is a former training and development professional turned education specialist, and has homeschooled her two children for the last ten years.Shawna has written four books about homeschooling unique learners and has been featured in homeschooling discussions on Today.com, The Mighty, Simple Homeschool, My Little Poppies and Raising Lifelong Leaners.
You can find her online here at DifferentByDesignLearning.com.