Occupational therapists are skilled at turning fun arts and crafts projects into skill-building opportunities. They naturally assess all of the language, motor, and cognitive processes needed by combining their professional task analysis skills with a whole lot of fun!
What OTs know is that skills are developed through meaningful occupation, and for children, that occupation is play. When children are engaged in play, they are learning and developing critical fine motor, visual motor, and sensory motor skills that are often the focus of "therapy."
Parents at home can promote their child's development by creating opportunities for play. Regardless of where your child is along their developmental journey, we've come up with a few therapy-inspired activities that are simple enough for parents and kids alike!
Activities for Kids with Autism
Children with autism demonstrate a range of cognitive, motor and language abilities, sensory preferences, and interests or aversions. When you are considering how best to engage your child with autism in play-based activities, always keep their individual needs and interests in mind.
Occupational therapists will often "scaffold" activities to help children build their skills for learning rather than become frustrated by difficult tasks. We often refer to this as a "just-right challenge."
This resource from Kids Matter explains how parents can offer similar supports at home by trying the following:
Prompt children to extend their thinking - explore other ways of solving problems or approaching tasks
Ask children to explain the steps - try letting the child direct the activity or select the materials needed to complete the task
Break activities into smaller steps
Give prompts - there are many ways to prompt your child through an activity. For more information on prompting, check out this article from Special Learning, Inc.here.
Be positive! Praise your child's efforts along the way because every level of participation matters and builds skills.
For children who are interested in sensory-based play or whose level of engagement and participation improves when there is a sensory component to the activity, these fun sensory art ideas will be a huge hit at home!
5 Ways to Create with Paint:
For children who dislike getting messy or avoid painting because of tactile defensiveness, try encouraging creativity by using household objects and toys in new ways - baking trays, straws, sponges, marbles, spice shakers, q-tips - change up your painting tools for a different experience every time! Here are our favorite out-of-the-box ways to create with paint
Marble Run Painting: put blank paper into the lid of a box or baking tray, add a glob of your paint color (choose 1 at a time or add a few!) and a marble or two. Tilt the box/tray to move the marble through the paint and watch the kaleidoscope of colors emerge across the paper.
Q-Tip Details: Using a Q-tip to apply paint in controlled dots, lines, or squiggles is a great way to develop fine motor skills while also limiting the "mess." Depending on the level of creativity or independent drawing skills your child has, consider adding a background picture and use the Q-tip paint to add details to familiar shapes, landscapes, or people.
Paint in a Bag: Similarly to the sensory bags, children with significant tactile defensiveness are more apt to engage with this painting activity because the mess is all contained inside a Ziploc-type bag. Put a blank piece of paper inside of the bag, add a few drops of color, and zip the bag closed. By pushing on the outside of the bag, your child can move the paint around and explore with mixing colors to decorate a kaleidoscope on the canvas.
Stamping: Look around the house and see what you could use as a stamp - cut an apple or potato in half to stamp a unique shape, repurpose those Duplo Legos, or cut a kitchen sponge into shapes big and small!
Blow-Paint: They actually sell blow paints for kids, but they require a lot of forceful breath that may be difficult for some kids to coordinate. Create your own "blow" paint activity by breathing through a straw to move the paint across the page. Can you blow the paint inside the shape of a balloon? To add colorful details to a picture already drawn? or to make your own free-form designs?
Your final product will surely look different, and you might have to wash away your art at the end of the activity, but the kids will get a kick out of creating with something other than paint. Who says that art has to happen on paper? Explore your washable surfaces in the bathtub, sliding door or window, and even go outside with an old easel. Art is easy when you can wash away the mess!
Shaving cream + koolaid + bathtub
Potato flakes + food coloring + hot water = EDIBLE finger paint
Ooebleck + bathtub/sensory bin
Glue + salt
Bubble foam + bathtub or sensory tub
Craft Projects for Kids
When I plan a craft project for a child with any developmental needs, I'm always careful to plan something engaging that the child will be able to successfully complete.
Remember that the process is more important than the final product! How you get the project done will differ based on the amount of prompting, physical support, and language support needed by the child. It's important to add a "challenge" and that challenge will always change based on the child completing the project.
For example, in a craft project that requires kids to peel and stick shapes to decorate a silly face, the challenge could be the fine motor skill of "peeling." For another child, the challenge may be tolerating the "sticky" sensation. For a third child, it may be following the directions to "put on" or the visual-spatial skills to organize shapes into a face-like design.
Or, perhaps all of these skills are difficult. This is when it's important to know your child's strengths and weaknesses, plan how you will best support them, and make a conscious effort to enable as much independence as possible while also fostering fun and success.
These 5 craft projects all allow for scaffolding and prompting in ways that parents and kids will be successful:
Contact Paper Shapes - practice ripping, cutting, picking up tissue paper, matching shapes, and tolerating sticky contact paper to create a stained glass-like design. Change the theme to reflect seasonal colors and shape.
Paper Plate Crafts - Who knew that a simple white paper plate could offer so much for crafting creativity! Turn your plates into animals, flowers, rainbows, or these adorable caterpillars. Work on coloring, cutting, and gluing skills to make something as simple or multi-step as your child needs it to be.
Storytelling - Why not reinforce simple stories or routines by creating crafts related to what your child is learning? We love crafts that will help your child to retell, reenact, or reinforce the characters or activities in a story. Check out this web search for some creative and colorful ideas to reinforce learning.
Mobiles - Take lacing and threading to a new 3-D level by creating a mobile of highly visually engaging materials. Beads, straws, and strings of all colors and textures attached to a coat hanger, hula hoop, or curtain rod can be fun projects to add to over time and display in your child's sensory area.
It's Not a Box! - It's way more! Turn your large cardboard box into a firetruck, police car, drive-in movie theater, camper, o