“This is awesome!” screams Jake as he flies across the sensory gym on a zip line. He then runs up the stairs, jumps off of the jump deck and lands into the ball pit. Climbing up the rock wall to the monkey bars, alternating arms to reach a large hammock suspended from the monkey bars he plays a game of “don’t let the alligators get you” as he meticulously plans his moves to get across three swings hanging next to the hammock. Balancing on the swings as the therapist playfully tries to chomp him with an alligator puppet he safely reaches the other side where he crashes into a large foam filled pillow with a giant smile of success.
Occupational therapy is therapeutic treatment that takes place within meaningful activities (or occupations). We are all motivated, engaged and at our optimal level of performance when we engage in what we find meaningful. What is the major occupation/meaningful activity of kids….PLAY! As therapists we play with our kids to optimize their engagement and participation to work on skills and capacities that are causing them challenges in daily life.
Let’s take Jake’s experience and break it down in a therapist’s eyes. Jake is a child who has difficulty sitting in school, he bumps into his peers and is often reminded to keep personal space. He has meltdowns several times a day when he receives multi-step directions or perceives that something is going to be too hard. These meltdowns lead to changes in family plans and activities. He does not like to play sports saying that they are “stupid and hard”. Jake will be heard saying, “I’m so dumb” and “I can’t do anything”. Jake’s family is very active and enjoys many sports activities. They live in a highly social community where opportunities for social and active events come up daily often causing changes in daily plans.
Ok, so what is the occupational therapist doing to help by “just playing”?
The zip line, balancing and moving on the particular swings chosen by the therapist help to strengthen Jake’s postural/core muscles which will improve his ability to sit for longer periods of time in school as well as control his movements as to not bump into his peers. The rock wall and monkey bars promote Jake to think about how he is moving each part of his body improving coordination and planning multiple step actions. The ball pit and foam filled pillow improve his body awareness so he knows where he is in relation to others and where his body parts are in relation to each other. Lastly, the alligator game really ups the play aspect, but also gives him direct practice with moving his body in relation to another person so that he does not bump into them and helps him to plan multiple step directions. Most importantly, Jake feels successful and good about himself and he has a huge boost of self-esteem.
All in all, Jake is having fun, the therapist is strengthening skills and capacities and the parents and teachers are seeing functional results in sitting at school, maintaining personal space, decreasing occurrence of meltdowns and increase in participation in sporting activities…..all while “just playing”!