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The Power of Play: What is Pediatric Occupational Therapy?

Occupational therapy is a profession concerned with occupation, which is meaningful activity that one does throughout the day. Children who receive occupational therapy services may have a diagnosis (down syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism to name a few), developmental disabilities, neuromuscular injury, neurological difficulties, problems with motor coordination, emotion regulation, and learning disabilities. A pediatric occupational therapist focuses on a child’s sensory, motor, perceptual, social, and cognitive development with the objective to improve a child’s level of functioning. Occupational therapist work to put the fun in function to motivate our clients. Caregivers can seek out a referral for pediatric occupational therapy by talking about concerns in the areas of delayed milestone acquisition with the child’s pediatrician.

What is a child’s occupation?

A child’s most meaningful activity and occupation is PLAY. As a pediatric occupational therapist my client includes the child and the family. I collaborate with families to develop measurable goals and a therapy plan. Pediatric occupational therapists analyze their client’s strengths and barriers to accessing play and activities of daily living (eating, dressing, and grooming). Pediatric occupational therapy is provided in a variety of settings such as the natural environment of home, early intervention (newborn – 3 years), outpatient clinics, hospitals, and school.

When a therapy session looks like play then I know that I am doing my job. I feel a big component of working in pediatrics is teaching caregivers the importance of play. Playing does not come naturally to adults. I remember feeling overwhelmed at my first internship in an outpatient pediatric clinic. There were some big emotions coming out of little ones, children were on the move, and I did not know how to connect. I really had to work on my playfulness and see play first as motivation for building a relationship. Once play ideas became automatic then I was able to incorporate therapeutic strategies into sessions. There is a lot of nuance to play. I am constantly thinking in my session about how to grade activities up to be more difficult or down to meet the child and the family at their “just right challenge.”

Research has suggested that children with disabilities often experience limitations in the extent to which they can participate in typical play activities. Caregivers may have to physically facilitate play for the child with disabilities. Setting aside time for play is hard for all families. I suggest looking at your daily routines as a way of incorporating developmentally appropriate play.

Easy Ways to Incorporate Play in Your Day:

Start by narrating your routine

  • Great for language development of young children

  • Descriptive language of mealtimes with colors, textures, and shapes

  • Using the same words for getting dressed helps with sequencing, motor planning, and body awareness. “ Shirt on head. Now 1 arm and 2 arm”

Parallel play: Play with the same items while next to the child

  • Demonstrate new ways to play

  • How many formations can you make out of blocks?

Follow your child’s lead

  • Literally by getting on their level on the floor and imitating what they are doing

  • Let go of the need to control your child’s play

Fred Rogers stated, “play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning.”

Power of Play:

  • Unstructured play can increase a child’s confidence

  • Facilitated and educational play can help with learning

  • Play provides skill acquisition and repetition of motor movements

  • Play builds trust and rapport between child and caregivers

About the author:

Lauren Friedman is the founder and lead occupational therapist of Blendz Therapy. Upon receiving her Master’s of Science in Occupational Therapy from Boston University, Lauren has been practicing as a registered and licensed occupational therapist since April 2014. Her diverse practice experiences with pediatric outpatient clinics, schools, and home settings have shaped Lauren’s ability to establish therapeutic relationships with children and their families. Using evidence-based interventions paired with her own creative and playful style, Lauren has experience success with working with children with special needs.


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