‘Play’ is important work for occupational therapist
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‘Play’ is important work for occupational therapist

Beckie Schlesinger
Beckie Schlesinger

Beckie Schlesinger gets to “play” all day.

In a sense, she does. But her work as a pediatric occupational therapist at the Valley Hospital Kireker Center for Child Development is serious business. Our Children caught up with Ms. Schlesinger to ask about her job and how she helps children with a variety of issues and delays, and about how parents can help their children.

OC: What exactly do you do as a pediatric occupational therapist?

Beckie Schlesinger: My job as a pediatric occupational therapist is to get to play with kids all day! As occupational therapists, we work on “occupations” or things that people “want to do, need to do, and have to do” in their daily lives. A child’s primary occupation is play, but we also address getting your child as independent as possible in feeding, dressing, and school-related tasks. The most important thing I do is advocate for and support children to be as independent as they possibly can and provide tools to assist children in developing their independence.

OC: What are the most common issues that you see with youngsters today?

BS: As a pediatric occupational therapist, I work with children with a variety of delays. I would say that many of my children do not have any type of diagnosis. The most common issues that I work on are fine motor skills, emotional regulation, visual perceptual/motor skills, and sensory processing. Delays in any of these areas may impact your child’s independence in play, dressing, feeding, coloring/writing, and more.

OC: How can parents best help them?

BS: My biggest tip as an OT is to encourage your child to be independent! If your child needs help of course provide it as appropriate, but always encourage them to try on their own first. For children to be more independent parents can have them be “helpers” in daily tasks. For example, if you are already going to the store and bringing your child, have them write up the grocery list or draw out a daily schedule. If you are concerned about your child’s strength and coordination, do exercises with them (such as yoga) or encourage them to get into sports. Tae kwon do and swimming are my first recommendations for children who have difficulties with motor planning or seem to have decreased strength. For children who have difficulty with sensory processing and self-regulation, parents can try and help their children develop coping mechanisms to stimuli they find noxious. For example, some children may find deep pressure through big bear hugs or weighted vest/blankets helpful while others may find deep breathing or taking a break in a quiet/dark space calming. Parents and their children can work together to find calming strategies to use when they feel overwhelmed. I recommend making a list or pictures of activities that a child can use to calm themselves down. Also remember children learn from watching, so parents can model these activities and coping strategies.

OC: When would it be necessary for a child to have OT?

BS: A child may benefit from occupational therapy for many different reasons. It is important to talk to your family’s pediatrician if you suspect any delays in fine and gross motor milestones so that they can refer you to the right discipline. It is also important to remember that development occurs within a large range and some children achieve things at the early end of the spectrum and others may be at the farther end. Since OT involves everyday activities, assessment will look different based on your child’s age. For toddlers you want to focus on child’s ability to play appropriately with toys and people around him. A child who is having difficulty with activities involving self-care (i.e. taking off socks and shoes, using utensils) may benefit from OT. A school aged child who has difficulty with activities like coloring, writing, and cutting because of motor planning, coordination, or strength deficits, may benefit from OT. Finally, children with sensory processing difficulties can benefit from a visit to an occupational therapist. If you feel your child has constant energy or no energy at all, difficulty sitting still, extreme fear of loud noises, or poor tolerance for different textures (i.e. seams on clothing, soft foods or condiments) and you feel these issues are significantly impacting their quality of life then an occupational therapy evaluation may be warranted.

OC: What are some of the things that kids can do at home that does not feel like “therapy” but is more like play and that gets the job done?

BS: Depending on what you hope to work on, there are so many options! For younger children, I would recommend exposing them to sensory activities at a young age. Allow them to get messy! They can play with grass, sand, and water. Encourage sensory play using everyday activities you have at home like dry beans or rice, and even shaving cream.  If they are old enough not to mouth items, make a sensory bin and hide puzzle pieces in it and create a “scavenger hunt.” Depending on your child’s level of interest and age range you can add an extra element using magnetic letter pieces for an extra challenge and then integrate handwriting activities with play. One of my go-to OT activities for strengthening arms and cores is animal walks. It is a great way for kids to get silly and do yoga poses with their parents. I like to start with “bear crawls” and “crab walks” and you can integrate animal sounds or music with the activity. Another fun activity to do at home is make an obstacle course! Set up some cushions to walk, jump, or crawl over, have your child push a heavy laundry basket across the room, then balance on a bosu ball. Activities like this can help your child develop motor planning and problem-solving skills.

OC: What is the best way to combat “digitalitis,” relying on devices and being more sedentary rather than active these days?

BS: Getting outside is the key to this! Try adding in daily walks in the morning or evening and play “iSpy” to see what you can discover in your neighborhood. Now that the weather is nice, you can do a scavenger hunt and look for items such as pinecones, tall pieces of grass and wildflowers. There are so many creative ways to use items you find and integrate them into art at home that your kids can create (i.e pressed flowers, using pinecones as stamps, and flowers as paint brushes). Using everyday items within the home encourages your child to use their imagination. Another way is to have your child help you in activities you already have to do such as, cooking or cleaning. Have your child help with mixing ingredients; they will feel proud to have helped cook a delicious meal and it will keep your child occupied and out of trouble during meal preparation!

OC: Is there anything you would like to add?

BS: If you have any concerns regarding child development, remember to go to your pediatrician for further assessment so they can identify any underlying causes. Remember development has a huge range and your child may just need a little more time so try not to compare him or her to other children!

Beckie Schlesinger, OTR/L, in her play space at the Valley Hospital Kireker Center for Child Development.

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