Wednesday, November 6, 2013

8 simple ways to help a child with special needs develop

Ever felt like having a meltdown when therapists suggest yet more exercises to do with your kid? Even though you know full well your kid needs all the help he can get but you are just one mom and there are only a given amount of hours in the day and you maybe have some other stuff that needs to get done? Been there, dealt with that. The answer, of course, is to make therapy exercises a natural part of everyday activities. For reality-based ideas, I reached out to Anne Zachry, PhD, a pediatric occupational therapist and author of the new book Retro Baby: Cut Back on all the Gear and Boost Your Baby's Development with Over 100 Time-Tested Activities (published by the American Academy of Pediatrics).

If doing an exercise routine with a child is a challenge, this may be just the post for you! I'm sharing simple ways to incorporate therapeutic activities into your child's daily routine. They're much more effective than just doing isolated therapy exercises, and they're fun.

Put cereal and small pieces of fruit inside a mini muffin tin or ice cube tray—an easy way to make meals and snacks fun, while also refining your child’s pincer grasp. There are also children’s tongs available online and in educational stores, like these and these.  Kids love using tongs to feed themselves, and it’s a great way to strengthen the small muscles in the hands and improve dexterity.

Diaper time
This is a nice activity for improving upper-extremity control. After you're done changing a baby's diaper, position her on her side and, if needed, prop her back against a think rolled-up blanket for support. Both of her arms should be in front of her, with her knees and hips bent slightly. Shake a rattle or colorful toy and encourage the baby to bat or reach for the item.

Kids who have fine-motor limitations can do well putting on and taking off hats, good for motor skills and shoulder range of motion. Try a fireman helmet, police hat, nurse cap or pirate hat. Mardi Gras beads and animal ears on headbands are other fun choices. You can also practice with dress-up clothes that have large buttons, snaps, and zippers. She will be more motivated to don a fun costume than regular clothes, and dress-up play promotes imaginary and pretend play. Find clothes at yard sales and thrift shops.

Cooking time
When you are preparing a meal, encourage your child to lend a helping hand. Activities like stirring batter and spreading peanut butter on crackers are wonderful for encouraging bilateral skills. Place some of the ingredients needed for cooking in zipped bags. Opening and closing them is a nice bilateral, visual motor task. Measuring and scooping are also excellent visual motor activities. An added bonus is that your child will get a self-esteem boost knowing she’s helping Mommy in the kitchen!

Clean-up time
When you are cleaning the house, let your child lend a helping hand. Give him a small spray bottle full of water and show him how to “clean” a horizontal surface such as the front of the refrigerator. Squeezing the spray bottle improves grip strength; if you place light weights on your child's wrists during the task, he will gain strength in his arms and shoulders. If your child can't squeeze, place your hands over hers and help. When mopping floors, have your child squeeze cleaning liquid into a bucket with one or two hands, depending on your child's motor skills. Pick a small area nad show your child how to mop or sweep, again providing assistance is the task proves too difficult. You always want to foster success to boost self-confidence!

Cut several kitchen sponges into various shapes such as a circle, square and triangle. Make sure that the shapes are small enough to fit in the palm of your child’s hand. During bath time, she will get a kick out of squeezing water out of the sponges, and squeezing is great for strengthening those little hand muscles. Bathing is also the perfect time to teach your child about her body parts. Make it a game by asking her to name or show you her tummy, toes, ears and neck.

Reading time
When reading to your child, always encourage him to turn the pages and point to pictures and letters. This both encourages and develops finger isolation and manipulative skills. Lift-a-flap books are also good for fine motor skills and offer fun opportunities to teach the concepts of “open” and “close.”

Before tucking your child into bed, show her how to “make a tunnel.” While positioned on her back, have her slide her feet toward her bottom so that her knees are bent, then tell her to lift her bottom off of the bed. Encourage her to hold this position while you roll a toy car through the “tunnel.” This is called a bridge exercise, and it strengthens the leg and trunk muscles, which are important for good posture.

By incorporating these therapeutic activities into daily routines, your child will have frequent and motivating opportunities to work on motor skills—and all the while your child is gaining self-confidence, increasing independence and building self-esteem.


  1. I like the cooking idea and I made a cake from scratch for the first time.

  2. I like the idea that you have shared.Thanks for sharing and please continue to share this type of post.

  3. Great! Much more meaningful ideas than simply doing "exercises." I agree - child development will occur naturally during play. I'm also a pediatric occupational therapist and a HUGE proponent of outdoor play to foster child development. - Angela Hanscom


Thanks for sharing!

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