Fred Rogers said it best: “Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning.” Pediatric occupational therapists absolutely take this to heart. Through their work, they help children work through emotional, cognitive, and physical impairments using toys and play. At home, many parents try to choose age appropriate toys to encourage their children reach developmental milestones, often beginning in infancy with toys like play mats and mobiles. As Maria Montessori said, “play is the work of the child,” and at every age and stage of child development, there are age appropriate toys that can guide them on the path. These occupational therapy toys have been selected by a pediatric occupational therapist as her very favorite. They nurtures children’s sensory and tactile development, fine motor skills, gross motor skills, visual development, and creativity.
Any child — regardless of their sensory needs — can benefit from any of these occupational therapy toys, says Samantha Davis, an occupational therapist at Kidsplay Therapy Center in McDonough, Georgia. “The key is getting to know the child, knowing what motivates them, finding out which areas may need some additional help, and then working on those skills through play,” she says.
Occupational therapy toys for all ages
This expansive list of an occupational therapists favorite toys includes options for kids of all ages. Whether you are looking for age appropriate toys for 3-year-olds, the best sensory toys for toddlers, are hoping to work on gross motor skills with your 5-month-old, or are ready to master those trickier fine motor skills, this massive toy list has you covered.
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Sensory toys engage our senses, and this is exceptionally important for infants. A good sensory toy, Davis explains, engages sight, hearing, sense of touch, sense of smell, sense of taste, and perception of the body. These sensorially-focused occupational therapy toys for kids of all ages help babies and kids to get a good grasp on their sensory experience, which “contributes to our sense of safety and autonomy of our own body,” she explains.
Occupational Therapy Toys For Visual Motor Skills
“Visual/motor development starts as early as when the baby is developing in utero, and continues on through infancy, early childhood, and even into adulthood with more refined movements and activities,” Davis says. Throughout our lifetime, we build on visual motor skills we learned from a young age, like tying shoes, writing, or opening containers.
“When kids build with blocks, cut paper, scribble with crayons, and catch a ball, they are learning how to use their hands and eyes together to complete tasks that they encounter every day,” Davis says.
Occupational Therapy Toys For Gross Motor Skills
Gross motor skills are skills that require our entire body to complete, Davis explains. These toys help kids develop their gross motor skills by encouraging both sides of the body to work together. They strengthen the upper body, address balance, and help with lower body strength and core strength to ensure we’re able to use all of our parts to complete whatever activities we need to do.
For babies, learning to crawl, sit up, and walk are activities that nurture and develop gross motor skills. Tummy time is an important way to develop gross motor skills early on, and Davis says it’s “one of the best ways to address engaging the muscles in the neck, core and shoulders.”
Gross motor skills activities for toddlers and young kids including running, jumping and climbing, Davis says — basically anything they’d do at a playground. “Meeting these milestones can help aid in completing things that we do every day,” Davis explains.
Occupational Therapy Toys For Fine Motor Skills
Fine motor skills help fine-tune the “tiny intricate muscles in our hands and wrists and make very precise movements,” Davis explains. “Tasks and activities for practicing and working on fine motor skill development include writing, cutting, puzzles, opening containers, manipulating fasteners, or even typing this very sentence,” she says.
Occupational Therapy Toys For Pretend Play
While on the surface pretend play may not seem like helpful with developmental milestones, Davis says it addresses our executive functioning skills, meaning the cognitive control of our behavior. “Executive functioning skills are a set of mental skills that help us every single day,” says Davis. Pretend play helps with “memory, attention, managing time, planning, organizing, self-regulation, flexible thinking and self-monitoring.”
Apparently, board games address many things at the same time, depending on the game and the skill level needed. “You can address taking turns, hand-eye coordination, social skills, fine motor development (think tiny game pieces and being able to move that piece to a specific place), shape/color/word recognition, and depending on the game, gross motor skills. Board games are a fun way to mask a lot of ‘work,’ plus it brings people together,” she says.
Occupational therapy toys by age
Even big kids can benefit from baby toys, and (sometimes) vice versa — after all, learning and developing starts from birth and can really last a lifetime. I know I’m still working on some things myself. Whether it’s for practice or for a child who has special needs, kids need toys and activities to work with for their development through high school and beyond.
The Best Developmental Toys For Babies
Developmental toys for infants through 2 years old are all about sensory skills, fine motor precision, and gross motor play, Davis explains. “You don’t need a lot of equipment/things for little kiddos, but a safe place on the floor with engaging things can meet so many developmental needs and milestones,” she says.
The Best Developmental Toys For Ages 2-5
These toys are designed to “keep little thinkers busy”, as Davis puts it. The busy board helps kids practice and prepare for dressing themselves, the blocks work both gross and fine motor skills, the stacking toy and marble maze are both visually stimulating that are fun to play with, and the Tangram puzzle works on fine motor skills, planning, organizing, memory, as well as visual motor, she says.
“The key to this age group is finding things that address multiple skills all at once,” explains Davis. “Their bodies and brains are always on the move!”
Developmental Toys For Ages 5-11
“For this age group, I tried to find games and puzzles because of the intrinsic drive to want to finish something or win at something is strong in this age group,” Davis says. These games run the gambit on what they work on — everything from social skills, to planning, memory to quick mental processing, and even visual scanning.
Developmental Toys For Ages 11-18
“This age group is really honing in on life skills like typing, meal preparation, following steps or instructions to complete something, and abstract thinking,” Davis says. The slime is preparation for cooking by following directions, pouring and mixing, the LEGOs show how following instructions leads to a final product, and the writing prompts nurture abstract thinking, planning, handwriting, and skills needed for school, according to Davis.
Whatever ages and stages you’re wrangling in your home, one — or many — of these occupational therapy toys is sure to keep your little ones, well, occupied. It’s a bonus that these toys will help keep them on track to master all of the skills that our kids work on through play every day.