Sensory Writing Tray

Visual Memory Game with a sensory bin

Last week, I posted a picture of a sensory writing tray on our Instagram channel. You might have seen it. It was a sensory tray designed to teach handwriting, letter formation, and early literacy skills (letter identification) with a sensory bin. That sensory writing activity has been on the “to-do” list to share with you for some time. Today, I’ve got it all lined up and ready to go for you! Read on for a writing tray that teaches handwriting AND so many other essential skills!

Play a sensory memory game using a sensory tray to work on letter identification and handwriting skills with kids.
Working on letters can be very fun with a sensory memory game.

Sensory Writing Tray Activity

Before I go any further, I wanted to touch base on a sensory writing activity. This sensory activity is designed to teach certain skills such as letter formation and letter identification needed for handwriting through the tactile sense. Using the senses and movement in handwriting is an aspect of kinesthetic learning which can be quite beneficial to so many students.

This particular handwriting activity helps kids with various underlying skills that play a part in handwriting as well. By manipulating the sensory medium in the writing tray, kids get to experience and build skills needed for handwriting. These include: bilateral coordination, use of the dominant and assisting hands, visual discrimination, form constancy, visual scanning, visual memory, visual closure, eye-hand coordination, visual motor integration, and fine motor skills (finger isolation, separation of the sides of the hand, in-hand manipulation, arch development, and others).

Writing Tray to Teach Handwriting

Using a writing trays for handwriting are such a hands-on approach to teaching writing. Kids really love to get their hands in a sensory medium and play…while working on the skills they need to learn letters. Manipulating sensory materials to write letters can be used in teaching letter formation in a way that gets the kids engaged and excited about handwriting.

We’ve shared quite a few writing trays here on The OT Toolbox:

Making a quick Writing tray with dyed rice is so easy with a pack of rice, some food coloring, and a plastic baggie. The best thing is that you can use that dyed rice over and over again for sensory play.

Here’s another easy writing tray using dyed rice. So easy, all you need is the rice and a low bin.

I don’t know about you, but I go through A LOT of coffee grounds. Use those old coffee grounds to practice writing with a writing tray with coffee grounds. This is another biodegradable sensory activity. When you’re finished with writing practice, use the grounds in a sensory garden.

Dyed salt is a great medium for using in writing trays. It’s easy to manipulate and is so versatile. Use caution with young children that may put things or materials in their mouths. Always use caution and best judgement with each individual child. This writing tray with dyed salt was a great way to work on bilateral coordination and symmetrical movements with a visual motor component.

We actually used grass seed to work on letter formation by gluing the seeds down, but part of the fun was making a writing tray with grass seed. It’s a really inexpensive way to work on letter formation and others skills. Then, use the seed to plant a patch of grass in the yard.

It’s kind of slowed down around here, but there was a time when the slime craze hit our house full-force. We used some of that slime to make a slime writing tray. So fun…and totally worth the clean-up!

Some writing trays can have the letters and words actually in the bin, like our sight word writing tray. It was another easy writing tray to throw together. In fact, that writing tray inspired the sensory writing activity that we are sharing today…

Use a sensory tray to work on letter formation and letter identification.

WRITing Tray to Teach Letters

We used just a few items to create this sensory writing tray:

  • Plastic casserole dish (glass would work to!
  • Marker, paper, tape
  • Dyed salt (We recycled the dried salt from this sensory activity.)

To set-up the sensory bin, use the marker to write letters in random order on the paper. You can write them in alphabetical order, but we wanted to work on a few visual perceptual skills such as visual scanning and visual memory by placing the letters in random order.

Tape the paper to the bottom of the tray (outside). You want the letters to show through the bottom of the dish from the inside. Another option would be to place the paper right into the bottom on the dish, but we wanted the salt and base of the dish to provide a contrast in temperature with this tactile sensory activity.

Kids can use a writing tray with salt to work on handwriting and letters.

You can make each letter of the alphabet, or make several of the same letter to work on letter matching, memory skills, and form constancy. Use upper case or lower case, or even numbers. This sensory bin is so versatile and the sky is the limit!

Pour in dyed salt or your sensory writing tray medium.

Use dyed salt to work on letter formation in a sensory writing tray.
Dyed salt is a great material for sensory writing trays!

Ask the child to start looking for letters. When they find the letter, they can trace the lines to “write
the letter with their index finger. We even played a memory game by searching for matching letters hiding under the salt.

Visual Skills in Handwriting

For this sensory writing tray, we made this handwriting tray in a style that actually worked on a wider variety of skill areas beyond simply copying letters from a form. In fact, there are so many skill areas being addressed with a single writing tray idea:

  • Visual discrimination
  • Form constancy
  • Visual Closure
  • Eye-Hand coordination
  • Visual Memory
  • Visual Motor Skills

FIne Motor Skills in Handwritng

When writing, kids need a lot of fine motor skills. In this writing tray activity, we work on several of those skills:

  • In-hand manipulation
  • Arch development
  • Separation of the sides of the hand
  • Finger isolation

Sensory Memory Game

Turn the sensory tray into a sensory memory game by writing sets of letters. Kids can take turns uncovering letters to “find each letter of a set. Match two upper case letters or two lower case letters. Or, match upper and lower case letters in a letter memory game that kids will love!

Kids will love working on letter identification with a sensory memory game using a salt sensory writing tray.

Bat Halloween Craft

Fall is here and that means it’s time to pull out the halloween crafts! This bat Halloween craft is a favorite in our house, and it’s actually a fun way to celebrate Halloween with kids without spooky decorations. We made another bat craft based on a Halloween book here on The OT Toolbox, and this Halloween craft for kids is one that they will get batty over! 

Bat Halloween Craft

This craft idea is one that doesn’t need a lot of materials. In fact, it’s a simple craft idea that is big on the fine motor buck! When kids make this bat craft, they will be boosting skills such as fine motor strength and dexterity in a big way.
For more Halloween craft ideas, check out some of the ideas at the bottom of this post…it’s the perfect addition if you’re looking for Halloween crafts for toddlers or Halloween crafts for preschool parties.
Make this bat craft at a Halloween party for kids for a fun Halloween craft idea that isn't spooky!

Bat Craft

We made this bat craft with a fun sensory twist.  And, since we have a certain second grader that is cursive handwriting obsessed, we decided to add a cursive handwriting twist to this activity.  This activity could work to help kids with letter formation of upper case letters, lowercase letters, or numbers too. The possibilities are endless. 
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Halloween bat craft and creative letter formation activity in this sensory Halloween craft that is a Scissor Skill power house.  Appropriate and fun for creative kids from preschool, kindergarten, and elementary school aged.

How to Make a Bat Craft

To make your bat craft, you’ll need just a few materials:
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black cardstock 
black yarn 
Scissors (THIS is my favorite brand and the ones that I always recommended as an Occupational Therapist!)

Halloween craft for preschool

This is a great halloween craft for preschoolers because it’s a fantastic way to work on scissor skills with a halloween activity.

First draw and cut a bat-ish shape on the cardstock.  Kids can cut out the shape using their Scissors for great scissor skill work.  The bat shape is a complex cutting shape and can be done by Elementary aged students.  Cutting the angled wings and curves can be difficult, but by using the cardstock, kids will get a bit fore proprioceptive feedback from the thicker resistance of the paper material.  To make the task easier, cut wings without the jagged lines or use thicker cutting lines when you draw the bat shape.  

Once you have the bat, you’ll need to cut pieces of the black yarn.  Have your child cut long or short pieces, it doesn’t really matter what length they wish to cut for their bat’s texture.  Cutting the yarn is a great material to practice appropriate scissor positioning and bilateral hand coordination.  

If a child is holding the scissors on an angle, cutting the yarn will be more difficult.  (You may see them trying to “saw” at the yarn!) Encourage them to hold the scissors straight up and down and the blades of the scissors at a 90 degree angle to the yarn.  You can find more of our Scissor Skills activities.

Kids will love to make this Halloween bat craft while working on fine motor skills and scissor skills...great halloween craft for kids!

Next, pour some glue into a shallow dish or plate.  Show your child how to drag the yarn through the glue and get it nice and saturated with the glue.  Use both hands to pinch and “scrape” off excess glue from the piece of yarn.  Next, drape the black yarn on the bat shape.  You can let your child get as creative as they wish with this part.  Some might like to outline the bat shape and others, just pile it up on the bat.  Let the glue and yarn harden and you’ll have a textured bat craft to use in Halloween decor this Fall.  You will have to wait for the glue to dry, probably overnight.

Handwriting Practice with a bat craft!

Halloween textured bat craft and creative letter formation activity in this sensory Halloween craft that is a Scissor Skill power house.  Appropriate and fun for creative kids from preschool, kindergarten, and elementary school aged.

Work on letter formation with this fun Halloween bat craft!
We used those saturated yarn pieces to build cursive letters.  This would be an excellent way to practice cursive letter formation in our Creative Cursive handwriting journal activity.
Use this Bat Craft for kids to work on letter formation of any kind. It’s a creative writing activity that they will be sure to remember. Work on forming individual letters, spelling sight words, or making Halloween words.

Halloween party idea for kids

This would work as a very fun…and very sensory…Halloween party idea for classroom parties or Halloween with kids in general.
  1. Split kids up into teams. Give each team a collection of cut black yarn and a bowl of glue.
  2. Write a Halloween word on the board or hold up a sign with a Halloween word.
  3. Each team has to work together to use the cut yarn and glue to spell the Halloween word on a piece of paper or cardboard.
  4. Once a team has completed the word, they have to hold up their paper or cardboard. The first team to spell the word with the letters sticking wins! (Too much glue or not enough glue will make this a fun race for Halloween parties for kids of all ages.)
Halloween textured bat craft and creative letter formation activity in this sensory Halloween craft that is a Scissor Skill power house.  Appropriate and fun for creative kids from preschool, kindergarten, and elementary school aged.
Build printed letters with the glue yarn, too.  We had a lot of fun with this Halloween craft and it was a hit with all of my kids…from preschool on up to grade school.

Halloween Craft Ideas

Check out some of these other Halloween activities and crafts:
  • Make a Spider Craft using potato stamps. Fun for parties or just Halloween fun with the kids!
  • Use cookie cutters and chalk to make Halloween Chalk Art. It’s a messy and sensory Halloween activity that the whole family can get involved in.

Pencil Pressure When Writing

If you’ve worked with kids teaching handwriting or fixing handwriting issues, they you probably have come across a common handwriting problem area…Pencil pressure when writing. They may press so hard on the pencil that the pencil tears the paper when they write. When they try to erase, there are smudges that never really go away. Or, you might see pencil pressure that is so light that you can’t discern letters from one another. Either way, pencil pressure plays a big part in handwriting legibility. Here are tips for pressing too hard when writing…and tips for helping kids write darker. Scroll down for everything you need to know about writing with that “just write” pencil pressure…Typo intended  🙂

These writing tips are great for kids that press too hard when writing or write too lightly.


Pencil Pressure with Writing

Learning to write is a complex task.  Choosing a hand to hold the pencil with, pencil grasp, managing the paper with the assisting hand, sitting up straight..and then there is the physical task of marking letters: letter formation, line awareness, letter size… this is multi-level functioning for a child!  Yet another aspect to consider is the pressure one exerts on the paper when writing.  Press too lightly and the words are barely able to be seen.  Press too hard, and the letters are very dark, the pencil point breaks, lines are smudged, and when mistakes are erased, they don’t really erase all the way, the paper tears, and frustration ensues!  

Sometimes, when it comes to pencil pressure, simply helping kids become aware that they are writing too lightly or writing with too much pressure can make a big difference. Here is one simple activity to work on pencil pressure. All you need is a sheet of foam crafting paper. 

Pencil pressure is dependent on proprioception, one of the sensory systems.  With October being Sensory Processing Awareness month, this is the perfect time to talk sensory and handwriting!
As an occupational therapist in the school setting, I’ve come across many school-aged children showing difficulty with pencil pressure.  There are reasons for these dark pencil marks and some tips and tools for helping with this handwriting difficulty. 


Tips and tools for kids who write with too much pressure in handwriting.  Does your child write or color so hard that the pencil breaks?  Writing too hard makes handwriting difficult to read and effectively write.


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Proprioception and Handwriting

The proprioceptive system receives input from the muscles and joints about body position, weight, pressure, stretch, movement and changes in position in space.  Our bodies are able to grade and coordinate movements based on the way muscles move, stretch, and contract. Proprioception allows us to apply more or less pressure and force in a task. Instinctively, we know that lifting a feather requires very little pressure and effort, while moving a large backpack requires more work.  We are able to coordinate our movements effectively to manage our day’s activities with the proprioceptive system.  The brain also must coordinate input about gravity, movement, and balance involving the vestibular system.

When we write, the pencil is held with the index finger, middle finger, and thumb, and supported by the ring and pinkie finger as the hand moves across a page.  A functioning proprioceptive system allows us to move the small muscles of the hand to move the pencil in fluid movements and with “just right” pressure.  We are able to mark lines on the paper, erase mistakes, move the paper with our supporting arm, turn pages in a notebook fluidly, and keep the paper in one piece.

Writing Pressure: Too Dark

Sometimes, children hold their pencil very tightly.  They press so hard on the paper, that lines are very dark when writing.  The pencil point breaks.  When erasing, the pencil marks don’t completely erase, and the paper is torn.  The non-dominant, assisting hand moves the paper so roughly that the paper crumbles.  When turning pages in a notebook, the pages tear or crumble.  Movements are not fluid or efficient.  Handwriting takes so much effort, that the child becomes fatigued, frustrated, and sore.  It may take so much effort to write a single word, that handwriting is slow and difficult.  It’s messy. It’s not functional handwriting. 

Writing Pressure: Too Light

Another form of handwriting that is just not functional is when pencil pressure is just too light. Kids may write so lightly that you can’t read the overall writing sample. Other times, you can’t discern between certain letters. Still other times, the writing pressure is just so light that the child’s hand or sleeve smudges the pencil lines and the writing sample is totally not functional or legible. Other times, kids start out writing at a legible pencil pressure, but with hand fatigue, the writing gets lighter and lighter. Working on proprioceptive input and hand strengthening can help with too light pencil pressure. Try some of the writing tips listed below.

Pencil pressure and Messy handwriting

Messy handwriting can be contributed to many factors.  Decreased hand strength, Visual motor difficulty, motor planning issues, visual memory difficulties, or impaired proprioception. 
Difficulty with grading the movements required in drawing or making letters in a coordinated way may present as messy, smudged, illegible handwriting.

Writing Tips for Pencil Pressure

Proprioceptive activities allow the muscles to “wake up” with heavy pressure. Moving against resistance by pushing or pulling gives the muscles and joints an opportunity to modulate pressure.  Resistive activities before and during a handwriting task can be beneficial for children who press hard on the pencil. 


Pencil Pressure Activities:

Some of these pencil pressure activities are writing strategies to help kids become more aware of the amount of pressure they are using when writing. Others are tools for helping the hands with sensory needs. Still others are tools for strengthening the hands. Try some or a mixture of the following ideas to addressing handwriting needs.

  • Stress balls or fidget toys can help to strengthen pinch and grip strength. 
  • Use carbon paper or transfer paper to help kids become more aware of the amount of pressure they are exerting through the pencil when writing. Here is some easy ways to use a Dollar Store find to use carbon paper to work on handwriting
  • theraputty with graded amount of resistance (speak to a license occupational therapist about the amount of resistance needed for your child. An individual evaluation and recommendations will be needed for your child’s specific strengths/needs). 
  • Gross grasp activities- These activities can be a big help in adjusting the grasp on the pencil, helping the hands with sensory input and strengthening the hands to help with endurance when writing. 
  • Some children will benefit from using a liquid gel pen for fluid handwriting marks. The gel ink will provide feedback when gobs of ink are dispensed when writing too hard.
  • Still others will benefit from a gel pen, marker, or using a dry erase marker on a dry erase board. This can be beneficial as a tool for teaching about pencil pressure or as an accommodation for those writing too lightly.
  • Practice letter formation and pencil pressure by lacing a sheet of paper over a foam computer mouse pad. If pressing too hard, the pencil point will poke through the paper. 
  • A vibrating pen provides sensory feedback to the fingers and hand and helps to keep children focused on the task. 
  • Practice handwriting by placing a sheet of paper over a piece of sandpaper. The resistance of the sandpaper is great heavy work for small muscles of the hand. 
  • Practice Ghost Writing: Encourage the child to write very lightly on paper and then erase the words without leaving any marks. The adult can try to read the words after they’ve been erased. If the words are not able to be read, the writer wins the game. 
  • Hand exercises are a great way to “wake up” the hands before a handwriting task. Encourage the child to squeeze their hand into a fist as tight as he can. Then relax and stretch the hand and fingers. Repeat the exercise several times. Practice holding the pencil with the same type of tight and relaxed exercises Practice writing on tissue paper. A very light hand is needed to prevent tears. Discuss the amount of pressure needed for writing on the tissue paper. 
  • This will provide the child with awareness and words for the way they are holding the pencil. 
  • Wrap a bit of play dough or putty around the pencil as a grip. Encourage the child to hold the pencil with a grasp that does not press deeply into the dough. Encourage using a “just right” pressure. 
  • Provide terms for they way they write. Encourage “just right” writing and not “too hard” or “too soft” marks. 
  • Use a lead pencil to color in a small picture, using light gray, medium gray, and dark gray. Talk about how using different amounts of pressure changes the shade of gray. 
  • Instead of writing on a notebook, pull a single sheet from the pages and place on a hard table or desk surface. The firm surface will limit the amount of pressure. You can also slip a clipboard between pages of a notebook to provide that hard surface, if sheets must remain in a notebook.
Help kids with pencil pressure and handwriting problems with these writing tips to work on heavy pencil pressure or writing too light.

Need more tips and tools for addressing handwriting needs? Be sure to check out all of our handwriting activities here on The OT Toolbox.

Margins in Handwriting

You’ve seen it before.  A child is writing a journal entry or a writing response on a piece of paper and each line of the paragraph creeps in toward the center of the page. The margins in their handwriting are just all over the place! By the end of the passage, the left margin is half way across the page. You might see them start halfway across the page and try to squash letters in by the time they get to the right side of the page. It’s hard to read and even the kiddo has trouble reading back over their work. The thing is, the student may not even be aware they are writing like this…
When a child has poor use of margins when writing, there is typically a problem with spatial organization and page orientation.
Decreased spatial awareness can happen due to trouble with visual perceptual awareness.  
It may carry over to handwriting that appears very messy with words that are squashed up against one another or spaced with very large spaces between letters.  
Today, I’ve got some tips for helping with spatial awareness in handwriting, including how to help with margins when writing. These tips can help kids with writing on the paper and using handwriting that is legible so they can come back and read what they’ve written. (And so the teacher or parent can read that handwriting too!)
Use a highlighted line to mark the margin in handwriting tasks, to help kids with spatial awareness.
Visual perceptual skills are needed for so many functional skills. You’ll find easy and fun ways to work on visual perceptual skills through play here. These are creative ways to work on the underlying issues that might be playing into trouble with margin use in handwriting as a result of spatial awareness difficulties.
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Why kids struggle with margins in handwriting

So, why do we see those handwriting samples where the lines of written work slowly creep over to the middle of the page? With each line that the student writes, they start writing just a bit more away from the margin?
There could be a few different things going on here that impact margin use:
1. There could be a visual perception difficulty going on. Specifically, it could be a problem with visual spatial relations. Spatial relations, or poor spatial awareness difficulties shows up frequently in handwriting. This presents as poor spacing between letters and words, poor use of margins, or written work that drifts in toward the center of the page. Kids may struggle with knowing when to stop writing on the end of a line of the page and try to squash the material in rather than stopping to move to the next line. Left to right use of paper or writing spaces on worksheets can be a problem. Other size aspects of handwriting including letter size, placement of letter “parts”, and consistency in sizing can be difficult for the child with visual spatial concerns. Spatial relations can also impact placement of objects or the child’s body parts in relation to other objects, other people, or in movement. This can show up as poor coordination, poor balance, poor self-awareness, poor self-confidence, and even impaired social emotional relations.
Spatial awareness is the ability to perceive the world around one’s self and position themselves or objects accordingly.  Awareness of space relates a lot to the proprioceptive and vestibular systems as well as the visual system.  A child who demonstrates poor spatial awareness in handwriting tasks most likely shows some variances of difficulty with gross motor movement, understanding directions, abstract concepts, and language.  
2. There could be an oculomotor component. The movement of the eyes in activities is complex! When we see issues with margins, there could be a couple of oculomotor issues happening. At a  basic level, the eyes move to take in information and process that information for use. One oculomotor skill that may be in play with margin trouble are visual saccades/visual scanning. Saccades are the ability to visually scan information. Saccades require the ability to fixate on information in the visual fields. Saccadic movement, or more commonly known as visual saccades, is the ability of the eyes to move in synchrony from point A to point B rapidly WITHOUT deviating from the path. When kids move their eyes to the next line of a paper, they jump to the nearest anchor (which will be the letter above on the last line of text they just wrote.) They will then scoot their pencil over and under that letter, resulting in written work that drifts in toward the middle of the page. Here is more information on visual saccades and learning.
We cover more about oculomotor skills and how they result in functional issues in reading, writing, and daily activities in the free Visual Processing Lab here on The OT Toolbox. 
3. It might be developmental. In this case, kids just need more experience with writing paragraphs of text. They place their written material anywhere on the page or drift over on the line when starting to write. Visual and verbal cues…and more practice can help. Even children without visual perception difficulties may tend to drift their handwriting in toward the middle of the page as they write paragraphs.  This is especially apparent in free writing, journal writing, or writing prompts.  You will see that children who are developing their ability to form thoughts in paragraph form.  As they write, it is common to see the lines start to drift toward the middle of the page. Here is more information on development of eye-hand coordination.
3. It might be speed of writing or visual inattention. Basically, you might see a kiddo who just isn’t paying attention when they are writing. In this case, students might be writing so quickly that they are focusing on the content of the writing versus the layout of the page and where they are placing their written work. This happens when kids are taking notes and trying to quickly get the information on the page. You may also see the lines of text drifting over during free writing or timed writing tasks. In these cases, a visual cue can help but it might just take a verbal prompt. Point out how the margins are creeping over and see if that helps. Here is more information on visual attention.

QUICK tips for improving spatial awareness:

For some of the issues mentioned above, such as an underlying visual perceptual or oculomotor problems, further help and interventions will be needed. Seek out assessment from an occupational therapist for individualized treatment and intervention plans. Use of our visual processing checklist to help to identify a specific area related to visual processing needs.

Visual Processing Checklist

This visual processing checklist can be a helpful tool in screening for visual processing difficulties prior to a full evaluation. It can be a way to collect qualitative information to include in assessment write-ups as well. 

Try some of these strategies to help with margins:

  • There are ways to accommodate for difficulties with spatial awareness.  One quick tip is to use a highlighted left margin.  This is a great way for those kids whose writing drifts over to the middle of the page as they write or kids who start in the middle of the page.  
  • Use stickers placed along the right margin of  to cue the student that they are nearing the edge of paper when writing.  
  • Place a thin piece of tape along the left margin. This can serve as a visual and physical cue as the place to start writing. It’s a visual anchor that helps with visual scanning.
  • Draw boxes for words on worksheets for them to write within.
  • Place small green dots on each line along the left margin. These are the “green lights” so students know where to start writing. Place small red dots on each line along the right margin. These are “red lights” so students know where to stop writing.
  • Spacing Tools for spacing between words or letters.
  • Draw a red stop sign at the right margin.
  • Graph paper Try 1/2 inch wide rule first.
  • Raised line paper
  • Slant board
  • Try smaller width of lines instead of primary paper.
  • RediSpace paper has a green line along the left margin and a red line along the right margin.
  • Try using a spacing tool pointer stick.  You can easily make your own!
Handwriting sample with poor margins and spatial awareness in writing task.
Kids can use handwriting accommodations for poor spatial awareness and margins in handwriting.
This activity is part of our month-long handwriting series where we are sharing creative and easy ways to address common handwriting issues in our 30 Easy Quick Fixes for Better Handwriting series.
You’ll also want to join the Sweet Ideas for Handwriting Help Facebook group where you can find support and resources for handwriting. 

Play Tunnel Activities

Play tunnels are one of the best tools for therapy as you can work on so many skills if you just put a little creativity into it. Tunnel activities simply invite kiddo fun and engagement while working on very important skill development across a spectrum of areas. You can use fabric tunnels or nylon, pop-up tunnels depending on the skills you want to address with tunnel play. With a little imagination you can build your own DIY tunnels too! Keep reading to get some play tunnel ideas using different materials. For home-based therapists, DIY tunnels are a great tool for families to use in the home environment providing an opportunity for a fun and easy to implement home-based program. Some of these tunnel activities for babies and tunnel activities for toddlers can be used to address specific needs through play.

Play tunnel activities using a sensory tunnel
Tunnel activity for sensory input

Play Tunnels and Sensory

During tunnel play, not only do therapists want to work on the obvious gross motor skills such as crawling, bilateral coordination, motor planning, core/neck/upper extremity strength, and body awareness. They also like to use tunnels for sensory needs such as vestibular and proprioceptive input. In the simplest of terms, the vestibular sense is known as the movement sense telling us where our body is in space, while the proprioceptive sense is known as the deep pressure sense telling us the direction, speed, and extent of our body movement in space. These senses are important to help a child develop balance, body awareness, understand the position of their body in space as well as knowing how much speed and pressure their bodies are exerting when completing an activity or moving within their environment.

Adding a play tunnel into sensory diet activities to meet a variety of needs. It’s an easy way to encourage sensory input in the school environment, home, or clinic.

Tunnel activities using pool noodles

So, you may be asking, how can children gather vestibular input from tunnel time activities? You can have children roll within the tunnel, perform various body movements such as forward and backward crawling, balancing on all fours while simply crawling through the tunnel, slither on their backs, or have them crawl in the tunnel placed on top of cushions and pillows.

Fabric tunnel for proprioceptive input.

Proprioceptive input can be obtained while the child is bearing weight on the upper and lower extremities during crawling providing input to the joints and muscles. They can push objects through the tunnel such as large therapy balls or large pillows, army crawl through the tunnel, and shaking the tunnel while child is inside can provide valuable proprioceptive input.

By using a play tunnel to address proprioception to improve body awareness, the proprioceptive sense allows us to position our bodies just so in order to enable our hands, eyes, ears, and other parts to perform actions or jobs at any given moment. Proprioception activities help with body awareness. Using a fabric tunnel that is snug against the body can provide good input which can also have a calming effect for some children.

DIY tunnel activity using cardboard boxes
Use these play tunnel activities to improve motor skills and sensory activities.

Play tunnel activities

When using a tunnel, you can work on other skills that address multiple areas for children. Try some of these fun tunnel time activities:

  1. Play Connect Four with pieces on one end and the game played on the other end.
  2. Assemble puzzles with pieces on one end and then transported through the tunnel to the other end.
  3. Clothespins attached on end to transport and place on the other end. You can use clothespins with letters to spell words.
  4. Push a large ball or pillow through the tunnel.
  5. Crawl backwards from one end to the other.
  6. Slither through the tunnel (rocking body left and right) to get from one end to the other.
  7. Scoot through the tunnel using hands and feet or even crab walk through the tunnel.
  8. Recall letters, shapes, or words from one end and highlight on paper at the other end.
  9. Recall a series of steps to complete a task at the other end.
  10. Blow a cotton ball or pom-pom ball through the tunnel. Kids love this to see how many they can blow in a timed fashion.
  11. With pennies on one end, have child transport them to the other end to insert into a bank. You can even give them the pennies at end of the session if you want.
  12. Push a car through the tunnel to drive it and park it at the other end.
  13. Build a Lego structure by obtaining blocks at one end of the tunnel and transporting to the other end to build.
  14. Intermittently crawl through the tunnel and lie within one end to work on a drawing or handwriting activity. This is just a different and motivating way to encourage handwriting practice.
  15. Crawl over pillows or cushions placed inside or outside of the tunnel.
  16. Use a flashlight and crawl through the tunnel gathering specific beads that have been placed inside to string at the other end of the tunnel. You could work on spelling words with letter beads or simply just string regular beads.
  17. Place Mat Man body pieces at one end and have child obtain pieces per verbal directive and then crawl through the tunnel to build at the other end.
DIY tunnel activity

DIY Play TUnnel Ideas

So, as mentioned previously, what if you don’t have a tunnel or you want to create one within a home for developing a home-based program? Well, make one! How can you do this? Read on for a few fun ideas.

  1. Create a tunnel by crawling under tables or chairs.
  2. Create a tunnel in the hallway with use of pool noodles. Bend them over in an arch to fit or simply cut them down to size to slide directly between the walls.
  3. Use large foam connecting mats and assemble a tunnel.
  4. Use tape or yarn and string to alternating walls down a hallway to crawl under.
  5. Use sturdy pieces of foam board positioned or connected together to make a tunnel.
  6. Use an elongated cardboard box. Sometimes you can get large boxes at an appliance, hardware, or retail store.
  7. Stretch a sheet or blanket over furniture and crawl.
  8. Simply place a sheet or blanket on the floor and have child crawl under it (a heavier blanket works well).
  9. Place a therapy mat inside a series of hula hoops.
  10. Use PVC pipe to build a tunnel. Add sensory items to the PVC frame to create a fun sensory element to the crawling experience. One such tunnel was built by my wonderful fieldwork student, Huldah Queen, COTA/L in 2016.  See the picture below.
  11. Sew a fabric tunnel (if you have that skill).
  12. Use pop up clothes hampers connected together after cutting out the bottoms.
  13. Simulate tunnel crawling with simple animal walks or moves.

Tunnel activities can facilitate child engagement while providing an optimal skill development setting.  Tunnel time can address gross motor and sensory needs while also incorporating other activities making tunnel time a skill building powerhouse tool. Incorporate fun fine motor and visual motor activities to make tunnel time a “want to do” activity every time!


Regina Parsons-Allen is a school-based certified occupational therapy assistant. She has a pediatrics practice area of emphasis from the NBCOT. She graduated from the OTA program at Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute in Hudson, North Carolina with an A.A.S degree in occupational therapy assistant. She has been practicing occupational therapy in the same school district for 20 years. She loves her children, husband, OT, working with children and teaching Sunday school. She is passionate about engaging, empowering, and enabling children to reach their maximum potential in ALL of their occupations as well assuring them that God loves them!

Fine Motor Activities with Paper Clips

Welcome back to our latest series on fine motor skills. We’re talking all about fine motor activities with everyday items. You know what I’m talking about…those craft items, things, and tools that we all have in our therapy bags or supply closets. Today we’re covering fine motor activities with paper clips. Scroll down, friends. Below, you will find easy fine motor activities and quick tips to improve fine motor skills all using the simple paper clip!

Catch up on the latest tools on The OT Toolbox. Use other everyday items in your therapy bag to with these fine motor activities with craft pom poms and fine motor activities with playing cards.

Fine MOtor Activities with Paper clips

The paperclip. You probably have 6 of them sitting in your junk drawer right now. But have you ever stopped to think about how a simple item can be used as a fine motor powertool to ramp up the motor skills needed for tasks like a functional pencil grasp? Have you considered how a simple item like a paperclip can be used to strengthen and refine fine motor skills? It’s true!

Fine motor activities for preschool

In fact, paperclips are a really great item for improving fine motor skills in preschoolers. The preschool age range is a great time to develop and strengthen particular skills that preschoolers will need for tasks like cutting with scissors, coloring without fatigue, and holding a pencil. These fine motor ideas are easy and quick ways to boost fine motor abilities using an item that is probably already in your craft supply bin or therapy bag. Paper clips are a great tool for fine motor development while improving dexterity and the motor skills that preschool (and older) kids need. Read on for fun and easy ways to use paper clips in fine motor play!

Kids can develop and strengthen fine motor skills using these fine motor activities with paper clips!

Fine Motor Activities kids need

Kids need fine motor skills for school and play. The problem is when we see functional concerns that limit independence. We might see kids who really struggle with hand strength, dexterity, joint mobility, or precision. We may notice these issues in how a student grasps their pencil. We may see kids having trouble with buttons, zippers, or snaps because of the fine motor skills they really need to develop. Simple fine motor activities can make a real impact!

Easy Fine Motor Activities with Clothes Pins

Adding more fine motor activities into a child’s day can be a struggle. So having an easy list ready to go makes recommending fine motor activities a no-brainer. Use these activity ideas in fine motor home programs or in the classroom for fine motor centers. Adding them to math centers would be easy…craft pom poms are fun to sort, count, and manipulate!

Why Use Paper clips in FIne Motor Activities?

Paper clips are a tool you need in your therapy bag! They can be a small item that can be used in big ways. Here are just some of the ways that paper clips can address fine motor needs:

Separation of the sides of the hand– Paperclips are the perfect small item to hold in the palm of the hand, engaging the ulnar side of the hand, while encouraging movement and precision with the pointer finger, middle finger, and thumb. This skill is so important for fine motor precision in tasks like pencil grasp and managing clothing fasteners or tying shoe laces.

Pincer grasp– Paper clips are a powerful means of promoting the precision grasp between the thumb and pointer finger. This motor skill is essential for tasks that require strength and dexterity to manage small items like coins or turning pages in isolation.

In-hand manipulation– Paperclips can be used as a manipulative item for transfering from the palm to the fingertips or vice versa. This is an essential skill needed in pencil grasp and other functional tasks.

Finger isolation– Paperclips can be used in various ways to promote finger isolation needed for fine motor dexterity and functional tasks.

Eye-hand coordination– This skill is an essential fine motor precision skill needed for so many functional tasks such as managing small items, copying letters, and other visual motor skills. Paperclips can be a powerful way to work on this skill area.

Craft Pom Pom Activities

Here is a big list of activity ideas for using craft pom poms to work on fine motor skills. What would you add to this list? To start, here are more fine motor activities that use craft pom poms. Using this craft item in fine motor development requires easy set-up with activities like the ones listed below. You’ll see using a water bottle to work on fine motor skills in the list. Here’s a better description of how to make that craft pom pom fine motor activity work.

Use these fine motor activities using paperclips to improve fine motor skills in tasks like pencil grasp.

Paperclip FIne mOTOr Activities

Here they are…loads of fun and easy ways to work on fine motor skills using paper clips! Use these ideas in centers, therapy activities, home programs, and play! Use these ideas in part of an occupational therapy fine motor toolkit!

  • Link the clips together to form a chain. Use those paper clip chains for math!
  • Create shapes with linked paper clips
  • Create letters with linked paper clips
  • Write a number on a piece of papers add that same number of paper clips onto the paper
  • Use the paper clips as a stand for small paper puppets
  • Use four paper clips as legs in animal crafts 
  • Sort paper clips by color
  • Press paper clips onto play dough. Use them to make paper clip flowers!
  • Slide onto color coded paper strips
  • Freeze into ice cubes to paint with water on chalkboard
  • Tie to string and use to thread around chairs
  • Poke holes in a plastic lid. Push paper clips through the holes
  • Slide onto edge of a paper plate
  • Use paper clips to make a DIY fidget tool
  • Pick up with a magnet tied to a string
  • Use to draw in sand
  • Chain together to make number strips
  • Connect pieces of paper to create sculptures
  • Place pencil tip in one end and spin
  • Tape label with number to one end. Slide onto edge of toilet paper tubes

More Fine Motor Activities

Looking for more ways to build fine motor skills? Try some of these ideas from The OT Toolbox archives:

Here are even MORE ways to use paperclips to work on various fine motor skills…especially in math.

Work on scooping and pouring with refined fine motor skills using small objects like beads.

Improve thumb opposition using small items like paper clips.

Add visual perceptual work to fine motor activities with fine motor color sorting activities for improved eye-hand coordination.

Fine Motor Activities with Playing Cards

Working on fine motor skills with kids doesn’t need to require the same old items every day. Recently, we’ve been sharing creating ways to promote fine motor skills with everyday items. Today, you’ll find fun fine motor activities with playing cards. We all have a deck of cards in a drawer or game closet…here are creative ways to use those cards to build the skills kids need for functional tasks like pencil grasp.

For more fine motor activities with everyday objects, try these fine motor activities using craft pom poms.

Work on fine motor skills using fine motor activities with playing cards to improve the functional grasp for pencil control and handwriting.

Fine Motor Activities with Playing Cards

Working on fine motor skills? Here are just a few ways that a simple item like l=playing cards can be used to promote fine motor areas like bilateral coordination, finger isolation, in-hand manipulation, arch development and intrinsic hand strength, and other areas.

Playing with cards can be a great way to increase several fine motor skill areas:

Separation of the two sides of the hand- When holding the string, it is useful for the ring and pinkie fingers to bend into a fist in order to stabilize the hand.  This positioning is effective for a functional grasp on the pencil when writing. In this way, lacing cards boost fine motor skills as a pre-writing tool. 

Check out these easy ideas to address motoric separation of the hand.

Visual Motor Skills- Coordinating visual information with motor movements of the hands is essential for handwriting, cutting with scissors, and many other tasks.  Manipulating lacing cards is an excellent way to address these needs. 

Read more about visual motor skills.

Motor Planning- A motor plan is functional execution of a task which is viewed with the eyes and carried out with the hands in order to complete tasks, such as mazes, walking around obstacles, cutting along a line, and writing within a space on a form.  Visual motor skills can be difficult for children with visual processing difficulties.  Identifying and organizing information is in a motor plan works on problem solving skills.  

Read more about motor planning activities for kids.

Pincer Grasp:  Manipulating cards with a pad-to-pad grasp is a fine motor skill children need for many functional tasks.  Picking up small items like coins, beads, seeds, etc require a pincer grasp.

Eye-Hand Coordination: Eye-hand coordination is using the information received through the vision system to coordinate the hands with control, in order to complete a task, such as handwriting or catching a ball. Find more hand eye coordination ideas here.

FUn Fine Motor activities with playing cards

  • Clip clothes pins onto match numbers
  • Make the cards into mini lacing cards with a hole punch and some string.
  • Sort cards by color
  • Sort cards by number
  • Write words on cards and math to handwriting tasks
  • Create a coping strategies deck
  • Invent yoga moves for each card or suit in the deck. Use as a movement break activity
  • Slide paper clips onto cards, match the number of clips to the number on the card
  • Work on holding the cards and spanning them out in the hands
  • Encourage picking up one card as you can. Make it a card race! Pick up a single card as fast as you can. This is a great team activity
  • Play minute to win it games 
  • Turn the cards into crafts
  • Fold cards and crease to work on pinch strength
  • Use play dough to create a house of cards. Roll balls of play dough and stick cards into the dough
  • Teach kids to sort the deck as in beginning a card game
  • Work on mixing the deck with two hands
  • Pinch a single card between the thumb and pointer finger. Toss the cards into a target such as a basket

More fine motor activities

Love using regular, everyday items to boost the skills kids need? Here are a few more ideas you will love:

Print off some of these free cursive alphabet cards to work on fine motor skills AND cursive letter handwriting.

Make your own lacing cards to really boost up the fine motor work!

More Games for Executive Function

Kids love games! That’s why using games to help executive functioning skills is such a powerful method for development of skills like attention, prioritization, planning, and impulse control. Read on to find suggested strategy games and planning games for executive function that kids will love while improving the brain skills they need.

Use these games for improving executive function skills like planning, prioritization, strategy, and other executive functioning skills.

Play Games FOr Executive Function Development

One of the best parts about working on EF skills is that they can be addressed through almost ANY activity! However, that’s also why they are so important, because almost any occupation requires EF skills. There are many games out there that improve executive function and the skills that make up this cognitive super power. Here, we’re talking about a few recommended strategy games kids will enjoy.

Strategy Games for Executive Function

Strategy games are one of many fun ways to improve executive functioning (EF) skills! The best part about these games are that children and teens often do not even realize that they are developing a challenging skill set. Try some of these fun and engaging games to improve your clients’ executive functioning skills.

Note: Amazon affiliate links are included in this post.

Strategy games are a favorite way to work on EF skills. A few favorites include: Ticket to Ride, Magic Labyrinth, Jump In’, Cribbage, and Codenames.

Ticket to ride game to improve executive function

Ticket to Ride (ages 8+, up to 5 players):

Ticket to Ride is a popular game with many versions based on geographic locations. The original is based on a United States/Canada map. The point of the game is to complete a series of “routes” without having your opponent(s) block your path, all while being the first to run out of train figures. Players earn points for laying down track toward completing their routes. There are multiple rule intricacies that require working memory, along with the need to plan and predict your opponents’ moves!

Labyrinth game for improving executive function

Magic Labyrinth (ages 6+, 2-4 players):

Magic Labyrinth is a fantastic fantasy-based game. Players take on the role of being magicians who are searching for treasure within a labyrinth. However, just like every good strategy game, there is a twist! The labyrinth cannot be seen. If magicians bump into the obscured walls, their magnet falls off and they are required to return to their starting corner. This requires planning skills, along with working memory as to where the walls are placed. The walls are moveable, allowing for endless fun, since players will not be able to permanently memorize the location of walls in between games!

Jump in game for executive function skills

Jump In’ (ages 7+, 1 player):

Jump In’ is a cool 1-player game from Smart Games. Smart Games has many options for 1-player strategy games starting in preschool all the way up to games for adults. Games come with a challenge book with several levels of difficulty. The goal of Jump In’ is to get all of the rabbits into their holes without getting caught by the fox! Jump In’ primarily requires the player to use planning and problem-solving skills.

Cribbage game for executive function skills

Cribbage (recommended 7+, 2-3 players):

Cribbage is a classic card/board game requiring impulse control, working memory, monitoring, and more! While there is not a formal minimum age for cribbage, players should be familiar with doing addition up to 31 in their head if playing without an adult to support. There are many rule intricacies in cribbage, requiring players to constantly be mindful of the points that they earned and could potentially give to others by playing their cards. The goal of cribbage is to be the first player to get your pin to the finish line.

Codenames game for executive function skills

Codenames (ages 10+, 2-8 players):

Codenames is a fantastic game for perspective-taking, monitoring, working memory, planning, and impulse control. The makers of Codenames list a recommended age of 14, but board and strategy game enthusiasts feel that ages 10+ is a more realistic age minimum. The goal of Codenames is to “contact” all your undercover agents before the other team through giving a series of one-word clues. However, as always, there is a catch! If your team guesses the assassin card, you instantly lose the game!

Using Games as a Fun Way to Improve Executive Functioning

Ultimately, strategy games are a fantastic way to improve executive functioning in a fun, age-appropriate way! While this is just a sampling of a few favorites, there are many more available. Have fun, and good luck!

The OT Toolbox contributing author, Emily Skaletski, MOT, OTR/L

This post was written by contributing author, Emily Skaletski, MOT, OTR/L is a pediatric occupational therapist in the Madison, WI area. Emily participated in the Pennsylvania Occupational Therapy Association’s Emerging Leaders Program (2016), earned her level 1 digital badge in autism from the American Occupational Therapy Association (2017), received the Distinguished Alumni Award from Chatham University (2018), and was appointed the South-Central District Co-Chair of the Wisconsin Occupational Therapy Association (2019). Emily has presented at both state and national conferences and is passionate about professional development. While trained as a generalist, Emily particularly enjoys working with clients with autism spectrum disorder and challenges related to executive functioning skills.