Valentine’s Day Play Dough

Valentines day candy fine motor

Have a candy box you are itching to use to develop fine motor skills? Here is a fun Valentines playdough activity that gets the hands moving and developing fine motor skills. This fun activity can be used in occupational therapy activities to develop a variety of skill areas, using a recycled candy box and Valentine’s Day play dough!

Have you ever had a candy tray, chocolate gift box, cupcake holder, or other container and wondered if you can use it in play? Incorporating Valentine’s Day activities into occupational therapy sessions is fun with interactive play ideas like this one. We used a chocolate gift box as a Valentine’s day play dough activity with a fine motor component.

After you make this Valentines playdough, use the pink and red playdough with our new Valentine’s Day fine motor paths. Users can roll small balls of play dough and place them along the paths while working on in-hand manipulation, precision, hand strength, eye-hand coordination, and more. Simply print off the pages, slide them into a page protector sheet, and use your play dough.

It’s a LOVE-ly activity for building hand strength!

Valentines day playdough is a fun way to develop skills. Use a Valentine's Day candy box to develop fine motor skills.

Valentines Day PlayDough

Valentine’s day activities for kids can be a fun way to work on skills like fine motor strength or eye-hand coordination. Take this heart maze or instance. This is an easy prep activity that can be upgraded or downgraded for each child’s needs and levels while working on visual perceptual skills and eye-hand coordination with a heart theme.

Use a recycled chocolate tray for a Valentine's Day play dough activity.

Creating this play dough activity is easy. Make a set of colored play dough. Our crayon play dough recipe will get you set up with literally any color in the crayon box.

You could also use store-bought play dough, or make a flour dough recipe.

Valentine's Day Playdough activity to help kids strengthen fine motor skills.

Valentine’s Day Fine Motor Activity

Playing with play dough and rolling small balls of play dough is a great way to build fine motor strength, especially intrinsic hand strength.

The sky is the limit when it comes to this open-ended play activity. Encourage imagination and play in a fun, Valentine’s Day theme!

Kids can press the dough into the trays to strengthen the hands, work on finger isolation, separation of the sides of the hand, and more.

How to Make Valentines Play Dough

While this activity is low-prep, you’ll want to start with play dough in red, pink, white, and brown colors to make the playdough chocolates and heart decorations. To make the homemade playdough, you can start here with our best homemade playdough recipes.

Select a dough recipe and get the kids or clients involved in mixing up the playdough.

Most homemade dough recipes call for these ingredients:

  • Flour (typically all purpose flour works well, but gluten free flour options work, too)
  • Water (hot water or boiling water that has cooled)
  • Cream of Tarter
  • Vegetable Oil

Mix up the ingredients and start kneading. This is such a great calming activity for children, because when kids knead playdough, they are gaining heavy work through the joints of their hands. Coupled with warm playdough, it is a powerful calming activity to add to your built-in sensory diet.

Valentines Day play dough activities are a fun fine motor activity using play dough.

Invite your kiddos to use their imagination. Can they make teeny tiny sprinkles from the play dough? Hellloo, precision and fine motor work!

Valentines day play dough mat for fine motor skills and handwriting
Use the Valentine’s Day Play Dough Mat to help kids develop fine motor skills by rolling balls of play dough.

Kids can then roll the balls of play dough using just their fingertips to build intrinsic strength, eye-hand coordination, separation of the sides of the hand, and arch development. There are so many fine motor skills being refined and developed by using small balls of play dough and a play dough mat like the one found in our new Valentine’s Day Fine Motor Kit.

Use the play dough to make play dough chocolates, candies, chocolate bars, or other treats from play dough.

Use chocolate candy containers and play dough to work on fine motor skills and hand strength with a Valentine's Day theme activity.
This valentine's day activity for kids is a powerful fine motor play dough idea that works on skills like hand strength.

They look good enough to eat, right??? Use the dough to roll balls of “chocolates” using just the fingertips. It’s a great way to work on separation of the sides of the hands, intrinsic strength, and arch development.

Use a Valentine's day chocolate box in play dough activities for a Valentine's day theme activity.

More Valentine’s Day occupational therapy activities

More fine motor activities for building skills

To add more fine motor skill work to your Valentine playdough, try these ideas:

  • Mix in glitter
  • Freeze the dough and use scissors to cut hearts
  • Add manipulatives like ribbon, beads, or small objects to decorate the playdough cookies and candies.
  • Set up your own “Sweet Shop”! Write down ingredients to work on handwriting skills. Mix the playdough to make different colored candies, and sort the play dough balls into candy holders. You can work on so many skill areas this way!
  • Set up a dough invitation as an invitation to play and build skills. This is a great therapy activity for small groups or for morning centers.
  • Get kids involved in making the homemade playdough. There are many ways to develop executive functioning skills and fine motor skills by making play dough. Our crayon playdough recipe is very popular.

Want to add more Valentine’s Day activities and movement tools to your skill-building?

The Valentine’s Day Fine Motor Kit is here! This printable kit is 25 pages of hands-on activity sheets designed to build skills in pinch and grasp strength, endurance, eye-hand coordination, precision, dexterity, pencil control, handwriting, scissor skills, coloring, and more.

When you grab the Valentine’s Day Fine Motor Kit now, you’ll get a free BONUS activity: 1-10 clip cards so you can challenge hand strength and endurance with a counting eye-hand coordination activity.

Valentines Day fine motor kit

A final note on Valentines Playdough

This Valentine play dough activity is cheap and low-prep way to build skills. All you need is a recycled candy container to work on skill-building during the month of February. It’s easy, fun and only takes a few minutes, but kids will LOVE the activity. Paired with some scissors, beads, and heart shaped cookie cutters, it is absolutely adorable. This would make a great DIY Valentine’s Day gift for a therapy caseload because the activity can be easily adapted to meet a variety of needs. Use it in a class party, as a fun “home therapy” recommendation, or in a play group.

Add scented oils or essential oils to the play dough and you’re covering other senses, as well. Valentine’s Day Scented Playdough can be a motivating and fun therapy tool for clients.

Colleen Beck, OTR/L is an occupational therapist with 20+ years experience, graduating from the University of Pittsburgh in 2000. Colleen created The OT Toolbox to inspire therapists, teachers, and parents with easy and fun tools to help children thrive. As the creator, author, and owner of the website and its social media channels, Colleen strives to empower those serving kids of all levels and needs. Want to collaborate? Send an email to contact@theottoolbox.com.

Early Intervention and Autism

early intervention autism

When it comes to the early signs of autism spectrum disorder and potential interventions, early intervention for autism can cover a variety of areas. Here, you’ll discover strategies for parent advocates to add to their toolbox.

There are many different signs associated with autism, and research strongly shows the earlier a child receives intervention supports for autism, the more progress they make in all areas of their lives. Early intervention, a federally funded program, provides support for the youngest children, ages birth through three years old, who demonstrate developmental delays. This blog will talk about the early signs of ASD and interventions that support development in all areas. 

Early intervention and autism as well as early signs of autism and interventions to support development.

Early Intervention and Autism

Today, autism affects 1 in 44 children. According to the CDC, autism spectrum disorder is four times more likely to occur in boys. The best way to support children who are showing signs of a developmental delay is to get them therapy supports as early as possible. These supports are available from Early Intervention Programs, Health Insurance and private agencies. 

Every child is different and develops at different rates, so how are we supposed to determine if an Autism Evaluation is appropriate for a child under three years old?

The Early Intervention program is available to all children ages birth to three that live in the United States. The purpose of this program is to help identify and support children who have delays in all areas of development, with or without a diagnosis of autism.

One of the most commonly used questionnaires to determine if a child does have red flags for ASD is called “The Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (MCHAT). This questionnaire can be filled out for free by a clinician or a parents. You can find the free online version here.

The five areas typically monitored when determining if a child should be referred for an autism evaluation are joint attention, social engagement, receptive language, expressive language and behaviors. I

f there are concerns in some or all of these five areas, completing the MCHAT assessment and talking to your child’s pediatrician is the first step to determining if more testing should be administered. 

  1. Joint Attention

Joint attention is a skill that affects a child’s ability to interact with others.

The definition of Joint Attention is when two people purposefully pay attention to the same thing and for the same reason.

For example, when an adult calls a child’s name, and the child responds by looking at the adult, they are engaging in the first step of joint attention. The adult would then ask the child a question and when the child responds, the adult and child are talking to each other about the same thing, in that very same moment. The same goes for when an adult points to an object and the child follows that point to see what object the adult is showing them. Together they are able to talk about the same item.

According to the UNC School of medicine, Children who are learning social and communication skills in a typical way will often show examples of joint attention from the time they are 12 months old. Joint attention is important in helping people communicate with each other all through life. Children with autism have a hard time with this kind of communication. For these children, delays in developing joint attention skills lead to delays in developing language.”

  1. Social Engagement

As soon as a baby is born, they are in awe of their mothers voices and eyes. Infants thrive off social interaction, from playing peek-a-boo, being sung to and engaging in simple play activities.

As they grow, social skills become the foundation for other areas of development. They learn spoken words through imitation of adults and peers, babies and toddlers model behaviors of those they see around them, they get the attention of others to share their wants and needs, and they imitate other children’s play and movement.

One component of autism is a lack of social engagement, such as when a child doesn’t show interest in playing near or playing with other children or using words to communicate with primary caregivers.

  1. Receptive Language

Understanding the meaning of words is the first step to language development. Without understanding the meaning of words, children won’t be able to use spoken words to communicate their wants and needs with adults.

Children start to show understanding of words as early as 4 months old, when they look towards objects and family members when they are named. As they get older, they start following points, imitating gestures and show interest in imitating sounds and words that adults use. 

Autistic children may have a harder time engaging in social reciprocity which impacts their receptive language development. This article from Raising Children describes how joint attention directly affects receptive language development in infants:

“Autistic children might have difficulty learning language because they tend to show less interest in other people in the first 12 months of life. They might be more focused on other things going on around them. Because they might not need or want to communicate with other people as much as typically developing children do, they don’t get as many chances to develop their language skills. For example, a three-month-old baby who is distracted by a ceiling fan is less likely to tune into a smiling and tickling game with their parents. By nine months, if the baby still isn’t tuning into parents, the baby is less likely to point at things they want to share with parents. The baby is less likely to listen to their parents as they name things. This means the baby misses these chances to build vocabulary.”

  1. Expressive Language

Expressive language is the key to communicating our wants and needs with others. This can be through visuals, verbal words or using gestures.

When infants start to use gestures (such as pointing, waving “hi”, and lifting their arms to signal wanting to be picked up,) adults are able to understand what their child is wanting and respond to their requests.

From there, expressive language develops quickly into babble, jargon, word imitation and then children using one, two and three word phrases to communicate with those around them.

Children that develop early signs of autism don’t typically follow this language progression. Children might be more quiet then others, babbling less, use rote phrases (lines they hear in movies), use language that isn’t functional in nature, or label a variety of objects. This article does a wonderful job explaining the differences between a language delay and language concerns that point to Autism. 

  1. Behaviors

Behaviors associated with children who may have Autism may also be an indicator of sensory differences. An autistic child may show repetitive movements (such as rocking consistently), showing aversions to being touched or sensitivity to sounds and lights in unpredictable environments (such as the grocery store.)

Children sometimes become upset for unknown reasons and are hard to calm down. Some autistic children become fixated on objects, only wanting to complete tasks in specific ways (such as lining up toys), always wanting to hold onto specific objects or getting upset when someone else changes the play sequence. Children who show signs of ASD also tend to need consistent daily routines and become upset when their routines change. 

The most common diagnostic tool for Autism in young children is called the ADOS (Autism Diagnostic Observation Tool), a play based assessment that is completed by a clinician with the child present. This assessment can be given to a child as early as toddlerhood. There are four different modules that can be administered to young children. Clinicians determine the correct module to use based on the skill level of the child. The ADOS assessment, along with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) results will determine if a child meets the criteria that pertains to autism spectrum disorder. 

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) is a completed diagnostic tool completed by the American Psychiatric Association that encompasses different psychiatric diagnostic criteria. The diagnostic criteria for Autism in the DSM-5 is described in this article. 

“A. Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts, as manifested by the following, currently or by history. 

B. Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities, as manifested by at least two of the following, currently or by history.

C. Symptoms must be present in the early developmental period (but may not become fully manifest until social demands exceed limited capacities or may be masked by learned strategies in later life).

D. Symptoms cause clinically significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of current functioning.

E. These disturbances are not better explained by intellectual disability (intellectual developmental disorder) or global developmental delay. Intellectual disability and autism spectrum disorder frequently co-occur; to make comorbid diagnoses of autism spectrum disorder and intellectual disability, social communication should be below that expected for general developmental level.”

Interventions for children with a diagnosis of ASD:

  1. Early Intervention Services

The Early Intervention Program is a federally funded program that supports children in all areas of development, including language, cognition, motor skills, social skills and adaptive development.

The services available for children under the age of three are directly associated with every child’s individual needs. These could include feeding therapy, nutritional supports, speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, behavioral therapy, social language groups and more!

If a child is enrolled in the early intervention program, their parents or guardians play a key role in the implementation therapy services. Therapies usually occur at home, with parents involved. When a child turns three, their therapies are funded through the local school district Special Education Program to support school readiness, and medical insurance to support medical needs and behavior supports at home. 

  1. Visual, Tactile, and Auditory Supports

Children with low social reciprocity and joint attention skills benefit from other forms of communication. These communication strategies utilize other senses and break down communication to simple and direct forms. If a child is having trouble calming down, creating a calm down corner using Soothing Sammy Emotions Programsupports a positive calming experience with a golden retriever dog and sensory tools. 

Visual cue cards such as these First/Then choice boards and transition cards,  give children the ability to follow daily tasks and routines in a way that is easy for them to follow, without the need to look those who are talking to them.

Early intervention services can support with strategies:

  • To increase on-task behavior or social interactions
  • To teach new skills e.g., life skills, communication skills, or social skills
  • To maintain self control and self monitoring procedures to maintain and generalize job-related social skills
  • To generalize or to transfer skills from one situation or response to another (e.g., from completing assignments in the resource room to performing as well in the mainstream classroom)
  • To restrict or narrow conditions under which interfering behaviors occur (e.g., modifying the learning environment)
  • To reduce interfering behaviors e.g., self injury

As children become more comfortable with back and forth interactions with adults, first/then boards can be used as a back up option for communication. These visual schedules help children transition from one activity to the next. 

A final note on early intervention and autism

If you have  concerns about a child’s developmental progress, it is best to seek out professional assessments through a pediatrician or an Early Intervention team. If the child is over three, requesting a developmental evaluation through your local school district is also an option.

When children receive the intervention therapy they need at an early age, their skills in all areas of development improve. There are many different interventions we can do to support even our littlest family members. 

Jeana Kinne is a veteran preschool teacher and director. She has over 20 years of experience in the Early Childhood Education field. Her Bachelors Degree is in Child Development and her Masters Degree is in Early Childhood Education. She has spent over 10 years as a coach, working with Parents and Preschool Teachers, and another 10 years working with infants and toddlers with special needs. She is also the author of the “Sammy the Golden Dog” series, teaching children important skills through play.

Hand Strengthening Activities

finger and grip strength activities

Hand strengthening and finger strengthening are a part of occupational therapy interventions, in every day tasks. There is more to developing strong and efficient hands than just using a hand grip exerciser or therapy putty to strengthen fingers.

Here, you will find a collection of fine motor resources and hand strengthening activities that can be used to improve tone in the hands, increase stability in the thumb and fingers, develop and define arches of the hands, improve precision with in-hand manipulation, improve endurance in hand strengthening activities.

Below, you will find hand strengthening activities for kids, hand strength activities for adults, and therapy tools to develop hand strength. The activities to strengthen fine motor skills included in this post are perfect to improving grip strength, pinch strength, or as part of a finger exercises program for handwriting.

Hand Strengthening

Let’s take a closer look at hand strengthening…in fun and creative ways! 

Occupational therapists use functional tasks, or daily occupations, to improve hand strength so that the clients they work with can lead functional lives: so they can have strong and efficient hands to do those tasks that take up their day. 

Think about it this way: with weak hands, it is very difficult for a child to color a coloring page. But, through coloring and using crayons, they are improving their hand strength so they can color larger pictures or tackle more difficult fine motor tasks.

Adequate finger and hand strength is a crucial foundation skill necessary to successfully perform most activities of daily living such as opening snack wrappers, flushing the toilet, opening the tap, buttoning your shirt and so the list goes on.

Not only do we need adequate hand strength for our ADLs, it directly impacts on our ability to perform school related tasks such us cutting, writing and manipulating materials such as glue.

How do you know if a child has weak hands?

Hand strength is an important area of development. 

Kids who struggle with hand strength may have difficulty with grasping a pencil, coloring, holding and using scissors, managing clothing fasteners, attaching a seatbelt, squeezing a glue bottle, opening and managing food containers, tying shoes. There are many fine motor activities needed in school that will be a red flag for determining if a child has weak hands.

Luckily, there are many fun ways to improve a child’s hand strength. 

the best way to improve overall strength is through meaningful and motivating activities…especially everyday play! 

Here, you will find a collection of pinching, pulling, and pushing activities, weight bearing activities, squeezing activities, and overall grip and pinch activities. 

These ideas improve tone in the hands, increase stability in the thumb and fingers, develop and define arches of the hands, improve precision with in-hand manipulation, improve endurance in hand strength, and address hand separation into a fine motor side and a power side.

 

Fine Motor Strength is essential for so many reasons! From maintaining a grasp on a pencil to opening and closing scissors, to buttoning buttons, snapping snaps, tying shoes, coloring a picture without stopping, to most everything we do…hand strength matters! 



 
Use these hand strengthening activities to improve hand strength needed for pencil grasp, coloring, clothing fasteners, and using scissors or other fine motor tasks.

 

 
I wanted to cover fine motor strength and the skills kids need for pencil grasp, managing scissors, working clothing fasteners, and using those hands. 

So often, we see weak arches, instability, and low tone in the hands that transfers to awkward use of the hands, impractical grasps, and poor endurance in writing or coloring. Sneaking in a few strengthening activities each day can make a world of difference!
 


Hand Strengthening Activities


Today includes a collection of hand strengthening activities that can be used as hand strength activities for adults, and to develop hand strength. Scroll through the activities below to find creative hand strengthening ideas to improve grip strength, pinch strength, or as part of a finger exercises program for handwriting.

What Impacts Hand Strength?

Hand strength is impacted by various components. When it comes to hand strength, there is a lot to uncover. Many aspects of motor skills impact strength and endurance in the hands. Some of those areas include these concepts:

  • Intrinsic hand strength
  • Thumb strength and stability
  • Motor control
  • Separation of the sides of the hand
  • In-hand manipulation
  • Wrist stability 
  • Wrist extension
  • Finger strength
  • Range of motion of the arm: upper arm, forearm, wrist, fingers, and thumb
  • Hand muscle tone

A hand therapist will have various hand strength norms by using a dynamometer to measure grip strength, pinch strength of various pinches. Having an understanding of hand musculature and anatomy of the hand and upper extremity is important too.

First, check out our huge online library of fine motor activities. This is a collection of all of the fine motor activities on The OT Toolbox. There’s something for everyone.

One thing that makes a big difference in fine motor dexterity is addressing separation of the sides of the hand. This post explains more about motoric separation of the hand and here is another fun activity that really strengthens those muscles.

Intrinsic Hand Strength


These OT activities using tongs are great for developing and strengthening the arches of the hands for improved intrinsic strength.

In fact, the intrinsic muscles are the muscles in the hand that define the arches of the hands, bend the knuckles, and oppose with the thumbs. Activities like this intrinsic muscle strengthening activity can easily be replicated at home or in the therapy room.

Among these muscles are a group called the lumbricals. The lumbrical muscles have a job to bend (flex) the MCP joints and extend (straighten) the PIP and DIP joints. When the lumbricals are in action, the hand might look like it is holding a plate with the big knuckles bent and the fingers extended. Read more about strengthening the intrinsic muscles here.

When kids write or color with a thumb web space area squashed shut, it’s a sign of problems. Then might be compensating for thumb instability, underdeveloped hand arches, and/or poor strength. Each of these problem areas will lead to difficulties with handwriting, dexterity, manipulation of small items like beads, and pencil grasp. 


Writing with a closed web space is inefficient and will cause poor and slow handwriting, especially as kids grow and are expected to write at faster speeds. A closed web space while attempting to manage fasteners such as buttons and zippers will lead to fumbling and difficulty. So, what do you do if you’ve got a kiddo who is squashing that web space shut during functional tasks? I’ve got a few ideas on how to work on open thumb web spaces.

Thumb Strength and Stability


Here are even more ideas to promote thumb stability and tone with activities designed to open the thumb web space.


Strengthening the hand can occur through a variety of pinch and grip exercises. Here are ideas to strengthen the hands using clothespins.

In-hand manipulation Strength

In-hand manipulation is a skill requiring strength in the hands. Activities like this in-hand manipulation activity can boost these skills. 

There are several aspects to in-hand manipulation:
▪ Finger-to-Palm Translation: Movement of an object from the fingers to the palm i.e. picking up a coin and moving it to the palm.

▪ Palm-to-Finger Translation: Movement of an object from the palm to the fingertips. (i.e. moving a coin from the palm to the fingertips to insert into a vending machine.)

▪ Shift: Slight adjustment of an object on or by the finger pads. (i.e. adjusting a pencil up and down in your hand.)

▪ Simple Rotation: Turning or rolling an object 90 degrees or less with the fingers moving as a unit. (i.e. unscrewing a toothpaste lid)

▪ Complex Rotation: Turning an object more than 90 degrees using isolated finger and thumb movements. (i.e. Turning a paperclip)

Each of the above skills can occur with items “squirreled away in the palm using the pinky finger and ring finger. This is called “with stabilization”. If other items are not pocketed away in the palm while in-hand manipulation occurs, it is called “without stabilization”. 


Stabilization typically occurs around 2 years of age. Read more about in-hand manipulation here. Here are a couple of activity ideas that can be easily replicated at home.

Wrist Stability and Strength

Wrist stability is one of the essential areas that impact hand strength.

Due to the anatomical nature of the tendons in the forearm and hand, a stabile wrist impacts hand strength, specifically grip and pinch.

When the wrist is flexed (bent forward towards curved fingers in a grasp), there is little chance of fine motor dexterity.  A flexed wrist in functional tasks limits use of the fingers due to the tendons of the fingers being shortened as they work to stabilize the wrist.  The fingers just can’t move like they are supposed to.

There are many exercises and activities that can be done to build the stability of the wrist so that it maintains a slightly extended position during fine motor activities. 

Upper Body Strength Impacts Hand Strength

Upper body strength is made up of the muscles in the upper chest, muscles in the upper back and muscles attached to the shoulder joint. All of these muscles work together to create stability at the shoulder joint. This shoulder girdle stability is essential for establishing a solid anchor for the rest of the arm. Without this anchor it is difficult to develop good control in the lower arm, hands and fingers. In therapy-speak we talk about developing proximal stability before we can achieve distal control. 

The stronger body enables functional performance in purposeful activities, specifically strong and efficient hands.

Occupational therapists can use these hand strengthening activities to improve hand strength in kids or adults for improved fine motor skills.
 
 

hand strengthening activities: 

Hand strengthening activities can use the items you have in your home or therapy bag. Activities that involve play are best for developing hand and finger strength in kids. Some of these ideas can integrate play and stronger hands:

  • Squeeze play dough or a stress ball
  • Drop beans into a bottle to make a sensory bottle
  • Use a hole punch to create confetti for crafting
  • Everyday play activities using small toys or manipulatives
  • Weightbearing activities: play games on the floor
  • Pop bubble wrap
  • Attach paperclips onto the edge of a paper
  • Shoot a marble into a target with the thumb
  • Screw together nuts and bolts
  • Tear pieces of paper
  • Make dough and roll and cut cookies
  • Sort, stack, and drop coins into a bank
  • Use a stapler and staple remover on a bulletin board
  • Freeze playdough and cut it with scissors
  • Cut a slit in a tennis ball and “feed” it small objects
  • Stack mini erasers
  • Open and close jars and containers
  • String small beads onto string or a pipe cleaner
  • Tie and untie knots
  • Pop beads

It’s my hope that these resources are a huge help for you! Here are a few more topics related to strength in the hands that you may need in your therapy toolbox: 

How will you use the hand strengthening activities and ideas listed above? Maybe in a home exercise program or in a therapy program that runs throughout the school year? Maybe you will use the ideas at home or in a clinic. The ideas are endless!