Just Right Challenge

just right challenge

In the field of occupational therapy, there is an intervention concept known as the “just right challenge”. In this blog post, we’ll cover what this challenge means and how we can best support clients and patients by meeting their needs and abilities at just the right level of intervention. Occupational therapy interventions cover a vast variety of levels of care, client needs, daily occupations, and environments. With a level of support and challenge that fosters growth, development, and self-sufficiency, therapy providers can support all of these differences.

just right challenge

The Just Right Challenge

How often do you feel “just right”?  Not too hot, not too cold, not too hungry or full, comfy clothes, hair just right. 

It is not often that everything is in sync, but when it is, that feeling of ease is delightful. It is called the just right “challenge”, because it is just that. 

It is difficult to find balance.  This post will explore the just right challenge, its importance, and how to better achieve it.

What is the “Just Right Challenge”?

Occupational therapy providers have a lot of terms, medical definitions, theories, and interventions in their toolbox. One of those therapeutic tools is the “just right challenge”.

The Just Right Challenge is a phrase that describes a therapeutic activity at a level that is challenging enough to help an individual develop their skills, but not so challenging that it becomes frustrating or overwhelming.

The idea is to find an activity that is at the appropriate level of difficulty for the child, so they can experience success while still being challenged to improve their skills.

The “just right challenge” can be adapted to suit a child’s individual needs and abilities, and can be used in a variety of therapeutic activities, such as play, sports, and self-care tasks.

This concept is a key component of Ayres Sensory Integration intervention as a way to support sensory needs that meet the individual needs of the child.

Examples of the Just Right Challenge for Kids

To understand the struggle finding this balance can pose, we can offer examples.

One simple example of the just right challenge is that of Goldilocks and the 3 bears. It’s likely we all know the story: Goldilocks tries out the chair, bed, and porridge of three bears. She finds Papa Bear’s items too hard or too big, or too hot. She finds Mama bear’s items too soft, too small, or too cold. She tries and finds Baby bear’s items just right.

Another example is in the Berenstain Bears book, (Amazon affiliate link) Old Hat, New Hat. In this cute children’s book, Papa Berenstain is shopping for a new hat.  He spends all day in the shop trying on different hats.  Despite all of his efforts, none of them feel just right. They are too beady, too bumpy, too leafy, too lumpy, too twisty, too twirly, too checkered, too curly.  Eventually Papa decides on a hat that feels “just right”.  It turns out to be his old comfy hat, but that works for him. 

Still another way to illustrate this, is by taking a look at this classic Ernie and Bert video from Sesame Street. Ernie is trying to split a piece of Licorice to share with Bert.  He splits them unevenly at first, so he takes a bite of one to make them even.  They are still not even, so he takes a bite of the other.  This continues until guess what, there is no candy left. Of course, this is silly because everyone knows, one divides, the other decides.  Or how about a ruler to measure, if it is critical these pieces are the same size. The bigger takeaway is that no matter what Ernie does, he can not find the just right challenge.  Too big, too small, too uneven, just not right.

You have probably experienced the just right level of input in your daily tasks, too. If you are trying to learn a new skill, it is very possible to get “burned out” by too many repetitions, too much effort, or by too much thinking about the problem at hand. What needs to happen? Taking a break, trying less or different efforts, and returning to the task at another time with a different level of intensity.

I am sure many of you have experienced this when trying on new shoes or bathing suits. 

Clothing, food, a new couch, or even a book can be just not right. It’s too loose, too tight, too scratchy, too bright, too hard, too soft, too weird, too long, too short, too wrong. 

The big deal about finding the just right challenge, is one choice has an effect on many other things.  Not having new shoes can hurt your feet.  Having the wrong shoes can put you off balance, rub blisters, affect your mood and concentration, as you shift focus to the shoes, instead of where you are going.

Have you ever felt this way?  No matter what you do, you don’t feel just right? Something feels off, but it is hard to describe what it is, or how to fix it.  These are the non-concrete examples.  Much of it has to do with arousal level.

How to use the Just Right Challenge

It is definitely a challenge to find just right. Unfortunately, there is no magic formula. What works for one learner, may not work for the next.  The treatment that works one day, backfires the next day, for the very same learner.  This is very frustrating for caregivers and therapists. 

Evaluate- The first step is determining the child’s current levels. Use appropriate evaluation tools and screening tools to determine present levels.

Establish goals- Work with the child, the parent/guardian, and the team to establish SMART goals based on environment. Take into consideration any accommodations and modifications in place.

Set the child up for success- The goal is to create mini challenges for the individual that allows them to achieve small successes. You can break down goals to support skill achievement. This allows the child to gradually improve on their goals, while seeing the benefits of continual work on targets.

Trial and error – There will likely be efforts that are too hard or too easy. Keep the lines of communication open and get feedback from the individual. Try least restrictive to most restrictive. Use body feedback as a tool before adding external modifications like more easier or difficult tasks, heavier weights, compression garments, or headphones, distant copying/near point copying, etc.

Change what you can – Make incremental changes to the environment, supports, all while offering feedback and encouragement:

  1. Offering positive reinforcement: Provide positive feedback and reinforcement to encourage the child’s progress and motivate them to continue working towards their goals. Levels of feedback can change over the course of the challenge.
  2. Change the activity: Modify or adapt the activity or the environment to make it more accessible for the child or to provide additional challenges.

Try playing with different levels of challenge until your learner gets the input they are looking for. Experiment while cooking to get the perfect taste.

Backward chaining is a teaching strategy that can be used to help children learn new skills, such as dressing, grooming, or completing a task. It involves breaking down the task into small steps and teaching the child to complete the last step first. Then, the child is gradually taught to complete the steps that come before it until they can complete the entire task independently.

This approach can help children feel more successful as they are able to accomplish the final step, and it also helps to build confidence and motivation to learn the preceding steps. By gradually working backward, children are more likely to learn the entire sequence of steps and feel a sense of accomplishment as they achieve success in completing the task independently.

A final note on the just right challenge for kids…

When we seek to find the right level of challenge for the kids we serve, we can offer a level of difficulty that creates a goal for the child, while not pushing the child too far that they feel overwhelmed. We always want to offer strategies and tools to support the individual while ensuring that the activity’s demands match the child’s ability level.

Victoria Wood

Victoria Wood, OTR/L has been providing Occupational Therapy treatment in pediatrics for more than 25 years. She has practiced in hospital settings (inpatient, outpatient, NICU, PICU), school systems, and outpatient clinics in several states. She has treated hundreds of children with various sensory processing dysfunction in the areas of behavior, gross/fine motor skills, social skills and self-care. Ms. Wood has also been a featured speaker at seminars, webinars, and school staff development training. She is the author of Seeing your Home and Community with Sensory Eyes.

Sensory Needs

sensory needs

When it comes to sensory arousal level, we all have different sensory needs. In this blog post, we’ll cover what sensory needs look like for different individuals and how to support these various levels of sensory requirements. “Sensory” can mean many things to different people, and we are all different!

sensory needs

What are sensory needs?

All of us have sensory preferences. We might prefer a cozy sweater because it’s thick and keeps us warm, but another person can’t stand how scratchy it feels to them. Some people enjoy feeling the breeze flowing in a window on a Spring day, but to others, the cool air is annoying and they can’t help but focus on the sounds of the outdoors.

Each of us has sensory needs in which we can and can not function.

When our sensory needs are not met, we are distracted, unorganized, and can’t focus on the task at hand. The various input takes precedence in our minds and to all of our senses.

For the individual who is hyper aware of sensory input, or is unable to adjust or accommodate for the aggravating types of input, we might see challenges in function.

Understanding different sensory needs via a sensory checklist can be a helpful first step.

When sensory needs are not met

When sensory needs are not met, dysfunction can result. We may see issues with self-regulation, including behaviors and emotional considerations.

One way to look at it is this way:

Shoes and hats are concrete examples.  So are temperature regulation, tactile experiences, sounds, smells, sights, and tastes.  It is fairly easy to identify these challenges and make adjustments.  If you are too cold, add a sweater.  Too hot?  Take it off.  When the music is too loud, you turn it down, add headphones, or move away from the sound.  If something is too sticky, you might wash your hands, avoid that experience, or wear gloves.

Of course, life is not that easy. 

Sometimes you can not get away from the incoming toxic information, or find a way to regulate it.  This affects the just right challenge, as this offending data changes mood, focus, attention, and overall feeling of calm.

Sensory input is an acceptable strategy for many responses related to sensory needs.  Sometimes undesirable behaviors impact an individual’s ability to function or safely participate in a daily lifestyle. Some behaviors impact a family or classroom in a non-functional manner. These are behaviors that should be addressed in a manner that allows the individual to get the sensory input they need. Behaviors that can progress toward unhealthy or unfunctional manners may include:

  • Emotional overreaction
  • Meltdowns
  • Aggression
  • Hyper-attention
  • Difficulty with transitions
  • Inattention
  • Sleep issues
  • Impulsivity
  • Sensory-seeking behaviors
  • Sensory-resisting behaviors
  • Resistance to textures/food/clothing
  • Poor social Interactions

A note about meltdowns: Meltdowns (in a way that becomes unsafe or dysfunctional for the family or classroom on a consistent basis. Dysfunctional classroom or family life indicates a sensory need that is unmet. Meltdowns are a common result of those with sensory processing difficulties, those who may be unable to communicate needs, or those with emotional/social challenges. Consider meeting the need that creates the meltdown by analyzing needs and preferences.

When sensory needs are not met, we might see

  • Avoidance – one technique includes avoiding the offending item or experience. Move away from a terrible smell, turn off the scary movie, say no to a dip in the freezing pool.  This is a good strategy but not foolproof. In individuals that can not regulate sensory needs, you’ll see meltdowns, outbursts, etc.
  • Accommodate – made adjustments to the sensory experience.  Change clothes to find comfortable ones. Wear headphones or earplugs during loud events. Cover your nose if something smells offensive. Wear gloves when touching sticky foods. Add ketchup to gross vegetables. Again, this is not 100% foolproof either.
  • Grin and bear it – sometimes input can not be avoided or accommodated.  One example: the fire alarm is going off.  You are unable to avoid it because it is an alert.  You are holding two kids’ hands, so you cannot plug your ears. Just remind yourself it will be over soon, take some deep breaths, and plan to self-regulate after the event is over. We know that grinning and bearing it is not always an option for everyone, especially the neurodiverse. This is when we may see breakdowns, meltdowns, avoidance, and other responses.

(Amazon affiliate link): The Highly Sensitive person is a great resource for helping understand these sensory challenges and work through them


Sensory arousal level is similar to a mood regulator.  The just right challenge to balance these feelings is difficult. It is hard to regulate ones level of fatigue, happiness, frustration tolerance, focus, calm, or anxiety, to name a few.

Arousal level is similar to a wave. We move through this wave up and down all day long.  The key is to be in the middle of the wave, but this does not always happen. 

For some people, it rarely happens. Some people find their arousal level is generally low.  They are sluggish, despondent, depressed, lacking motivation, and unable to complete tasks. 

The other side of the wave are those folks who are always up.  They are in constant motion, on the go, fidgety, unable to stay on task, talk too much, get too close to other people, overexcited, and restless.  Either end of the wave is not as productive as the middle.

You can’t always set up the optimal environment

Sometimes there are events that are out of our control. Imagine an airplane ride. There are several accommodations that can be made for comfort.  Layered clothing for temperature regulation.  A blanket and pillow for temperature and comfort. Headphones or earplugs to regulate noise. Cover your nose while the person next to you eats tuna salad.

You cannot change the vestibular input from the movement of the plane, and perhaps the proximity of the person next to you.  By changing a few things, the rest of the offensive stimuli is more tolerable. Coping strategies can support this need.

How to support sensory needs

The just right challenge involves finding the middle of the wave. This is not easy. There are times when we add too much calming input to an overstimulated learner, only to find they went way past the middle, leaving them in a virtual coma. Or treatment included alerting activities to wake the sensory system. This overshot “normal” and now your learner is bouncing off of the walls.

With Evidenced Based Practice, practitioners are searching for research and hypotheses about the just right challenge. Rely on practice, observation, gathering data to that specific learner, and a lot of trial and error.

Heavy work – When it comes to sensory needs, heavy work is an option for the just right challenge in meeting differing needs. The proprioceptive system sends messages about our muscles and joints, and position in space.  It lets the brain know where the body is at that exact moment. 

Arousal level is regulated by proprioceptive input.  Proprioceptive input is gained through heavy work. 

Pushing, pulling, carrying, lifting, and exercising are examples of input.

Activities that provide input through the joints and receptors in the muscles/joints have a calming effect on sensory needs. Activities can be exercise-based (therapy bands, animal walks, jumping jacks, etc.) or they can be functional in nature (removing wet laundry from the washing machine, helping in the garden, vacuuming, etc.)

Activities can also be easily incorporated into environments and schedules such as utilizing a sports bottle with a straw or adding proprioceptive input into writing tasks with a weighted pencil. Activities below can be incorporated into an individual’s day to address needs of the proprioceptive sense.

Adaptations/Accommodations to offer heavy work input may include:

  • Traditional exercise
  • Weight lifting
  • Chores
  • Playing on playground equipment
  • Bicyling
  • Swimming
  • Yoga
  • Heavy work input through push and pull activities such as tug-of-war
  • Pulling a full wagon
  • Pushing a wheelbarrow
  • Pushing heavy chairs on a carpeted floor
  • Moving furniture
  • picking up and carrying a full laundry basket
  • Shoveling snow or dirt
  • Wearing a heavy backpack
  • Mopping floors
  • Carrying a stack of books
  • Wall push-ups
  • Chair push-ups
  • Wall sits (“sit” with the back against the wall as if on an imaginary chair)
  • Roll up in a blanket
  • Massage
  • Weighted blanket

These strategies can be part of a sensory diet that meets specific and individual sensory based needs.

Modification – adding external input to improve the sensory arousal level. A weighted or compression vest can add great input to help with regulation. 

There is controversy about the effectiveness of these vests, however they work well for many learners. Ankle weights can be added for input, regulation, and body awareness.

Take a sensory break – Sometimes less is more. There are times when the body needs a break from it all.  Curl up on the couch with a book, under a blanket, with the lights dimmed. Sit on the porch in a rocking chair feeling the breeze.  Young learners can benefit from afternoon quiet time to rest and reflect.  Slowing down takes practice.

Coping strategies– Using a variety of coping strategies can support sensory needs.

Focus on the good– Turning the focus onto student strengths is a great tactic! When we focus on the individual strengths, we can come up with meaningful and motivating strategies that meet differing needs. This is a huge component in creating a sensory lifestyle.

Regulation and finding the various levels of requirements that support function isn’t always easy.  This is the reason so many practitioners lean toward evidenced based practice.  A=B. 

The data shows adding eye glasses improves vision.  A cast works well to heal a broken leg.  Unfortunately, sensory integration involves trial and error, luck, practice, and a large toolbox.

Accommodation, avoidance, regulation, heavy work, modification, and a treasure chest of ideas, are the keys to finding the perfect level of sensory needs.

Colleen Beck, OTR/L has been an occupational therapist since 2000, working in school-based, hand therapy, outpatient peds, EI, and SNF. Colleen created The OT Toolbox to inspire therapists, teachers, and parents with easy and fun tools to help children thrive. Read her story about going from an OT making $3/hour (after paying for kids’ childcare) to a full-time OT resource creator for millions of readers. Want to collaborate? Send an email to contact@theottoolbox.com.

The Sensory Lifestyle Handbook walks you through sensory processing information, each step of creating a meaningful and motivating sensory diet, that is guided by the individual’s personal interests and preferences.

The Sensory Lifestyle Handbook is not just about creating a sensory diet to meet sensory processing needs. This handbook is your key to creating an active and thriving lifestyle based on a deep understanding of sensory processing.

Letter Learning with Bottle Caps

bottle cap letters

In this older blog post, we shared how to make your own bottle cap letters for multisensory learning and fine motor play. Creating DIY instructional materials can be both educational and fun. One creative idea is to make bottle cap alphabet letters.

Bottle Cap Letters

By collecting various bottle caps and adding individual letters to them, you can create a unique set of bottle cap letters. This homemade alphabet set can be used for matching big and small letters, helping children learn the alphabet in an engaging way. Kids can enjoy the tactile experience of sorting and matching the big and small bottle cap letters, making it a hands-on learning activity that enhances their letter recognition skills!

This Letter Learning game was something I made for Big Sister a couple of years ago.  We have played with the letter bottle caps so many times and in a ton of ways.


How to make bottle cap letters

You’ll need just a few materials:

  • 26 bottle caps (one for each letter of the alphabet)
  • Label paper
  • Marker
  • Cardboard for a play mat
The cardboard has upper case letters and the bottle caps are used to match the letters. 
It doesn’t matter what size bottle caps you use because you cut the label paper to fit the caps. If you use a lot of milk in your home, or have access to a bunch of bottle caps in the same size, use those.
In our case, we had a case or two of Gatorade bottles and used those bottle caps to make our letters.
  1. I used a sheet of label paper to make the lower case letters.
  2. Trace a bunch of circles in the correct size.
  3. Cut out the circles.
  4. Write the letters.
  5. Stick them to the bottle caps.  Easy!

How to use alphabet bottle caps

Our homemade bottle cap letters are a great DIY instructional material to use in learning and play. 
  • We’ve also played with the bottle caps in play dough,
  • Use them to spell names and words.
  • Move the bottle cap alphabet to label objects with it’s starting letter.
  • Work on learning which direction the “p”, “b”, and “d” should go. This is a great hands-on activity to target letter reversals!
  • They are so great to manipulate and play with in a sensory bin filled with corn, too.
  • Or, pair the letter bottle caps with our alphabet exercises to target fine motor and gross motor skills. 
How else can we play with these bottle caps??
bottle cap letters


Use these Fine Motor Kits for hands-on activity kits to develop fine motor skills, strength, dexterity, and manipulation. Kids LOVE these fine motor kits for the motivating activities. Therapists love them because it’s fresh, fun ways to work on pinch, grip, manipulation skills, and much more. Try some of these themed therapy kits:

Colleen Beck, OTR/L has been an occupational therapist since 2000, working in school-based, hand therapy, outpatient peds, EI, and SNF. Colleen created The OT Toolbox to inspire therapists, teachers, and parents with easy and fun tools to help children thrive. Read her story about going from an OT making $3/hour (after paying for kids’ childcare) to a full-time OT resource creator for millions of readers. Want to collaborate? Send an email to contact@theottoolbox.com.

Trying New Foods

trying new foods

We all want our kids to eat a healthy and balanced diet. However, getting children to try new foods can often be a challenge. Many kids are picky eaters and may refuse to try anything new. But introducing new foods is essential for their nutritional development and helps them develop a more diverse palate. So, how can we help our kids to try new foods and expand their food choices? In this blog post, we’ll share some tips and strategies that you can use to help your kids try new foods and enjoy the benefits of a more varied diet.

trying new foods

Some people love food.  They love the way it tastes, makes them feel, the smell, or the memories it evokes. These folks live to eat.  A great meal is much better than a new pair of shoes for the “foodie.”  The other side eats to live.  Food is a necessity, not an enjoyment.  That new pair of shoes over a fancy restaurant?  Heck yeah! While the title says kids, people of all ages and stages (author raises hand), struggle to try new foods. This post will address how to support kids in trying new foods. It will describe the “why” first, then the “how”. 

Related to trying new foods is utilizing a just right challenge with targeting needs while not pushing kids in trying foods that are too far from their preferred food range.

Trying New Foods

For some, trying new foods is a huge step. There may be many reasons why trying different foods is a struggle. Before we can help kids in trying various foods for nutritional purposes, we need to determine the reason why there is avoidance.

Start with why your learner might be picky 

Why do some people love food, while others have a limited diet?  There are several factors that can influence eating choices.  

Our resource on Therapy for Picky Eaters offers more information as well. we cover more information on the medical and psychological reasons for avoiding new food trials in our resource on What you need to know about sensory food issues.

How to support kids in trying new foods

Once the “why” is determined, it is easier to work on the “how”.  Medical issues can be solved first.  There will likely be some residual anxiety that needs to be worked through, but often the problem resolves with correct medical treatment.  Sensory sensitivities, social, emotional, and eating disorders will be more difficult to resolve.

EATING DISORDERS – these can be very complex, involving the right type of treatment to make headway. There is more to recovery than mind over matter. Some treatments such as inpatient forced feeding, avoiding scales and mirrors, scare tactics, or shaming the learner, are not effective for many cases. If you or your loved one has an eating disorder, do research to find the correct type of treatment.


  • create a welcoming environment for eating.
  • discuss what might be negative triggers, working to alleviate these.
  • start slowly by allowing your learner to try new foods alone, or eating in a quiet pair.
  • avoid large restaurant gatherings at first.
  • discuss ahead of time what food might be available at a birthday party or restaurant.
  • bring a snack in case there is nothing your learner will eat. 
  • decide sometimes not to battle.  Your learner will survive a seven-day cruise on bread and ice cream (true story) for the sake of a nice vacation for everyone.
  • talk about the nutritional benefits of food, the importance of certain foods, and discuss what foods your learner might be willing to try.  Scurvy and rickets come from nutritional imbalances.  Decide if this information will be effective, scare your learner, or have no effect at all.
  • have an exit clause. Teach learners to discreetly remove an unwanted food from their mouth with a napkin.  Reassure them that they will be able to take the bite out if it does not feel or taste right.  Having an “out” often puts learners at ease, making it less risky to try.
  • employ the “no thankyou bite”.  Teach your learner about social etiquette and the importance of trying. It is impossible to say you do not like a food without trying it.  One bite (with good effort), is more socially acceptable than just refusing grandma’s casserole.  That one bite, may surprise your learner, turning into a new favored food.
  • systematic desensitization is a long fancy word for teaching your learner to slowly get used to something.  The Sensory Oral Sequential SOS  method of eating involves slowly desensitizing the brain/body to a new food. It starts with being in the same room as the food, and 27 steps later the food is swallowed. Getting a better understanding on whether food avoidance is oral motor or sensory is a great start.
  • Make a game of eating. Have the family rate foods they have tasted. One means I will never go near that food again. Five means I like it and will eat it again. Challenge learners to gather points by eating/trying new foods. 10 new foods lead to a prize.  Take turns selecting foods to try. This dinner plate can be motivating
  •  Check out Food Chaining strategy
  • Food tasting game
  • Take the list of foods your learner currently eats, and make SMALL changes. It may be as small as breaking the crackers into pieces. Try different shapes of pasta, a new flavor of yogurt, a different jelly on the bread, toasting the bread, different kinds of French fries, or a different brand of waffle. Small changes to preferred foods can feel like a big deal.
  • Check out these lunch box ideas for picky eaters
  • Hiding food may be a good idea, may backfire, or not make any difference.  Sneaking carrots into brownies is a good idea to add nutritional value.  It will not teach your child to love carrots, but will add vitamins. Stuffing something weird into their sandwich may backfire, causing your learner to avoid one of the few foods they will actually eat.
  • Involve your learner in the process. Have them help select the items to buy, prepare the foods, and cook the meals. This can give back some control and motivate your learner to try.
  • Take a breath and relax.  Oftentimes caregivers add more stress by pressing their child to eat more. Responding with anxiety, frustration, or anger is not going to elicit an eating response.  Walk away if you can not sit there and pretend it does not matter that your child is living on bread.

Sensory Strategies to support kids learning to eat new foods

Desensitizing the oversensitive sensory system is the first step in taming the picky eater who struggles with sensory based food aversion.

  • Systematic desensitization as stated above in the emotional section, works just as well for sensory struggles. The Sensory Oral Sequential SOS method of eating involves slowly desensitizing the brain/body to a new food. It starts with being in the same room as the food, and 27 steps later the food is swallowed.  Making small changes to foods, having your learner engage with food, giving them control over food choices is a good start.
  • Tactile – work in and around the hands and mouth. Provide safe choices for touching with the hands such as dry rice, dry beans, sand, play dough, birdseed, shaving cream, or slime. Start with dry textures, moving toward wet and sticky. “Safe choices” refers to something that is not threatening. Playing in birdseed is not threatening to your learner because they know they are not expected to eat it. When comfortable, you can move your learner to engaging with actual food such as whipped cream, pudding, fruits, or a bowl of dry cereal. Decrease tactile sensitivity in the mouth. Use a vibrating toothbrush, an icy washcloth, Twizzlers left out to harden overnight, sour spray, or popsicles to get the mouth used to different temperatures and textures. Our post on food texture issues will offer many more strategies.
  • Auditory – practice listening to different types of sounds and music. There are videos of people eating and chewing to desensitize your learner.  These are difficult to listen to, so wade in slowly. As an alternative, provide noise canceling headphones for a while to help your learner tune out sounds.
  • Visual – check out videos of people eating, food preparation, presentation of foods, cooking channel, kids cooking shows. The idea is to desensitize the learner to reduce triggers.
  • Olfactory – work on smell aversion by providing more smells to balance the sensory system in the nose. These can start out pleasant like lemon or peppermint.  Open the spice cabinet for sniffing. See if your learner can identify items by their smell. Coffee beans are great to have around as they cancel out smells in the nasal passageways.  Once someone is triggered, have them smell the beans to reset their system.
  • Taste – practice tasting and identifying. Make a conscious effort to teach your learner to describe the food.  Try very different tastes.  Some people love spicy foods, others can’t get enough of sour (try Warheads sour spray, or lemon juice).  Different dipping sauces can help.  Ketchup seems to help immensely.  Other dippers could be honey, ranch dressing, mustard, sugar, salt, peanut butter, butter, barbeque sauce, honey mustard, etc.  Many picky eaters do not like spices or anything extra at all.  Be mindful of this. If this is the case, serve very plain foods for a while.  Mixed textures are more difficult to tolerate as they have several different tastes in one. The temperature of food can have different effects.  Some picky eaters like everything at room temperature.  Not too hot or cold for these folks.

Tips for Trying New Foods

  • Good structured mealtimes are important for successful feeding. Eating at the table for a set amount of time (usually 20-30 minutes), with other people encourages good eating habits
  • Limit external stimuli during eating if there is a sensory or behavioral issue eating. This not only causes a distraction that limits food intake, it also pairs eating with electronics or tv, and the child cannot eat without it. This is not just a bad habit
  • Sitting in a proper chair for the child’s size improves chewing and swallowing
  • There will be setbacks. Keep calm and carry on
  • Present all foods on the plate in small portions. Or provide two options with small bites of each. Divided plates help ease anxiety, as do small portions
  • The patterns are not always clear
  • Things do not always work as we expect
  • Children will often eat in the clinic, but then refuse to eat at home. This can be related to emotional stress or something environmental going on at home.
  • Eating is very difficult, so trust and calm are very important
  • It is ok to let a child have dessert while eating. A bite of carrot and then a bite of cookie.This keeps the  child motivated
  • A complete feeding program takes up to a year to improve the amount of foods that the child will tolerate. Take it slow and be patient

The best advice I ever gave myself when supporting my kids learning to try new foods, was to back off.  I took the parent hat off and replaced it with the therapist one.  This made all of the difference.  Once I looked at my girls clinically, I was able to step back and look at the “why” first.  I realized they were not going to starve to death on bread and orange wrapped cheese.

I will leave you with a funny story.  I took my picky eater (age 3) to the doctor for her check-up.  We discussed food aversion of course.  At that stage her only meat was bologna.  The doctor looked straight at me and said, “she really should be eating salmon and fresh tuna”.  I laughed.  The idea of making a huge jump from bologna to salmon is preposterous. Everyone knows you jump to trying hotdog next!

Victoria Wood

Victoria Wood, OTR/L has been providing Occupational Therapy treatment in pediatrics for more than 25 years. She has practiced in hospital settings (inpatient, outpatient, NICU, PICU), school systems, and outpatient clinics in several states. She has treated hundreds of children with various sensory processing dysfunction in the areas of behavior, gross/fine motor skills, social skills and self-care. Ms. Wood has also been a featured speaker at seminars, webinars, and school staff development training. She is the author of Seeing your Home and Community with Sensory Eyes.

The Food Inventory Questionnaire is provides the therapist with a data sheet for a child’s repertoire allowing for consistent data collection over the course of feeding treatment. It also provides the therapist with a professional looking tool and talking point during the initial feeding evaluation to ensure that a comprehensive list of foods the child eats is gathered to support successful feeding therapy. Get your copy here.

Strawberry Activities

strawberry activities

This time of year, a fun therapy theme is in order for building skills, and strawberry activities meet the mark! As the warm summer days draw near, it’s time to start thinking of ways to enjoy the season! What better way to do that than with some strawberry-themed activities? Whether you’re a kid, an adult, or somewhere in between, there’s something fun and inspiring that you can do with these juicy little red berries. Keep reading to find out more about all the strawberry activities you can try.

strawberry activities

Strawberry Activities

Strawberry picking is a great springtime activity here in the south. We go every spring and fill our baskets to overflowing. But, what if you could use a few strawberry crafts and activities to build skills?

One of the most remarkable benefits of strawberry activities is the opportunity to get outdoors. When we get outside and explore, we can discover new things, breathe in the fresh air, and get active in ways that aren’t available indoors. We can observe nature in all its glory and appreciate the natural beauty of the world around us.

Below, you’ll find fun strawberry crafts, strawberry writing prompts, and fine motor ideas to use in therapy sessions, in the classroom or at home.

Strawberry picking is a great event to add to your strawberry themed activities.  This post includes a free download of Strawberry Themed Activities to fill those endless summer days. 

What do do with all of those strawberries?

strawberry snacks

There are so many benefits to cooking with kids, and washing and cutting strawberries to make strawberry snacks has double the benefits for children! Especially if kids are involved in the picking and washing process, they are gaining fine motor and sensory motor benefits.

Just like shrimp in Forrest Gump, there are some great things to do with strawberries. You can eat them whole, dip them in chocolate, there is strawberry ice cream, cheesecake, muffins, pancakes, freeze them for later, make popsicles, smoothies, milkshakes, or fruit salsa.  

  • Strawberry Pancakes is a good recipe to cook with children.
  • Making fruit pizza is always fun for kids and has strawberries as a main ingredient.
  • Frozen Fruit Kabobs has many sensory benefits including the alerting sensory input of frozen fruit.
  • Strawberry smoothie- Freeze strawberries to make delicious popsicles, smoothies, and other frozen treats! Smoothies are a great form of heavy work for oral motor input.
  • Another is Fruit Salsa Recipe 

Fruit salsa is another strawberry themed activity you can do with your learners. It is an excellent treat to take for potluck dishes, packed lunches, or serve at a summer birthday party.

  1. 7 strawberries
  2. 1 granny smith apple
  3. 1 kiwi

Chop the apple first into small pieces.  I use the Pampered Chef chopper.  Don’t use a blender, it will be soupy (I made that mistake once).  Then peel, chop, and add the kiwi.  Lastly, chop and add the strawberries.  Once it is all chopped tiny it will resemble salsa.  

Serve with dipping sticks of graham crackers, cinnamon pita chips, or spread over ice cream.

Strawberry Crafts

Building fine motor skills, scissor skills, hand-eye coordination, and more happens in occupational therapy crafts. Here are some fun strawberry crafts to get you started:

  1. Strawberry stamps: Cut a strawberry in half and use it as a stamp to create fun strawberry-themed art.
  2. Strawberry paper plate craft: Use paper plates, paint, and green construction paper to make a strawberry paper plate craft. Here are more paper plate activities.
  3. Strawberry pom-pom craft: Use red and green pom-poms to create a cute strawberry craft.
  4. Strawberry thumbprint art: Use your thumb to make strawberry shapes on paper and decorate them with green paint for the stem and leaves. Here are all the benefits of fingerprint art.
  5. Strawberry sun catcher: Use tissue paper and contact paper to create a strawberry sun catcher.
  6. Strawberry paper lantern: Create a strawberry paper lantern with red paper, green pipe cleaners, and a battery-operated tea light.
  7. Strawberry painted rocks: Paint rocks to look like strawberries and decorate with green felt or paper for the leaves.
  8. Strawberry paper chain: Create a strawberry paper chain with red and green construction paper.
  9. Strawberry wreath: Use foam wreath forms, red and green ribbon, and faux strawberries to create a strawberry wreath.
  10. Strawberry paper bag puppet: Use a paper bag and construction paper to make a strawberry puppet.
  11. Strawberry party hats: Use red paper cups and green construction paper to create strawberry-themed party hats.
  12. Strawberry keychains: Create strawberry-shaped keychains with polymer clay.
  13. Strawberry t-shirts: Use fabric paint to create strawberry designs on t-shirts.
  14. Strawberry bookmarks: Create strawberry bookmarks with red and green cardstock.
  15. Strawberry bunting: Create a strawberry bunting with red and green fabric or paper.
  16. Strawberry garland: Use red and green felt to create a strawberry garland.
  17. Strawberry mobile: Create a strawberry mobile with felt or paper strawberries.
  18. Strawberry picture frames: Use foam frames and faux strawberries to create strawberry picture frames.
  19. Strawberry tote bag: Use fabric paint or iron-on transfer paper to create a strawberry design on a tote bag.
  20. Strawberry cupcake liner craft: Use a red cupcake liner and green paper to cut out a strawberry shape. Glue the green paper on top for a stem. Then add seeds using a black marker.

Fine motor Strawberry Themed Activities

Looking for ways to build fine motor skills with strawberries? Try these ideas…

  1. Strawberry picking: Take your kids to a local strawberry farm and let them pick their own strawberries. This is a great way to teach them about where their food comes from and to enjoy the outdoors.
  2. Strawberry art: Use strawberries as a stamp to create fun and colorful artwork. Simply cut a strawberry in half and use it to stamp onto paper or fabric.
  3. Strawberry science: Conduct a science experiment with strawberries to learn about acid and bases. Dip a strawberry in baking soda and watch it fizz, then dip it in vinegar and observe the reaction.
  4. Strawberry math: Use strawberries as a fun way to teach math skills, such as counting, sorting, and measuring. Have your kids count how many strawberries they picked, sort them by size or color, or measure them with a ruler.

As promised, this post includes several PDF files of strawberry worksheets.  They are versatile, and can be used in different ways, to meet several goals and objectives.  Traditionally,  learners will color and cut the strawberries, roll a dice to count the number of berries to add into their basket. They can write some sentences about strawberries, or their berry picking adventure.

Other ways to use this strawberry activity pack:

  • Lowest level learners can dictate what they would like written
  • Middle level learners can write one or two words about strawberries, or copy from a model
  • Higher level learners can write a journal entry about strawberry picking, or search for recipes to make with their berries, creating a recipe page.  This turns into a multilevel activity to use during many sessions.  They can also draw about their ideas.
  • Laminate the page for reusability. This saves on resources, and many learners love to write with markers! Note: some children love to use dry erase markers, while others become upset if they can not take their work with them.
  • Make this part of a larger lesson plan including gross motor, sensory, social, executive function, or other fine motor skills
  • Pre-cut the shapes for entry level learners to glue onto their basket
  • Talk about the strawberries, name other berries, make the fruit salsa recipe
  • Project this page onto a smart board for students to come to the board and drag the strawberries into the basket or write in large letters.
  • More or less prompting may be needed to grade the activity to make it easier or harder.
  • Drippy wet glue is messy, and not as convenient as glue stick, however it is superior for different reasons.  The added benefit is the sensory input from touching the wet glue, as well as fine motor strengthening from squeezing the bottle
  • Pre-cut and laminate all of the pieces ahead of time, if your emphasis is on playing the game
  • More advanced learners can work on social skills by teaching beginners to play
  • Work in pairs or in a small group to address problem solving, turn taking, and negotiation skills.
  • Velcro the back of the pieces for a fine motor resistance task
  • Add glitter!  Glitter makes everything wonderful

The strawberry worksheets target several skill areas:

  • Hand strength and dexterity – staying on the lines builds hand muscles and develops muscle control
  • Visual motor skills –Combining what is seen visually and what is written motorically.  This takes coordination to be able to translate information from visual input to motor output. Coloring, drawing, counting, cutting, and tracing are some visual motor skills.
  • Scissor skills – Cutting on the lines can be challenging. You may need to highlight the lines or make them thicker for beginning learners
  • Proprioception – pressure on paper, grip on pencil
  • Counting/Learning Numbers – Count the strawberries to understand number concepts in addition to coloring and cutting
  • Social/Executive Function – Following directions, turn taking, task completion, orienting to details, neatness, multi-tasking, attending to task, and impulse control can be addressed using this Strawberry Themed Activity Pack
  • Handwriting: Letter formation – correctly forming the letters top to bottom. Letter sizing – correctly fitting the letters into the size boxes. Spacing, line placement, directionality, and spelling are also addressed
  • Copying – copying words from a model, transferring the letters from one place to another
  • Strength – core strength, shoulder and wrist stability, head control, balance, and hand strength are all needed for upright sitting posture and writing tasks

During the summer, learners have more unstructured time.  While it may not be necessary to document the “how” and “why” they are working on these strawberry themed activities, it is important to understand the benefits.  

Summer reading list

For some reason, young learners do not like reading. Finding a way to tie reading into fun activities, or your summer theme, will help motivate even the most stubborn learners.

In this classic, The Little Mouse, the Big Red Ripe Strawberry, and the Hungry Bear, Little Mouse loves strawberries, but so does the big hungry bear. . . How will Little Mouse stop the bear from eating his freshly picked, red ripe strawberry? This classic story is beloved for its humor, expressive illustrations, and surprise ending.

Searching Amazon for Strawberry Themed books returned over 9,000 options!  Remember Strawberry Shortcake?  She is still around.  There are literary award winners, chapter books, and fun read aloud choices.  

Are you hungry for strawberries yet?

Me too.  Luckily we filled our basket to overflow capacity this year. Here comes fruit salsa, smoothies, homemade ice cream (don’t forget to add chocolate chips), and strawberry pancakes. Creating thematic activities may take work up front, but the rewards will be worth it.

Family Fun Day

family fun day

Today, we have a fun blog post for you, especially if you are looking to plan a family fun day! A fun day with the family is the perfect opportunity for spending quality time with your loved ones, away from the stresses of daily life. It’s a time to create memories and bond with one another while participating in activities that everyone can enjoy. Whether you’re looking for family night ideas, outdoor adventures or indoor entertainment, there are plenty of fun and exciting activities that families can engage in. In this blog post, we’ll explore some family fun day ideas and activities that are sure to bring a smile to everyone’s face. So, let’s get started!

family fun day

Family Fun Day

Ever feel board of the usual day to day monotony? Sound familiar?  Many families are over scheduled, shuttling their kids from school or daycare to baseball, scouts, soccer,  friend’s houses, and appointments. Sometimes all in one day! 

Children learn by watching but also by engaging and doing. They learn by example. 

In addition to providing an opportunity for family bonding, research has shown that engaging in fun and stimulating activities with loved ones can have positive impacts on social-emotional development and overall wellbeing, making family fun day a valuable investment in the health and happiness of your family.

Pledge this year to spend less time on electronics. and more time making memories and doing fun family activities.  You just might have some fun in the process!

If you have seen the movie, Yes Day, you understand the need for family activitiesSpoiler alert:  I am not sure if I could go through the carwash with the windows down, but I am definitely down for an ice cream challenge and amusement park.  The premise of the movie is, the parents have fallen into a routine of saying no, and are going through the motions of their life, without enjoying any of it.  

Why have a family fun day?

Development happens at home and there is opportunity for connection and family collaboration during the day to day activities. However, sometimes all of the stressors of daily life mean that we forget to have fun.

When we take time to focus on fun, whether it’s for an afternoon or an evening activity, or a full day of connection, we have the opportunity to build stronger relationships within the family.

One study showed that families who engage in more frequent leisure activities together reported higher levels of family functioning, including better communication and problem-solving skills.

There are so many beneficial reasons to experience a family day every once in a while:

  • Connection and making memories
  • Building leadership experiences
  • Problem solving as a family or in a group
  • Planning an activity
  • Executive functioning skills to complete tasks
  • Building stronger relationships
  • Trying new things
  • Conflict resolution
  • Self-confidence
  • Social emotional development

“The greatest gifts you can give your children are the roots of responsibility and the wings of independence” -Denis Waitley

Setting aside time for family time allows for meaningful interactions. The whole family can work together on a project, create something, do a service project together, or just have fun together doing something different than the usual routine.

Excuses to not have a family fun day

Before I offer up suggestions, hit me with all of your excuses for not doing family activities first:

  1. We are too busy

Anyone can carve out ten minutes for a family game of cards, a race around the house, a walk with the dog, or a game of Simon Says.

  1. We have no money

Most likely this is not true.  Your money and funds need to be allocated to include family time.  Family fun day and activities do not need to cost ANY money. A board game, obstacle course, game of charades, game of tag, walk along the beach cost nothing.  

  1. Our kids hate X, Y, Z

Your kids have to learn the value of family time.  It is going to be hard to please everyone at the same time, so start a rotation list of who gets to pick the activity.  Chances are, once they get started they will enjoy spending time together. Save the lectures and griping during family time.  Savor some purely fun moments together.

  1. We don’t know what to do

Start with what you know.  If your kids play sports, throw the ball out in the yard. If you have pets, incorporate them in a fun activity.  Google local events in your area for ideas of low cost or free activities near you.  There is usually a festival, park, activity, or event coming up.  Make a list as a family of all the things you already do, and the things you would like to try.

  1. We don’t know where to start

Start by making a little time.  Getting started is the hardest part.  Moving out of your routine and comfort zone takes a lot of effort.  You can do it! Or start at your favorite place for resources; the OT Toolbox!  It is packed with gross motor fun and games.

Now that we’ve worked through the reasons to have a family fun day…let’s get to the actual fun!

Family Fun Day Activities

Here are some family activities whether you are looking for a family fun day or just a ten minute game. Many of these family activities are free and low cost. They are perfect for a family get together or just a weekend of family fun.

  • Family Olympics is a favorite: pull out the corn hole, croquet, golf clubs, balls, or whatever outdoor games you have and start the competition
  • Day at the beach- we live near the beach so this is a simple one. You may have to tweak this to meet the needs of everyone in the family, so be prepared.
  • Go on a sensory nature walk with the family– Explore a local park or hike.
  • Arts and crafts – go to a pottery painting place, family painting night, make slime together, paint a mural on a wall, create with chalk, finger paint.  The possibilities are endless and you do not have to have talent to spend time together
  • Try some of these outdoor sensory diet activities.
  • Game night marathon – Dig out all of the board games and start playing!  Candy Land marathon if you have littles, and the sky’s the limit for older children.
  • Learn something new – learn a new language together. How about sign language?
  • Cook together – Making pretzels, cookies, pizza, or homemade ice cream are always fun. These cooking with kids recipes will get you started.
  • Head outside for these backyard lawn games.
  • Make a fort – Get out the blankets, pillows, rope, or whatever it takes to make an awesome living room fort.  Break out the books and snacks!
  • Tent camp – throw up a tent in the backyard for a night with smores, card games, and telling stories.  
  • Local tourist spots – check out the local tourist spots in your area.  An aquarium, museum, carriage ride, walking tour, factory tour, river boat cruise are a fun way to spend a day together
  • Play a few of these tag games.
  • Geocaching – This is the world’s largest treasure hunt!  If you have never tried this, you are in for a treat
  • Jigsaw puzzle – Dust off that puzzle and lay it out on the dining room table 
  • Volunteer – There are a lot of local opportunities to spend a day helping others
  • Day trip – Pack a lunch and get out there.  My parents used to take us for a Sunday Drive, and while I hated being trapped in the car, we did spend the day together singing, playing Ispy, and having a picnic lunch.
  • Day out – cast your net a little wider. How far is the next city?  How about a state park or lake?  
  • Make a sensory dough recipe and cook up some homemade play dough, slime, oobleck, or moon dough!
  • Make a scavenger hunt for the family to follow
  • Run – Do a 5k or marathon together.  There are fun themes like the Hot Chocolate 5k, The Cupcake Run, and the Santa Race.
  • Car wash – Washing the cars can turn into a fun activity on a hot day with a hose and sprinkler.  An added bonus of an ice cream trip at the end is always a hit.
  • Bike ride – get out there in your neighborhood, on the greenway, or go to a park.
  • Play Simon Says.
  • Movie Night – While movie night is super fun once in a while, it is not really a family activity.  You can make it more interactive by lying on a big blanket together on the floor, talking about the movie, making and eating a fun snack, taking short breaks for activity during the movie, or watching an interactive sing along movie.  We love the drive-in movie theater.  We fill the back of the car with blankets and open up the back door to pile in and watch together.  This often includes snacks, pizza, a frisbee or football, and a whole lot of fun.
  • The OT Toolbox has a plethora of gross motor games to check out.

Tips for Family Time

Family fun time does not need to be extravagant. This list of family activities could be endless. However, just select one thing from the list and go with that.

Make family activities a habit. Plan on one night or one afternoon and plan to have fun together.

Put them on the calendar and make a commitment.  You might have to start with one a month, or one a quarter, but start somewhere. 

Our next adventures (with and without our grown kids) include SeaWorld, pottery creating, a night at the theater, a visit to the boat show, a mystery dinner activity, date night fun boxes, and a spring camping trip.  Our calendar is booked!  How about yours?

Victoria Wood

Victoria Wood, OTR/L has been providing Occupational Therapy treatment in pediatrics for more than 25 years. She has practiced in hospital settings (inpatient, outpatient, NICU, PICU), school systems, and outpatient clinics in several states. She has treated hundreds of children with various sensory processing dysfunction in the areas of behavior, gross/fine motor skills, social skills and self-care. Ms. Wood has also been a featured speaker at seminars, webinars, and school staff development training. She is the author of Seeing your Home and Community with Sensory Eyes.

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
  • And then cut playdough 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

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!

Hand Strengthening Exercises

Think about it, how much do you use your hands throughout the day? Would you say it is from the moment you turn off your alarm clock in the morning to the minute you cover up in bed at night? How about the times you use them during the night, such as when you go to the bathroom or readjust the covers or the pillow? If you’re like many of us, the list of necessary tasks you need to do using your hands each day could go on and on and on. No matter how often you use your hands, they need to be in good shape and strong enough to manage all the tasks you need and want to do daily. 

However, with children, they don’t necessarily think about the times they need to use their hands and the strength the hands need throughout the day, but we bet they often think of the times that their hands have failed them and they were too weak and they couldn’t accomplish the tasks and activities that were important to them. We do believe they think about those times.

On a personal note, I work with many kids in the clinic that struggle with cutting, coloring, handwriting, drawing, pencil grasp, gameplay, dressing, and other self-care skills and the one factor that often comes into play with my kiddos is their decreased hand and finger strength.  For this blog post, we will be addressing hand strength exercises and activities that can be used in the clinic, classroom, and home setting with many of them simply using some inexpensive supplies that you may already have on hand.

Some are direct exercises for older kids while some will be fun game-like exercises or activities for younger kids because we all know children need to be motivated at their level of age and level of interest, that’s why we’ve given you a variety of ideas. Now, let’s get started with some fun, meaningful, and hopefully successful hand strengthening exercises and activities.

Also, one last note, please don’t forget that even gross motor activities can also help build hand strength too! So, keep children doing animal walks, crawling, heavy work exercises, pulling themselves while prone on a scooter board, weight-bearing over therapy balls, climbing, and playing on the playground equipment.

hand strengthening exercises for kids

Below are hand strengthening exercises for kids that use a variety of different materials. You’ll find different activities and ideas under each section.

Therapy putty exercises:

  • power grip is simply taking a ball of therapy putty and squeezing with a gross grasp until as flat as possible, repeat
  • flat pinch is taking the therapy putty and creating a fat therapy log for the fingers to pinch flat as they attempt to stay, repeat
  • full grip is taking the therapy putty and creating a fat therapy log placing it vertically within the hand and then squeezing to make the log grow out of the top within the webspace, repeat
  • thumb press is taking a log or ball of putty and squeezing or pressing the thumb into the ball or log, repeat
  • finger curl is taking the therapy putty and placing at the base of the fingers within the palm and then squeezing the fingers into the putty making and fist, repeat 

Squeeze ball exercises:

  • gross grasp is squeezing the ball repeatedly with the whole hand and holding for 3-5 seconds and repeating multiple times
  • gross grasp with a squeeze ball that has a face – simply squeeze with the whole hand to distort the face on the squeeze ball

Squeeze and feed the tennis ball (the size of the slit opening can make the ball easier or more difficult to squeeze open)

  • squeeze the ball open to feed the ball individual objects
  • squeeze the ball and scoop dry beans with a spoon to feed the ball

Rubber band exercises

  • wrap rubber bands around the fingers including the thumb and then stretch out the hands and fingers to spread the fingers outward as far as possible, repeat 

Hand pushes and pulls

  • simply place palms of hands together and push together, repeat
  • place a small squeeze ball between the palms of the hands and push together to flatten the ball, repeat
  • simply intertwine fingers together and attempt to gently pull them apart, repeat

Palm rotation with bounce balls or marbles

  • place 2-4 marbles or small bounce balls into the palm of the hand and attempt to rotate them in a circle while only using one hand

Fist to fan to fist fingers 

  • open the hand by fanning (spreading) out the fingers and hold 
  • close the hand by fisting the fingers together and hold

Make an O to fan to O position 

  • curl the fingers into an O shape and hold
  • open the fingers into a fan and hold 

Piano push 

  • slightly curl the fingers like playing the piano and then push against a stable surface such as a tabletop or wall, repeat

Crumbling paper balls 

  • bilateral – use two hands with both working individually to crumple flat sheets of paper into paper balls (you can re-use each sheet by flattening the sheet again after crumpling or you can use a new sheet)
  • unilateral – use one hand at a time to crumple flat sheets of paper into paper balls (same as above you can re-use each sheet or you can use a new sheet)

Wringing water out of washcloths or sponges

  • bilateral – use both hands together to twist and wring out a wet washcloth or a small hand towel 
  • unilateral – use one hand at a time to squeeze a wet washcloth to wring out the water 
  • bilateral/unilateral – use two hands at the same time, but both working individually to squeeze water out of sponges

Create tongs out of a Pringle’s lid or other large flexible lids 

  • use these recycled lids as tongs and squeeze with the whole hand to pick up objects and sort them

Condiment bottles and a turkey baster

  • use condiment bottles or a turkey baster to blow cotton balls or pom-pom balls in a fun race against a partner (you can use one or two hands to squeeze)

Milk the latex glove 

  • this hand strengthening exercise is where you fill a latex glove with water and then knot the opening. Use a pin to poke a small hole into the tip of each finger then a child will work on squeezing the water out of each finger like milking a cow.

Spray bottle 

  • use a spray bottle to form letters on the sidewalk or side of the building 
  • use the spray bottle to clean a chalkboard  

Robot or Gripper claw apparatus

  • full hand reacher and/or gripper apparatuses are easy for kids to use to pick up objects at a distance to transport to a nearby laundry basket or box or simply from left side to right side or vice versa

Office supply tool use to promote hand strength when in use:

  • Stapler to staple along a strip of paper or even around shapes
  • Hole punch to punch holes along a strip of paper or even around shapes
  • Bottle glitter glue to trace letters or shapes
  • Rubber band wrap to wrap around a canned good or a fun pool noodle friend
  • Marker cap removal or matching to simply remove and put back on the marker or before use mix up the color caps on the markers and have the child fix your mix-up of marker caps 
  • Scissor cutting with play dough or putty to cut play dough or putty logs or snakes into pieces

House tool use to promote hand strength when in use:

  • New plunger removal from the floor (ugh, don’t use a used one) – simply use it on a hard floor surface to push down and pull up 
  • Pushing and pulling a weighted laundry basket – simply have a child push a weighted laundry basket across the floor or tie a rope onto the basket and have a child pull it hand-over-hand to themselves
  • Pulling a rope with any weighted object on the end such as a weighted scooter board, box, or even a chair – make sure they use hand-over-hand
  • Pull pieces of Velcro apart – you can use large strips 
  • Place whole hand chip clips onto the edge of a box, rope, etc., and remove 
  • Grasp and lift a canned good for hand strength in all planes – up, down, left, right, cross midline, bicep curl, etc.
  • Roll a water bottle or canned good in the open hand while supine on the tabletop – probably for an older kiddo
  • Palm down wrist flexion exercise – drape over the edge of a table and grasp a water bottle or dumbbell and flex up while lifting – probably for an older kiddo
  • Bean bag spatula flip (grasp activity) – use bean bags and a kitchen spatula to flip bean bags from one side to the other

Use commercially available tools and games to promote hand strength (Amazon affiliate links included below):

  • Pop Toobs – pull apart for the fun sound and push together to do again or use more than one and link them together. Read about how to use pop tubes for fine motor skills.
  • Squigz – push onto a dry erase board, hard surface floor, or therapy ball and pull off in a color sequence 
  • Squeeze animals – distort their bodies and faces or use bath toys that blow air, have children blow small pieces of cotton balls or pom-pom balls in a race against a partner
  • Plastic and wood food-cutting toys – use the plastic or wood knife to cut food apart into pieces
  • Lego brick building and destruction – use the bricks to build simple towers or even buildings or objects with the use of picture cards
  • Build and destruct Mr. Potato Head – use the fun game to work on hand strengthening. They can build the correct way or a distorted way for fun. 
  • Build and destruct Cootie Bugs using the fun game to work on hand strengthening. This one is a little tricky for younger kiddos as the legs must go in at a slight angle which may make them more appropriate for older kiddos. 

Would you like a fun game-like resource that addresses both hand and finger strengthening? Add these fun resources to your toolkit – Finger and Hand Exercise Game Boards and Year-Round Play Dough Game Boards. These resources include 10-12 no-prep game boards that you can print and play to practice finger isolation, left and right-hand discrimination, overall fine motor coordination, dexterity and build hand and finger strength. If you want to jazz up any warm-up routine, these are what you need as they are engaging for kids and are a great tool to use before coloring, cutting, handwriting, or typing work. 

Want to read more about hand strengthening and further build your therapist toolkit?  Take a look at the other posts found right here at The OT Toolbox:

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: 

Colleen Beck, OTR/L has been an occupational therapist since 2000, working in school-based, hand therapy, outpatient peds, EI, and SNF. Colleen created The OT Toolbox to inspire therapists, teachers, and parents with easy and fun tools to help children thrive. Read her story about going from an OT making $3/hour (after paying for kids’ childcare) to a full-time OT resource creator for millions of readers. Want to collaborate? Send an email to contact@theottoolbox.com.

Use these Fine Motor Kits for hands-on activity kits to develop fine motor skills, strength, dexterity, and manipulation. Kids LOVE these fine motor kits for the motivating activities. Therapists love them because it’s fresh, fun ways to work on pinch, grip, manipulation skills, and much more. Try some of these themed therapy kits:

Writing Trays for Handwriting

sand writing tray

Writing trays are a fantastic way to help kids work on handwriting, letter formation, and pre-writing skills.  There are so many benefits to a sand tray (or other sensory writing materials) in helping with letter formation and handwriting. There is a reason that writing trays are a popular way to encourage fine motor skills and an introduction to handwriting; They use a tactile sensory strategy to encourage movement in learning in a multi-sensory way.  Writing Trays make letter formation fun and meaningful in a play-based manner.

Try this easy rice writing tray for a simple sensory writing experience.

Writing trays are sensory activities to teach handwriting

What is a writing tray?

I’ve used writing trays in my occupational therapy interventions and with my own kids for years. Writing trays are such a powerful tool to add a multi-sensory component and moveemnt to learning to write.

Writing trays are a dry or wet sensory material in a low tray or bin type of container. Children can use their finger or a tool such as a pencil, paint brush, or other item to draw, write letters, or form numbers into the sensory material.

Writing Trays are a creative way to help kids learn to write letters, numbers, shapes, and pre-writing strokes.  There are a ton of different ways that writing trays can be set up and used in letter formation. Essentially, a writing tray uses a low container (or TRAY) and a medium that can be moved and shifted for writing.

Sensory writing trays can contain sensory fillers of any type. If you are able to move the material in a way that letters can be drawn in the tray, then the sensory writing tray is a success. With a sensory writing tray, children can write letters independently or copy letters from a visual letter card.

You can find them used in schools, clinics, preschools, early learning centers, and homeschool dinging rooms.  

Writing trays are one tool to support development of Near point copy skills skills.

Writing tray sensory filler ideas for handwriting

Writing Tray Sensory Filler Material

Affiliate links are included in this post.

What is in a Writing Tray? (Writing Tray Fillers)

Writing Trays are filled with a filler that us manipulated and shifted so that letters or writing lines are visible.  Some ideas for filling a writing tray include the sensory materials listed below.

Colored Sand
Dyed Rice
Dyed Rice
Play Dough
Other Doughs
Slime (Check out the fun we had with slime in a writing tray!)
Crushed Chalk

While sometimes, a child can use their finger to form the lines in their writing tray, a writing tool is typically recommended. (More on that below.)
Use writing trays for handwriting and letter formation

Sensory Writing Tray Benefits

Kids can use writing trays to practice letter formation, or pencil control and stroke sequence in writing letters.  Typically, they will be provided with a visual cue or cue card for copying the letters/numbers/shapes.  Other times, kids can form the letter/number/shape independently when prompted to make a specific letter. This is a great way to work on visual memory and independent letter formation.
Be sure to verbally prompt children to form letters or build letters with correct stroke sequence.  This is essential for carryover of accuracy with letter formation in handwriting.  Otherwise, the child is simply playing in the sensory tray and not effectively using the writing tray as a tool for improved handwriting.  Encouraging the child who is learning pre-writing strokes and beginning letter formation can use a writing tray as a base for forming letters independently. Try using visual and verbal cues to promote correct letter construction.
A few more must-dos when using a writing tray for addressing letter formation:
  • Make sure letters are not formed in parts.  In other words, don’t allow kids to make a circle and then a line to form an “a”. 
  • Make sure letters are formed from top to bottom. 
  • Realize that the motor plan to form letters with your finger is different than the motor plan to form letters with a pencil or other pencil-like writing tool.

The nice thing about writing trays is that they are very versatile. Students of all ages can use writing trays to work on different levels of handwriting. Some ways to work on handwriting include:

  • Copying pre-writing lines
  • Copying shapes 
  • Letter identification
  • Uppercase letter formation
  • Lowercase letter formation
  • Letter copying
  • Letter writing from memory
  • Cursive letter formation
  • Cursive letter writing from memory
  • Word copying
  • Sight word writing
  • Spelling word writing
Writing trays for handwriting, letter formation, and fine motor skills.


Fine Motor Skills and Writing Trays

A writing tray can be an effective tool in boosting fine motor skills.  Kids can use their finger to form lines and letters while strengthening finger isolation and separation of the two sides of the hand, including an opportunity for the ulnar side fingers to tuck into the palm for a more effective pencil grasp when writing.
Children can also use a tool to form letters in a writing tray.  This can be an opportunity to develop pencil grasp.  However.  There are a few items that should be mentioned about using a writing tray to address pencil grasp and appropriate motor plan for letter formation.
Writing Trays are a common tool.  But if you just place a writing tray in front of a child, you will likely see an inefficient writing activity.  You will probably see most kids forming letters with an awkward grasp on the writing tool, a flexed and deviated wrist, an abducted shoulder, and generally ineffective positioning.  

Positioning absolutely carries over to letter formation and handwriting.
A writing tray can be used to address pencil grasp and handwriting needs.  However, it is essential to use the tray in a proper manner.  There are a few ways to do this:
  • Place the writing tray on a slight slant. Try using a DIY slant board.
  • Use a low edged tray.
  • Use verbal, physical, and visual cues for appropriate positioning. 
  • Position the writing tool in your child’s hand with an appropriate tripod or modified tripod grasp.
  • Show the child how to hold the tool at the end of the tool as if they were holding a pencil.
Once you’ve got your writing tray set up and positioning taken care of, it’s on to the fun stuff…making a writing tray!

How to make a Writing Tray

Making a writing tray to gain benefits of teaching sensory handwriting is easy. You can use materials found around the home. The options are limitless when it comes to writing tray combinations! You can create a writing tray in any theme or to meet any need. You’ll need just a few items: a container, a filler, a tool, and letter cards.

Writing Tray Ideas

First, you’ll need a low tray, basket, bin, or other container. We’ve used a variety of containers in our sensory writing trays. You’ll want a container that will hold the sensory writing material within its edges. In some cases, you can even scatter the sensory material on a flat surface like a table or a plastic table cloth on the floor. For example, we used dyed rice right on the kiddie picnic table for a pre-writing and hand strengthening activity.

Kids will be using a tool or their hands to write letters and the sensory material can scatter. Some specific ideas include:

  • Kitchen baking trays (jelly roll pan or cookie sheet with edges)
  • Food storage containers
  • Melissa and Doug wooden puzzle boxes
  • Cardboard boxes cut low on the sides
  • 9×11 cake pan
  • Shirt box
  • Tray
  • Low basket

Writing Tray Tools

Next, you’ll need a tool to use to write the letters. This can be items found in the home as well.  Some writing tray tools include:

  • Finger
  • Eraser end of a pencil
  • Paint brush
  • Feather
  • Straw
  • Pointer stick
  • Stick from a tree
  • Craft stick
  • Chopsticks
  • Toothpick (Incorporate our toothpick holder activity to further fine motor skills!)
  • Craft pom pom attached to a clothes pin

Writing Tray Letter Cards

Next, an important part of a writing tray is the letter model. As mentioned above, writing trays are great for copying pre-writing lines, shapes, letters, numbers, and words. 

Cards can be used as a visual model for forming letters or words. Some cards include direction arrows. Others might include a sight word or spelling word for the child to copy. These cards can be positioned in different positions to address different needs. 

  • Position the letter cards right in the tray for near-point copying.
  • Position the writing tray cards in a vertical position near the writing tray to challenge vision shift. 
  • Hang the writing cards on a wall for far point copying to work on visual shift, visual attention, visual memory, and copying from a distance. 

Writing Tray Fillers

You’ll also need a sensory material to act as a filler. This is the material that the child will actually “write” in. When we say “write”, they are using the tool to form letters as the sensory filler moves in the tray. They will not actually write a letter with a pencil or other marking device. Sensory filler material can be as creative as you let it. Some writing tray fillers include these materials:

Click each link for ideas on how to set up these creative writing trays.

Dyed Rice
As you can see, the ideas are limitless when it comes to sensory handwriting! Use a theme or materials that meet the needs of your child or client and are motivating and fun!

More sensory Handwriting Activities

Sensory Writing Bag

Sensory Handwriting Camp at Home

Teach letters with sensory textures

Pencil pressure activities




Colleen Beck, OTR/L has been an occupational therapist since 2000, working in school-based, hand therapy, outpatient peds, EI, and SNF. Colleen created The OT Toolbox to inspire therapists, teachers, and parents with easy and fun tools to help children thrive. Read her story about going from an OT making $3/hour (after paying for kids’ childcare) to a full-time OT resource creator for millions of readers. Want to collaborate? Send an email to contact@theottoolbox.com.

Sand Writing Tray

One very easy way to create a sand writing tray is to use a child’s picnic table placed either outside in a sandbox or over a tarp (or outdoor space where it’s ok that sand goes into the ground and lawn).

We loved using our kid’s picnic table in this way to make a sand writing tray.

sand writing tray

For this sand writing tray, we made it super simple and just dumped a thin layer of sand onto our (Amazon link) Little Tykes picnic table. Then, I invited the kids to all sit down and draw in the sand using their fingertips. This is a great exercise in finger isolation.

sand writing tray

Practicing letters in a sensory surface like writing and drawing in sand on a picnic table surface is a motivating and fun activity for kids because it’s not something they typically do.

Kids learn new skills well with a multisensory learning experience and a sand writing tray is a great, inexpensive way to do just that.

To encourage vocabulary and verbal expression, tell stories on the table surface and ask questions that extend the story further. Then, while practicing lines and drawing shapes and figures, gently smooth the sand with the palm of your hand and start over again!

sand writing tray for preschool

Preschoolers can practice pre-handwriting lines, while older kids can form letters and numbers in the sand. They can also copy and trace letters to improve their penmanship skills.