Developmental Tools for Teaching Letter Recognition

teaching letter recogntion

This blog discusses activities for teaching letter recognition. At its most basic, letter recognition refers to letter identification. It is one of the main skills children need to know before they can name, write, or sound out the letters. The following fun letter recognition games for preschoolers are based on development and skill progression.

Teaching letter recognition

What you need to know about Teaching Letter recognition

Letter recognition, or the ability to recognize and identify letters begins at a very young age. But did you know that teaching letter recognition skills starts way before kindergarten and and even before entering the classroom?

Kindergarten students are many times exposed to writing and copying letters on trace worksheets, and writing pages. But before a young child can do these skills that are part of the curriculum, knowing what skills lead up to these skills is helpful.

Even before a young preschooler is able to identify and name letters in printed context such as books or letter play activities, they are learning this skill through the immersion of seeing letters in everyday life.

Letter identification and the ability to recognize letters in printed form might occur through exposure on television, printed media, following along while a book is being read, or while engaging with technology. 

There is a progression in the important literacy skill of recognizing printed letters:

  • Letter recognition in isolation – example, pointing out all of the upper case letter As on a letter picture book
  • Letter recognition in every day life – example pointing out the letter S on a stop sign
  • Letter identification – identifying and stating letter’s names
  • Letter identification in text -reading and sounding out a letter’s sound in reading or sounding out written text
  • Matching upper case and lowercase letters– matching the upper case letters to lowercase, and vice versa

Each step of teaching letter recognition skills is founded in experience and practice. This includes communication with others, exposure, and reading with caregivers. 

Not every child learns the same way. Starting as young as preschool, caregivers can support children by using their interests and strengths to teach them new skills.

Children don’t need to read or write until well beyond toddlerhood, but preschoolers enjoy looking at books, finding letters on walks, and learning letters through movement. 

The best way to teach letter recognition
The best way to teach letter recognition is by first covering the prerequisite skills.

Prerequisites to Letter Teaching Letter Recognition

Several areas are needed to develop letter recognition skills:

  • Object permanence
  • Form constancy
  • Visual discrimination
  • Visual figure ground
  • Working memory
  • Visual memory
  • Visual scanning skills
  • Cognitive skills
  • Physical development

You can see that these components are founded in visual motor skills, perceptual skills, and working memory.

Before any of this can happen (and through the process), young children should be exposed to rhymes, songs, and singing the alphabet song. (Add alphabet exercises for movement fun!) This is actually the first step in the road to literacy!

Teaching letter recognition requires Visual discrimination Skills

Letter recognition/identification is when a person is able to look at a letter and recall it from previous experience. Recognition of letters occurs both in uppercase and lowercase form. Additionally, there is a cursive letter recognition aspect as well. This blog post covers cursive letter recognition skills.

This site states that even before letter identification, there are a few other skills that should be taught, including visual discrimination, so the child is able to find differences among lines and shapes. 

Visual discrimination can be taught in isolation through books or worksheets, or in games and activities such as Memory games, matching and sorting activities, or playing “what’s the same” and “what’s different” through hidden picture activities and puzzles.  We cover this visual perceptual skill in our blog post, Wacky Wednesday book activity.

Visual Memory Another great play-based activity to develop the visual perceptual memory skills needed for letter recognition, are games that challenge kids to notice differences. Present the child with a tray of everyday items, and ask them to memorize the items on the tray. Ask them to look away or cover their eyes. Take away one or more items, and have them recall the missing items. 

Letter activities- Other ways to encourage letter play is through printed alphabet worksheets, puzzles, letter magnets, or other alphabet manipulatives such as letter beads. You can ask the child to sort letters based on shape, such as those that include straight lines, versus curved line, or diagonal letters. You can also sort letters by letters based on size: tall letters, short letters, and letters with a tail that hangs below the lines.

Prerequisites to teaching letter recognition begins in infancy

These prerequisite skills that support letter recognition, such as visual discrimination and memory, develop as early as infancy, when young children identify 3D objects that are familiar to them like their bottle, favorite toy, or their parents. It is important infants experience tummy time in order to develop visual motor skills, and strong oculomotor skills, as a result of time spent on the belly while looking at objects.

As children grow, their visual discrimination becomes more refined and they are able to identify pictures and written words.

Toddlers are able to point to a picture of a puppy in a book they are reading, or identify who is hiding under the blanket.

Object permanence and working memory

When a child sees an object and knows what it is called, this is referred to as object permanence. This requires working memory skill development to use what is seen, remember it, and store it for later retrieval.

While visual discrimination is the ability to detect differences and similarities in size, shape, color and pattern, cognitive ability is necessary to recognize these differences based on previous exposure, along with memory to have stored that information away in their mind’s eye to recall when needed.

This skill is typically associated with letter formation and handwriting skills. Identifying and discriminating between differences in letters allow kids to copy and write letters from memory. However, noticing and identifying the differences in the curves, diagonal lines, and lines that make up a letter are essential build up to that skill.

Hearing and saying the letter sounds associated with letters are part of the process, too. Phonemic awareness is developed initially through play, but this skill continues to develop and progress as reading and literacy skills are refined in kindergarten, first grade, second grade, and beyond.

Teaching letter recognition begins with the ability to recognize details in visual images

In more depth, students should identify likeness and differences of shapes or forms, colors, as well as the position of various objects and people. Developing discrimination skills will help children learn the alphabet and then both read and print letters a lot better. 

There are numerous types of visual discrimination that children should begin to understand and develop. These include: 

  • 3D Objects
  • Shapes
  • Drawings & Pictures
  • Colors
  • Letters and Words
  • Sequences

Letter recognition games

The letter recognition activities and games and listed below are fun ways to instruct children in the essential skills needed for reading and literacy. It’s literally the building block to reading.

  • Name Recognition- Start with recognizing the letters of their name. Point out letters in the child’s name and ask them to point to letters in a book or on a sign. Children can first begin with recognizing upper case letters of their name, then moving onto the lowercase letters. Working first with uppercase letters is best, because capital letters are easier to discriminate between. Lowercase letters have many similar letters, b,d,p,g,q, and j. 
  • Bean Bag Letter Toss – Affix upper and lowercase letter stickers to one side of each bean bag. Put a basket or bucket across from your child. As your child throws the bean bags into the bucket, ask them to name the letters and their sounds of the letters. Students can run around looking for matching letters scattered around the room.
  • Alphabet Play dough- Write down large letters on a piece of paper and place that paper into a sheet protector. Encourage your child to form the letters on the sheet protector with play dough of their choosing.
  • I Spy Letter Walk –Take a walk with your child and look for letters in their environment such as on license plates, street signs and building. Play, I Spy, searching for different letters, or letters in sequential order. The printable tools in the Letter Fine Motor Kit are a great resource for this activity.
  • Jumping to letters – Create a letter pathway with sidewalk chalk on a playground or sidewalk. Children can walk, run, jump, or crawl across the letters, naming them as they move forward! Change it up by asking them to walk backwards along the path. This is a fun motor planning activity.
  • Chasing the Alphabet – (Amazon affiliate link:) Sammy Chases the Alphabet is a book I wrote about Sammy the Golden Dog playing fetch with balls around his farm. Each ball has a letter on it. After you read the book, bring the story to life by adding letter stickers to ball pit balls. Toss the balls around a room or outside, and encourage your child to find them all, naming the letters on each ball they find.
  • Food Alphabet Worksheets – Pair real food items with these food worksheets. These worksheets include the letter, a food that starts with the letter, and all of the letters that make the word. As children sound out each letter, ask them to point to the letter that makes that sound.

more letter recognition Activities

Alphabet activities like the ones below support recognition skills through repetition. Alphabet recognition occurs through songs, play, and hands-on activities.

  • The Soundabet Song – Letter identification doesn’t just include what letters look like, it also includes what letters sound like. Can your child point to the letter name as well as the sound it makes? This Soundabet Song is a great way to teach kids how to pair the sounds of the letters to what the letters look like. 
  • Letter Push – This ABC play dough activity uses plastic letters and play dough! Add in some fine motor skills to alphabet identification, by having children push plastic letters into play dough while they name the letter. This can be done as a circle time game, where each child take a turn pushing in a letter, or a small group time where every child has the opportunity to push the play dough letters. 
  • Alphabet Sensory Bins – Nothing keeps my preschoolers entertained more then a large sensory bin! Adding alphabet letters or letter markers to the sensory bins for children to find and match, is one of the most exciting letter identification games. Check out these sensory bin base ideas to use in different letter recognition sensory  bins.
  • This alphabet sensory writing tray requires users to recognize letters by uncovering them from a sensory medium. This is a great activity for recognizing letter parts such as diagonals or the curved part of a letter as the letter is uncovered.
  • Metal alphabet tray play – My favorite is to add a metal pan to the sensory table, and ask kids to stick the magnet letters they find in the sensory materials onto the metal pan!
  • Alphabet Discover Bottle – This sensory discovery bottle can be used before naptime, bedtime, in a calm down corner, or as a learning activity. As children shake the bottle, they can name the letters that appear! 
  • Match letters- Match uppercase letters to lower case letters, match different fonts of letters, and match letters in different environments (books, signs, on television, in print, etc.)
  • Gross motor activities- Use a letter floor mat to jump on a specific letter. Ask the child to find a letter magnet and place it on the letter mat.
  • Letter recognition scavenger hunts- Use ideas like these letter clothes pins scavenger hunt for ideas.
  • Write letters in shaving cream or in sand
  • Sort letters by word families when teaching letter groups
  • Play beginning sound games- I spy with my little eye, a word that starts with /b/
  • Use dot markers to dot letters
  • Spot letters on a white board and trace with a dry erase marker
  • make letters from pipe cleaners
  • Sensory play activities
  • Trace letters on sandpaper

A final note teaching letter recognition skills:

Learning through play doesn’t have to be stressful. Every child learns differently, and that includes recognizing letters of the alphabet. Once a child has developed the visual discrimination, expressive and receptive language skills needed to participate in letter identification activities, notice what motivates them to learn.

Do they like to move, cut, color, dance, or sing? Pick a letter activity that you know your child will love, and they will keep coming back for more. This will result in increasing their attention span and learning new letters daily. Follow your child’s interests and you will surely have a wonderful time!

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

The Letter Fine Motor Kit is a 100 page printable packet includes everything you need for hands-on letter learning and multisensory handwriting!

This resource is great for pediatric occupational therapists working on handwriting skills, fine motor skills, visual motor skills, and more. Use the activities to promote a variety of functional tasks.

Teachers will find this printable packet easily integrated into literacy centers, classroom activities, and multisensory learning.

Parents will find this resource a tool for learning at home, supporting skill development, and perfect for therapy at home!

MULTISENSORY HANDWRITING

Grab the Letter Fine Motor Kit and use all of the senses, including heavy work, or proprioceptive input, through the hands ask kids build and manipulate materials to develop handwriting and letter formation skills.

STEM Fine Motor Activities

Fine motor STEM activities

Occupational therapists work with fine motor development as a cornerstone of treatment.  With the current trend toward STEM education, it makes sense to blend the two into fine motor STEM activities and treatment in order to be more efficient and effective.

Fine motor STEM activities

What is STEM?

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.  According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, STEM occupations are growing at 24%, while other occupations are growing at 4%.  Children in the United States score lower on science and math than students in other countries. 

The push for STEM curriculum helps bridge the gap between genders and races, that are sometimes found in science and math fields.  Students with special needs also lag in these academic areas. Research shows there are not enough students pursuing science, technology, engineering, or mathematic degrees, as compared to the available jobs.

According to the National Science Foundation, “In the 21st century, scientific and technological innovations have become increasingly important as we face the benefits and challenges of both globalization and a knowledge-based economy. To succeed in this new information-based and highly technological society, students need to develop their capabilities in STEM to levels much beyond what was considered acceptable in the past.”

Why Fine Motor and STEM?

Science, technology, electronics and mathematics do not just involve cognitive ability. Fine motor skills are needed for STEM careers that involve typing, building, writing, solving equations, experimenting, research, surgery, as well as everyday function. 

STEM fine motor activities are going to be much more important to build these important skills. As technology gets more scientific and advanced, so too will the need for precise fine motor skills.  Surgeries are much more advanced than 100 years ago.  Engineers are working on tiny circuits and micro computers.

I saw a BMW prototype last week that morphs from a car to a plane that can soar over traffic!  Imagine the dexterity it takes to build that kind of machine!

When should I start working on STEM fine motor activities?  

Caregivers start addressing fine motor skills in babyhood. Encouraging a passion for science and technology can start at the same time.

Selecting a few fine motor toys for young learners that address fine motor skills while developing STEM education. 

For example, check out this super cute (Amazon affiliate link) Frog Balancing Game that can be modified for many different levels of learners. This one game involves:

  • math – counting, sorting, adding, number recognition
  • science -measuring weight, comparison
  • fine motor skills – pick up and manipulate the small objects, hold the cards
  • visual motor skills – read the cards and process the information

How do I make this transition to fine motor STEM?

Change is hard. Especially for seasoned therapists who have used a certain system for a long time, or feel that what they are doing works.  The good news is, you have already been doing STEM fine motor activities with your learners. 

Check out this link on Amazon (affiliate link) to toys/activities that address STEM fine motor activities and skills.

On The OT Toolbox, we share tons of fine motor activity ideas to incorporate STEM into fine motor treatment. Occupational therapists do not usually correlate these activities with STEM, but they fit into both categories.  

Remember pegboard Geo Boards?  This classic game builds fine motor strength, following directions, coordination, motor planning, visual motor skills, visual perception, frustration tolerance, and executive function.  It ALSO addresses math using measurement, shape recognition and patterns; science learning about rubber bands and tension; and engineering to create patterns from a picture.

Fine motor STEM and Lego  

Legos are another classic toy. Use activity analysis to break this game down into its fine motor components, as well as incorporating math, engineering, or technology. 

There is more to LEGO bricks than being able to follow a diagram to make a Harry Potter Hogwarts Castle (love this by the way!).  Speaking of the Hogwarts castle, there was definitely math, engineering, AND fine motor skills needed to build that superstructure. 

Learners can also make graphs of their LEGO, use them for adding/subtracting, use engineering to create items with moving parts, and that is just the beginning. 

By thinking outside the box, learners with special needs can find their special ability using Legos also.

classic toys for STEM fine motor activities

The lists of (Amazon affiliate link) classic toys occupational therapists incorporate into treatment plans is endless.  Take another look at these classics to see how they fit into science, technology, engineering or math.  

  • Peg boards
  • Lacing cards
  • Magnets
  • Measuring tape
  • Swings
  • Pop the Pig, Connect 4, Trouble, Candy Land
  • Lincoln Logs, Connex, Erector Set
  • Baking
  • Slime

Fine motor and STEM activities do not have to include experiments, games, and hands-on activities.  Worksheets serve the purpose of addressing both categories very well. 

The OT Toolbox has great fine motor kits for each season that incorporate math and science along with addressing those needed fine motor skills. 

More ideas from the OT Toolbox

As a seasoned therapist myself, I may dig my heels in at the idea of changing the way I do treatment, or learning a new method. I give a heavy sigh of relief knowing I have been doing STEM all along. I just didn’t call it that. 

Even though occupational therapists are providing the right activities to work on goal achievement, they may be running into students with lack of motivation, refusal, and general dislike of many of the treatment ideas asked of them. 

Teachers and therapists need to help bridge this gap early on, and find a way to teach all learners a respect for STEM and fine motor education.

You are doing a great job incorporating what you already know, into something new!

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.

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:

Fun Friendship Activities for Preschoolers

Preschool friendship activities

The preschool setting is a place social emotional skills develop, and these friendship activities for preschoolers are sure to be a hit in the preschool classroom. We’ve covered friendship activities in the past, but these preschool activities support development during the early years. Preschool is a wonderful age, full of exploration and a thirst for knowledge, and making friends in preschool is one aspect of learning. It also comes with a set of challenges while learning to navigate social skills.

This blog discusses the foundational social and emotional skills that support friendships in preschoolers. It also includes seven friendship building activities. If you are looking for ideas for friendship lesson plans, these ideas are founded in developmental progression.

Preschool friendship activities

Friendship Activities for Preschoolers

Young children in preschool begin to practice friendship building skills with others, such as cooperation, negotiation, turn taking, communication and trust.

Children as young as three years of age may make inseparable friendships that prove the importance of social function. While participating in specific activities designed to develop friendship skills, children are participating in social emotional learning.

Preschool Friendship and social skills

Emotional intelligence is part of development during the preschool years. Over the course of ages 2-5, many of these skills develop in order to support friendship.

The emotional intelligence skills that impact friendship include:

  • Empathy
  • Awareness of others
  • Awareness of impact of self on others
  • Conversation
  • Self-management
  • Relationship management

There are six social skills needed to make and sustain friendships at any age. Preschoolers often experience their first group experiences at the park, preschool, in a community sport, or family event.

The more that children have opportunities to participate in group activities, their social and emotional skills develop and refine, as they prepare for less adult intervention in Kindergarten and beyond. 

Social emotional considerations that impact friendship skills in young children include:

  1. Cooperation
  2. Negotiation
  3. Turn taking
  4. Communication
  5. Trust
  6. Emotional regulation
Let’s take a closer look at the friendship skills preschoolers develop during the ages of 3-5, and explore friendship activities for preschoolers that support development in each of these areas:

Cooperation

When children are engaging in activities with others, understanding the needs of others, while also acknowledging their own needs, they are cooperating. As described in this Zero to Three blog, “Cooperation is the ability to balance one’s own needs with someone else’s. We often think of cooperation as children doing what adults want. That is compliance. True cooperation means a joint effort—a give and take that is mutually satisfying. To develop a cooperative spirit in children, we need to help them understand how our requests and rules are good for everyone.”

Negotiation

Negotiation is the ability to communicate with others in order to compromise on how to complete a task.  This Embracing Horizon’s blog describes the difference between negotiations and arguments. It is important to understand that negotiation is a life skill. “The art of successful negotiation is a skill which is important to social situations throughout life; going far beyond agreeing on a movie to watch with the whole family. Negotiation involves abilities such as listening to others, expressing empathy, and to coming to a good compromise.”

Turn Taking

Turn taking is a skill that often needs adult intervention, especially with preschoolers. Children who are working together, often need to take turns with toys or objects. Children can utilize turn taking resources, such as turn taking cards, lists, timers, picture symbols, or participate in teacher directed turn take activities, such as group games, or assignment of class jobs, to become familiar with waiting until it is their turn. My book, Sammy Learns to Share: A Lesson in Turn Taking includes some great turn taking tips and resources for the classroom. 

Communication

As children develop communication skills, they are able to be understood, and understand other children. Communication can be verbal, gestural, non verbal, or through using picture exchange cards. When children can communicate their wants, needs, and ideas clearly to each other, they are more equipped to be able to cooperate in large group activities. As children advance into new developmental stages, their communication skills advance, and their play skills become more sophisticated. Lack of language skills is often a source of frustration and maladaptive behavior among small children, especially those with communication disorders.

Trust

The foundation of any relationship is trust. If someone says they are going to do something, then they need to do it. This consistency and reliability builds trust. As preschoolers grow and engage with others, they learn to follow through with their promises, and expect others to do the same. They learn that adults generally do what they say they are going to do, follow routines, follow-through with promises, and offer positive reinforcements. 

Emotional Regulation

When young children become overwhelmed and are unable to communicate their feelings with others, completing a group task can be difficult. Children who practice calm down and problem solving skills, are more easily able to participate in a variety of group activities, even when they become frustrated. My book, Soothing Sammy’s Emotional Program, teaches children how to help calm down, communicate and problem solve in a positive way. 

7 Friendship activities for Preschoolers

Include these games and activities when developing preschool lesson plans:

  1. Friendship Hands Group Project is one of my favorite pre-K activities! The handprints are of the kids in the class, and we write down exactly what they like best about their friends inside the heart! All you need is a marker, some paint and a large piece for cardboard!
  2. Group Art- is a great way to encourage cooperation, collaboration and negotiation. Roll out a long piece of butcher paper and provide only one package of markers. Children are able to decorate the paper however they would like, but they have to take turns with the markers, discuss how they want to split up the area of the paper, and figure out where each peer will be drawing. A lot of times, the kids end up sharing the space with their peers, creating some amazing images together. 
  3. Dramatic Play Roles and Props – Creating a pretend play area in the classroom that is based off of the interest of the children, by the children, and for the children, is one of the most exciting and collaborative experiences that I have had the pleasure of taking part in. Props that preschoolers can use in play include interactive toys, sharing toys, imagination toys, and manipulatives for pretend play. As children create props, assign roles, and negotiate through the process, they are able to practice all of the components of building friendships.
  4. Friendship Gross Motor ActivitiesPreschoolers love to move. These super fun gross motor activities make building friendships fun! They include activities such as, “move like your friends,” that supports the  developing and awareness of personal space.
  5. Friendship Books – We have many friendship activities for preschoolers in our Exploring Books through Play book. Reading books about friendship is a wonderful way for children to talk about characters in a book, describe how they became friends, and what make their friendship special. Our Leonardo the Terrible Monster activity that pairs with the book, Leonard and the Terrible Monster, is fun way to extend the conversation about friendship into small group time. My book, Sammy Goes to Preschool, talks about friendship between children of all abilities. 
  6. Friendship Science Activities – These friendship science activities are bound to be a great time for everyone! They include measuring activities, fingerprints, homemade telescopes, flowers, and more! You’ll find more science and exploration activities in the book Exploring Books Through Play.
  7. Circle Time Friendship Games – When all the children in the classroom are sitting together and ready to engage, this is a great time to participate in some friendship games. Friendship games to use during circle time activities are fun. They include the Friendship Yarn Web, Friendship Matching Game, and Friendly Music Chairs!

A final note of preschool friendships

Building friendships takes a lot of different skills, most are learned in the early years. Preschoolers will not be able to do it on their own, so it is up to adults to help facilitate friendship skills through modeling, providing resources, and having age appropriate expectations of early childhood development. As children practice their language, social and play skills, friendships will form, and children will learn life-long skills.

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

Exploring Books Through Play contains 50 hands-on, multi-sensory play-centered activities for anyone helping kids learn about friendship, acceptance, empathy, compassion, and differences in others.

In this preschool friendship activity book, kids can develop social emotional skills resource, you’ll find therapist-approved resources, activities, crafts, projects, and play ideas based on 10 popular children’s books.

Each preschool book covered contains activities designed to develop fine motor skills, gross motor skills, sensory exploration, handwriting, and more. The resource helps preschoolers understand complex topics of social/emotional skills, empathy, compassion, and friendship through books and hands-on play. Get Exploring Books Through Play today.

Benefits of play dough

Occupational therapists always has a container of play dough in their therapy bag…there are just so many benefits of play dough. Squish, squeeze, pinch, flatten, roll, cut, stamp, and mold and other fine motor playdough activities are just a few of the ways children can engage with play dough. It’s a classic modeling compound that is timeless, holds popularity, as well as longevity in childhood development. We know that the primary job, or occupation, of children is play and playdough offers a tool for play while building skills. Because of that fact, one of the main benefits of play dough is it helps to develop skills while providing hours of satisfying fun for children of any age.

Benefits of play dough
Just some of the benefits of playing with playdough

Benefits of Play Dough

Learners of all ages and stages can reap the benefits of play dough. As an adult, don’t you still enjoy the squishing, squeezing, and molding fun using play dough?

Play dough can target many areas of skill development. Tons of inspirational ideas can be found online. There are many creative individuals online who share awesome ideas for play dough fun. As therapists, you can take those fun ideas and add your Occupational Therapy (OT) eye to build the skills a child needs for their specific development.

Play dough is a tactile gem, and occupational therapy practitioners know this!  There are so many benefits of play dough. Playing with this dough regularly is great, as it is a toy with no right or wrong way to play, is safe, and appeals to many people with various learning styles and needs. Children can make their own play dough making it even more fun!  

The benefits of playing with play dough include:

  • Fine motor skill development
  • Tactile sensory challenges
  • Bilateral coordination
  • Sensory development
  • Self regulation tool
  • Creative development
  • Eye-hand coordination development
  • Gross motor development
  • Social skill development
  • Life skill development
  • Learning skill development
  • Rapport-building tool

We’ll cover how to use play dough as a tool to support development in all of these areas in greater detail below.

As a side note, did you know that playdough was originally created as a wallpaper cleaner? This “mistake” turned out to be one of the most desirable and iconic playthings around…and kids gain all of the benefits of playing with playdough!

How to Develop Skills with Play Dough

So, when you pop open a tub of colorful play dough, you probably aren’t thinking about the benefits of playing with playdough…but your pediatric occupational therapist probably is!

Fine motor skill development

Play dough helps build multiple fine motor skills, while promoting play, as it instantly provides multi-sensory hands-on interaction. Children who are tactile seekers love to engage with play dough, and instantly begin squishing, squeezing, and molding it. 

If you are looking for ideas for therapeutic sessions, try these fun fine motor play dough activities to encourage fine motor skill development and hand strengthening throughout the year. 

If learners seem tired of routine fine motor and visual motor activities, adding these super fun play dough game boards and cards to your OT Toolbox will keep kids engaged, while building their skills.

Fine Motor Skills Developed through playing with Play Dough

  • Pinch strength
  • Eye-hand coordination
  • Intrinsic muscle strengthening
  • Separation of the sides of the hand
  • Pincer grasp
  • Opposition
  • Tripod grasp
  • Wrist extension

If more strength and dexterity is needed, traditional thera-putty can be swapped for play dough.

Specific skill areas can be developed using play dough including:

Bilateral coordination

Another one of the benefits of play dough is building bilateral coordination. Bilateral coordination can be both sides of the body doing the same thing, working together, like squishing the play dough.

It can also be one hand holding the dough, while the other hand uses a tool. The addition of playdough tools can enhance skills and play.

Rolling a play dough snake is particularly effective for developing bilateral coordination skills. In many functional tasks, both hands do symmetrical task (buttoning a shirt, pulling up pants, jumping rope, etc. When rolling a lump of play dough with the hands together, one needs to use the same amount of pressure or force with both hands, and move the playdough together at the same time. Otherwise, the play dough snake is lopsided, or thin on one end and not the other.

There are many commercially available play dough tools, but there are also tools that can be found in the home!  Kitchen tools safe for children to use, are some of the best tools for bilateral hand skills. Start with simple flatware such as butter knives, forks, and spoons. Next, look through your utensil drawers.

Do you have a spatula, pizza wheel, cookie cutters, garlic press, rolling pin, scissors, potato masher, skewers, or a muffin pan? These are perfect for play dough playtime! Experiment and see what your learners like to use. Build those bilateral coordination skills, while also building early life skills, with the use of kitchen tools. It’s a win for childhood development. 

sensory development

Using play dough can be great for the sensory seeker who loves texture. Those who seek out heavy work through the hands can benefit from

While touching sticky or messy textures is difficult for the individual experiencing tactile defensiveness. For those who avoid textures, play dough can support development and tactile challenges with a sensory medium that is consistently the same texture each and every time. It is not as easy for the avoider who does not like to get messy.

Traditional play dough is not as sticky as slime or other putties, making it a great tool for some individuals.

To use play dough to support tactile defensiveness, try these tips:

  • Add gloves for play with the learner with extreme avoidance, until they can tolerate touching the play dough.
  • Add different textures such as salt, glitter, beads, rice, to add more tactile input for your sensory seeker.
  • Be considerate of the smell of play dough. Some love it, while others can not tolerate this familiar smell.
  • Add your own scent in home made dough for olfactory input.

What other kinds of sensory input can you think of using play dough?

Provides calming and quiet time

Play dough can be used as a relaxing medium that provides calm and quiet time for children who are feeling anxious or stressed and need a break away from the noise and the action. 

This happens by the feedback of the dough as a resistive material, which offers heavy work through the hands, fingers, and arches of the hands. This feedback of proprioceptive input can be a coping strategy used in a sensory diet or as a self-regulation tool.

Play dough manipulation also provides tactile sensory awareness and proprioceptive input, which can serve to be therapeutic by giving deep pressure to the hands, fingers, and arms in a calming manner. 

If making your own play dough, add a little calming essential oil, and you’ve given it another desirable element for calm play, and time away. Another great benefit of play dough! 

One especially calming play dough recipe is our crayon play dough, and playing with the dough when warm is very calming.

Boosts creativity and imagination

Working with play dough helps unlock the creative juices of a learner. Since there is no right or wrong, their creativity is unleashed and ready to go, using whatever materials are around and available. We covered using play dough imagination activities in greater detail on a previous blog post.

Pretend play activities like pressing flowers and rocks into play dough is a pretend play activity while building underlying areas of sensory and motor development.

If you have a few kiddos who seem to struggle with creativity, or imaginative play while at the play dough table, The OT Toolbox has you covered with these great play dough mats to facilitate engagement and boost creativity for kids.

Take a look at these play dough mats, and get your FREE copies in the links below:

Play dough Develops eye-hand coordination

Play dough is the perfect tool for kids to work on important eye-hand connection skills. Learners utilize hand-eye coordination to poke, cut, smash, and pinch the play dough.

Eye-hand connection is developed when using cookie cutters to cut playdough, and add accessories to decorate. Using stampers or objects to press into the dough to make images or scenes, can further build eye-hand coordination.

If you want a fun way to encourage play dough engagement, it can be fun to add a weekly or monthly theme to therapy sessions way to facilitate hand actions, for play dough manipulation, including tool use. Just use play dough in each session and switch out the manipulatives, cookie cutters, or items to hide in the play dough.

  • Get out a set of Mr. Potato Head pieces and work on pressing these into the dough to make a funny character.

Gross motor skill development

Play dough can be used for gross motor development also. Include playdough in an obstacle course as a stop between obstacles, or gross motor exercises. 

Try this:  walk the balance beam, then create a play dough stick figure, do a bear walk, next create a play dough bear face, roll in the tunnel, then roll a ball of play dough flat with a rolling pin, etc.

Use the same idea for exercise programming: complete an exercise, complete a play dough activity, and so on.

the benefits of play dough as a Multi-level tool

Play dough can be used as a foundation when using materials included in (Amazon affiliate link) play trays, and other themed activities.

There are many cool play dough tray ideas and inspiration for other themed activities that will make your play dough table the coolest table in the school building.

Examples of play trays

In addition to the above play dough tray ideas, there are several play dough kit ideas online ideal for the traveling therapist who needs to move throughout several buildings or homes. These kits are the perfect engagement tool, easily transported wherever you end up seeing a child for therapy. 

Playdough Kits

play dough builds life skills

Engaging with play dough can help to build important life skills as children follow simple recipes to make their own play dough, and use kitchen tools for engagement. They are measuring, mixing, and creating, while developing knowledge of tool use and hand skills in the kitchen.

When kids use play dough tools like plastic knives, play dough scissors, and other sculpting tools, they are strengthening the skills needed to hold a fork and spoon, developmental progression of grasping utensils, and particularly the skill of cutting food with a knife.

Play dough recipes can be adapted from a very simple dough recipe to add in different ingredients and materials to create recipes on a spectrum of abilities and cooking tasks.

Simple play dough recipe- This play dough recipe without cream of tarter is probably the simplest version which still challenges life skills.

Advanced play dough recipe- Did you know you can use crayons to make play dough? Pick a color or shade, or mix them a few to create a new shade.  This crayon play dough recipe does require an adult to perform the stovetop part of the recipe. An older, or more advanced learner could do it with supervision. 

On that spectrum of play dough recipes with varying difficulty are many of the best play dough recipes for therapy that we have here on the website.

Social skill development

Interacting with play dough provides social emotional learning and social skill development opportunities between children in a small group or child and adult. 

When using play dough as a tool, children participate together by talking, sharing, and co-building. 

When using play dough with no right or wrong way to play, play it is the perfect tool for social interaction without competition. 

Learning tool

One of the many benefits of play dough, is learning.  It can be a multi-level teaching tool for areas including math, literacy, and handwriting. 

Use playdough as a creative way to practice math skills and concepts, or use it to mold and shape letters to work on handwriting.

This is especially beneficial for kids who struggle with letter formation, and have weak fine motor skills. You can use play dough as part of a literacy routine, by creating scenes, acting out stories, stamping out sight words, representing new vocabulary terms, or using push pins to form words.

Rapport building tool

Play dough can help therapists/teachers/caregivers build rapport with new learners on their caseload or classroom during back-to-school rapport building periods or when meeting a new therapy client.

Simply present it and play. It is really that easy. 

Use a kit, tray, or a few cookie cutters, and you’ve got an instant engagement tool that allows for conversation and creation, while building that important therapeutic relationship.  

Now, go have some amazing playtime with this classic toy. You know you want to!

Regina Allen

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

List of Student Strengths For IEP Writing

Student strengths for IEP

Here we are covering more on student strengths for IEP writing, which is an area of the student’s Individualized Education Plan that should never be overlooked. Student strengths in the classroom are important to understanding the student as a whole! In this post I will provide a few examples of items to add to your list of student strengths for IEP writing, to help you get the ball rolling. In order to provide a wide range of options, some general strengths and along with some that are more specific to occupational therapy will be highlighted.

Student strengths for IEP

WHAT BELONGS IN THE STRENGTHS SECTION of the IEP?

Because the IEP is written in order to provide specialized services to help a student access their education, much of the conversation in IEP meetings is focused on what the student needs to work on, or what staff supports are needed/provided to help the student.

The strengths section balances that conversation with the more positive side of things.

Here’s how I like to think of it: the strengths of the student are the building blocks that new skills will be added to – or in other words, how can the student use their current strengths to help them make more gains in the future? 

Taking that question into consideration can help a student make goals or develop skills based on personal strengths and achievements. Use this letter to future self as a guide post in developing a growth mindset using those personal strengths.

In this section, when writing the list of student strengths for IEP, we want to be sure to write newly achieved skills, other pertinent skills, personal qualities, family, and community strengths as well. Read on to see examples. 

LIst of student strengths for IEP: Any New Skills 

My favorite part of the strengths section of an IEP is when I get to write a current strength of a student, that used to be a weakness. For example, one of my students was originally receiving occupational therapy to address fine motor skills and visual motor skills. Now, he has perfect handwriting, and no longer needs specialized services for this skill area!

What a powerful way to support a child’s progression than to shout their achievements out for the whole educational team to hear! (Though literal shouting in an IEP meeting may be frowned upon.)

Kidding aside, any recent gains should be included in the strengths section of the IEP, in addition to the positive qualities they have always possessed. Both of these areas should always be shared with the student as well. It can support carryover of goal areas, as well as encourage meaningful participation.

Hint: If you aren’t sure what counts as a “new” skill, or strength, look at any recent progress towards their goals, or maybe a goal that has been met! 

Examples of new skills or strengths:

  • Improving to a mature pencil grasp
  • Following a 2-step direction
  • Sharing toys or school supplies
  • Improved use of coping skills
  • Increased focus during reading
  • Independent use of adaptive equipment or other classroom tools 
  • Improved memory for computer use
  • Correct letter formation 
  • Maintains seated position on the carpet with peers
  • Independently zips and unzips coat

Look at special qualities when listing student strengths on the IEP

What makes this student unique? Taking a look at specific student strengths in the classroom is a great place to start.

Maybe they are a great helper in the classroom, a friend to all, or have a stand-out-talent in music class.

I like to look at their special interests and include a few; if they share their love of Spiderman or Minecraft, and integrate it into their school day appropriately, that may be worth noting.

This contribution to the list of student strengths for IEP is far less based on goals or reasons for specialized services, but it is integral to who the student is at the end of the day. It also gives any new coming team members some ideas of what motivates the student. 

Examples of Special Qualities to list on the IEP

  • Builds friendships easily
  • Carries the books of a peer
  • Very optimistic thinker
  • Loves to draw for free choice
  • The perfect “line leader” 
  • Shares preferred items with peers
  • Always excited for math class 
  • Teaches peers to play Spiderman at recess time 
  • Enjoys crafting wooden sculptures
  • Empathetic
  • Loves to write to her pen pal 

Family or Community Strengths for the IEP

Making a note about the strengths of a student’s family or community supports on the IEP report is not always recognized in the list of student strengths IEP section, but it is worth noting. These areas of strength are part of the student’s environment, and impact overall functional performance of the student.

Some case managers, or more broadly, school districts, like to expand student strengths beyond the student solely in the school setting. Bringing in the family or community broadens the lens to what outside supports the student has.

Another way to think about it is, what outside help does this student have to help them achieve their goals? Having a supportive family and community will absolutely affect student growth.

Additionally, if there are any special interests of the student that are community-based, this may be a great opportunity to highlight that. An outside hobby, sport or group can be integral to the student’s school success. This is especially true to students who will be graduating soon, and will be integrating into the community. 

Examples of Family or Community Strengths to list on the IEP

  • Loving family with mom, dad, and sister
  • Cared for primarily by paternal grandmother whom he talks about often 
  • Lives with foster family who act as great advocates
  • Attends weekend camp at the YMCA where he builds community skills
  • Meets community members while he works part-time as a grocery store clerk 
  • Plants a garden at the senior center every spring
  • Is a member of the local special Olympics team 
  • Member of Girl or Boy Scouts
  • Competes well on a soccer team

The list of student strengths for IEP writing can be endless!

There are so many areas of strength that you could dive into: physical strengths, academic strengths, social skills, emotional regulation…the list goes on!

If IEP writing is new to you, or you are not sure what to add based on your role, just remember to think of the student as a whole. Think of their goals and their history. Do they always make you laugh? Maybe they are as sweet as can be? Write it down! This is the time to gloat about your student. 

Sydney Thorson, OTR/L, is a new occupational therapist working in school-based therapy. Her
background is in Human Development and Family Studies, and she is passionate about
providing individualized and meaningful treatment for each child and their family. Sydney is also
a children’s author and illustrator and is always working on new and exciting projects.

Sensory Diets for Adults

Do adults need a sensory diet? Yes!  A Sensory Diet for Adults is just as beneficial as it is for children. Exactly what is a sensory diet? A sensory diet supports the sensory needs of any individual, providing them with a set of sensory strategies used to assist with the regulation of activity levels, attention, and adaptive responses. Looking at this list, adults definitely NEED the ability to self-regulate, organize their sensory systems, and support their sensory and emotional needs. So how can we go about this in the midst of work, parenting, and everything the day brings?

sensory diets for adults

How do you create a sensory diet for adults?

The overall goals of a sensory diet are to meet the sensory needs of an individual by preventing sensory overload, supporting self-regulation, and helping to have an organized response to sensory stimuli. Sensory diets can also help an individual recover from sensory overload, if the preventive threshold has been crossed.

In order to create the most effective sensory diet, it is important to consider ALL of the senses, which includes proprioception, vestibular, tactile, visual, auditory, gustatory, olfactory, and interoception (more about these later in this post).

Creating a sensory diet for adults requires consideration of the lifestyle of an adult. The steps include; analysis and identification, strategizing, applying strategies, and monitoring effectiveness, to ensure individual needs are being met. 

Even for adults, completing a sensory checklist, questionnaire, or survey is important. It will insure all sensory areas are identified, and all interests and preferences are considered when working on the development of a sensory diet for adults.

Use a sensory journal to track sensory processing

Another tool to assist in creating a sensory diet for adults, is keeping a sensory diary to help identify personal needs triggers, and dislikes.

A sensory diary, or a sensory journal, is much like a food journal might be used to figure out food triggers that impact headaches or skin issues.

Just like a journal to identify what food stimulated a physical change in the body, a sensory journal can be a helpful tool to identify sensory predictions of regulation, organization status, calmness, or ability to participate in every day activities.

For example, if you are a school field trip chaperone for your kindergartener’s fieldtrip to the musical instrument factory, you might be on heavy overload on auditory input in the way of loud noises, screeching children, a bumpy bus ride. This can put you into a state of headaches, difficulty focusing, disorganized thoughts, emotional state of dysregulation, and overall inability to function for the rest of the day.

When you look back at your sensory journal, you can see that all of the auditory, vestibular input was very chaotic, abrupt, and unexpected. When you see in your sensory journal that you had a migraine and couldn’t function for the rest of the day and the next day, then it makes sense.

Scheduling sensory diets for adults

Knowing these, will aid in the development of an individualized and successful sensory diet. 

The scheduling of sensory diet activities is an important part of the sensory diet design when attempting to be proactive versus reactive. Scheduling the use of sensory strategies throughout the day will help keep the senses regulated in order to avoid sensory overload.

At times, this threshold gets crossed, sensory overload ensues, and the reactive stage happens. As an adult, this is bound to happen. The good news is, many preventive strategies can be utilized in the reactive stage as well. 

If you are seeking a comprehensive resource that can help guide your pursuit of sensory diet creation for success, check out the Sensory Lifestyle Handbook from The OT Toolbox. It will provide you with a strategy guide to create sensory diets for adults as well as children, and incorporate these choices into a lifestyle of sensory success!

Adult sensory diet strategies You’re probably already doing

Adults often use sensory strategies to support their needs without even realizing they are doing so. The difference between adults and children is, adults tend to use appropriate strategies. They are not likely to be jumping on the furniture, screaming in a meeting, or licking the furniture.

Think about the adult who:

  • clicks a pen top frequently while working in the office
  • shakes their foot excessively while seated in the church pew
  • twirls their hair while listening or concentrating
  • snuggles under a heavy blanket when getting home
  • rocks back and forth while seated
  • has to have the TV or radio on in the background
  • chews gum all the time
  • exercises daily without fail

The OT Toolbox provides information regarding Adults with Sensory Processing Disorder if you want to further explore information on this topic. 

effective sensory diet strategies for adults

Sensory diets for adults are similar to ones created for children. They have the same basic design, but some of the strategies are more adult-like in form, and the environment in which they are utilized differs. 

Recognizing the triggers and stressors that cause sensory dysregulation, will help understand how and when to implement activities, before the point of stress. There are several different sensory products available for adults, as highlighted in this post on the OT Toolbox, that can help with regulation.

There areas proactive strategies available that can help also.

sensory activities for adults

These are activities that can easily be done within an adult setting, to meet targeted sensory needs. There are strategies for each of the senses, as this is key to a well rounded sensory diet.

Vestibular sensory activities for adults

Vestibular strategies involve movement for regulation. As the head changes positions, and the body moves, input is regulated in the inner ear. Vestibular input is the building block of all of the other systems.

Check out the vestibular activities we have here on the site. While these are movement-based play activities for kids, you can see how the different motions impact a state of calmness or alertness.

These vestibular sensory activities for adults work in the same way:

  • yoga
  • slow rocking in a chair
  • spinning in an office chair
  • sitting on a therapy ball
  • standing at a desk
  • windmill arm exercises
  • stretch breaks
  • brisk walks
  • dancing 

Proprioception Sensory Activities for Adults

Proprioceptive strategies involve deep pressure, or heavy work for regulation, as the muscles, tendons, and joints are activated with increased intensity. Deep pressure often has a calming or organizing effect.

Here on the site we have many proprioception activities for kids, but the main concept is the same. Offering heavy work through the joints offers calming regulatory input.

Some proprioceptive sensory tools for adults include:

  • push-ups in any form – floor, chair, wall, or desk
  • yoga poses 
  • mindfulness apps
  • Using some of the same breathing exercises that we use with kids
  • squeezing arms and legs
  • weighted lap pad or weighted blanket
  • heavy work- for adults this might be mowing the lawn, gardening, running, etc.
  • self-hugging or massage
  • resistance band exercises
  • therapy putty exercises

Tactile Sensory Strategies for Adults

Tactile strategies involve sensory touch stimulation for self-regulation, but it also involves tactile defensiveness too. While some adults crave this input, others respond negatively to touch. For this reason, a personalized sensory diet for adults is important.

Some tactile strategies for adults include:

  • brushing protocol (trained by qualified individual), bean bag tapping up and down the extremities
  • calm strips, sequin items, textured clothing, or some other form of texture
  • use of a stress ball
  • Fidget toys…go ahead and pick one up. You’ll see why the kids love them!
  • applying lotion to arms and legs
  • small massager to hands, arms, and legs
  • fidget tools or DIY fidget toys, such as squeeze balls, pop its, clickety gadgets, etc. Amazon (affiliate link:) has an entire fidget toy category for adults!
  • seeking the amount of personal space needed when near others. More or less may be needed depending on the needs of the individual

Olfactory sensory strategies for adults

Olfactory strategies involve using the sense of smell or input to the nose to either provide calm or alertness for self-regulation. Some adults have a scent sensitivity that is related to candles, certain oils (even cooking oils), fabric softeners, or allergens. An air freshener allergy is especially common when candles, room freshener sprays, or plug in scents are supposed to be calming and soothing, they are actually disorganizing for your sensory system.

Again, each person has their own individual needs and preferences, so a customized diet is helpful. Read about the olfactory sense here.

Consider essential oils and lotions with the following scents:

  • lavender, vanilla, orange, and chamomile to reduce tension or stress and/or promote relaxation
  • citrus, peppermint, cinnamon, and lemon to promote increased alertness and/or concentration
  • coffee beans for a neutral scent to balance other smells
  • try deep breathing strategies (inhale gently and deeply through the nose and exhale gently and slowly through the nose, repeat as often as needed)

Visual Strategies for adults

Visual strategies involve visual input for self-regulation.

  • changing lighting: a lamp light for reducing visual input vs. overhead fluorescent light for increased visual stimulation
  • dimmer switch for overhead lighting, to reduce or increase light 
  • reduce or eliminate visual clutter in the setting in all planes, for increased calm
  • paint calming colors on walls for such as blue or neutral colors, and for increased alertness, think orange or red
  • use patterned rugs or curtains for alertness, or more neutral and solid colors for calming
  • work in an open space with views of action within the space for alertness, or go for a partition or desk divider to eliminate visual distractions, for a more calm and focused setting
  • take eye rest breaks when exposed to excessive amounts of computer light
  • consider a computer glare screen, blue blocking glasses, or colored screen filters to block computer lighting, and decrease visual input

Auditory sensory ideas for adults

Auditory strategies can reduce or eliminate noise for improved self-egulation in adults. Alternatively, they can add or increase the noise for a sensory seeker.

  • music and the type of music, can be alerting or calming
  • white noise can help provide a constant sound, making it predictable, or be bothersome to more sensitive people
  • earbuds, or ear plugs, can help block out some noise
  • noise-canceling headphones help block out as much noise as possible
  • running water from a fountain or nature sounds can feel calming
  • running fan or another humming-type device
  • foam earplugs to muffle sound without completely blocking it out

Gustatory Strategies for adult self-regulation

Gustatory strategies can help to alert or calm individuals, simply by the sensory input provided either through the texture or flavor of the food, or the mouth movement needed to consume it. When considering foods, try to go for healthy options when possible.

To increase alertness, try crunchy, salty, sweet, sour, spicy, hard to chew, or cold foods and/or drinks. To calm and organize, consider smooth, warm, and softly flavored foods, and/or drinks, as these tend to be more soothing.

Likewise, different foods and drinks can be calming. Sucking a thick drink through a straw can serve to provide proprioceptive input, being calming or alerting. Iced fluids are more alerting. Warm or hot liquids are generally more calming.

Consider these for increasing levels of alertness:

  • Crunchy: apple slices, carrot sticks, pretzels, nuts, tortilla chips, graham crackers, or rice cakes
  • Sour: lemon flavor, cranberries, sour candy, green apples, lemonade, and tart cherries
  • Sweet: yogurt, juices, frozen fruit juice pops, smoothies, grapes, oranges, and strawberries
  • Spicy: chips and salsa, cinnamon flavor, peppers, and pretzels with spicy mustard
  • Salty: baked potato chips, salty nuts, crackers, popcorn, and pickles
  • Chewy: bubble gum, gummy bears, dried fruit, jerky, fruit leather, bagels, or granola bars
  • Sucking: sucking a smoothie through a straw or sucking another warmer liquid through a water bottle nozzle
  • Cold: Iced water, ice cream, crushed ice, frozen berries, or frozen sherbet

Consider these for increasing calm:

  • Soft and/or softly flavored: cottage cheese, peanut butter, avocado, pudding, oatmeal, freshly baked cookies, or applesauce
  • Warm: Hot tea, warm cocoa, or soup

Interoception strategies for an adult sensory diet

Interoception strategies involve understanding and feeling what is going on inside of the body.  Understanding how the body feels and how it reacts to certain sensory strategies can help to identify what is alerting and calming to the individual. Consider:

  • Deep breathing
  • Mindfulness activities
  • Yoga 
  • Temperature control
  • Heavy work and alerting activities
  • Understanding of feelings and emotions
Note: Many of the sensory strategies listed here can be scheduled throughout the adult day, or within the moment of need. If seeking further sensory strategies that might help in the pursuit of sensory diet tools, take a look at the following sensory diet examples

Sensory Diet Example for Adults

When it comes to creating a sensory diet for the adult with sensory needs, there are aspects of sensory processing to be considered, in order to integrate sensory diet activities into the day to day functional activities. 

How can you incorporate sensory input into everyday tasks?

Essentially, it is important to add movement and sensory options during activities like tedious tasks, waiting periods, or times when self-regulation is essential to the task at hand. Adding the sensory diet strategies correctly into tasks supports needs. The Sensory Lifestyle Handbook is a great resource to get your started. Can you get up and walk around while on the phone making an appointment? Can you take a minute to stretch and breathe deeply during traffic?

Here are examples of sensory diet for adults

  • Wake up, stretch at the side of the bed.
  • Start the day: yoga, exercise, cool drink of water with lemon
  • Next: bathroom/hot shower, vigorous towel to dry off, compression clothing
  • Breakfast: steamy coffee, warm milk, soothing foods
  • Transport to work or school: walk or ride to day’s events while listening to calming or alerting music, reading, journaling, listening to podcasts, etc.
  • Movement breaks during the day: use fidgets, get up and move throughout the day, eat a snack, chew gum, schedule standing breaks during the day, use a standing desk, consistent water drinking, listen to alerting music while working, deep breathing, mindfulness apps, silence notifications, use ear pods while working, etc.
  • Afternoon/Evening: go for a walk, read a book, drink tea, grocery shop or complete other tasks while listening to music, call a friend or loved one, listen to audiobooks, calm down yoga, or stretching at night
  • Prepare for next day: write out schedule or to-do lists, doodle, journal, mindfulness strategies, read, watch movies or television (electronics are visually alerting and should be limited close to bedtime)
  • Sleep: Use heavy blanket or weighted blanket, heavy pillows, cool room with fan, noise machine, ear plugs, deep breathing before bed, gratitude journal, camomile tea before bed

An adult sensory diet is heavily dependent on the lifestyle of the individual, sensory preferences, day to day tasks, and personal preferences. Using these suggestions, a sensory diet can be integrated right into the tasks that need to be accomplished each day.

The Takeaway to Creating adult sensory diets

An adult sensory diet is all about discovering what works for an individual, as each person’s needs are unique, and may change over time. It is important the adult get to know themselves and what they need, before making a plan (the sensory diet) to feed their body’s needs, making it simple nutrition for the brain and the body.

Regina Allen

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

Sensory Paths and Sensory Stations

sensory paths and sensory stations

A sensory walk, sensory station, and sensory path…what are these things and how do they support sensory processing needs? Here, we’re covering it all when it comes to using sensory paths or walks as a tool to support sensory needs. You’ll love the printable sensory station tools to add to your DIY sensory path!

sensory paths and sensory stations- what is the difference

What are Sensory Paths?

Let’s start with covering these terms.

A sensory path is a defined path, or walkway that directs users to complete a variety of sensory-motor tasks. The activities that make up a sensory path are typically gross motor tasks that incorporate proprioceptive input, vestibular input, and visual input. These sensory systems are powerful regulating tools to organize and this is why motor movements in a sensory path engage these systems.

A sensory path is typically a literal pathway on the ground; it may be painted onto a sidewalk or schoolyard. It may be stickers or images stuck to a floor or hallway in a school.

I know you’ve seen, or read about the (Amazon affiliate link) sensory pathways displayed on walls and floors of the school building. These are available commercially, or sensory paths can be made with paint and stickers.

Sensory paths can support self-regulation needs during transitions or scheduled sensory diets within a day.

What is a sensory walk?

A sensory walk is another term for a sensory path, however, some sensory walks can be nature-based, in the outdoors. Including flowers, grass, benches, and sounds of nature, a sensory walk can be very calming and regulating.

Other sensory walks are not nature-based. They are manufactured and can be also called sensory paths. Not only are the commercial versions of sensory paths expensive, but they are also highly colorful, and have multiple visual elements. These designs make for high visual noise (or visual clutter), making them ineffective for some children.

Some pathways can be highly dysregulating, as children attempt to decipher the visual clutter, and act on the path elements.

sensory stations and sensory station ideas for kids

What are sensory stations?

Sensory stations are an area set up with the intention of engaging children in exercises that help to stimulate and regulate their senses, and facilitate transitions within the day. When children need a brain break, or if you need some fun ideas to meet sensory strategy goals, these are the perfect tool.

Sensory motor stations provide a visual, coupled with a written directive, that can be followed by most anyone who needs to build their sensory strategy bank. 

Sensory stations can be part of a calm down corner or they can be posted in a hallway as a transition tool. These can be a specific area or “station” that allows users to pause and participate in self-regulation strategies: heavy work, vestibular movement, or deep breathing exercises, or mindfulness techniques.

Below, we have free printable sensory stations that you can use in a sensory path, sensory walk, or sensory corner. Are you interested in some freebies that are effective and fun? You’re in the right place visiting this post. It‘s full of Sensory Stations that you can print and post to make a fresh approach to self-regulation, use in creating a sensory path of your own. 

If you work with children who need less stimulation, and more simplified visual directions, these FREE sensory stations are a must. They are simple, providing both visual and written directives. Download the PDF and go.

sensory stations in the school setting

In the school setting, sensory station printables can be used for an entire classroom, a small group, or with individual children. A sensory path is often sought out for use in the school setting, but once that sensory walkway is set on the asphalt, hallway linoleum, or in a certain space, it’s there for good!

Using a sensory station that can be removed and replaced with different themes is nice in the school setting because they can be used over and over again in different locations.

The nice thing about using a sensory station over a sensory path is that they can be posted throughout the school setting:

  • Classrooms
  • Therapy room
  • Gymnasium
  • School hallways
  • Cafeteria
  • Library
  • Social worker’s office
  • Guidance counselor’s office
  • ESL classroom
  • Or in different locations, to help children rotate through the stations throughout the day or as a brain break.

They offer the movement breaks students need, when and where they need them, to gain the sensory benefits they crave.

Print the sensory walk stations and provide a simple training to your school staff, to make these activities available for any child who needs the support. 

sensory stations in a clinic

In a private clinic, sensory walk stations can be used in a pathway to different areas of the building, or posted in different locations where specific needs are being addressed.

In our private clinic, we have them posted on the wall down the hallway that leads to the therapy gym. These visuals serve as a great transitional tool, that helps children get ready for a different therapeutic environment.

Sensory walks can be provided as a home program, so they can be used as part of a child’s sensory diet. Some parents can’t afford sensory equipment like a swing or trampoline, so whenever possible, offer strategies they can afford.

Parents will be grateful for structured home exercises that are fun and motivating for their child.

Teletherapy sensory stations

Since the pandemic, therapists are often providing services through teletherapy occupational therapy. Sensory walk stations can be used as a warm-up, or sensory input activity for kiddos who need that support while having an on-line session.

They can easily be printed and displayed to the child over the computer, or do a screen share using the resource PDF. These printables are versatile. Changing them for different seasons or holidays, keeps them new and motivating. 

what kind of sensory station ideas are available?

What kind of sensory station ideas can you find on the OT Toolbox? Seasonal and holiday-themed stations are available, with being added.

Grab these sensory path printables below, print, laminate, or slide them into a sheet protector, and hang them up today! 

If you are a regular visitor to the OT Toolbox, you would benefit from our members club. Never miss a post, product, or freebie! Here are all the details:

Want to add this resource to your therapy toolbox so you can help kids thrive? Enter your email into the form below to access this printable tool.

This resource is just one of the many tools available in The OT Toolbox Member’s Club. Each month, members get instant access to downloadable activities, handouts, worksheets, and printable tools to support development. Members can log into their dashboard and access all of our free downloads in one place. Plus, you’ll find exclusive materials and premium level materials.

Level 1 members gain instant access to all of the downloads available on the site, without enter your email each time PLUS exclusive new resources each month.

Level 2 members get access to all of our downloads, exclusive new resources each month, PLUS additional, premium content each month: therapy kits, screening tools, games, therapy packets, and much more. AND, level 2 members get ad-free content across the entire OT Toolbox website.

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Let’s take a look at what exactly you will find on the site today:

Spring Sensory Walk Stations:

  • Frog hop walk
  • Spring flowers figure 8 deep breathing trace 
  • Flower wall push-ups
  • Butterfly wings windmills
  • Bumblebee trace and breathe 

Summer Sensory Walk Stations:

  • Dolphin leap
  • Bumblebees figure 8 deep breathing trace
  • Beach ball press wall push-ups
  • Crab squat summer sand squats
  • Hermit crab shell trace and breathe

Fall Sensory Walk Stations:  

  • Squirrel leaps
  • Fall leaves figure 8 deep breathing trace
  • Leaves wall push-ups
  • Fall jumping jacks
  • Acorn trace and breathe

Winter Sensory Walk Stations:  

  • Penguin waddle
  • Frosty wind and snow figure 8 deep breathing trace
  • Snowball hands wall push-ups
  • Ice skater one leg standing balance
  • Snowflake trace and breathe

Christmas Sensory Walk Stations:

  • Reindeer leap
  • Christmas lights figure 8 deep breathing trace
  • Santa sleigh push wall push-ups
  • Jingle bell jumping jacks
  • Christmas tree trace and breathe

If you are new to sensory processing difficulties, the Sensory Lifestyle Handbook is a great place to start.

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.

One last thing to point out about these sensory walk stations, is that they not only provide the sensory input a child may need, but they also address core strength, motor planning, crossing midline, eye-hand coordination, and overall, fine and gross motor skills.

Regina Allen

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

Problem Preschool Behaviors

preschool behaviors

Today, we’re covering problem behavior in preschoolers, including behaviors that impact learning and development because of participation in preschool activities. Every preschooler, family, and classroom is different. With the uniqueness embedded into an Early Childhood Classroom, it isn’t uncommon for teachers to have some run-ins with concerning behavior. This blog will teach you the five steps to creating a behavior plan for managing preschool behaviors, which encourages positive interactions with parents and children. 

Problem behaviors in preschool and what's the behavior trigger for preschoolers

The uniqueness of every family and child plays a role in each preschool classroom. Every teacher has expectations. All classrooms are set up differently, and the environment can change, based on the activities and people who are present. Understanding how to support children and their families, while teaching children academic, social, and emotional skills, can be daunting for preschool teachers. 

examples of challenging preschool behaviors

Some of examples of challenging behaviors in preschoolers include:

  • Hitting, scratching, slapping, grabbing
  • Biting, spitting, chewing on non food items, licking
  • Kicking others
  • Bolting out of the classroom or other setting
  • Refusing to work, refusal to cooperate, talking back
  • Yelling, screaming, crying
  • Tantrums – Check out this post on the OT Toolbox to better understand meltdown vs. tantrum behavior

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Do any of these behaviors sound familiar? 

What causes challenging behaviors in preschool?

Before covering strategies to address behaviors that impact learning and the development of skills, it is important to understand why we may see challenging behaviors in the preschool setting.

Based on these Kindergarten readiness standards of emotional readiness, 5-6 year old children are expected to know how to calm down, listen to teachers, follow directions, take turns with peers (this is a great resource on turn taking), and transition between activities throughout the school day. 

When a child enters preschool, they typically haven’t had much experience with some of these tasks. Some young children adapt well to the social and emotional expectations of a large group situation, while other children need extra support. 

Preschool behavior triggers

Behavior Triggers

There can be a multitude of reasons why problem behaviors occur in the preschool setting. Just some of the behavior triggers that lead to common issues in the preschool setting include these causes:

  • Having a new routine (potty training, time change, or differing work schedules of parents are some examples) throws off the child’s ability to self regulate
  • Experiencing a change in home environment (a new baby added to the family, moving to a new home, or other home changes)
  • Not getting enough sleep (check out this article on sleep hygiene)
  • Too much screen time
  • Developmental changes in the preschool age range

Breaking these underlying areas down, it is possible to see three common factors that may trigger a behavioral response between the ages of 3-5 years.

Three common triggers of preschool behavior outbursts:

  • Basic needs (hunger, sleep, thirst, temperature) Is the child hungry, tired or overwhelmed? Is it close to snack time or nap time? Did the child drink enough water while they were playing outside? Basic needs affect everyone differently. Children tend to be sensitive to bodily changes. Medical issues may affect basic needs. Make sure to be in contact with parents about any sort of change in a child’s health. This includes toileting challenges (constipation), new medications they may have been given, and allergy concerns.
  • Environment (changes to routine of the environment, home situation, transportation, changes to the classroom environment: lights, sounds, smells, temperature, distractions, unexpected changes).
  • Behavior of others (behavior of peers, behaviors and actions of adults, parents, caregivers, educators, and behaviors of others in the classroom: other children making noise, someone provoking them, someone else having a tantrum).

Triggers of challenging behavior in the preschool age range can be compounded by several of these considerations occurring at one time. Additionally, preschoolers can struggle with communication to let others know what is happening in their world.

How to support challenging preschool behaviors

How to support challenging preschool behaviors

Children learn best from consistency. This pertains to social and emotional expectations, both at home and in the classroom.

Talking to families about concerns regarding their child’s behavior, is one of the hardest conversations that a teacher can have.

By creating a 5 step behavior plan with the family, educators can support children, while also demonstrating to families that they are there to help by teaching their child how to interact and engage with their peers. 

5 Step Behavior Plan for Preschoolers

Here are the 5 steps to complete when creating a behavior plan for a child. Going through these steps, you’ll see that addressing emotional regulation, getting to the root of underlying causes and considerations, creating an age-appropriate plan, including play-based strategies or tools to support development in these areas.

As always, the concept of the “iceberg” of underlying considerations is upheld.

1. Determine the cause of the behavior

There are many different causes of a child’s behavior. Parents and teachers can track the behavior of a child, gathering data using an ABC chart. This refers to antecedent (what happened before the behavior started), behavior (what that child did), and the consequence (how did the child and adult respond to the behavior.) 

When observing children to understand the cause of their behavior, make sure to pay close attention to the common behavior triggers addressed and listed above. Getting clear on what’s causing the visible behavior is essential.

*Keep track of children that are known to have sensory sensitivities (Here are some questions to ask yourself when monitoring the environment:

  • Have you changed anything in the room?
  • Has the weather been different (humid, rain, snow, extra cold or hot)?
  • Is it really bright and sunny, or gloomy and foggy?
  • Does the child have any sensory sensitivities such as clothing, sounds, being touched?
  • Have you changed the classroom routine?
  • Has the child touched or engaged in a sensory rich experience they may not have liked (finger-paint, sensory bin, slime, play dough)?
  • Is the classroom too loud or very busy?
  • Check if the child is wearing something new/uncomfortable (do their shoes fit? Is there a scratchy tag on their clothes? Is their diaper too tight?)
  • Here is a great post on working with children with sensory differences.

2. Talk to parents and caregivers

Once you have narrowed down the cause of the behavior, make a plan to meet with the child’s caregivers (parents, grandparents, daycare staff) to go over your findings. Include any member of their team who spends a great amount of time with this child.

Documented evidence and observations from the ABC chart will give you concrete examples of what is happening, and why. 

When starting the conversation with the family, begin by describing the child’s strengths. Share their child’s favorite activity to do at school, who their friends are, and one great thing they did that week.

Next, show the family the ABC chart, explain what behaviors you want to change, and what new behaviors you would like the child to do instead.

Encourage the family and other caregivers to share their observations of the child at home, and out in the community. 

3. Create goals to improve preschool behaviors

After sharing what you are going to work on with their child, include the team in goal setting, allowing caregivers to share what they would like their child to do. As you write these goal, phrase the goals in a positive way, showing what you expect from the child.

As with all goals, make sure they are measurable and attainable. For goal setting tips, check out this post on using a goal ladder.

Make an appointment for a follow up meeting with the family, so you can check in on how the child is doing at home, at school, and out in the community. 

For example:

  • Jackie will use her words when she wants to use a toy 80% of the time. 
  • Mark will participate in circle time for 10 minutes with supports such as breaks, sensory fidgets, alternative seating without leaving the area.
  • Trent will transition from outside to inside time on her own without maladaptive behaviors or needing to have physical support. 

Next, it’s time to come up with a way to support the child in meeting these goals. 

4. Establish interventions for challenging preschool behaviors

As you determine the interventions to be used at school, share them with the family, encouraging them to use the same interventions at home and in the community.

Children thrive on consistency. When receiving the same messages and intervention techniques at home and school, children will learn the behavior faster. They will learn to carry over the behaviors from one setting to the next.

Three common interventions to include in a preschool behavior plan:

  • Create a calm down corner with tools for emotional regulation- Children tend to become overwhelmed, losing control of their emotions, when they don’t have a positive way to calm down. Soothing Sammy teaches children how to calm down, using visual and tactile tools, while supporting a positive image of feelings. As children learn how to manage their feelings, they are able to communicate and problem solve in different situations.
  • Sensory diet for the classroom – When children become frustrated due to sensory difference, a sensory diet for the classroom and home works wonders, by giving children the tools to cope with their struggle. This list, created by occupational therapists, includes practical strategies easily implemented in any preschool classroom.
  • Utilize Visual and Auditory Cues for Transitions- Children who are overwhelmed or frustrated, don’t always hear what others are saying to them. The use of visual schedules, visual prompts, and auditory cues remind children what is expected of them, when they aren’t able to process what is said. Using visual tools such as a picture schedule, first/then chart, or picture exchange cards (PEC), while keeping directions clear and simple can help. Adding an auditory prompt, such as a bell or clapping, to signify it is time to clean up, gives children multisensory ways to receive a direction. 

Check out this visual cue resource for use in daily activities, sensory diets, PECs, and visual supports.

5. Preschool Behavior Plan Follow through 

When following through with a preschool behavior plan, the next steps are important. This follow through looks like many things.

Talking with parents and caregivers, make sure that you follow up with a second meeting to discuss the child’s progress. This is important, as it gives the parents the ability to weigh in on the next steps, the teachers to provide parents with constructive feedback of how their child is doing, and an opportunity to discuss a referral to specialists if needed.

Some of the most common specialist referrals are:

  • Audiologist for a hearing evaluation
  • Occupational therapist for sensory, behavior, motor skill concerns
  • Speech therapist for language delays
  • Early Intervention for developmental delays
  • Behavior therapist for more intensive behavior needs
  • Pediatrician for concerns about medically based delays (including autism, ADHD, nutrition, sleep, or gastrointestinal issues)
  • Note: teachers need to be cautious when suggesting referrals to other professionals, offering possible diagnoses, or alarming caregivers.

check out these other great resources from the OT Toolbox to support behavior

Creating a behavior plan helps parents and teachers work together regarding preschool behaviors. Providing an environment that includes consistency, open communication, and sensory supports, will give every child a supportive environment they need to thrive. This five part behavior plan blueprint includes strategy ideas, goal creation tips and resources for behavior tracking. A behavior plan is an essential component of a healthy classroom.

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