Back to School Sensory Activities

back to school sensory activities

It’s that time of year and having a few back to school sensory activities up your sleeve can make all the difference in a stuffy, hot classroom when kids need self-regulation tools after a long summer break. Whether you are looking for classroom sensory diet strategies, or sensory strategies for the school-based OT, putting a back-to-school spin on “sensory” is a hit during the Fall months.

back to school sensory activities

Back-to-School Sensory Activities

The back-to-school season is a prime time to dust off those sensory cobwebs and consider how sensory motor input supports students.

In this blog post, you’ll find a list of ways to support sensory needs using a back-to-school theme. The ideas are great for this time of year when welcoming a new roster of students into the classroom.

  • Our free sensory strategy toolkit is another great resource that supports school-based OTs, educators, and parents of students with sensory needs.
  • You’ll also find many resources, including a printable sensory activity sheet here on this article about calm down strategies for school.
  • These ideas for sensory seekers can be adapted to meet school-based needs (or used in the home for homework time, the after-school period, or homeschooling)

Why Use Back-to-School Sensory Activities?

Heading back into the school year can throw some kids for a spin.  The first few weeks can be a change in routine from the safety of home. For kids who are starting up on a homeschool routine, it can be difficult to pay attention when sensory needs and distractions are in the next room. This can lead to self-regulation needs that support the student’s ability to concentrate and learn after a summer off from the routines of school.

Other reasons for using sensory strategies during the back-to-school season include:

  • Earlier wake-up times after a summer of staying up late and sleeping in. A quick sensory motor brain break can make all the difference.
  • A new routine may throw some students for a loop.
  • The transition period can be a real challenge for some children. It might be the early alarm clock or using time management in the morning that is a challenge. For other kids, moving to a new school, or even just going back to the classroom in general can be a challenge. Try these transition strategies to support these needs.
  • Distractions and Technology: With the prevalence of screen time in kids, and the use of technology/devices, students may find it difficult to focus on schoolwork without being distracted by social media, video games, or other online activities. A quick sensory break can help with attention and distractions.
  • Social-emotional needs: Social emotional dynamics can change over the summer, and students may feel pressure to fit in or establish their social identity when school resumes. This pressure can affect their self-esteem and confidence. The ability to regulate emotions might lead to challenges with learning due to the emotional regulation and executive function connection.

You may have a child of your own that “crashes” after a week of school during this time of year. There is a lot happening that is just exhausting during the return to school. Sometimes, all it takes for an easy transition into the back to school days is a sensory strategy that meets the needs of the sensory child. Let’s explore these ideas below…

  Classroom sensory activities and sensory strategies for back to school or throughout the school year.



back to school sensory ideas and strategies for the classroom that teachers can use with sensory kids.

Back-to-School Sensory Ideas

These sensory activities are ones that can easily be used in the classroom or homeschool room.  They are strategies that can be incorporated into the student’s daily routine within the school environment.  

These school sensory activities are presented in list form for ease and planning, but they can be used in a classroom sensory diet or in various strategies.  

The ideas below are ones that easily allow the child to meet their sensory needs in a natural way, so that it is not an interruption to the classroom or other students.  

Rather, some of these sensory strategies are movement and heavy work-based ideas that can easily be adapted for the whole classroom for brain break type of activities. 

As always, these sensory ideas are ONLY ideas and should be regarded as a reference.  Every child is different and has different sensory needs.

The ideas presented below are not regarded as Occupational Therapy treatment and should only be used in addition to and along with an individualized Occupational Therapy plan made following assessment. 

Sensory Activities for Back to School

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1. Wall Push-Ups- Show the student how to push against the wall while doing “push-ups” from a standing position.  This is a great heavy work activity, or a quick “brain break” activity that provides proprioceptive input for heavy work for improved focus, calming, and self-regulation.

2. Desk Fidget- Use a DIY fidget or a store bought hand fidget toy to allow the child tactile sensory or proprioceptive input to the hands for improved attention and focus while sitting and performing desk work.

3. Chair Push-Ups- Allow the child to push up from the seat with his arms, keeping the elbows strait.  Pushing up through the arms provides proprioceptive heavy work through the upper body.

4. Move desk/furniture.

5. Erase the chalkboard or dry erase board.

6. Sensory errand- Carry milk crates or plastic bins full of books or supplies from center to center around the classroom or from room to room in the building. Some schools have an “important message” to other classrooms or the office in the form of a folder. Just moving, taking a quick walk through the hallway, to deliver a note or other message can offer a much-needed sensory break. For more heavy work input, add a tote bag filled with books or ask the student to push a cart with materials.

7. Shoe laces fidget-  Add a couple of beads to the child’s shoe laces for a fidget toy that can be used discretely while sitting in floor circle time or during desk work.

8. Manual Pencil Sharpener-  Turning and sharpening pencils with a manual pencil sharpener provides proprioception to bilateral upper extremities.  This can be a good task prior to writing tasks.

9. Backpack for carrying supplies from room to room-  Students can carry supplies to other classrooms in a backpack for heavy input.  This can be a calming strategy while walking the hallways to other areas in the school as well, such as while walking to the lunch room or special classes. The hallway can be an overwhelming and high-sensory environment so deep pressure to center the child can be helpful.

10. Stapler heavy work- Staple paper or remove staples from a bulletin board for upper body proprioceptive input.

11. Sensory seat- Air cushion seating such as a wiggle seat cushion or a frugal, DIY version using a $1 wiggle seat cushion option. Here are more ideas for alternative seating options and even some DIY flexible seating ideas.

12. Place chairs on rugs.  Sliding chairs on classroom floors can lead to auditory overload for some sensory kids.  Try using carpet squares under each individual chair.  When the child pushes his chair out, he can slide the chair right on the carpet square out from the desk.  

13. Hallway March-  Get the whole class involved in a “walk this way” activity.  They can march from the classroom to specials or the lunchroom.  Try other brain break and whole body movements while walking in the line down the hallway, too: Try high knee lifts, toe walking, heel walking, elbows to knees, and patting the knees while walking.

14. Sports bottles for drinking- Sipping water through a long straw or sports bottle can allow the students to focus and attend given proprioceptive input through the mouth. This is a great whole classroom strategy for helping with attention and self-regulation. Read more about using a water bottle as a sensory tool.

15. Movement breaks in the gym or classroom- A quick brain break can help kids focus during periods of desk work.

16. Push mats in the gym- Moving those big gym mats is a great whole body proprioception activity. Or, ask students to move desks or other equipment that uses the whole body.

17. Auditory support- Headphones for limiting auditory stimulation during center work or times when there is a lot of chatter in the classroom. Here are more tips for auditory sensitivity in the classroom.

18. Visual picture list- Knowing what to expect is a non-traditional sensory strategy. But when you think about it, the visual input is a support when it comes to knowing what is next, how much time is left until lunch, and how much longer the day will last. A visual schedule can be a benefit for the whole classroom.  Try this daily pocket chart schedule

19. Simon Says Spelling-  Try practicing spelling words with a movement and vestibular sensory input Simon Says version. Try these Simon Says commands if there are a few extra minutes to use up during the school day or between transitions.

20. Play dough math for proprioceptive input through the hands.  Try a math smash type of activity and use a heavy resistive dough like this DIY proprioception dough. There are many benefits of play dough and sensory input is just one of them!

21. Kneaded eraser for sensory input through the hands- Use a kneaded pencil eraser for a hand-held fidget that doubles as an eraser with proprioceptive input.

22. Crunchy snack break- Try snacks like pretzels, crackers, kale chips, popcorn, or roasted chickpeas for an alerting snack. Oral motor exercises offer calming or alerting input and using a crunchy (or chewy) snack can support these needs.

23.  Sensory bin for math or sight words-  Create a sight word sensory bin or even use a sensory bin for math or spelling words. This can be a fun and unexpected way to dive back into spelling after the summer break! Add tactile sensory input to learning using a variety of sensory bin fillers.  Ideas include shaving cream, shredded paper, crafting pom poms, among many other ideas.

24. Vibrating pen rainbow writing for sight word or spelling practice-  Proprioceptive input to the hands can be very helpful for many kids, especially if they are writing with too much pencil pressure.

25. Jump/move/hop in hallway- Take a movement and brain break with a hallway movement activity.  Add learning aspect with spelling, facts, or math.

26. Roll a ball on the legs-  Add a vestibular aspect to vocabulary or themed learning, including history, English language arts, or science.  Kids can answer questions and when they answer the question, they roll the ball along their legs by bending down to roll the ball on their thighs.

27. Hopscotch Math-  Add a hopping proprioception activity to the classroom with a hopscotch board created right in the classroom using masking tape.

28.  Graph Paper Writing-  Add a visual sensory twist to handwriting, math, spelling, or any written work by using graph paper.  The added lines can be just the visual spatial prompt needed for kids with visual sensory processing concerns. Here are more sensory based reasons to use graph paper.

29. Make a desk sensory diet box-  Use a dollar store pencil case to create customized sensory diet bins that can fit right into the desk. Items would be used specific to the child’s needs, but might include resistive putty, paper clips for fidgeting, or movable toys. Use these occupational therapy kits for more ideas.

30. Wash desks with spray bottles. Squeezing a spray bottle to wash desks or water plants offers heavy work through the hands.

31. Cut classroom decorations from oaktag. Heavy input through the hands by cutting thicker paper is a great way to add a quick and functional movement break. Students will love to see their handiwork on the walls, too.

32. Create a calm down corner in the classroom This can include fidgets, mindfulness centers, books, and many more sensory tools. Plus try these other calm down strategies for school.

33. Try a sensory swing- Sensory swings for modulation can be used when applicable and recommended by an occupational therapy provider. Sometimes, you’ll see these in a sensory room or in a therapy room in the school. Here is more informaiton on types of sensory swings.

34. Use the playground! Getting those students outside can make a great sensory movement break. Check out how to use the playground for sensory input and read this resource on sensory diets at the playground.

All of these ideas support sensory needs and are great activities to use during the back-to-school time. We love that they are fun, functional, and the whole classroom can benefit!

Want more ideas to support sensory needs at school? Grab a free copy of our Classroom Sensory Strategy Packet.

Free Classroom Sensory Strategies Toolkit

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    Related resources include our blog post on Ayres Sensory Integration. This is a great place to start with gathering information on the sensory processing systems and the related behavioral, emotional, physical, and cognitive responses that we see.

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

    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.

    Activities to Improve Smooth Visual Pursuits

    visual pursuits

    For our kids who are challenged to visually observe their environment, or who struggle to demonstrate visual tracking in reading or other learning experiences, activities designed to promote smooth pursuits and eye movement can be helpful. The visual activities listed here can be helpful in addressing the smooth pursuits of visual input. Visual pursuits or tacking is an oculomotor skill that is necessary part of visual processing. Read on for various eye exercise that can be done in fun ways as a part of occupational therapy geared toward visual processing skills.

    Activities to improve smooth visual pursuits

    There are several activities to improve smooth visual pursuits that are used in occupational therapy to target smooth pursuits of the eyes. These smooth pursuit exercises are typically fostered through play, especially in occupational therapy interventions. 

    Below, you’ll find ocular pursuit activities, but first, let’s cover what visual pursuits are and how they impact a child’s learning.

    These activities to improve smooth visual pursuits are needed to improve visual tracking needed for reading and visual processing.
    Visual skills like visual tracking, or smooth visual pursuits are a visual processing skill that allow us to perceive and retrieve visual information. This is an essential part of reading and learning.


    What are visual pursuits?

    Visual pursuits are another term for visual tracking. Visual tracking is an oculomotor skill that is essential for learning, reading, and so many tasks we perform.

    Smooth visual pursuits refer to the eye movements that enable us to track moving objects smoothly and accurately with our gaze. It’s the eye following a moving target through coordinated motion of the eye muscles.

    When we watch a moving object, follow a moving object with our eyes, or follow a moving ball, our eyes move smoothly to follow the visual input. This allows us to maintain visual focus on the object as it moves. We can use that visual information to understand how fast and far the item is moving based on the object’s trajectory, speed, and direction.

    Here are more information about visual tracking activities. You will also love checking out these activities to improve visual tracking.

    Visual processing skills have a huge impact on learning. In fact, it is one of the visual skills that can impact learning in a way that isn’t always directly observable.

    Visual skills like visual tracking, or smooth visual pursuits are a visual processing skill that allow us to perceive and retrieve visual information. This is an essential part of reading and learning.

    These skills may be covered by a behavioral optometrist or developmental optometrist.

    Want to learn more about HOW visual pursuits and other aspects of visual processing impact learning (in a really big way)? Scroll below to join our free visual processing lab. It’s a 3 day email series where you will learn SO much about visual processing and how it impacts everything, but especially learning and cognitive skills.

    Visual tracking activites are needed for learning and everything we do! These activities to improve visual pursuits can be used in occupational therapy treatment sessions or part of vision therapy activities.


    Activities to improve visual pursuits

    These visual tracking activities are easy and creative ways to work on eye movement and smooth eye movements. Kids can perform these activities as part of a therapy program and while working on functional skills within an occupation.

    1. Relaxing breathing eye stretches- This visual tracking activity is a way to work on smooth pursuits in a very mindful way. Just like yoga brings awareness to the body and a sense of being present, this eye stretch activity is a great way to calm a class during a busy school day.

    Combine slow and deep breathing with deliberate eye movements. Kids can watch and follow directions to take deep breaths combined with slowly looking in a single direction. As they look up and breath or look to the left and breath, kids can even use this activity as a coping strategy.

    Try these yoga activities: 

    2. Flashlight Tag- Use a flashlight to help kids follow a target in various directions. Try a circle, uppercase letter “H”, triangle, straight/diagonal lines, etc. To make this activity more fun, try adding a deflated balloon to the top of the flashlight. Encourage kids to keep their face steady as they use just the eyes to follow the light.

    3. Craft Stick Puppets- Create small craft stick characters puppets to make a visual cue as a visual prompt for follow movement patterns. These barnyard animal puppets make a great DIY puppet tool for a visual pursuit and tracking activity.

    This pirate puppet is one idea that builds fine motor skills, too.

    4. Marble run activities- There are many marble run products on the market that provide an opportunity for improving smooth pursuit of the eyes. Here are DIY marble run activities that make a great activity in themselves for kids.

    We love to add slow moving items to marble run games too, to provide a slower object for visually tracking, encouraging smooth pursuits of the eyes. Encourage kids to keep their face steady while using their eyes only to watch the item fall through the marble run.

    Try these marble run ideas:

    5. Roll a ball- Roll a ball up a slanted surface and ask the child to keep their eyes on the ball! Some ideas include creating a sloped surface with a poster board and books.

    Simply roll a small ball slowly up the ramp and kids can watch the ball as it rolls. Also try having the child to sit in front of the ramp and be in charge of rolling the ball. Mark off where the ball should reach and stop so the child works on graded movement at the same time.

    Sitting in front of the ramp encourages visual convergence and binocular fusion as well. This activity works well with a large ball such as a kick ball and a sidewalk ramp, too.

    This baby brain building activity list has more ideas, too.

    6. Double Light Eye Tag- Use two different colored lights (light-topped pens work well). Flash one color on and then the other. Kids can move their eyes from color to color or follow directions to look at the two lights when they change.

    Hopefully, these activities to improve visual pursuits is a helpful addition to your therapy toolbox. Use these strategies to work on various visual processing skills and oculomotor skills.

    7. Hands-on visual tracking therapy activities- Use the ideas below to target visual tracking skills through play:


    More visual processing activities

    For even MORE visual tracking and pursuit activities to use in your occupational therapy practice, you will want to join our free visual processing lab email series. It’s a 3-day series of emails that covers EVERYthing about visual processing. We take a closer look at visual skills and break things down, as well as covering the big picture of visual needs.

    In the visual processing lab, you will discover how oculomotor skills like smooth pursuits make a big difference in higher level skills like learning and executive function. The best thing about this lab (besides all of the awesome info) is that it has a fun “lab” theme. I might have had too much fun with this one 🙂

    Join us in visual processing Lab! Where you won’t need Bunsen burners or safety goggles!

    Click here to learn more about Visual Processing Lab and to sign up.

    Free visual processing email lab to learn about visual skills needed in learning and reading.

    Visual pursuits visual tracking activities to help kids with the visual skills needed for learning, reading, and everything they do!

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

    oculomotor tools

    In The OT Toolbox Membership, you’ll find oculomotor tools that support visual tracking, smooth pursuits, and much more.

    Ambidexterity or Mixed Dominance

    What is ambidexterity

    Many parents see their child switch hands during tasks, or show refined use of both hands and wonder if their child is ambidextrous. Maybe a child uses their left hand to throw a ball, but bats with their right hand. Maybe they kick a ball with their right foot, but hold a pencil with their left hand. Ambidexterity is a common question among parents of kids who switch hands in activities or don’t use one hand consistently.

    In this blog post, you’ll find information on

    Ambidextrous Or Mixed Dominance?

    Here, we are covering several aspects of ambidexterity. We’ll go over the difference between being ambidextrous and having mixed dominance. We’ll cover what it means when a child uses both hands to write or color. And, we’ll go over some activities to support a dominant hand.

    How do you know if your child is ambidextrous or if they are showing signs of mixed dominance? This post will explain a little more about ambidexterity as well as mixed dominance and what it means in motor skills.

    Ambidextrous refers to use of both sides of the body in equal ability and refined dexterity. This can refer to a bilateral refined movement and skill in the hands, feet, and eyes. Ambidexterity is the ability to use both hands equally well. It means that a person can perform tasks with either hand without any noticeable preference.

    Cross dominance refers to a situation where a person’s dominance does not favor one side over the other. In simpler terms, it means that your child hasn’t developed a clear preference for using either their right or left hand for tasks.

    Mixed dominance is an other name for cross dominance. It can extend beyond just hand preference and also involve other body parts like the eyes or feet. For example, a child with mixed dominance may have a dominant hand different from their dominant eye or foot. This means that their dominance is spread across different sides of their body.

    In other words, cross dominance or mixed dominance is different than ambidextrous in that an individual with cross dominance might switch between dominant sides depending on the task they’re performing. For instance, they may write with their right hand but prefer to eat with their left hand.

    Let’s break this down further to explore ambidexterity.

    What is ambidexterity? Is my child ambidextrous?

    What does Ambidextrous Mean?

    The definition of ambidextrous is use of both hands with equal refined precision and motor skill. This means that each side of the body is equally able to write with natural motor planning, fine motor control, strength, and refined motor movements.

    According to the definition of ambidexterous, there is equal refinement and precision. You might think this means just the hands and fingers are involved with equal use of both sides. However, that’s not exactly the case.

    Those who are truly ambidextrous may have equal use of hands, as well as feet, eyes, and even toungue motor skills.

    An ambidextrous child will play naturally with toys using both hands. You might notice equal use of the hands and feet, or switching left to right or right to left during play, sports, school work, and other tasks.

    When it comes to someone being ambidextrous and fine motor involvement, this can refer to:

    • Writing
    • Scissor use
    • Clothing fasteners
    • Play
    • Hand strength
    • Brushing teeth and hair
    • Many other every day tasks

    Ambidextrous also refers to the feet too.

    An ambidextrous person will be able to kick equally strong and with the same amount of force with both feet. They are able to “take off” from a running stance with equal feet placement, whether they start out running on their left foot or their right foot. Gross motor ambidexterity can be seen in:

    • Jumping
    • Running
    • Skipping
    • Hopping
    • Balance
    • Kicking a ball
    • Throwing a ball
    • Catching a ball
    • Among many other every day tasks

    Ambidexterity can be observed in the eyes, too. Typically, all of us have one eye that is stronger, or a naturally dominant eye. We can complete a visual screening to identify this, or a visual exam may be in order.

    Finally, an ambidextrous individual may show motor overflow movements with the tongue to both sides of the body.

    Are you wondering about a child who uses both hands to write or perform tasks? Maybe you know a child who uses both hands equally and with equal skill. Perhaps your child uses one hand for specific tasks and their other hand for other tasks.

    Mixed Dominance or Ambidexterous?

    Just yesterday on The OT Toolbox, we discussed mixed dominance. In this post, we will cover more about true ambidexterity and what that means.

    A child with mixed dominance demonstrates clear, stronger patterns based on the side of the body they are utilizing to complete the task.

    For example, a child who is left hand dominant will develop a stronger fine motor pattern then a child who is not left side dominant but compensating for fatigue and is moderately adept at utilizing the left hand as a coping skill.

    Is my child ambidextrous

    A child who is truly ambidextrous will be equally as skilled at utilizing both sides of the body and it will look and feel natural to the child. Statistically, only 1% of the population is truly ambidextrous—it’s really very rare, and it is more likely that your child is experiencing mixed dominance patterns.

    True ambidexterity requires both hands to be used with equal precision and there is no true preference in either the right or left hand for either both fine or gross motor tasks.

    Can you make yourself ambidextrous?

    This is an interesting question. Many times there is a perceived benefit to being ambidextrous, or switching hand or foot use during a task. Some perceived benefits might be:

    • Switching hands when one is fatigued from use during a task
    • Switching dominant sides during a sport such as baseball or softball to pitch with the other arm, batting from another side, dribbling to the other side when bringing up the ball during basketball, or kicking a ball with the other foot during soccer.
    • Writing equal legibility with both hands

    Actually being ambidextrous is different than teaching yourself to become ambidextrous.

    To use both sides of the hand as a learned concept takes cognitive attention whereas natural ambidexterity occurs without thought. Because of the neuroplasticity of the brain, humans have the ability to teach themselves to use their non-dominant hand or side to complete tasks. It takes practice, practice, and more practice.

    Read here on motor planning where we cover this concept.

    Ambidexterity or Mixed Dominance?

    Is my child ambidextrous? Isn’t that what mixed dominance is? These are two questions that therapists get asked frequently when evaluating a child for the first time for mixed dominance and other concerns. The answer is no, they are not the same thing.

    This is a tricky area. Therapists recognize mixed dominance as a miscommunication or poor integration of the left and right sides of the brain and that’s how it’s explained to parents. However, there is a lot of information out there on this topic that may or may not be relevant to your child and her struggles— keep this in mind when Googling information.

    It is more likely, that your child’s brain is utilizing the left and right sides for very specific motor skills such as writing, eating and throwing a ball. This can lead to motor confusion—this is where the poor integration and lack of communication between the left and right sides of the brain comes into play.

    When the child is not utilizing one side of the brain more dominantly for motor patterns, confusion and poor motor learning occur leading to delays and deficits in motor skills.

    how to tell if your child is ambidextrous

    It is unclear why the brain develops this way, but it does happen, and it is okay. In fact, it is easily addressed by an occupational therapist.

    Determining if your child is ambidextrous, meaning they have equal proficiency and comfort using both hands, can require some observation. Here are a few signs that may indicate ambidexterity in your child:

    • Equal use of hands
    • Kicks a ball with either foot with equal distance and force
    • Balances on each leg equally
    • Equal tongue movements laterally
    • Proficient functional performance with either side of the body
    • Efficient use of tools with assistance of the other hand: scissor use, pencil use, feeding utensils, and other functional tools

    In addition to these abilities, you can take a look at areas of functional performance. These include the underlying skills that impact function.

    • Frequent hand-switching: Observe if your child regularly switches hands during activities such as writing, drawing, eating, or playing sports. Ambidextrous individuals often demonstrate fluidity in using either hand without a clear preference.
    • Equal proficiency: Notice if your child shows similar levels of skill and coordination when using both hands for various tasks. They may exhibit no significant difference in handwriting quality, drawing ability, or manipulating objects with either hand.
    • Ease in learning new skills: Ambidextrous children tend to adapt quickly when asked to perform tasks with either hand. They may show little to no difficulty when switching hands for activities.
    • Mirror-like movements: Pay attention to your child’s movements. Ambidextrous individuals may display symmetrical movements, where actions performed with one hand can be mirrored almost identically by the other hand.
    • Lack of hand dominance: Ambidexterity implies the absence of a clear hand dominance. If your child does not consistently favor one hand over the other for a majority of tasks, it suggests a potential ambidextrous inclination.

    Ambidexterous Motor Development

    I already touched on this a little, but a child with mixed dominance may switch sides for task completion when experiencing fatigue. Due to this, their motor development and precision is typically delayed.

    The most common area that this is noted in is in fine motor development for handwriting. This is because the child is equally, but poorly skilled with both hands, and will switch hands to compensate for fatigue.

    Motor delays may also be noticed later on when it comes to the reciprocal movements needed to throw/catch or kick a ball and when skipping. A child with mixed dominance may attempt to catch and throw with the same hand, hold a bat with a backwards grip, or stand on the opposite side of the plate when hitting.

    They may also experience a moderate level of confusion, and frustration as they are unsure of how to make the two sides of their body work together leading to overall poor hand/foot-eye coordination skills.Ambidexterity or mixed dominance and what this means for kids who use both hands to complete tasks like handwriting.

    For a few fun hand dominance activities, try these ideas to help kids establish a

    Ambidextrous hands and eyes

    If you have more questions and want to learn more on a dominant eyes and understanding how the eyes and hands work together during activities, you’ll want to check out our Visual Processing Lab.

    It’s a 3-day series of emails that covers everything about visual processing, visual motor skills, and eye-hand coordination. We take a closer look at visual skills and break things down, as well as covering the big picture of visual needs and how the hands and eyes work together.  

    In the visual processing lab, you will discover how oculomotor skills like smooth pursuits make a big difference in higher level skills like learning and executive function. The best thing about this lab (besides all of the awesome info) is that it has a fun “lab” theme. I might have had too much fun with this one 🙂  

    Join us in visual processing Lab! Where you won’t need Bunsen burners or safety goggles!  

    Click here to learn more about Visual Processing Lab and to sign up.

    ambidextrous eye dominance

    Hand preference is something we are often aware of, whether we are right-handed or left-handed. However, many parents may not realize that we also have a preferred or dominant eye. This aspect of eye dominance is often overlooked because we typically use both eyes together for most activities.

    So, how can you determine which eye is dominant?

    Observing monocular tasks: When using a camera, telescope, microscope, or squinting with one eye. Pay attention to which eye you naturally prefer to use. This eye is typically your dominant eye. In most cases, eye dominance aligns with handedness, meaning that if you are right-handed, you are more likely to be right-eye dominant. However, there are instances where the dominant eye may differ from handedness.

    Knowing about eye dominance is important because it can help to gain insights about a child’s visual processing and to identify any variations in eye-hand coordination. This knowledge can be particularly helpful when engaging in activities that require controlled motor planning, speed and timing of movement, and accuracy.

    Free visual processing email lab to learn about visual skills needed in learning and reading.

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

    DIY Light Box for Tracing

    DIY light table for tracing

    This DIY light box for tracing is an easy light box we put together in minutes. All you need is an under the bed storage container and a string of lights to make a tracing tool that kids will love. There are benefits to tracing and this tool is a fun way to build fine motor skills and visual motor skills as a visual motor skill leading to better handwriting.

    DIY light box for tracing

    A light box is a fun activity, and one you see in preschool classrooms, as it’s intended for hands-on play and exploring the senses. But did you know there are many benefits to using a light box for tracing (and other exploring play)?

    How to Make a DIY Light Table for Tracing

    This DIY Light Box was something I’ve seen around Pinterest and have wanted to try for a while…Once we had our Christmas lights outside, I thought we would definitely be doing this project after we pulled all of the lights back in.  So, after we brought the Christmas lights in from the outside bushes, this was easy to put together for a cold evening’s play!

    You need just two items to make a DIY light table:

    (Amazon affiliate links)

    1. Strand of white Christmas lights
    2. Clear, plastic under-the-bed storage bin

    Important: The under the bed storage bin needs to be made of clear plastic or have just a slight opaque color to the plastic. Also, the top should be smooth. Many storage bins have textured surface or a white surface. The flat, smooth lid is important for sensory play as well as tracing with paper on the DIY light table. This brand is a good one to use.

    Instructions to make a DIY light box:

    1. Plug in the lights.
    2. Place them into the bin.
    3. Either cut a hole in the base of the bin for the lights to go through or cut a small notch into the lid so the strand of lights can go under the lid.

    To make this homemade light box safer and not use plug in lights, you can use battery operated button lights inside the storage bin. Or, there are many battery operated LED lights available now too. These are a great idea because many of them have a color-changing capability and can be operated from an app on your phone.

    IMPORTANT: This homemade light box project should always be done under the supervision of an adult. The lights can get warm inside the bin and they should be unplugged periodically.

    This is not a project that should be set up and forgotten about. The OT Toolbox is not responsible for any harm, injury, or situation caused by this activity. It is for educational purposes only. Always use caution and consider the environment and individualized situation, including with this activity. Your use of this idea is your acceptance of this disclaimer.

    I put all of the (already bundled-up) strands of Christmas lights …seriously, this does not get much easier…into an under-the-bed storage bin, connected the strands, and plugged in!


    DIY light box for tracing

    A DIY light box made with Christmas lights

    Once you put the top on, it is perfect for tracing pictures!
    Tracing on a DIY light box

    Tracing pictures on a light table

    This is so great for new (or seasoned) hand-writers.  They are working on pencil control, line awareness, hand-eye coordination…and end up with a super cool horse picture they can be proud of!
    Use printable coloring pages and encourage bilateral coordination to hold the paper down. You can modify the activity by taping the coloring page onto the plastic bin lid. 
    Tracing a picture on a DIY light table
     Big Sister LOOOOVED doing this!  And, I have to say, that she was doing the tracing thing for so long, that we had to turn the lights off because the bin was getting warm. 
    trace letters on a light table

    Other ways to use a DIY Light Table

    We went around the house looking for cool things to place on top of the bin.  Magnetic letters looked really neat with the light glowing through…Baby Girl had a lot of fun playing with this.
    You can add many different items onto the DIY light table:
    • Magnetic letters (the light shines through them slightly)
    • Sand for a tracing table- We cover how to use a sand writing tray in another blog post and all the benefits of tracing in a sensory medium. With the lights under the tracing area, this adds another multisensory component to the learning.
    • Shapes (Magnatiles would work well)
    • Feathers
    • Coins
    • Blocks
    • A marble run
    letters on a light table
    What a great learning tool…Shapes:
    Letter Identification, spelling words:

     Color and sensory discrimination:
    …All in a new and fun manner!  We had a lot of fun with this, but have since put our Christmas lights back up into the attic.  We will be sure to do this one again next year, once the lights come back out again 🙂

    Please: if you do make one of these light boxes, keep an adult eye on it, as the box did warm up…not to burning warmth, but I would worry about the lights becoming over heated.  This is NOT something that kids should play with unsupervised!

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

    Working on fine motor skills, visual perception, visual motor skills, sensory tolerance, handwriting, or scissor skills? Our Fine Motor Kits cover all of these areas and more.

    Check out the seasonal Fine Motor Kits that kids love:

    Or, grab one of our themed Fine Motor Kits to target skills with fun themes:

    Want access to all of these kits…and more being added each month? Join The OT Toolbox Member’s Club!

    How to Improve Working Memory

    working memory

    Working memory is a skill we need for everything we do!  From answering the phone to shopping at the grocery store; working memory is happening at every given moment.  Kids who struggle with executive functioning skills often times have working memory challenges.

    working memory activities

    working Memory

     Let’s talk about what working memory is and how to improve working memory in kids so they can be successful in those everyday tasks.

    Use these strategies to help improve working memory in kids with sensory processing struggles or executive functioning difficulties.


    What is Working Memory?

    Working Memory is the ability to act on past memories and manipulating the information in a new situation.  

    Processing short term memories and using it allows us to respond in new situations.  

    Working memory allows us to learn. Using working memory skills we can use past information in reading in order to read sight words.  

    We can remember math facts, state capitals, mnemonics, phone numbers, addresses, and friends’ names.  We can then use that information to answer questions based on what we know and apply that information in new situations.

    Executive functions are heavily dependent on attention.  Read about the attention and executive functioning skill connection and the impact of attention on each of the executive functioning skills that children require and use every day.

    In order for working memory to be used in daily tasks, we need a few key items.  Our brain might be considered a memory soup and the key ingredients to working memory are attention, focus, auditory memory and visual-spatial memory.

    Read more about visual memory and how to incorporate strategies into play.

    Use these strategies to improve working memory skills in kids.


    Mix all of those ingredients together and you will end up with working memory that can be used to problem solve any given situation.

    You can see how children who struggle with the underlying “ingredients” of attention, concentration, auditory processing, and visual processing will be challenged to pull that information into an unrelated event.  The child with sensory processing disorder who is also struggling with social emotional issues might end up in meltdown mode.  The child who can not generalize facts to a new environment might withdrawal.

    Read more about attention and how to help kids improve attention with easy strategies for home and school.


    All of these situations can potentially lead to difficulty with problem solving. Children are developmentally growing every day in relating past information. Yes, we say thank you EVERY time someone holds the door for us, not just that one time last week.  By going through our day, kids learn these things!

    The child who is struggling with any of the key ingredients related to working memory, it can be really hard to generalize.

    Many parents, teachers, and therapists of kids with executive functioning skills or sensory processing challenges wonder how to improve working memory. These strategies for working memory skills will help.


    How to Improve Working Memory

    Try these working memory strategies to help improve this executive functioning skill:

    1. Take notes
    2. Daily Journal- The Impulse Control Journal is a great tool for keeping track of day to day events
    3. Notebook with times for daily tasks
    4. Practicing the ability to stop and think in practice and in real-life situations. This skill allows one to complete tasks or respond using past experiences.
    5. Writing down information (opposed to typing or tracking on an app)
    6. Setting an alarm for tasks
    7. Second set of school books for home
    8. Dry erase board notes to be used in tasks like cleaning a room
    9. Mnemonics
    10. Guided imagery
    11. Mental rehearsing
    12. Imagine a task in pictures (like a cartoon strip of a day’s event)
    13. Analyzing problem areas
    14. Practice through rehearsal
    15. Routines
    16. Rewards
    17. Reminder messages including verbal, picture, or app-based
    18. To-do lists with physical action (pull off a post-it note when completed)
    19. Task sequencing lists
    20. Play memory games, such as matching games or memory card games.
    21. Use mnemonic devices to help remember information, such as acronyms or visual cues.
    22. Repeat information to yourself multiple times to help solidify it in your memory.
    23. Use visualization techniques to create mental images of information you need to remember.
    24. Break down complex information into smaller chunks to make it more manageable to remember.
    25. Use repetition and rehearsal to help remember important information.
    26. Practice active listening by summarizing and repeating back what someone has said to you.
    27. Write down important information or ideas to help reinforce them in your memory.
    28. Use technology, such as digital reminders or voice memos, to help you remember important information.
    29. Practice mindfulness exercises to improve focus and concentration, which can help with working memory.
    30. Engage in regular aerobic exercise, which has been shown to improve working memory.
    31. Play strategy-based games, such as chess or Sudoku, to help improve working memory skills.
    32. Use self-testing or quizzing techniques to help reinforce information in your memory.
    33. Break tasks down into smaller steps to make them more manageable to remember.
    34. Use different sensory modalities, such as sight and sound, to help reinforce information in your memory.
    35. Practice relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing or meditation, to help reduce stress and improve working memory.
    36. Engage in activities that challenge your working memory, such as learning a new language or musical instrument.
    37. Use context cues or associations to help remember information, such as associating a person’s name with a visual cue or location.
    38. Prioritize and focus on the most important information to remember.
    39. Get enough sleep, as lack of sleep can negatively impact working memory skills.
    40. Repeat complex instructions
    41. Break down complex instructions into step-by-step directions with pictures, such as a more detailed version of a visual schedule

    Working Memory Activities

    In addition to the working memory strategies listed above, there are specific activities you can do to build working memory. Try these ideas:

    Digit Recall Activities- Work on repeating numbers in a series. The individual can repeat back numbers in 2 to 3 digit series in both forward and reverse. Then, you can add on additional digits. Continue to grade the digit activities in greater difficulty by adding digits to the thread of numbers or adding letters. To increase the difficulty of this activity even further, ask the individual to write down the series of numbers and letters, and add time in between the given number and when they are asked to recall the series.

    Word Sequences- Similar to the number sequences described above, you can use visual pictures of words, or auditory word sequences. Ask the individual to repeat back the series of words.

    Ordering Activities- Another great working memory activity is sequential ordering of images or objects by size. You can target this activity to meet the interests of the individual. Think about ordering animals, sports balls, toys, or other items by size. Offer a specific number of items and challenge the individual to remember all of the objects in the series. Increase the difficulty by asking the individual to order objects by largest to smallest and then by smallest to largest.

    Instructional Sequencing Activities- This working memory activity focuses on functional tasks and can target goals of the individual. For example, a child working on brushing their teeth can order the steps of the activity from memory. Then, you can ask the child to list the steps in reverse. 


    More tools for addressing attention needs in kids

    There are so many strategies to address attention in kids and activities that can help address attention needs. One tactic that can be a big help is analyzing precursors to behaviors related to attention and addressing underlying needs. 

    The Attention and Sensory Workbook can be a way to do just that. 

    The Attention and Sensory Workbook is a free printable resource for parents, teachers, and therapists. It is a printable workbook and includes so much information on the connection between attention and sensory needs. 

    Here’s what you can find in the Attention and Sensory Workbook: 

    • Includes information on boosting attention through the senses
    • Discusses how sensory and learning are connected
    • Provides movement and sensory motor activity ideas
    • Includes workbook pages for creating movement and sensory strategies to improve attention

    little more about the Attention and Sensory Workbook: 

    Sensory processing is the ability to register, screen, organize, and interpret information from our senses and the environment. This process allows us to filter out some unnecessary information so that we can attend to what is important. Kids with sensory challenges often time have difficulty with attention as a result.

    It’s been found that there is a co-morbidity of 40-60% of ADHD and Sensory Processing Disorder. This workbook is an actionable guide to help teachers, therapists, and parents to help kids boost attention and focus in the classroom by mastering sensory processing needs. 

    You will find information on the sensory system and how it impacts attention and learning. There are step-by-step strategies for improving focus, and sensory-based tips and tricks that will benefit the whole classroom.

    The workbook provides tactics to address attention and sensory processing as a combined strategy and overall function. There are charts for activities, forms for assessment of impact, workbook pages for accommodations, and sensory strategy forms.
    Grab the Attention and Sensory Workbook below.


    Attention and sensory workbook activities for improving attention in kids


    These strategies to improve working memory are helpful tools for addressing short term memory in tasks.

    Gentry, T. (2015, September). Mobile technologies as vocational supports for workers with cognitive-behavioral challenges. Technology Special Interest Section Quarterly, 25(3), 1–4.

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

      What is Visual Memory?

      what is visual memory

      Have you seen visual perceptual terms like Visual Memory and wondered, exactly What Is Visual Memory?  Today we’re sharing how to use our dyed lollipop sticks in a few eye-hand coordination activities including visual memory, and explaining what this term means to development of handwriting, reading, and functional tasks.

      This post contains affiliate links.

      What is visual memory

      What is Visual Memory?

      Visual Memory is one part of a large arena known as visual perceptual skills. Visual memory focuses on one’s ability to recall visual information that has been seen.  Visual memory is a critical factor in reading and writing.  

      When a child is writing a word, he must recall the formation of parts of the letter from memory.  It can be terribly frustrating for one with a visual memory deficit to perform a handwriting, spelling, or word copying exercise.  

      Children with difficulty in visual memory will have trouble copying letters, words, and sentences from a chalkboard or book.  They may present with very slow handwriting, trouble forming letters, and mixing up letters or words within sentences.  

      Producing written work on worksheets and tests may be difficult.  Recalling sight words in reading exercises can be hard as well as following along in a reading activity during stop and start tasks, due to comprehension and difficulty recalling what was read.  Kids with visual memory deficits can demonstrate difficulty with formation of letters and numbers and appear “lazy” in their written work.

      what is visual memory
      visual memory activity with shape building

      Visual Memory Shape Building Activity

      We used our dyed lollipop sticks to build shapes.  Make a shape example and have your child copy the form.  You can grade the activity as more difficult by removing the example and having the child build the shape using their “mind’s eye”.  

      Assistance can be provided by giving visual or verbal prompts to assist with building simple shapes.  Further extend this visual memory activity by engaging colors and building the shapes with all one color.  

      Then introduce shape forms with patterning or random colors.  Once the child demonstrates succeeds with shape copying, encourage letter and number building using the lollipop sticks.  

      This simple activity can be extended in so many ways to help work on visual memory!

      We did a few shape copying activities as well.  Little Sister had fun creating a neighborhood of houses using our colored lollipop sticks.  

      Visual Memory Activities to help with Visual Memory Deficits:

      • Memory Games
        games or Concentration games
      • I Spy games and books
      • Encourage the child to recall the items to be found using visual memory.
      • Form copying games, such as Pixy Cubes
        Shape sequencing games, like Mental Blox
      • Place a tray of items in front of the child.  Allow them 30 seconds to memorize all of the items.  Cover the tray with a piece of paper.  Ask the child to recall as many items as they can.  Another version to this game is removing one or more items and asking the child to recall the missing items.

       As always, use your best judgement with your kids.  All activities that we document on this blog are supervised.  The information on this website should not be used as medical advise.  Please contact a therapist for an individualized evaluation if therapeutic advise is needed.

      Visual Memory Definition

      Visual memory can be defined as the ability to both store and recall visual information, and then retrieve that information for later use. Visual input such as images, shapes, colors, designs, and patterns contain attributes that allow us to discriminate differences between items in the world around us. This is important because we can utilize those visual attributes to identify objects and understand information during functional tasks that we complete day in and day out.

      Visual memory also refers to the ability to remember what you have seen in the past and to use that information in the present or future. This involves working memory, which is an executive functioning skill and involves more advanced cognitive processes in order to pull information from the “files” in the brain to utilize visual information in a different setting or at another time.

      For example, if a child is shown a picture of a pencil, they use their visual memory to remember what a pencil looks like, so they can recognize a pencil the next time they see one. This is a remedial example, but can be expanded on for practically every aspect of daily activities.

      Consider the role that recalling previously seen and understood visual information plays in the following areas:

      • Learning- Visual recall of information, seeing previously learned information, visual reasoning and problem solving, etc.
      • Safety- Seeing how the dials on the stove are placed to cook and turned off ater finishing the cooking task, seeing the door knob of the house is locked, visualizing steps to walk up or down, etc.
      • Driving- recognizing roads, traffic patterns, and even the buttons that operate the vehicle
      • Community access- Getting around in the neighborhood, recognizing traffic patterns and safety signals to cross the road, going to appointments, etc.
      • Daily self-care tasks- Recognizing clothing, seeing patterns and colors to match clothing, visualizing items needed to get dressed or bathe, etc.
      • Taking medicine- Visualizing and recalling medicine bottles, seeing colors of pills, or knowing if one medicine was taken but not the other, etc.
      • Taking care of others- Visual memory implications might include safety, care, and every aspect of caring for others
      • Reading- Knowing where you stopped reading, not re-reading a passage over and over again, identifying letters, words, etc.
      • Writing- Visual memory plays a role in writing including letter formation, number formation, and placement of letters and words on a page.
      • Math- Visual information includes understanding and knowing numbers, symbols, patterns, equations, math facts, etc. by sight.
      • Every other aspect of functional performance!

      Playing a role in the visual memory and specifically the input, storage, and retrieval of visual information, includes many aspects, or attributes of vision, including:

      • Color: The hue, saturation, and brightness of an object or image.
      • Shape: The form or outline of an object or image.
      • Size: The physical dimensions of an object or image.
      • Texture: The surface quality of an object or image, such as smooth, rough, or bumpy.
      • Contrast: The difference between light and dark areas in an image.
      • Position: The location of an object or image relative to other objects or images.
      • Motion: The movement of an object or image over time.
      • Depth: The perception of three-dimensional space in an image.
      • Pattern: The repetition of visual elements in an image.
      • Context: The surrounding environment or situation in which an object or image is viewed.

      These visual attributes are important for processing and interpreting visual information and are used by the brain to create a coherent and meaningful visual experience. Playing a major role in visual memory is the visual perceptual skill of visual discrimination.

      Think of it this way: When you build a 1000 piece puzzle, you dump the puzzle pieces out on a table. Visual memory enables you to:

      • Sort through the pieces to find all of the straight edge pieces.
      • Select pieces that have similar colors or patterns.
      • Notice the shape of pieces.
      • Build the puzzle while holding visual information in the mind to search for a particular color, shape, or pattern on the piece. For example: you might look for a piece with white background and texture, with a straight edge and a round connecting piece.
      • Hold information in the mind to look for another particular piece of the puzzle such as another straight edge piece that is red, but when you come across the white piece with a straight edge and the round connecting piece, you recall where to place that puzzle piece.

      As you can see there are many factors playing into visual memory, but this visual processing skill is an important part of functional tasks.

      visual memory tests
      Visual memory tests include both a functional aspect and a standardized visual memory assessment.

      Testing Visual Memory

      When it comes to testing visual memory, occupational therapists evaluate using several standardized tests as well as non-standardized screenings.

      Essential to testing visual memory skills is the functional aspect: Can the individual utilize short and long term memory in the retrieval of visual information in order to accomplish functional tasks? Answering this question can provide both opportunities to challenge deficits, as well as target key areas of functional performance that need to be addressed.

      Visual memory tests are part of a wider assessment of visual perception or tests of visual motor integration. The occupational therapy provider completes these standardized vision tests during an OT eval. However, there is more to it that the standardized testing.

      Using functional performance to assess visual memory is a key part of the occupational therapy assessment. One role of the OT provider is completing a visual motor test during functional tasks, using skilled interventions.

      For example, the OT can ask the client to remember items that are needed in a particular activity. They can select and/or identify several items to brush teeth: toothbrush, toothpaste, cup, dental floss, water.

      The therapist could assess to see if the client can remember all four words or items after a 10 minute delay, and then a 30 minute delay. At least 3/4 of the items should be recalled. This test can assess visual memory skills in combination with a functional task.

      To further analyze the visual memory aspect, the therapist could point to objects in the room and ask the client to recall them immediately, after 5 minutes, and at the end of the therapy session.

      Visual Memory Tests

      Some of the standardized tests that assess visual memory skills include:

      • Motor Free Visual Perception Test (MVPT)– overall visual perception screening tool
      • Test of Visual Perceptual Skills – breaks down skills into categories
      • The Developmental Test of Visual Perception – thorough test of skills
      • Test of Visual Motor Skills/Perception – a general screener to assess basic skills. Not a great test of different sub categories.
      • The Visual Memory Span Test- This test measures visual memory capacity by presenting a series of pictures to the participant and asking them to recall them in a specific order.
      • Rey-Osterrieth Complex Figure Test- This test requires the person to draw a complex figure from memory after seeing it for a short period of time. The test assesses visual memory, perceptual organization, and constructional ability.
      • Visual Patterns Test- This test requires the person to reproduce complex patterns after seeing them for a short period of time. The test assesses visual memory and visual processing ability.
      • Benton Visual Retention Test- This test requires the person to look at a series of geometric figures for a short period of time and then draw them from memory. The test assesses visual memory and visual perceptual skills.
      • Wide Range Assessment of Memory and Learning- This is a comprehensive memory assessment that includes tests for visual memory, verbal memory, and other memory domains. The visual memory tests include tasks such as recalling pictures and designs.
      • Wechsler Memory Scale- This is another comprehensive memory assessment that includes tests for visual memory, verbal memory, and other memory domains. The visual memory tests include tasks such as recognizing and recalling visual stimuli.

      What is visual memory and why is it necessary for development of functional skills like handwriting and reading? Tips and activities from to work on visual memory in kids and adults.



      Use dyed lollipop sticks to work on visual memory by copying and building shapes, forms, letters, numbers, and pictures. Visual Memory  is an important skill needed for reading and writing.



      Looking for more vision activities?  Try these: 



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

      The Visual Processing Bundle has everything you need to work on underlying visual processing skills so you can help students with classroom tasks like copying written work, letter reversals, and messy handwriting in fun and engaging ways!

      • Over 235 pages of workbooks, worksheets, e-books, handouts, activity cards, tracking tools
      • Classroom accommodation ideas
      • Checklists
      • Multi-level visual-motor integration workbooks
      • Pencil control worksheets
      • Classroom and therapy activities
      • Activity cards
      • Specific and open-ended activity cards
      • Visual tracking guide

      Target visual memory skills and many other aspects of visual perception and visual motor integration at a special price of just $18 (Regularly $45). Get your copy here.

      What is Visual Attention?

      Visual attention

      Visual attention is a hot topic when it comes to learning! There’s more than meets the eye when it comes to being visually attentive, however. Attention to visual information is an area of visual processing that is more than just focusing on a task or leaning activity. Attention and awareness of visual information is a skill necessary for noticing details, adjusting to patterns, reading, and so much more of the giant visual processing umbrella.

      Be sure to read our resource on near point copying as visual attention plays a role in copying written work.

      Visual attention

      Visual Attention

      Read on to discover what is visual attention and how this visual skill impacts so much of what we do.

      Visual attention is a visual processing skill that allows us to notice and focus on details. Some aspects of visual attention occur automatically and immediately, and others require integration of other visual processing aspects such as visual perceptual work, focused vision, retained attention, visual mindfulness, and more.


      What is visual attention?

      First, it’s important to recognize where visual attention lies in the visual processing umbrella. Visual processing is an aspect that includes the cognitive components, once visual information is received through oculomotor skills and visual acuity.

      Attention of visual information is an area of obtaining visual information and communicating that information with the brain. This collection of information requires several eye mobility skills including: voluntary eye movements, visual fixation, smooth pursuits (or visual tracking) and visual scanning.

      Additionally, visual perceptual skills are included in the visual processing skill. These skills allow us to discriminate details and fill in “missing pieces” such as partially obscured portions of the form and to use the “mind’s eye” to visualize those aspects.

      About Visual Processing…

      For more information on visual processing and the aspects that are a part of visual skills (oculomotor skills, visual perception, visual motor integration, etc.) join us in a free 3-day email series, the Visual Processing Lab, as we discuss each aspect of visual processing with a fun, chemo or bio lab theme!

      As a related component, the visual input from a picture story sequence can support needs of individuals to work on visual attention.

      Visual Attention includes:

      1.) Alertness- Defined as “the quality of being alert”, alertness is that watchful and attentive manner of being ready and responsive to visual information. Visual alertness requires focused vision and keenness to a specific object or area in the visual field.

      2.) Selective Attention- The ability of noticing and processing specific information while disregarding other, less relevant information describes selective attention. This ability to discern visual information is needed for attending visually to information.

      3.) Surrounding Attention- This aspect of attention refers to the surroundings and position in space. An awareness of our body position and the environment happening around us, including distance impacts attention at large.

      4.) Mindful Alertness- The ability to be mindful and aware of visual input with a concentrated effort allows attention needed for participating in a visual task. The continuous alertness in a focused state allows us to attend with intention.

      5.) Shared Attention- This aspect of visual attention allows us to shift focus between visual input. This can involve filtering of unnecessary information.

      What is visual attention? It's a visual processing skill that allows us to read and maintain our place on a line of words. Visual attention allows us to copy written work and notice details. It allows us to recognize faces and letters or words. Visual attention is an important visual skill that many kids struggle with.Learn more here, as well as other information on visual processing.


      Visual Attention and Preattentive Features

      If visual memory and attention is depiction of and focusing on specific qualities of a form, then pre-attentive features are basic features of visual information that are automatically noticed by the eyes. These features are easily pulled out of a background or group in a visual display.

      Pre-attentive features include:

      • Color
      • Orientation
      • Curvature
      • Size
      • Motion
      • Depth Cues
      • Vernier
      • Lustre
      • Aspects of Shape

      Visual Attention and Occupational Therapy

      Occupational therapy providers address functional skills in their clients. They help to support every day tasks. Visual attention is one of the underlying components that are required in the visual system and plays a key role in supporting visual processing for performance of everyday activities.

      There are several types of visual problems:

      1. Visual efficiency- This includes eye movements, eye alignment, and eye focusing. These three abilities relate to functional performance. 

      Consider these questions related to the attentional mechanisms surrounding visual efficiency:

      • Can you be a good reader if you lose your place constantly while reading, because of poor eye movements?
      • Can you be a good reader if you are seeing double? Wouldn’t you express visual inattention as a result of double vision?
      • Can you be a good reader and learner if the words are moving in and out of focus and as a result you have headaches and eye strain? Wouldn’t these hardships signal the eyes to close one to shutdown, thus losing visual attention to the stimulus of the reading task?
      • Wouldn’t visual efficiency problems impact your ability to think with reasoning and impact comprehension as a result?

      Looking at these questions, it’s easy to see the attentional effects that visual efficiency has on maintaining attention to visual stimuli. 

      2. Visual Perception- Visual perceptual skills impact academic performance, and visual attention is one of these. These skills work together to allow for functional vision! Visual perception and attention skills enable the cognitive processes.

      • Visual attention
      • Visual memory (which requires attention)
      • Visual discrimination (which visual attention is a key component in order to discriminate between details)
      • Visual closure (in which visual attention is a skill that impacts the mind’s eye in closing a visual image)
      • Spatial attention in written work

      3. Visual motor integration- The components of visual motor integration includes the  integrates the perceptual awareness with the motor output, and attentional skills are a main role. Consider:

      • Automaticity of movement
      • Rhythm and timing
      • Body knowledge and control
      • Laterality and directionality
      • Reaction time, which is related to the visual attention on a stimulus
      • Filtering out irrelevant information

      All of these areas listed above impact everyday life! 

      Visual Attention Tests

      There are screening tools that can look at visual attention. These allow the examiner to determine both a focus of attention as well as efficiency and accuracy components. Attention tests won’t give the full picture when used in isolation, but they should be considered as contributing evidence of visual attention challenges. 

      Some visual attention tests include:

      1. Basic vision screening- Follow a tongue depressor with a sticker at one end with the eyes, or follow the end of a pen with the eyes. The visual attention screening tool can be used to examine how the eye moves to follow a stimulus across various fields of vision. Another screening task is to ask the participant to scan between tow stimuli held at different sides of their field of vision. Both are also a way to see the attentional capacity to follow a moving target. Included in this screening is a look at pursuits (eye tracking) and saccades (eye scanning). You’ll find more information in our blog posts on visual tracking and visual scanning.
      2. Test of Visual Perceptual Skills (TVPS-4)
      3. Beery-Buktenica Developmental Test of Visual Motor Integration, or the Beery VMI
      4. Non-standardized screenings using Parquetry blocks (tangrams), block copying tests, and directionality tasks
      5. Copying materials from a near point and far point

      Automaticity in Vision Attention

      Automaticity refers to the ability to perform routine activities effortlessly and automatically, or without conscious thought. Every motor task that we do throughout the day required conscious through and effort when it was first learned. 

      Once we’ve done a task for long enough, it becomes routine and automatic. We can then do other tasks at the same time. You see this when driving a car, for example. When the task of driving become so routine and ingrained that it is automatic, we can do other things at the same time: think about our day, remember a thought, carry on a conversation, change the radio station, etc.

      Driving is an extremely complex task that moves to a conscious routine over time!

      However, the issue is that we have a sort of blindness when we do other things even during an automatic task. Have you ever driven home from work, only to not recall the drive because you were thinking about other things?

      We as humans also challenge ourselves, often unsafely, by thinking we can do other things while performing an automatic task. Think: texting while driving. The results from this is unfortunate.

      What is at play with automaticity is the visual attention skill that moves from a conscious effort to an unconscious effort.

      Similarly, this ability is present when we read or write. 

      A proficient reader is able to automatically recognize, recall, and reproduce, or write, letters and numbers without conscious effort to identify each letter and number form. 

      This attention to detail has become ingrained and automatic. 

      When we see challenges with reading proficiency, comprehension, speed, and overall the student who is struggling academically, the automaticity may be missing. The visual scene is incomplete without the automatic integration of visual attention.

      Visual Attention Activities

      Visual challenges with spatial skills, omitting materials in reading or writing, and other functional considerations can mean working on visual attention can help. Attention tasks like the ones below can support this skill.

      The goal for using these visual attention activities is to have comfortable, efficient, and accurate vision at various distances through the function of play and learning. We want to see eye alignment, eye focusing, and eye movements, all operating at an automatic and reflexive level, or without conscious effort.

      • Tangram activities
      • Laterality or directionality activities
      • Letter tracking in word searches
      • Brock string 
      • Bead stringing sequences
      • Directional jumps
      • Mazes
      • Code deciphering activities
      • Dots game
      • Sorting items (beads, buttons, etc.)
      • Hidden pictures activities
      • I Spy
      • What’s missing activities
      • Spot it game
      • Sequencing activities

      For the individual with cognitive impairments such as following a stroke or other impairment in which visual inattention is present, some strategies can include:

      • Eye patching
      • Dynamic stimuli (flashing lights)
      • Activities to activate orientation and overall attention
      • Verbal cueing
      • Auditory cuing (bell, finger tapping, snapping, etc.)
      • Tactile cuing to engage the participant to look at the unattended side
      • Mirror therapy

      Using an adaptive approach to visual inattention is important to foster functional participation, independence, and safety. These strategies can include:

      • Compensation strategies
      • Incorporate the patient’s awareness 
      • Place necessary items within the patient’s field of vision

      How to work on Visual Attention

      For more information and specific activities that can address visual attententiveness in fun and meaningful ways, grab the Visual Processing Bundle. In it, you will find 17 digital products, e-books, workbooks, and guides to addressing various aspects of visual processing. The bundle is valued at over $97 dollars for these products, and includes over 235 pages of tools, activities, resources, information, and strategies to address visual processing needs.

      For one week, the visual processing bundle is on sale at $29.99. Grab the Visual Processing Bundle HERE.


      Wolfe J. Visual attention. In: De Valois KK, editor. Seeing. 2nd ed. San Diego, CA:
      Academic Press; 2000. p. 335-386.

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

      Sorting Colors Activities

      sorting colors

      Sorting colors is a big deal. Young learners in the toddler and preschool stage start out by sorting items such as blocks, plastic animals, coins, or colored items.  Later in child development, sorting colors morphs into sorting silverware, matching socks, organizing drawers, or filing papers to name a few life skills. 

      Sorting colors

      Sorting by color is an important skill for organizing items into categories to make sense of them, or for ease of locating them later. It is far easier to find a pair of socks in a drawer when they are matched together rather than in a large multi-colored pile. But what developmental skills are required for sorting colors? How can you support this essential skill?

      Sorting Colors

      First, let’s break down what we mean by sorting colors…

      Sorting by color can refer to anything from colored blocks to silverware does not involve being able to name the item. 

      Developmentally, a young learner does not need to know their colors in order to sort. They are arranging the items according to their properties. You could sort foreign coins into their respective piles without any idea what they are. By participating in sorting color activities, the young child obtains hands-on practice in several areas of development: 

      Hopefully as your learner continues to sort items, they may start recognizing the qualities of each item.  This can include shade, or color, shape, form, number, etc.

      Sorting Colors Development

      As with many skills, there is a hierarchy of learning to sorting tasks. Young children develop these skills through hands-on play and by playing with toys.

      Development of color sorting progresses through these stages:

      1. Grouping items that are exactly the same.  Examples; colored plastic bears, blocks that are all the same size, coins, pompoms
      2. Sorting items that are similar: different brands of socks in similar colors, silverware in varying sizes, towels, a bag of buttons
      3. Sorting items that are similar AND different: sorting items by the color red, that are all different items. Sorting socks that are all different sizes, shapes, weights, and colors. Sorting items by colors that vary (five different shades of red).
      4. Sorting items that have more than one category This stage of development progresses to categorizing objects that can be sorted such as a pile of paper to file. In this case there needs to be one similar quality selected first in order to sort, such as putting all the medical bills together, sorting by date, alphabetizing the papers. The last stage is where we may see challenges impacted by working memory. Those struggling with development of executive functioning skills can be limited in sorting objects in various categories, particularly when a background is busy such as a messy desk, cluttered locker, or home.

      Sorting by color is not the easiest way to sort. When there are multiple items that are similar such as 100 colored plastic balls, your learner may not recognize these as different items.  They see balls first, not colors. Try sorting very different items first.  Example: 5 identical buttons, 3 towels, 4 pencils, and 6 spoons.

      Color Sorting and Visual Perception

      Sorting involves recognizing an item’s properties, but also visual perception.  Through development of these skills, children move from thinking through the sorting of colors to visual efficiency which allows for automaticity in tasks.

      Below are some thought processes that integrate color sorting with visual perceptual skills:

      • Figure ground lets the “perceiver” see the items as part to a whole, 
      • Form constancy recognizes that two balls of different colors are still balls. or two shades of red are still red.  
      • Visual discrimination allows the learner to tell difference between items. 
      • Visual memory is the ability to remember what is seen as the eyes are scanning the items

      Color Sorting Teaches Mental Flexibility

      When teaching sorting, teach mental flexibility.  Sort many different items in many different ways. Sort by, color, size, similarity, quality (4 legged animals), texture, weight, or two qualities.  

      Sort the same items two different ways.  First sort the plastic fruit and veggies into color, then sort by type.  Later your learner can sort by larger categories such as fruits versus vegetables.

      Color Sorting and Functional Tasks

      Why do some people have difficulty organizing and cleaning up? 

      Sometimes a large task seems very overwhelming, therefore shut down and refusal tends to occur.  The most effective way to combat this is to teach sorting and categorizing. Go into your child’s messy room and look for the categories.  

      • Books all over the floor
      • Dirty clothes everywhere
      • Papers and trash scattered around
      • 9 dishes and plates
      • 29 stuffed animals
      • 84 hair clips
      • 64 crayons

      Now this task seems much more manageable.  I often had to solve this dilemma with my younger daughter.

      What other, more complicated ways could she organize this messy room?

      • Sorting the books into genre, size, type, or alphabetizing
      • Organizing the dirty clothes into whites and colors
      • Determining trash versus recyclables
      • Crayons may be part of the “school supplies” category
      • Hair accessories or toys might be a larger category

      How would you tackle this chore?  

      • Sort into the larger category first such as books, then sort into their subcategories?  
      • Sort into subcategories such as stuffed animals, games, action figures, puzzles, then group into toys?  

      There is no wrong answer depending on how your brain works. Actually the only wrong answer is not getting started or having a meltdown.

      When working on basic sorting colors, and feeling it is futile or pointless, think about the bigger picture.  A person who can put their laundry, silverware, and toys away will be more independent than one who can not.

      Color Sorting Activities

      So, are you wondering about a fun way to build development in this area? We’ve got plenty of ideas.

      The OT Toolbox has a great resource for teaching sorting using everyday items.

      Amazon has tons of toys and games for sorting!  Don’t limit yourself to store bought items though.  Your kitchen, bathroom, junk drawers, and desk are filled with items that can be grouped and sorted.  

      Color sorting activities can include ideas such as:

      • Sorting colored circles (cut out circles from construction paper)
      • Sort different objects by color and drop them into baskets or bowls
      • Use color sorting activities along with a scavenger hunt. This color scavenger hunt is one fun idea.
      • Cut out cardboard shapes and sort by color or shape. This cardboard tangram activity is an easy way to make shapes in different colors.
      • Sort colored markers or crayons
      • Laminate a piece of construction paper and use it as a play mat. Sort different colored craft pom poms or other objects onto the correct mat.
      • Print out color words and sort them along with small objects. The Colors Handwriting Kit has these color words and other printable activities for playing with color.
      • Make dyed pumpkin seeds and sort by color.

      This color sorting activity is a powerful fine motor activity and a super easy way to learn and play for toddlers and preschoolers.  We’ve done plenty of activities to work on fine motor skills in kids.  This straw activity is the type that is a huge hit in our house…it’s cheap, easy, and fun!  (a bonus for kids and mom!)  

      A handful of straws and a few recycled grated cheese container are all that are needed for tripod grasp, scissor skills, color naming, and sorting.  

      SO much learning is happening with color sorting!

      Fine Motor Color Sorting Activity with Straws

      This color sorting activity is a powerful fine motor activity and a super easy way to learn and play for toddlers and preschoolers.  We’ve done plenty of activities to work on fine motor skills in kids.  This straw activity is the type that is a huge hit in our house…it’s cheap, easy, and fun!  (a bonus for kids and mom!)  A handful of straws and a few recycled grated cheese container are all that are needed for tripod grasp, scissor skills, color naming, and sorting. 

      This color sorting activity is great for toddlers and preschools because it helps to develop many of the fine motor skills that they need for function.

      I had Baby Girl (age 2 and a half) do this activity and she LOVED it.  Now, many toddlers are exploring textures of small objects with their mouths.  If you have a little one who puts things in their mouth during play, this may not be the activity for you.  That’s ok.  If it doesn’t work right now, put it away and pull it out in a few months. 

      Color sorting activity with straws

      Always keep a close eye on your little ones during fine motor play and use your judgment with activities that work best for your child.  Many school teachers read our blog and definitely, if there are rules about choking hazards in your classroom, don’t do this one with the 2 or 3 year olds. 

      You can adjust this color sorting activity to use other materials besides straws, too. Try using whole straws, pipe cleaners, colored craft sticks, or other objects that are safe for larger groups of Toddlers.  

      There are so many fun ways to play and learn with our Occupational Therapy Activities for Toddlers post.

      Kids can work on scissor skills by cutting straws into small pieces.

        color sorting activity using straws

      We started out with a handful of colored straws.  These are a dollar store purchase and we only used a few of the hundred or so in the pack…starting out cheap…this activity is going well so far!  

      Cutting the straws is a neat way to explore the “open-shut” motion of the scissors to cut the straw pieces.  Baby Girl liked the effect of cutting straws.  Flying straw bits= hilarious!  

      If you’re not up for chasing bits and pieces of straws around the room or would rather not dodge flying straw pieces as they are cut, do this in a bin or bag.  Much easier on the eyes 😉  

      Kids love to work on fine motor skills through play!

       Once our straws were cut into little pieces and ready for playing, I pulled out a few recycled grated cheese containers.  (Recycled container= free…activity going well still!)   We started with just one container out on the table and Baby Girl dropped the straw pieces into the holes. 

      Here are more ways to use recycled materials in occupational therapy activities.

      Toddlers and preschoolers can work on their tripod grasp by using small pieces of straws and a recycled grated cheese container.

      Importance of Color sorting for toddlers and preschoolers

      Color sorting activities are a great way to help toddlers and preschoolers develop skills for reading, learning, and math.

      Sorting activities develop visual perceptual skills as children use visual discrimination to notice differences between objects.

      By repeating the task with multiple repetitions, kids develop skills in visual attention and visual memory. These visual processing skills are necessary for reading and math tasks.

      The ability to recall differences in objects builds working memory too, ask kids remember where specific colors go or the place where they should sort them.

      These sorting skills come into play in more advanced learning tasks as they classify objects, numbers, letters, etc.

      And, when children sort items by color, they are building What a great fine motor task this was for little hands!  Sorting straws into a container with small holes, like our activity, requires a tripod grasp to insert the straws into the small holes of the grated cheese container.   

      These grated cheese containers are awesome for fine motor play with small objects!

      Sorting items like cut up straws helps preschoolers and toddlers develop skills such as:

      • Fine motor skills (needed for pencil grasp, scissor use, turning pages, etc.)
      • Hand strength (needed for endurance in coloring, cutting, etc.)
      • Visual discrimination (needed to determine differences in letters, shapes, and numbers)
      • Visual attention
      • Visual discrimination
      • Visual perceptual skills
      • Left Right discrimination (needed for handwriting, fine motor tasks)
      • Counting
      • Patterning
      • Classification skills

      Preschoolers can get a lot of learning (colors, patterns, sorting, counting) from this activity too.  Have them count as they put the pieces in, do a pattern with the colored straws, sort from smallest to biggest pieces and put them in the container in order…the possibilities are endless!

      Cut straw into small pieces and provide three recycled containers to sort and work on fine motor skills with kids.

      Color Sorting Activity with Straws

      Once she got a little tired of the activity, I let it sit out on the table for a while with two  more containers added.  I started dropping in colored straw pieces into the containers and sorted them by color. 

      Use colored straws to sort and work on fine motor skills with recycled containers.

      Baby Girl picked right up on that and got into the activity again.  This lasted for a long time.  We kept this out all day and she even wanted to invite her cousin over to play with us.  So we did!  This was a hit with the toddlers and Little Guy when he came home from preschool.  Easy, cheap, and fun.  I’ll take it!

      Looking for more fun ways to work on color sorting?

      You’ll find more activities to build hand strength, coordination, and dexterity in this resource on Fine Motor Skills.

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

      Colors Handwriting Kit

      Rainbow Handwriting Kit– This resource pack includes handwriting sheets, write the room cards, color worksheets, visual motor activities, and so much more. The handwriting kit includes:

      • Write the Room, Color Names: Lowercase Letters
      • Write the Room, Color Names: Uppercase Letters
      • Write the Room, Color Names: Cursive Writing
      • Copy/Draw/Color/Cut Color Worksheets
      • Colors Roll & Write Page
      • Color Names Letter Size Puzzle Pages
      • Flip and Fill A-Z Letter Pages
      • Colors Pre-Writing Lines Pencil Control Mazes
      • This handwriting kit now includes a bonus pack of pencil control worksheets, 1-10 fine motor clip cards, visual discrimination maze for directionality, handwriting sheets, and working memory/direction following sheet! Valued at $5, this bonus kit triples the goal areas you can work on in each therapy session or home program.

      Click here to get your copy of the Colors Handwriting Kit.