Occupational Therapy and Your Inclusive Playground

The very first suggestion in our Inclusive Play Design Guide is to create a diverse committee to design your inclusive playground. April is Occupational Therapy Month, and we wanted to share our appreciation for this field by recommending you include a pediatric occupational therapist on your team. These professionals are well-trained on how the body works and develops and can offer valuable insight into what an inclusive playground looks like.

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What Is an Occupational Therapist?

Occupational therapists enable people of all ages to live life to its fullest by promoting health, and helping people prevent — or live better with — injury, illness or disability. These professionals help adults and children accomplish the everyday tasks that matter to them, like getting dressed, driving, typing on a keyboard or playing. For example, an occupational therapist might help a child with mobility issues learn how to go down the slide during recess.

They provide activities and support for addressing a wide range of issues, along with evaluations and assessments to determine needs and establish goals.

An occupational therapist might also help a person use assistive devices or tools that make tasks easier. They deliver services in many settings, such as schools, outpatient clinics and patients’ homes.

Occupational therapy is an evidence-based practice deeply rooted in science, and occupational therapists have a holistic perspective, focusing on adapting the environment or task to fit the person. These interventions can make a significant difference in the lives of people who need them, helping patients find independence and confidence while doing the things they love.

How Can an Occupational Therapist Help Your Committee?

Occupational therapists know how to eliminate architectural barriers, maximize independence, adapt equipment and use play to facilitate a child’s development. They’re often experts on sensory integration, which can be beneficial for identifying what sensory activities to include on a playground.

Pediatric occupational therapists help children develop basic sensory awareness and motor skills needed for motor development, learning and healthy behavior. These include:

  • Body awareness
  • Fine motor control and organization
  • Motor planning
  • Motor movements and coordination
  • Ocular motor skills
  • Visual perceptual skills
  • Sensory modulation

Having an expert who understands these areas can help your committee examine how a child can benefit from the equipment you’ve selected. This is great information to include in grant applications.

When Might Children Need Occupational Therapy?

Since occupational therapy covers a wide range of areas, there are many children that could benefit from it. It can help kids accomplish various tasks throughout the day, like holding pencils, playing with their peers or opening a lunchbox. If a child is having trouble participating in activities they want to participate in, they may be a candidate for occupational therapy.

Difficulty with everyday activities can come from many different causes, including:

  • Birth injuries or defects
  • Developmental disorders
  • Sensory processing disorders.
  • Brain, spinal or orthopedic injuries
  • Cancer
  • Chronic illnesses like asthma or diabetes
  • Behavioral problems

Not every child with these issues will need occupational therapy, but some signs include:

  • Oversensitivity to stimulation, like sounds, textures and noise
  • Poor handwriting
  • Difficulty with fine motor tasks, like using scissors or opening latches
  • Excessive clumsiness
  • Being slow to perform or learn tasks
  • Being easily distracted, fidgety or agitated
  • Difficulty making friends, often due to excessive aggression or passivity
  • Trouble switching between tasks
  • Frequent misinterpretation of speech or difficulty reading

If a child exhibits these behaviors, occupational therapy may help them develop and improve the activities they need for everyday life. Many of the principles of occupational therapy can benefit children without these issues, too. For example, a child with sensory difficulties could benefit significantly from a playground that is built with soothing colors, while virtually every child can benefit from a playground surface that’s easy to walk on.

A pediatric occupational therapist understands what kids need and can be a vital part of developing a fun, supportive playground.

Where Do I Find an Occupational Therapist?

Look at your local school, special education schools, children’s hospitals or rehabilitation centers. Find out if local universities have an occupational therapy school or a program for occupational therapist assistants. The professors in the school may be interested in helping, and they may also encourage their students to help as well.

You can find much more information about Occupational Therapy Month at the American Association of Occupational Therapists.

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