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What do occupational therapists do on a daily basis? (Part 1)

Whether your child is just starting therapy or they have been in therapy for years I’m sure you’ve wondered…what is occupational therapy? What do pediatric occupational therapists do? Do they help my child with job skills?

Don’t worry, you’re not alone. The name can be somewhat misleading, especially when it comes to pediatrics. But did you know, it’s all in the name? Occupational therapy is based on occupation, or how you “occupy” your time. For children, play is how they occupy most of their time. Play is their number one occupation even if that play looks different for each child.

In other words, pediatric occupational therapists help children play! But what else do they do? Play doesn’t occupy all of their time. Pediatric occupational therapists also help children with the following skills that we will discuss in Part 1 of this article:

  • Self care: sleeping, feeding, grooming, hygiene, toileting, dressing
  • Motor planning/coordination
  • Visual motor/visual perceptual
  • Fine motor

In Part 2 we will discuss these skills below!

  • Strengthening
  • Handwriting
  • Sensory Processing
  • Social skills
  • Executive functioning
  • Life skills

Self Care

Self care tasks are activities of daily living that children must perform in order to meet their basic needs. This includes sleeping, feeding, grooming, toileting, and dressing. Pediatric occupational therapists work with children to achieve the most independence in these areas as they grow and develop.

Feeding involves teaching children how to self feed with their fingers, spoon, fork, and/or knife based on their age or skill level. Some children present with increased difficulty grasping and coordinating a spoon due to a variety of reasons and occupational therapists work alongside parents to help improve those skills. Feeding can also include tolerating a variety of textures or foods if a child has sensory aversions. Most occupational therapists use a sensory based approach to feeding to encourage as much play, exploration, and touch before even bringing foods (especially non preferred) to the mouth.

Hygiene includes washing hands, brushing teeth, and taking a bath or a shower. Pediatric occupational therapists help children learn how to properly wash their own hands, brush their own teeth, and assist in bathing or showering tasks for increased independence dependent on their developmental age or skill level. Many occupational therapists work with children with poor sensory processing skills, limiting their tolerance of teeth brushing or taking a bath due to aversions with touch, sound, or other sensory stimuli that disrupts such daily routines.

Sleeping includes working with parents to strategize and implement sleep strategies to improve ability to fall and stay asleep throughout the night within the home environment. A lot of children with sensory processing disorders also demonstrate difficulty calming their body to fall or stay asleep at night due to poor regulation. Pediatric occupational therapists work with parents to establish a sensory friendly bed time routine to increase overall sleep patterns. Oftentimes this will include modifying or adapting things within their sleep environment or schedule to improve their overall sleep.

Grooming includes helping children learn how to tolerate or participate in grooming tasks such as hair brushing, nail clipping, hair shaving, and more for increased independence according to developmental age or skills level. Pediatric occupational therapists often work with children to tolerate increased touch, also known as tactile input with desensitization strategies for children who are sensitive to touch such as hair brushing or nail clipping.

Toileting includes helping children learn how to appropriately relieve bowel and bladder movements dependent on their skill level or developmental age. Pediatrics occupational therapists look for signs of toilet readiness and coach parents through strategies to help them become as independent in toileting as possible. A lot of children also present with sensory aversions due to fear of sitting on the toilet or loud auditory stimuli such as flushing. Therapists provide skilled intervention to help children become desensitized to such aversions for increased toileting independence. They also teach children how to thoroughly wipe, complete steps of toileting, and address other parental concerns in this area.

Dressing includes teaching children how to participate in age appropriate dressing tasks such as putting on or taking off a shirt, pants, socks, or shoes. Therapists help children develop muscle strength, motor planning, fine motor precision, and coordination skills to effectively put articles of clothing on depending on their developmental age or skill level. Therapists also teach children how to fasten and unfasten age appropriate clothing fasteners such as snaps, buttons, velcro, shoe laces, or zippers.

Motor Planning & Coordination

Motor planning includes teaching children how  to “plan out the steps” in order to achieve motor tasks. Motor tasks can include fine or more gross motor movements such as completing the steps of shoe tying or completing the steps of an obstacle course. Some children demonstrate increased difficulty retaining and completing motor planning tasks due to a variety of reasons and pediatric occupational therapists help coordinate and learn how to complete such tasks.

Coordination also includes using parts of the body in a functional and fluid way. A lot of pediatric occupational therapists work with children on gross motor coordination activities such jumping jacks, animal walks, or catching/throwing a ball.

Visual Motor & Visual Perceptual 

Visual motor skills are what they imply, the use of vision and motor in order to complete a task. Pediatric occupational therapists work with children to increase independence in completing visual motor tasks like the following:

  • Puzzles
  • Throwing a ball at target
  • Building with blocks
  • Cutting
  • Copying words or shapes
  • Lacing or stringing beads
  • Completing mazes or connect the dot worksheet

Visual perceptual includes helping children learn how to interpret what they see within their environment. This can include some of the following activities:

  • Matching objects
  • Visual memory
  • Word searches
  • Hidden figure worksheets


Fine Motor

Fine motor includes teaching children how to perform small movements with their muscles and hands. Pediatric occupational therapists work with children on some of the following fine motor skills:

  • Grasping of objects – pencil, scissors, clothing fasteners, feeding utensils
  • Drawing or coloring
  • Handwriting
  • Picking up and manipulating small objects

As you can see, pediatric occupational therapists not only love to teach children to play, but to become as functional and independent in other occupations of life as well. Should you have any questions about pediatric occupational therapy and the skilled intervention therapists provide please don’t hesitate to reach out to your therapist. We would love to answer any questions you might have!


Christa Olson, MS, OTR/L

Pediatric Occupational Therapist