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What is Pediatric Occupational Therapy?

Often when I say, “I’m a pediatric occupational therapist.” I get blank stares or questioning looks. Introducing our work as occupational therapy is challenging because most people are thinking...


Hold on! What is pediatric occupational therapy?

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No worries, we’re happy to answer this question! Many parents have wondered the same thing after hearing about OT for the first time from a pediatrician, teacher, or another parent.


Today you’re going to learn all about pediatric occupational therapy (OT) – in a way that’s fun and easy to understand. You might discover OT is what your child needs or be able to share the idea with a friend.


Don’t be Thrown Off By the Word “Occupational”

Understanding occupational therapy starts with understanding the less known definition of the word, “occupation.” From there, everything else makes more sense.


Here’s the key, even though most people associate the idea of occupation with a “job”, it’s so much more than that. The bigger meaning of the word “occupation” is any activity you do that has meaning or value¹.


This means every minute of every day is filled with occupations! Even sleep is an occupation. Think about it, one night with less sleep makes the whole next day difficult.


Now take this broad idea of occupations as any meaningful activity and apply it to the daily job of being a successful, thriving kid. A kid’s day is full of learning, growing, and doing at home, school, or wherever they go. It’s actually a big job to be a kid in a world full of expectations and things to learn.


Here’s just a brief list of childhood occupations:

  • Play (a kid’s most important occupation)

  • Practicing skills for meeting developmental milestones

  • Learning (at school or anywhere)

  • Independently performing age-appropriate self-care tasks

  • Interacting with friends and family

  • Transitioning from one activity to another

This list literally could go on forever. Because kids are doing meaningful things all the time! That’s part of what makes the role of a pediatric occupational therapist so big (and sometimes so hard to explain).


What does a pediatric occupational therapist do?

Ok, now that we’re on the same page with the idea that an occupation = a meaningful activity, it becomes easier to understand what a pediatric occupational therapist does.


In a nutshell, a pediatric occupational therapist addresses barriers that get in the way of a child performing important daily tasks. OTs do this by looking at broad problems and then finding specific, tangible ways to build new skills or try innovative solutions.


In their specialized graduate-level education, occupational therapists learn to evaluate and address the mental, physical, and emotional aspects of performing activities or tasks. A pediatric occupational therapist specifically focuses on understanding development and conditions to help children succeed in everyday life.


You’ll find pediatric occupational therapists helping children in different settings:

  • Schools

  • Hospitals

  • Outpatient clinics

  • Outdoors (the personal favorite of Bearfoot OT)

  • Early intervention/Home health

No matter where an OT works, their role is to help kids succeed!


Overcoming Challenges to Improve Daily Life

Typically, pediatric occupational therapy starts with an evaluation to figure out the reasons behind any noted challenges. From there, an OT breaks the activity into smaller steps and skills that can be addressed.


Some examples of skills to address include:

  • Physical – core strength, hand strength, endurance

  • Social skills – taking turns, thinking of others, cooperation

  • Thinking and Executive Function – planning ahead, organization, safety, attention, following directions

  • Coordination – controlling body movements, picking up small items, handwriting

  • Sensory processing – dealing with a variety of textures, adjusting to different movements, getting enough sensory input to be calm and regulated

  • Environmental barriers – proactive changes to surrounding environment or routine to increase participation or success

  • Visual perceptual skills – helping a child makes sense of what they see or feel

  • Emotional – impulse control, dealing with disappointment

And because doing activities (or occupations) is so central to the work of an OT, most sessions involve doing activities that have been designed for therapeutic reasons and engage the child in play. For instance, what looks like a fun swinging game is actually helping a child calm their nervous system for increased focus and emotional control.


And when working with kids, that means using play as the #1 way to practice new skills. That’s because play is not only highly motivating, it’s literally how kids learn best!²


Beyond action-packed sessions for the child, pediatric OT empowers parents with knowledge about how to help their child. This could be training parents on skills to practice at home or how to modify a routine to reduce frustration. Or, it could be consulting with a teacher to find solutions in the classroom.


Every kid (and parent!) has strengths. Occupational therapy simply works to bring out those strengths for the best version of daily life.


Why would a child need pediatric occupational therapy?


Kids get occupational therapy for all sorts of reasons – all coming back to that same idea of a child struggling to do one or more things in everyday life. This could be paying attention at school, limited coordination, muscle weakness, difficulty making friends, or challenges like meltdowns when moving from one activity to another.


Some challenges are related to diagnoses such as autism, ADHD, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, or other developmental delays. Sometimes, it’s a kid with a medical condition. It’s also not uncommon for OTs to work with a kid without a formal diagnosis who just needs some extra practice or support to be successful.


Some of common reasons for pediatric OT services:

  • Poor handwriting

  • Behavior challenges at school

  • Meltdowns during transitions or loud environments

  • Sensory processing differences

  • Lack of confidence

  • Illness or injury recovery

  • Missing or delayed developmental milestones

  • Fine or gross motor coordination concerns

Occupational therapists are really good at looking at the child from different angles and find solutions that matter to your child and family.


Understanding Pediatric Occupational Therapy at Bearfoot OT!


At Bearfoot OT, we specialize in promoting motor, emotional, and social skills through outdoor sessions in beautiful nature spaces of the Bay Area. In fact, nature itself is like a sidekick to our work with kids – offering its own array of benefits including promoting wellness, skill exploration, calm, and creative play³.


Our sessions are essentially epic skill-building adventures for big fun and big results. But that’s not all! We recognize that skills in the woods need to carryover to home. For this reason, our therapy packages include caregiver support so each child gets the maximum benefit that only happens when everyone is on the same page.

If your child needs OT in the Bay Area, check out how our unique approach blends outdoor sessions with a high level of caregiver support.


Learn more about individual sessions at Bearfoot here!


References

  1. https://www.aota.org/-/media/corporate/files/aboutot/professionals/whatisot/cy/fact-sheets/children%20and%20youth%20fact%20sheet.pdf

  2. Zosh, J. M., Hopkins, E. J., Jensen, H., Liu, C., Neale, D., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Solis, S. L., & Whitebread, D. (2017). Learning through play: a review of the evidence (white paper). The LEGO Foundation, DK. https://www.legofoundation.com/media/1063/learning-through-play_web.pdf

  3. Dopko, R. L., Capaldi, C. A., & Zelenski, J. M. (2019). The psychological and social benefits of a nature experience for children: A preliminary investigation. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 63, 134-138. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0272494418307102

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