Occupational Therapy Toys: An OT-Approved Holiday Gift Guide
occupational therapy toys gift guide

Occupational Therapy Toys: An OT-Approved Holiday Gift Guide

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The 2021 holiday season is already upon us! Can you believe it? In a year that has been full of unexpected and challenging events, I think we could all use a little bit of the comfort and joy that comes with the holidays. 

As an Occupational Therapist (OT) working in both clinic and community settings, a big part of my job is meeting with parents to help them learn how to play with their children in a way that furthers their development by building foundational learning and motor skills. Parents often ask me for recommendations on activities to try at home, and it would be an understatement to say I get really excited when talking about toys and games. It’s in my DNA (ok, training) to look at a task, and figure out what skills are needed and/or missing. Toys provide a fun, hands-on way to teach children new skills and build confidence when they aren’t meeting milestones the way they should. This year, as parents have taken on unprecedented roles in their children’s education, many families are looking for holiday gifts that are both fun and enriching. But with everything available online and so many options to choose from, how do you even know what therapeutic toys to buy?

This holiday gift guide was created to help parents navigate the often-overwhelming world of children’s toys and find enriching games their children will love – on any budget. In no particular order, here are some of my favorite toys available this holiday season.

*Just a quick note: these recommendations are not intended to endorse a specific product, treat fine motor or any other skill delays, and do not replace being seen by a pediatrician or any other healthcare provider. Toy recommendations are intended only to inspire parents to get creative with holiday toy purchases- please use caution and only buy toys that are both safe and appropriate for *your* child. If you have concerns about your child’s learning/development or want to know which toys would best suit your child’s specific needs, please speak with your pediatrician, occupational therapist, or other appropriate licensed professionals.

Gifts Under $20

kinetic sand sensory toy

Scented Kinetic Sand $20

I love using kinetic sand during my sessions as both a reward for doing challenging work and as a sensory activity that kids always enjoy. This sand includes an extra bonus….it’s scented in yummy chocolate, vanilla, cherry, and apple “flavors”! There are so many ways to customize this activity to meet different children’s preferences: You can keep them stored in separate containers and use them one at a time, add them to regular kinetic sand to decrease the intensity of the smells, or let your kids mix them together to create fun new scent combinations. There are tons of different smells to choose from- search scented kinetic sand and you’ll find a variety of scent options. Buy it here

sand painting kit for hand therapy

Sand Painting Activity Kit $18

I’m always looking for fun crafts to do with my school-aged kids, they provide a purposeful activity that often motivates kids to try new things. With this sand painting kit, you have two activities in one. Fun watercolors, and 3D sand art. This is great for hand strengthening, working on pencil grasp, visual motor skills, tactile sensitivities, the list goes on and on. Buy it here

mancala board for kids with visual perceptual difficulties

Melissa & Doug Wooden Mancala Board $17

Ages 6-12

Melissa & Doug is an award-winning, made-by-hand toy company known for affordable, high-quality toys and games that support learning and development. Perhaps most known for their sturdy wood puzzles and pretend play accessories, Melissa & Doug items often include fun, thoughtful details that stand out from other commercial toy products. This Mancala board is not only a classic, easy to learn game, it includes Hanging hardware so that it’s beautiful design can be used as decor for playrooms or children’s bedrooms. The vivid colors of the game (blue, green, red, orange) increases visual contrast, making it more accessible for children with differing abilities (many kids with special needs/learning disabilities have visual perceptual difficulties), yet are cohesive enough not to overwhelm those with visual sensitivities. Works on fine motor skills, turn-taking, problem-solving. OT’s love toys with small pieces, because they encourage 2-3 finger grasps, which are important for writing and dressing skills.   Buy it here

water bottle develops fine motor skills

Color your own water bottle $14

With water fountains off-limits, having a water bottle is essential! This one is great because it allows kids to decorate, so they have a bottle that is uniquely their own. It’s BPA free, has preprinted designs, and comes with permanent markers and stick-on gems. As if that wasn’t enough, it includes a free pencil pouch that can also be decorated! Kids will be having too much fun to realize they are actually working on fine motor skills. Purple Ladybug makes other bottles in lots of different colors, including ones with stickers only (dinosaurs, robots, pink/blue/green/red): a great option for kids who may not enjoy coloring. Buy it here

magnetic fishing game builds hand eye coordination

Melissa & Doug Catch and Count Magnetic Fishing Game $16

As I mentioned before, Melissa & Doug toys are known for quality. In the age of zoom calls, tablets, and screen time, their toys create opportunities for hands-on play, which is the cornerstone of children’s learning. This fishing set comes with 2 fishing rods, 2 sets of magnetic fish, and a game spinner. When not in use, the game can easily be put away in the included blue mesh storage bag (which doubles as a “pond” or “fishing net” when being played). Let me just say, there is just so much here to love from an OT perspective! Numbers for counting/number recognition, the string builds up hand-eye-coordination, and a working reel that encourages the use of two hands (and builds the ever-so-important bilateral coordination skills!). Buy it here

lite brite small manipulatives

Lite Brite $9.00

Ages 4+

Remember Lite Brite? Why not be the person who introduces your kid to an awesome “new” game (they’ll never know). From an OT perspective, this game is absolute gold. It has a vertical surface (which any child with fine motor delays should totally be using as much as possible), and small manipulatives, something I recommend for children who hold pencils improperly. This kit also includes designs that kids can follow, building visual motor skills, praxis, and executive functioning skills. Like I said, OT gold! There are a bunch of different kinds with different patterns and features, so you’ll find something appealing no matter what your child’s interests are. Buy it here

lobster claw catcher strengthens hands

Melissa & Doug Louis Lobster Claw Catcher $11

36 mo. – 8 years, great for siblings of different ages.

This Lobster claw catcher is another great way to work on hand-eye coordination skills while also strengthening little hands. It’s designed for pools so it’s waterproof- perfect for bath time, adding to a water sensory bin, or can be used on the floor for less of a challenge. Buy it here

double doodle board helps fine motor skills

Crayola my first doodle board $19

Although I *highly* recommend doing as many messy, slimy, craft projects as possible with your child, I also recognize there are times when messy paint is not a good idea. Enter, the double doodler! I’m pretty sure this was designed by an OT because it is basically a fine motor skill factory. One side is a touch-activated rainbow drawer, which works on finger isolation, hand strength, and early stages of writing. The other is a wipeable crayon drawing surface that is like a dry erase board, but for crayons. The best part though, the triangular crayons that encourage a tripod grasp! Buy it here

dot to dot coloring pad builds visual motor skills

Melissa & Doug Dot to Dot Coloring Pad $5

36 mo.-10 years

Builds visual Motor skills needed for reading and writing, 20 alphabet pages (connect letters of alphabet in order) and 20 number pages (connect numbers 1-50 in order) that start easy and get more challenging. Great for working on numbers and letters, hand-eye coordination, coloring skills. Your kids will love uncovering the mystery pictures and then adding customized finishing touches (coloring). Buy it here

suspend family game

Melissa & Doug “Suspend” Family Game $16

8-15 years, up to 4 players

Family-friendly game. Works on fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, and motor planning. Like Jenga, but maybe a little more fun? Buy it here

pop beads build hand strength

Pop Beads from B. Toys $20 (300 or 500 pcs)

Although there are lots of different brands available on the market, these ones are my favorite. They have fun colors and designs, versatile accessories, and are really well made. I’ve had the same batch for years and use them frequently with my clients to build hand strength, bilateral coordination, and build grasping skills that are needed to hold a pencil. Although they are marketed as a jewelry craft, I use them with all my clients to build not only jewelry, but also “robots”, “snakes”, and whatever else kids dream up in their imaginations. For kids who already struggle with fine motor tasks, I recommend starting out with the big beads (the least challenging) already connected and making a game of pulling them apart to build up strength before asking them to connect the beads themselves. Buy it here

Gifts between $20-$50

mr mouth improves hand eye coordination

TOMY Mr. Mouth, Feed the Frog Game $24

5+, up to 4 players. This awesome game might be a little tricky for some little ones, but it’s packed with fun. Mini catapults to fling little ‘bugs’ into the frogs’ mouth, as it slowly spins and opens/closes its mouth. TOMY games are known for their fun, interactive board games that build problem-solving skills, and this one is no different. Works on fine motor skills, timing, social skills, and hand-eye coordination. Just don’t forget to buy batteries! Buy it here

geoboard improves handwriting

Coogam Wooden Geoboard $22

Ages 3+

I use this geoboard with grade-schoolers who are struggling with handwriting (and usually math, drawing, scissor skills, reading). Visual-motor integration is the foundation of so many school-related skills, and difficulties in this area can really interfere with a child’s learning. This Geoboard comes with pattern cards ranging from simple to challenging, as well as blank dry erase cards, so children can enjoy for hours no matter what their skill level. Buy it here

LED bike wheel lights

Activ Life battery-operated LED bike wheel lights $25

These awesome bike lights add an extra incentive to go outside and move! They attach to the wheels of the bike and require no tools to install. There are tons of great colors to choose from, and they also increase visibility. Buy it here

3D drawing pen builds fine motor skills

3Doodler pen set for 3D drawing $50

Ages 6+

Why draw on paper when you can create 3D creations with this awesome pen…No weird glasses required! Kids can create funny monsters, animals, or whatever else they can dream up while improving fine motor and visual motor skills. Buy it here

weighted blanket has calming effects

Bedsure Weighted Blanket $43

While not technically a toy, I had to add this weighted blanket to my must-buy list. OTs have known about the calming effects of weighted objects for a long time, but they were always expensive and hard to find. Fortunately, this is no longer the case, they are popping up everywhere and can be super affordable. This blanket is made with glass beads (great for keeping you cool), sewn into individual squares that create a more even distribution of weight. It also features a removable, washable cover which makes keeping it clean so much easier (just trust me, you don’t want a heavy object thumping around your washing machine). Just make sure you select the weight carefully: No more than 10% of child’s weight + 1 lb. *and never put a weighted object on children under 2, or any child that would be unable to get out from under it by themselves!! Buy it here

Gifts $60+

osmo creative drawing pad for writing skills

Osmo Creative Drawing Pad $70

If your child will not part with their tablet (but please, still consider it), this interactive drawing pad is a great way to sneak in early writing skills into their usual screen time. It comes with all the supplies needed to turn your iPad into an interactive drawing game: stand, camera reflector, drawing pad, and stylus. Buy it here

burgkidz building wall develops fine motor skills

BurgkidzBuilding Wall$90

OT’s love vertical surfaces. It forces children to lift their wrists, which is the first step to a better pencil grasp. This vertical wall allows kids to use their building bricks to make fun creations while working on fine motor skills. It would also make a pretty awesome decoration for a bedroom or playroom! Buy it here

kids desk helps alleviate eye strain

POTBY Kids Desk $125 

Kids are doing most of their learning from home these days, most of which happens in front of a laptop. You’ve probably already begun using strategies to help alleviate the eye strain, now it’s time to start thinking about sitting posture. The ideal body position puts the ankles, knees, and hips at 90 degrees. This study station has so many benefits for your child’s learning. The desk and chair are both completely adjustable so you can get the height exactly right, there’s a built-in desk light to prevent eye strain, and a writing surface that raises (improves hand position and grasp). Comes in many colors. Buy it here

For more information on utilizing toys to build gross and fine motor skills, physical therapy toys, or to schedule a consultation with our pediatric occupational therapist (OT) experts, please contact us at 888-4TES-KIDS or visit our website at www.TESIDEA.com!

Photo credit: Children photo created by serhii_bobyk – www.freepik.com


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