Occupational therapy is a term becoming increasingly known to South African parents as one of the fields used to assist with early childhood development. OT focuses on the areas of motor and perceptions skills. The growing availability of OT resources worldwide enables teachers, parents and guardians to identify issues early on that might have been left untreated for many older generations.
Early childhood development is an integral part in the acquisition of concepts, skills and attitudes that lay the foundation of lifelong learning. “Quality development in these areas can assist young children to inhibit the basic skills needed to perform efficiently in the schooling and home environment,” says Grant Webster, COO of Toy Kingdom.
The children’s toy store places strong importance on using educational toys to help children develop the skills needed to participate in their environment. They have recently introduced a category system in-store for certain toys to help parents navigate according to the skills the toys build.
According to the latest Department of Education progress report, the national average of South African children aged 0- 4 years old participating in some sort of early childhood development programme is only 45%.
Striking a balance between screen time and traditional play
Children need to learn from a very young age how to react to the world around them. Playing with toys like dolls and action figures can help with understanding feelings like empathy. According to registered Occupational therapist Dana Katz, educational toys, especially those that support fine motor, visual perceptual, planning and problem solving skills can help to develop more refined, higher level learning skills.
“Skill development is essentially like building a pyramid, if the lower building blocks are in place, we can continue to build on that skill. If all the underlying skills like gross motor, sensory motor, focus, awareness of the two sides of the body and motor planning are in place developmentally and the child is able to process sensory information effectively, developmental toys and games can be valuable in supporting higher level skill development,” says Dana Katz.
According to a recent research publication in Britain, 25% of children aged 2-5 years have smartphones. Further studies in the US revealed that over a third of children under the age of 1 year are using smart devices. “Keeping traditional early childhood development toys in the home for playtime is becoming increasingly important in this day and age of electronic devices. It is important that children can still spend time developing the basic skills associated with play,” says Grant Webster.
Dana Katz believes that moderation and responsible use is key in this area. “Research has indicated that too much screen time can be detrimental to young children, impacting negatively on emotions and behaviour. Excessive screen time generally results in extended periods of sedentary activity. This often results in the child assuming a poor posture for long periods and focussing on a small visual field to the detriment of the peripheral visual field (which is required for much school based and play based activities). This in itself will impact negatively on early childhood development .”
Further to this, Dana Katz believes that children of all ages should be playing with traditional toys and playing actively and independently inside and outside. According to international standards, paediatricians recommended no more than 2 hours of screen time per day.
Cape Town based parenting blogger and editor of Tums 2 Tots Online, Mandy Lee Miller, reinforces the need for practicing balance when it comes to play time and skills development. “My daughter is 2 years old and watches her fair share of TV and loves playing on my cell phone, navigating it easily. However, I definitely believe that traditional toys and playing outside are important. Playing with the right toys helps to develop a child’s imagination, keeps them moving around, and helps to develop gross and fine motor skills.”
How do I know if my child needs OT?
For many parents, knowing what to look out for in their children when assessing their needs for further skill development or occupational therapy can be daunting.
Dana Katz advises that generally there may be a deficit or delay in skill development if your child displays the below.
- if a child does not enjoy an age appropriate game or activity
- has difficulty engaging with his peers in play
- is unable to participate actively in everyday classroom tasks
- is struggling to develop independence in age appropriate tasks at home, i.e. play, dressing, feeding, toileting etc.
She also explains that often children’s resistant, controlling or avoidant behaviour can be the first sign that they are finding something challenging.
For those who have recognised some of these signs and whose children are perhaps already in occupational therapy, there are a variety of toys and role play exercises that can further assist in building essential skills while in the home. Putting some time aside each day for children to engage with these activities can help with furthering early childhood development, and ultimately enrich their experience in the world around them.
The types of toys that can assist in a child’s development at home
To help in selecting the right toys for an OT child, the below provides a guideline of what sorts of toys are suitable and how they can assist in building skills:
- Toys that encourage problem solving – Lego and building blocks are a good choice for developing children’s motor and problem solving skills, as it gives them a chance to try and figure things out for themselves. It’s important to also consider toys that will help build strength in children’s hands for example play dough scissors. This strength will be necessary to take on writing amongst other daily activities.
- Things that feel ‘weird’ – toys with sticky or slimy surfaces help children to experiment with texture. This can be beneficial in ensuring children are more open to putting textured food in their mouths, and is also a great way for them to get their hands working.
- Toys that require the use of both hands – learning to use both hands well can help with colouring, cutting and writing. Winds up toys are good example or even simply tossing and catching a ball.
- Toys that encourage pretend play – fantasy and play have long been used to stimulate creativity as well as social skills in children. By pretending to do or be something different, the child is practicing both verbal and non-verbal communication, harnessing the skills to socialise and cooperate with other children and adults. Shopkins are a perfect set-up for children to play with pretend food and enjoy make-believe scenarios.