Our friend and blog contributor Kristi Nguyen, OTR/L, a licensed occupational therapist who’s the owner/executive director of Connecticut-based OT-Kids, LLC, shares her insights on how creative arts & crafts play can positively impact your child’s overall development.
In a world that seems so controlled by technology, apps, and screens, it has never been more important for parents, educators, and caregivers to provide children with hands-on experiences and opportunities to express themselves creatively.
As an occupational therapist with 20 years of experience, I have witnessed firsthand the impact that technology, and specifically tablets, has had on the motor development of young children. As society has become more digitally integrated, children have replaced using their whole hands for activities—such as finger painting, grasping crayons, molding clay, manipulating scissors, lacing beads, and pinching small stickers—with simple pointing and touching of a screen, an activity that provides no feedback to the musculoskeletal system.
Putting arts & crafts manipulatives into little hands helps promote the development of fine motor skills, hand and finger strength and dexterity, eye-hand coordination, visual motor/visual perception skills, bilateral coordination, and so much more. There are so many ways to use Melissa & Doug toys to bring arts & crafts activities into your home or classroom. Here are three creative play patterns that I recommend in my OT practice.
The Benefits of Playing With Easels
Developmental Benefits: One of my all-time favorite tools to recommend for both homes and classrooms are easels! The benefits of having children work on a vertical surface such as an easel are limitless. Working on a vertical surface encourages large muscle movement patterns, which improves shoulder and elbow stability, wrist extension, and grasp patterns, all of which help development of motor control, handwriting, and graphomotor skills. Working in a standing position is also beneficial for development of core stability and posture, as well as eye-hand coordination.
Play Recommendations: The Melissa & Doug Deluxe Wooden Standing Art Easel and the Deluxe Double-Sided Magnetic Tabletop Easel are the best! Add the Easel Companion Accessory Set and watch children spend hours creating artwork that will be display worthy.
I usually have suggestions for how to help maximize the therapeutic benefit of play and activities, but with easels, my advice is just to let your child be imaginative and create whatever they want! Give them access to items such as paints, paint brushes, markers, stickers, crayons, dot markers, and more, and you will have future Picassos creating works of art to hang around your home in no time.
Extra Creative Challenge: Some other ways to enhance children playing with easels is to have them do so while seated on an exercise ball to add even greater challenges to their core.
The Benefits of Playing With Wooden Stamps
Developmental Benefits: Other Melissa & Doug activities I love having on hand are wooden stamp sets. Using stamps is a great activity to help develop the musculature of the hand and the webspace between the thumb and pointer finger, which is important for later development of handwriting and other fine motor tasks. Pushing the stamp into the ink pad helps develop motor planning and force grading, and stamping the paper helps promote eye-hand coordination, spatial awareness, and visual perception skills.
Play Recommendations: All of the Melissa & Doug wooden stamp sets are great, but one of my favorites is the Deluxe Wooden Stamp Set - Animals. Children can create the farm or underwater scene of their dreams, then use the included markers to color and embellish their creation, which helps improve their visual motor and visual perception skills.
Extra Creative Challenge: It’s great to let children create their own pictures with the stamps, but as therapists, we also love to add cognitive challenges to our activities. You can do this at home by creating listening and direction-following games to improve executive functioning skills. Here are some activities you can do while playing with the Deluxe Wooden Stamp Animals Set, based on the age of your child:
- Preschool: Scramble the stamps on the table and ask the child questions such as, “Can you find the animal that barks and likes to play with bones?” Or give the child a piece of paper that’s divided into four quadrants and have them sort by theme while they stamp to identify animals that might live on a farm, under the sea, at home, or in the jungle.
- Early Childhood (grades K-3): Give the child multi-step instructions to follow using prepositions or directional instructions, such as: “Can you stamp a blue octopus next to the red turtle?” Or, “Can you stamp an animal that has 8 legs to the left of the animal that gallops?”
- For older children: Increase the challenge in these activities even more by adding higher-level problem-solving twists: “Stamp the animal that has a long trunk and tusks in blue, then color him yellow.”
The Benefits of Playing with Clay
Developmental Benefits: Occupational Therapists LOVE clay—and so do children! Whether making homemade playdough or going on putty treasure hunts, putting clay or putty in a child’s hands is one of the best ways to engage a child and promote creativity, while simultaneously helping motor development and so much more.
Play Recommendations: The Melissa & Doug Clay Activity Bundles include all the tools you need for hours of creative fun! Children will love rolling, cutting, kneading, and shaping the clay while using their imagination and strengthening the muscles of the hands and arms.
Extra Creative Challenge: There are so many fun ways to use the clay with your kiddos aside from just letting them explore the rolling pins and included tools. For your youngest children, the textured stamps and rolling pins are a fantastic way to introduce vocabulary such as smooth and bumpy, rough or round. You can use the animal stamps to teach different attributes of animals and colors.
With your preschool and kindergarten-aged children, you can also integrate letter identification and formation. Have the child roll clay into “short, medium, and long” snake-like pieces of each color, then encourage them to mold the snakes into letters: “Can you use one long blue snake and three short blue snakes to make the letter E?”
Or you can add other phonemic awareness or letter sound identification challenges to this activity by giving kids a clue: “Can you mold the clay into the letter that says (ffff) like frog?” For older children, make studying for a spelling test or learning their sight words more fun by having them use the clay to spell their words. Or let them use a toothpick to write the word in the rolled-out clay, a great way to work on pinch and grasp without using a pencil.
We love letting children explore their own creativity when engaging in arts & crafts activities, but sometimes we also have fun adding a little extra challenge! Make sure you are adding arts & crafts to your schedule each week to help your child build a strong motor foundation, which will be the building blocks to future success in so many ways!