Eight Ways to Make Therapy Fun


Are you exhausted from scheduling your kids therapy appointments and supervising all of their exercises? Jolene Philo shares eight ways you can make therapy fun!

For two and half months last fall, I felt like a prisoner wearing a ball and chain. Not on my foot, but on my left hand. Not a ball made of iron, but of therapy appointments two or three times a week as well as hand and thumb exercises every two hours.

Day after day. Week after week. Month after month.

Lugging around the ball and chain designed to restore the function of a severed thumb tendon, I had plenty of time to think about kids who go to all sorts of therapy appointments. Who are assigned endless exercises, not for a few months, but for a lifetime. Whose parents drive them to therapy, schedule the appointments, and supervise exercises.

Day after day. Week after week. Month after month. Year after year.

During my stint with therapy, I came up with techniques to motivate myself. Many of them were plucked from the bag of tricks I used during my teaching years to motivate students. I’m passing them on to you, hopeful that they will lighten the weight of the therapy ball and chain and make therapy fun for your child.

Tip #1: Use Normal Daily Movements as Therapy

Many of the pictures of the exercises assigned by the therapist listed daily movements that used the same muscles and motions. One of them was folding laundry. So on laundry day, I folded clothes (something my husband usually does) instead of doing the exercises because it felt more purposeful. If children can occasionally substitute normal daily movements for contrived exercises, they’ll feel like they had a exercise break, but you’ll know better.

Tip #2: Make Therapy Fun

My idea of fun is not squeezing a ball of thera-putty for ten minutes twice a day. Most days I forced myself to do it. But the weekend we visited our grandkids was a different story. Rolling and squeezing the thera-putty with my three-year-old grandson was so much fun neither of us wanted to put it away. We rolled snakes, made them kiss, and squeezed them into cookie cutters. We even made a short video to show the hand therapist at my next appointment. All it took to turn drudgery to fun was a child’s imagination and an adult’s willingness to act like a kid again.

Tip #3: Use Fake Rewards

In college psychology classes, they call this behavioral modification. In reality, it’s just setting up a system of fake rewards as motivation. My best motivation was the promise of a chocolate-covered almond (a step up from M & Ms) after completing my exercises. About halfway through the exercises, I was salivating like Pavlov’s dogs in anticipation of my treat. If a system of inexpensive and harmless fake rewards (stickers, candy, extra screen time, whatever) motivates your child to complete therapy, go for it.

Tip #4: Multi-task

Every day for two months, I had to pick up coins between my thumb and forefinger and move them from one pile to another and back again. The big finale was to pick each coin up and bend my wrist to put the coins in a bank. By using only pennies, this exercise could easily motivate children. What if they got to keep each penny they put into the bank? And if when the bank was full, they shook out the pennies, counted and piled them into groups of 5, 10, 25, 50, and 100, they could learn the value of pennies by exchanging them for other coins. Even dollar bills. All of the sudden, children are multi-tasking mavens, learning to count money while doing therapy.

Tip #5: Use Car Rides

Car rides became a favorite activity of mine (for the first 8 weeks after surgery I couldn’t drive) because I could do my exercises in the car and not take more time away from what waited at the end of the car ride. Children can be encouraged to do any car-friendly exercises while being driven from here to there…and then when they get wherever they’re going, they’ll be ready to play!

Tip #6: Do a Craft

The hand therapist suggested moving dry elbow macaroni from here to there when moving coins from here to there got boring. Unfortunately, the bloom went off that rose pretty quickly. Until I remembered the hideous macaroni covered ornaments we made for our parents in elementary school. With the holidays just around the corner, I decided to make the hand therapist a macaroni Christmas tree made all the more stunning with the addition of copious amounts of glitter glue.

As you can see, the end result was quite garish. But if thinking about the look on the hand therapist’s face when she opened it kept me gluing macaroni on styrafoam, imagine what something similar would do for kids making something glittery for the important people in their lives.

Tip #7: Keep Your Eye on the Prize

As a writer, I was highly motivated to exercise to regain full use of my thumb. It’s my livelihood. To keep going, I kept my eye on that prize. Somehow, we as parents have to show our kids the prize that will be the result of their hard work. Ask an older child or an adult who completed similar therapy and is all the better for it to give your child a pep talk. Or better yet, encourage them to become friends who cheer one another on toward the prize.

Tip #8: Take a Break

If God needed a break after 6 days of hard work, so do our kids. If skipping a whole day of exercises is detrimental, talk to the therapist about what can be safely abandoned for a session or two. You and your child will be better able to pick up the therapy ball and chain after a little rest.

Day after day. Week after week. Month after month.

That’s what it took for my thumb to regain enough dexterity and strength to write this post. It was worth every bit of the time, the bother, the prayers, and the creativity required. It’ll be worth it for your child, too. So hang in there. Don’t quit. Make therapy fun when you can. And be ready for the day when the therapist cuts your child lose from that ball and chain. From experience I can tell you this.

That will be a glorious day indeed.

Written by: Jolene Philo 

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