From Our Print Archives

Building Skills By Building Toys

These 3-D projects promote sensory, motor and literacy goals in the context of play

Vol. 25 • Issue 6 • Page 14

Play is the central occupation of children, off­ering children the freedom to express themselves.1,2,3

Unlike most other school experiences, the child is in control of his/her actions and language during play. Play gives children the opportunity to explore the world, express and control emotions, develop problem-solving abilities and practice emerging skills.

Building and playing with toys are wonderful ways to expand a child's world of play while addressing goals, so I use these projects frequently during my school-based therapy sessions. By reusing common objects made of wood, cardboard, Styrofoam and other "recycled" materials, my OT students creatively make representational models of real or imagined objects.

Toy projects are selected based on children's interests, availability of materials or the classroom learning theme. Some of my students' recent projects have included a frog pond, pirate ship with treasures, mouse house and a robot on Mars. With younger or lower-functioning students, we make simple and familiar toys such as cars, school buses or houses.

Students can play with the toys, remake them over and over again, and show off the toys to others. When my OT students build a toy alongside typical peers, all the students are equally and happily engaged, and all the students create impressive, delightful products.

These 3-D projects can help children work on sensory, motor and cognitive goals. In order to promote reading and writing skills, the students incorporate words within the toy, in the form of a flag, sign, label or sentence strip.

Most importantly, children gain a sense of pride and accomplishment. My favorite moments occur at the end of sessions as students carry their projects down the halls and other students approach, saying, "Wow, you made that! What is it? That's so cool."

Sensory and Motor Goals

From a sensory perspective, the recycled projects offer a variety of textures, sizes and weights. Three-dimensional materials such as plastic, Styrofoam and wood are sturdy and easy to handle, and they don't rip or crumple like paper.

Poking and pushing the components into the project bases require resistance, which results in proprioceptive feedback. The waving flags and reflective materials, such as Mylar, increase visual interest, and projects can be designed to make noise.

Toy construction promotes unilateral and bilateral fine-motor skills, including cutting, drawing and writing. The projects also develop 2-D and 3-D perceptual motor skills, including aligning, stacking and balancing objects. Toy construction incorporates many specific hand movements.

Projects can be chosen and/or graded to meet a child's developmental and interest level. Children with significant disabilities can successfully make simple and fun toy projects such as a shaker.

Cognitively, the 3-D components and the resulting toy representations are more easily recognizable as symbols for the real objects, as compared with 2-D paper projects. Child and therapist can discuss the spatial relations of the components such as top/bottom, inside/outside and over/under, as well as time concepts such as before and after.

At the beginning of the project-building session, each student receives a set of directions to provide visual support and promote direction following, sequencing and reading. With non-readers, I draw a picture to represent the steps. The student checks off each step as he completes it.

Learning Literacy

Toy-building projects offer rich language opportunities. The children can learn the names of the parts of the developing project (e.g., a tire or wheel), as well as the names of the original components (e.g., a bottle cap). They can also add words or sentences with flags, banners and signs.

Usually even pre-readers can remember and proudly "read" their signs. "Pretending to read" is an important component for emerging readers.

Adding words to projects helps to develop awareness of environmental print (i.e., print found in the natural environment of everyday life).11At a very young age, children begin to engage with the print in their surroundings. The words on the flags and banners of their projects attract children's visual attention. When children show off their projects, adults are invariably interested in the words. Reading the words and explaining their projects to adults help children build confidence and opportunities for positive, meaningful social dialogue.

The therapist may also instruct students to write a sentence on a strip of paper or other material and attach the strip around the base of the project. By choosing their own sentences and physically connecting the sentence strips to the project, the words gain meaning and importance, and children learn to read the "story."

Higher-level students (at approximately a second-grade academic level) often write an accompanying imaginative short story. Sometimes I suggest a scenario to guide the writing, such as "pretend the robot visits earth." The children happily write stories after making an imaginative project and, I can interrupt to offer ­mini-lessons in handwriting and writing skills. After a group of students finish writing their stories, they each take turns sitting in my teacher's chair and reading aloud. Then the other students ask the writer questions about the story.

The children ask and answer questions imaginatively and there are no right and wrong answers. The children's social ­interactions are often more positive and expansive during story reading and "Q & A" time than in other situations.

Great Toy Projects

A few simple concepts will help you and your students develop great toy projects. The toy should be interesting to look at from various angles and is imaginative yet recognizable.

Use movable parts, like wheels, doors or covered boxes, as well as removable parts like paper pizza for a toy oven or costume jewelry for a treasure chest. Velcro, magnet strips or brads are useful to attach and reattach removable parts. Stimulate the senses with parts that move, make noise and add visual appeal.

Projects should be expandable-the child can add more fish to the fish pond, or construct a gas station for the school bus. Attach handles, leashes or anchors made from pipe cleaners or leather. Toys should also be able to be easily rebuilt if damaged during play.

Incorporate language into the project with banners, signs, flags, etc. Incorporate a story into the project as well.

The following materials are ideal for 3-D projects:

Awl: To make holes in plastic containers and lids (for the OT to use only). The student can enlarge the hole with a pencil.

Hole punch: Great for making flags and signs, as well as holes to sew ribbon and yarn around the project.

Toy bases: Foam trays, plastic food containers, paper plates.

Wheels: Milk jug lids, yogurt lids and buttons.

Corrugated bulletin board paper: Make vertical fences with the corrugated paper and attach with toothpicks to a Styrofoam tray.

Connectors and handles: Brads, plastic-coated telephone wire, pipe cleaners, Velcro, magnets, bolts and nuts, and hardware brackets.

Extenders to add height and make flags and banners: Barbeque skewers (cut off sharp ends), straws, chopsticks, tongue depressors and pipe cleaners.

Decorations: Ribbons, Mylar, beads, tinsel, feathers and beads.

Old calendars: Ask friends in December for their old calendars.

Natural materials: Flowers, leaves, shells, sand, etc.

Electric drill: The drill easily and safely makes holes in plastic components. Students delight in donning a safety mask and using a drill (if appropriate for the child).

Foam trays: Children can easily poke things into the tray to attach components such as pictures, fences, flags, etc. Children like the sound and feel of punching and poking.

Pre-made materials: Toy dinosaurs, bugs and animals, silk and plastic flowers, and game parts.

The children go home cherishing and playing with their new toys. Parents look forward to seeing what their child constructs during OT. The toy can then become a focus for family play and interaction. With written words chosen by the child and integral to the project, he can "read" the words to his parents, even if the child is a pre-reader. Parents learn that it is easy, cheap and fun to make toys from household materials.

References available at or upon request.

Donna Shaman is a pediatric occupational therapist working in the Highline School District in Burien, WA. She is currently a graduate student in the transitional master of occupational therapy program at the University of North Dakota. Contact her at

Directions for a Car Project

This car project starts with a tofu container for the chassis body. The child follows the directions, checking off each step as he completes it.

•Attach four wheels (milk jug lids) with brads.

•Make a front and rear bumper (popsicle sticks).

•Add front and rear lights (stickers).

•Add a sunroof (plastic packaging).

•Make a flag with words.

•Add some car parts (tinsel, beads or any other items the child chooses).

•Add an animal.

•Make a food bowl for your animal (plastic medicine cup).

•Cut up a leaf for animal food.

•Write two sentences about where your car will go.

•Project is finished. Play time!


Email: *

Email, first name, comment and security code are required fields; all other fields are optional. With the exception of email, any information you provide will be displayed with your comment.

First * Last
Title Field Facility
City State

Comments: *
To prevent comment spam, please type the code you see below into the code field before submitting your comment. If you cannot read the numbers in the below image, reload the page to generate a new one.

Enter the security code below: *

Fields marked with an * are required.

View the Latest from ADVANCE


Search Jobs


Back to Top

© 2017 Merion Matters

660 American Avenue Suite 300, King of Prussia PA 19406