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Drama and Theater in Pediatric Occupational Therapy

Drama and Theater in Pediatric Occupational Therapy
Elisabeth Bahr, OTD, MS, OT/L
January 2, 2024

A group of children playing with finger puppets accompanied by an OT

Drama and theater offer more than riveting performances on stage; they’re a treasure trove of therapeutic activities. 

Occupational therapy is deeply rooted in the arts and crafts movement. Today, innovative therapists are returning to their creative beginnings to discover the benefits of drama and theater for their young clients.

In a systematic review of occupation-based interventions, 62 articles examined various activities for therapeutic potential. This included outdoor camps, video games, life skills, meditation, and more.

Among them, creative arts interventions emerged with a moderately strong impact on mental health. Such findings give a rationale for the role of performance arts in pediatric occupational therapy (Cahill et al., 2020).

At the heart of theater are storytelling, role-playing, and self-expression skills. Acting can be a scaffold to hone social skills for children undergoing occupational therapy. 

Try these activities in your next occupational therapy session to enchant your littlest clients with fun theater activities: 

  • Acting, at its core, is about observation and imitation. It's a fantastic way for kids to hone their nonverbal communication—practicing everything from voice tone and facial cues to body language.
  • Pantomiming, or acting without real props, is a creative exercise that pushes flexible thinking. It's especially beneficial for neurodiverse children because it can help them navigate challenges like inferential learning and perspective-taking (Schneider, 2007). Occupational therapists may find that adding theater activities to their sessions not only aids skill-building but also makes the learning process entertaining.
  • Sharing stories boosts children's creativity, flexible thinking, and organizational skills. Plus, group storytelling games bring in the added benefit of social interaction.
  • Theater games can refine children's social skills, ignite their inner voice, and stimulate their minds. Therapists can pepper their sessions with activities like role-playing or even video demonstrations featuring actors.
  • Puppetry, be it with hand puppets, finger puppets, or marionettes, is a hands-on way for children to work on their fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination.

Tips for Success in OT Sessions

Taking the plunge into theater as a therapeutic tool requires a balance of creating a safe space and appropriate activities. Here's how OT practitioners can weave drama into their sessions:

  • Ensure activities are appropriate for the child's age and developmental stage.
  • Cultivate a nurturing environment that inspires expression. Establish ground rules and group values to foster mutual respect.
  • Address each child's sensory needs by offering tools like fidgets, flexible seating, or a quiet break space.
  • In the initial sessions, showcase your willingness to be expressive, even if it means being the silliest person in the room. It sets the tone for the experience and can make children more willing to take creative risks.

Integrating drama and theater into pediatric OT doesn't just tap into a child's potential but can also be a fun way of developing skills. 

More on this topic can be found in this OccupationalTherapy.com course: Using Drama And Theater As A Therapeutic Modality by Nicole Kristal, MS, OT/L


Cahill, S. M., Egan, B. E., & Seber, J. (2020). Activity- and occupation-based interventions to support mental health, positive behavior, and social participation for children and youth: A systematic review. The American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 74(2). https://doi.org/10.5014/ajot.2020.038687

Schneider, C. B. (2007). Acting antics: A theatrical approach to teaching social understanding to kids and teens with Asperger syndrome. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

elisabeth bahr

Elisabeth Bahr, OTD, MS, OT/L

Elisabeth Bahr is a writer, artist, and occupational therapist. She holds a master of science from NYU and a doctorate in occupational therapy from BU. She is currently a health writer, educator, and advocate. You can find her consulting work at pegasuswellness.co and her writing on Continued and around the internet.

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