This weeks blog post is written by Anneri Oosthuizen, a South-African paediatric occupational therapist who is qualified in Ayres Sensory Integration.  Anneri has always been passionate about helping babies and children with sensory processing disorder and serving parents and teachers to deepen their understanding of the in’s and out’s of sensory processing.

I am so excited to be writing this article, as it is right up my alley combining two of my favourite things (other than OT) – Shopping and Christmas!  At our practice we usually send out an Email/WhatsApp picture list of the toys that we have found work best in therapy.  In this list we include the skills that the game or toy focuses on, the price range, a picture and where to find it.  The feedback we have received on this has been so positive over the years, as it really helps guide parents to be thoughtful in their gift giving process.

I have also toyed with the idea that if you work in a community setting, you could actually run a group session educating parents on toys and their developmental functions, for gift giving for birthdays or Christmas.  In this setting it will be important to look at which toys can be easily made as well as which ones can be bought or adapted when they are second-hand.  This is also the perfect platform to teach parents the value of playing, which age-appropriate skills need to be stimulated, and how to help their children on the path to success.

So, what are the things you need to look at when deciding on a gift?

Firstly, the obvious one’s are gender, age and most importantly, the interest of the child. My secret tip? Keep watch on the gift exchange at birthday parties throughout the year to see which gifts the children enjoy most, to guide you on your next shopping spree.

Secondly, we need to be aware that as consumer culture is growing at a rapid pace, we need to look at the durability and recyclability of a toy or game.  We need to find the golden game that will last but that is still affordable. Is the toy “green”? We need to teach children about our footprint on the earth in terms of pollution, single use items and landfills.  A quick example that I also want to mention is wrapping paper – educating children on the different options to wrap a gift that will not create further waste.  A few great ideas: using brown paper/ newspaper and decorating it, leaving the shiny non- recyclable wrapping paper; reusing gift bags; old shoe boxes or making the wrapping paper part of the gift for instance wrapping with a beautiful scarf or tea towel.

A good idea is to involve children in the gift section process.  Match a child or two with a parent so that they can assist the parent in buying something for one of the other family members.  This is a practical way to teach them what to look at when purchasing a gift, as well as teaching them the value of money.  Going into a shop can be overwhelming in terms of the amount of choices available, visual and auditory overload and clever marketing tactics.  To make an informed choice is a skill we need to teach children and is a skill that will become so important in their futures.

With my own children, we start with a budget before we get to the shop, and discuss how we need to walk through the entire shop and discuss options before we make a purchase.  We then find a quieter spot to sit down and discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each option, and only then do we make a decision.  This is definitely a time-consuming activity but is such a valued and practical life skill that needs to be taught from a young age.

In our house our children also need to contribute a portion of their own pocket money towards the gift for the other family member.  The burning question now is how do you stop a meltdown when they can’t buy everything?  What I have found works every single time, is we take a photo of each item they still want, to either keep on a list for their next birthday or to send to Santa.  The child feels heard and I can promise that we have not yet had a meltdown in a store, and being impulsive by nature they have never actually asked to see the list again.

I recently read about the four-gift rule for Christmas and we are starting to implement this in our household.  This states that the children receive four gifts:

  1. Something you want,
  2. Something you need,
  3. Something to wear, and
  4. Something to read.


Not just a catchy little rhyme, the 4-gift rule for Christmas promises to help keep your holiday season from devolving into a materialistic frenzy of more, more, more and helps you stick to a reasonable budget. But more important than that, giving just four gifts for Christmas can help you raise kids who appreciate what they have and not go into a robot- like state being overwhelmed with all the gifts.  The “want need wear read” tradition also helps to bring a sense of intention to gift-giving. When you’re giving just four gifts for Christmas, they end up being thoughtful gifts – not random gadgets or trinkets you get just to get something, even though you know they’ll soon end up shoved in a closet or somewhere else out of sight, forgotten and collecting dust.

Finally, in our household we also have the “give to get” concept.  In the beginning of December, we have two big plastic containers and my children go through all of their toys and decide which ones they do not need any more that we can donate to the less fortunate, and which ones are broken that we need to dispose of.  We explain that while you may be tired of a toy it can still brighten up someone else’s day. We give them a week to fill the tubs (and I sneakily also add some things that I know they do not use anymore) and then we donate.

Also remember, especially if money is tight, that a gift does not always have to be a tangible product.  It could also be an experience or special extra time with a parent.  Ideas for this could be going on a picnic, a treasure hunt, reading an extra book at bedtime, having a sleepover in the parents’ beds, craft time with mom/dad or choosing their favourite meal for dinner.  When looking at our current economic and social issues this concept is so important. We have so many children that do not have parents or the means to give/receive a gift (looking at children’s homes etc) and here we can teach that an action can also be a gift.  My gift can be an act of service – so I will make your bed for you, I will carry your bag for you, I will sing a song for you. We teach the concept that a gift is something given to someone without the expectation of something in return.

The third concept we need to look at when purchasing a gift is whether this will be a family driven/ parental support game/ toy or if it is something that the child can complete or play with on their own.  I have unfortunately seen through my years of practice that we really love games that work on loads of skills but do need the input of an adult, and the reality is that parents unfortunately do not always have the time or energy to play with their children.  So, if this is a goal in therapy where you want to work on social and emotional skills and help the family to bond, you need to educate the parents on why this is important, so that they will be motivated to play along.  Also, we need to give them tools for how to handle sibling rivalry as well as how to teach their children the art of losing or winning gracefully so that this game or toy stays fun and does not become a family fight. Some parents have lost the art of just playing and need guidelines on how to do this as well.  A board game can be a wonderful way of giving them a tool to play easily with rules and be present with their children.  I have seen in my house that easy games like tic tac toe, snap and memory games can be started at a very young age. Children are clever and we easily underestimate what they can do. Do remember to mention to parents that the board games must be stored in easily accessible place where children can reach them to ensure that they can make a choice as well as to remind us, in our busy lives, to take a moment and play.

If it is a game that is made for individual play, it is important that you help the parent understand that the goal of this type of gift/toy is developing creativity, problem solving and the art of play.  So, if the child uses the toy in a different manner than that for which it was intended, it’s okay – they do not need adult guidance on this one- they will make it work.  We need to teach parents to give gentle guidance and stand back as much as possible – especially for dyspraxic children.  Some may need verbal guidance only, some will need physical assistance for the first try, some will need help with forming the idea of what to do – this is an area where you as the OT are the expert, and can help parents so that the simple act of receiving a gift and playing could be therapeutic. We need to keep a balance between family focused and individual games as both of these types of toys are so important in developing the growing brain and personality into a functional adult.

One relatively new concept in terms of gifts/ toys for children is STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) activities.  I feel these activities are so important for a variety of reasons.  The first is that most gifts are gender branded (blue/pink, doll/car etc.) whereas STEM activities are often gender neutral, and an important part of teaching children to find their passion and be inquisitive.  These skills will shape our future as the fourth industrial revolution prioritises skills such as creativity and problem-solving.

The fourth aspect to consider when purchasing a gift is the child’s sensory profile, and to identify the sensory properties the game or toy affords.  This is a great time of year for parents to acquire sensory equipment that can benefit their child, and that might be on the more expensive side.  This type equipment could also be given as a family gift that spreads the cost a little.  Here we could look at trampolines, swings, sand pits and loads of other bigger apparatus.  In the modern times we are living in there are so many cool sensory toys and items available and these make wonderful and inexpensive stocking fillers like shaving cream, kinetic sand, jelly orbees/ balls and growing animals to name a few.

Lastly, I want to mention the relatively new Christmas tradition in South Africa – Elf on the Shelf.  I love this as it gives me the opportunity to be creative and spread a little magic in our home.  The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition is a 2005 children’s picture book, written by Carol Aebersold and her daughter Chanda Bell. The book tells a Christmas-themed story, written in rhyme, that explains how Santa Claus knows who is naughty and nice. It describes elves visiting children each night from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve, after which they return to the North Pole until the next holiday season.

Once everyone goes to bed, the scout elf flies back to the North Pole to report to Santa the activities, good and bad, that have taken place throughout the day. Before the family wakes up each morning, the scout elf flies back from the North Pole and hides. By hiding in a new spot each morning around the house, the scout elf plays an ongoing game of hide and seek with the family. The Elf on the Shelf explains that scout elves get their magic by being named and being loved by a child. Once the elf is named, the scout elf receives its special Christmas magic, which allows it to fly to and from the North Pole.

The book tells how the magic might disappear if the scout elf is touched, so the rule for The Elf on the Shelf states, “There’s only one rule that you have to follow, so I will come back and be here tomorrow: Please do not touch me. My magic might go, and Santa won’t hear all I’ve seen or I know.” Although families are told not to touch their scout elf, they can speak to it and tell it all their Christmas wishes so that it can report back to Santa accurately. The story ends on Christmas Day with the elf leaving to stay with Santa for the rest of the year until the following Christmas season.

If you love being creative this is a wonderful idea and there are numerous easy ideas to help you on Pinterest and Google. The reason I mention this specific tradition is, that it can help to teach quite a number of skills in a fun way:

  • Personal space – not being allowed to touch the elf.
  • Delayed gratification – waiting for the elf to appear.
  • Helping with discipline – this is a naughty one from parents but boy does it work!
  • Visual perceptual skills – finding the elf each day.
  • Improving language skills – having to explain to the parent what they see and what the elf did.
  • To think before you do something and the effect your actions have on others – so how do you feel if the elf does A or B.
  • Having a touch of magic in a world that forces children to grow up so fast.

Just a side note – there are quite interesting arguments available as to whether this is an effective behaviour tool. My take?  No one single thing can change or alter behaviour in a negative or positive way.  There needs to be a combined consistent approach to address difficult behaviour. I feel quite strongly that sometimes we just need a little magic in our lives without complicating it with adult thought processes.  With these types of traditions, it is also important to take note of religious beliefs.  The point is to create special memories regardless of which tradition you decide to reinforce in your home and to also look at a tradition as a possible learning tool.  At the end of the day, it is your choice what you expose your child to – just make sure that it is an informed, fact-based decision that you can explain to them when they are older.

I leave you with a quote from one of my favourite Christmas movies: “Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. Maybe Christmas,’ he thought, ‘doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.'”

Happy Shopping!