Purposeful play: Master of occupational therapy students host summer camps at RUC


The days of a typical summer camp are filled with fun, from sports and games to arts, crafts and snack time. The camps hosted by Master of Occupational Therapy (MOT) students at Radford University Carilion last month offered all that and more: the chance for campers to build their cognitive, physical/motor, sensory and social skills while their hosts gained real-world clinical experience.

The camps, held from June 7-24 for children aged 3-5 and 6-14, were designed to provide participants with opportunities to engage in “purposeful play,” or enjoyable activities that allow children to make meaning out of their experiences. In addition, the activities gave the MOT students a chance to learn how they can help pediatric clients improve their skills to increase their confidence, participation and independence in life.


“Each activity during camp was thoroughly planned by us, the MOT students, with specific goals in mind,” said Kelsey Kokkonen, a New Market, Virginia, native and first-year student in the MOT program. “While the camps were designed to fulfill first-year MOT students’ Level 1 fieldwork within the pediatric population, they were also our first opportunity to take the information we have learned in our academic curriculum and apply it in a real-life setting working with children.”


Kokkonen said that the summer camps followed an Evaluation and Assessment in Pediatrics course that she and her fellow students had during the spring 2021 semester. In that class, the students studied childhood development, as well as diagnoses and conditions prevalent in pediatrics.

“We became familiar with standardized assessments used in the field to collect information on children’s performance in specific areas,” she recalled. “During the camps, we were given the opportunity to administer an assessment to a child, then score and interpret their results. We were also able to debrief their caregivers and our instructors about our findings, all of which we will be expected to do when we graduate and enter the workforce.”

Occupational therapy for adults vs. children
At the highest level, occupational therapy is defined as a client-centered profession that promotes health and well-being through occupation, or functional tasks and activities that are meaningful and purposeful to individuals. The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) states that occupational therapists (OTs) focus on several areas of occupation, including activities of daily living, instrumental activities of daily living, sleep and rest, work, education, play, leisure and social participation. The approach to helping a client redevelop those skills after an illness, accident or other life-altering event often depends on the age of the person the OT is working with.


For children, their primary occupation is play. So, OTs often use play to enhance the childrens’ gross motor skills (kicking or throwing a ball and obstacle courses), fine motor skills (play dough, cutting and writing) and daily living (cooking, social interaction and snack time). The goal of the camps at RUC was to help children develop these skills through meaningful occupation, or play.  

“Whether we wanted the kids to learn or enhance their skills personally and with each other, we wanted to ensure the activities were going to be beneficial to every single kid,” Kokkonen said. “But, we also wanted to make sure they were having fun at the same time.”

Among the activities that children participated in during the camps were problem-solving games, crafts and physical activities, like playing with kickballs and hula hoops. The goal was to keep the children engaged and active throughout the day.

“The student-to-camper ratio was a great advantage,” Kokkonen said. “We were able to have one or two OT students assigned to each camper. Getting undivided attention from an adult for hours at a time is often rare for many kids, and the campers really seemed to soak it up.”

Learning as a two-way street
OT Assistant Professor Jason Browning, Ph.D., OTR/L said that the camps provide a mutually beneficial opportunity for learning. While the children have the chance to improve their occupational skills, the OT students, under the supervision of the faculty, are able to design and carry out activities with the kids to understand better how children interact with their environments.


“During the camps, the MOT students get to observe children of various ages and abilities doing preferred occupations,” Browning said. “That allows them to gain understanding of how occupation development happens over time during human development. It’s an important step in their education.”

Browning explained that the Department of Occupational Therapy at RUC and Radford University has a mission to serve the rural populations of southwest Virginia that may experience a deficit in meaningful occupation, directly affecting their health. In return, he said, bringing the community to RUC to learn about occupational therapy and OT benefits offers students the opportunity to interact and learn about children’s occupation development and how one can help children of any age engage in more meaningful activities.

“While the children didn’t know they were learning, and their parents and caregivers were only peripherally aware,” Browning said, “we know that the camps informed all of those involvedabout the importance of daily activities or occupations and how that affects their health. ”


Kokkonen said she enjoyed working with both age groups, but she felt she learned more from the older kids.

“There was a larger age gap between the campers, which allowed me to compare differences between them in areas such as gross motor coordination, fine motor skills and emotional expression,” she said.

Kokkonen also said she appreciated that kids in the 7-12 age group usually give very honest feedback, whether positive or negative. That kept the OT students on their toes as they learned how to lead groups, just like they will do when we lead therapy sessions in practice.

More OT summer camps to come
There are already plans to continue the OT summer camps next year, and excitement already seems to be building.

Kokkonen, who expects to graduate in December 2022, said that one of the most gratifying aspects of the summer camps was when the campers asked the OT students if they could come back next summer and if they would see them next year.


“Unfortunately, that won’t happen as my classmates and I will be off on our Level 2 fieldwork placements,”  Kokkonen said. “Working on these camps allowed me to put into action my therapeutic use of self, which is a term we discuss in the program that involves incorporating one’s own personal qualities, insights and traits to better serve clients within occupational therapy practice.”

Kokkonen added that wherever she ends up professionally, she will seek opportunities like these summer camps in the future.

“I am so glad I was able to work alongside my peers and instructors to gain this experience,” she said. “It was such a great opportunity that I want help others have this experience too.”

Jul 26, 2021
Mark Lambert