The program combines classroom lessons from dedicated faculty and staff with a fieldwork program supported by occupational therapy practitioners and the community as a whole.
Students participating in outreach with a nearby childcare center and senior living apartments often lament not having more time there.
"They can't get enough of it," said Professor-in-Charge Angela Hissong, who serves as the program director.
Penn State Mont Alto offers lessons in play as a meaningful occupation for children ranging from age 3 to kindergarten at Noah's Ark Center in Waynesboro, Pa. Child development is progressed through climbing, eye-hand coordination activities, crafts focused on fine-motor skills, and socialization.
The college students write evaluations describing how activities address sensory, cognitive and physical development.
OTA student Jenna Crotsley created an activity cube that children roll like a dice to determine whether they'll do jumping jacks, recite their ABCs, identify colors or perform other tasks. She says she doesn't think she would have an experience like that elsewhere.
"You learn to deal with the crying, but it was an amazing learning experience," she said.
At Trinity House, students work with older adults on life skills like paying bills as well as host cooking groups and meditation sessions. A popular activity is always bingo.
Hissong said outreach allows the OTA students to decide whether they want to work in schools, skilled nursing centers, inpatient or outpatient rehabilitation centers, or in hand therapy initiatives. Some students think they want to work with a certain segment of the population, then realize through outreach they are pulled elsewhere.
Rainy days during which children develop cabin fever can be a good test for those conducting therapies at Noah's Ark Center. Classroom management techniques must be employed in those situations.
"They get off the bus and they're just full of energy," said Olivia Hammond, academic fieldwork coordinator.
Elizabeth Martin ’12 spent eight weeks working in a Washington state psychiatric center for her Level 2 fieldwork. As someone who volunteers at a camp for abused children, she worried about how she'd find fulfillment from working with sex offenders at a psychiatric center.
"It was mind-stretching. It was great," Martin said. "That's how I learned to truly love people."
Martin now works as a pediatric therapist with one of her former classmates, saying the high-quality program at Penn State Mont Alto gave them the foundation they needed.
"The No. 1 thing is learning how to truly value people and their perspective," she said.
Crotsley said the occupational therapy assistant program exceeded her expectations.
"The professors are amazing and the courses are great. I learned a lot more than I thought I would," she said.