Friday, November 17, 2017

Gifts For the Little Ones!

I love finding gifts for the little kids in my life that they can grow with...things that will serve different purposes at different points in their lives.  In this portion of my 2017 Holiday Gift Guide, I share some of my favorite toys, games and products that are suitable for children 4 years and younger.  Many of the suggestions are ones that provide children with the opportunity to expand their imagination and creativity skills.  They provide them with opportunities for open-ended play.  Open-ended play materials are those that don't have a pre-determined way of playing with them.  This encourages creativity, problem solving, making choices and increases imagination in children.  Providing younger children with these open-ended play opportunities will make your children develop critical thinking and make them more independent as they get older.  Below, I share some of my favorite toys to gift and to recommend for the younger children in your life. 

Ditto Mirrored Building Blocks-one of the best investments one can make for a baby/toddler is a great set of building blocks.  This is something that kids will play with at all ages and work on different developmental skills across ages.  The Ditto Blocks are not your typical building block; these blocks have mirrors built into them.  You can shine bright lights in your tower, create patterns with objects reflected inside or find their faces reflected in them.  The Ditto block are not only beautiful to look at, they are good for encouraging kids to be creative and use their imagination.  They are also great for working on bilateral coordination, improving visual motor and visual perceptual skills, improving spatial awareness and hand-eye coordination. 

Squigz and Pipsquigz-one of my favorite manipulative toys for younger kids.  These colorful toys are basically suction cups that stick together.  Simply apply pressure and they either stick together or can stick on different surfaces like a mirror or a tabletop.  They are waterproof and can be used in the bathtub or shower; since they are no-porous, the won't get moldy and can be cleaned easier.  They are flexible manipulative toys that can be used to build and create a variety of structures.  One of my favorite things about Squigz is the super fun popping noise they make when you pull them apart!  Squigz are great for working on improving fine motor skills such as improving grasp strength and manipulation skills, encourages bilateral coordination skills and can improve hand-eye coordination.  If used on a mirror or window, you can work on increasing upper extremity strength.  This open-ended manipulative toys are perfect for encouraging creativity and imagination skills.

Tobbly Wobbly-this is another favorite of the kids I work with.  Using reusable stickers and different
kinds of Squigz pieces, children can create a fun friend.  Tobbly Wobbly is an egg shaped structure that is weighted on the bottom making it easier for little ones to place the pieces on without it moving around too much.  One of my favorite things about Tobbly Wobbly is that it has built-in storage so you don't have to worry about losing pieces.  Once your child has finished making their very own Tobbly Wobbly, they can take the pieces off and put it all inside.  This toy is great for working on developing fine motor and grasping skills, bilateral coordination, hand-eye coordination, visual motor and perceptual skills and spatial awareness.  I have used this to help children gain better body awareness by encouraging them to put pieces where they would be on their own body which can be quite challenging for many of the kids I work.  For the most part, I encourage kids to be creative and have fun when building their Tobbly Wobbly character. 

Magic Painting World Coloring Sets-years ago, I had found these reusable coloring pages by Aquadoodle and I loved them, especially for my younger kids who weren't quite ready for coloring and holding/manipulating coloring instruments.  I was in one of my favorite little stores in Park Slope, Annie's Blue Ribbon General Store, when I discovered the Magic Painting coloring sets by Tiger Tribe.  Using a paintbrush that you fill with water, kids can "color in" some magical scenes.  Each set contains 4 coloring boards and a paintbrush for the kids to use to make the pictures come to life.  On the back of each picture there are things for the kids to find hidden in each picture. Great for working on improving fine motor and grasping skills, hand-eye coordination, visual motor and visual perceptual skills and can improve focus and attention.   This is an awesome thing for traveling or to keep in your bag for keeping kids occupied while in waiting rooms.

Peg Friends Stacking Farm/Peg Friends Around the Town-pegboards seem to be the staple of all toddler toy collections and are definitely a part of any therapeutic gym/preschool classroom.  They are great for developing fine motor and grasping skills, manipulation skills, hand-eye coordination, bilateral coordination and motor planning and organizational skills.  Kids can also work on color recognition and sorting and matching colors when using them.  When I saw these pegboard sets by Learning Resources, I became obsessed!  These easy-to-hold pegs are double-sided characters/animals that kids push together and pull apart.  Once they are put together, kids find the place on the pegboard where they belong (for example, the pig goes in the mud, the doctor goes in the hospital, etc.).  You can even encourage your kids to be as silly as they want to and have them mix and match the animals/people.  In addition to working on the aforementioned skills, kids can improve their language, creativity and expand their imagination.

Grippies Builders-another great open-ended building toy especially designed for little hands.  This 30-piece set comes with brightly colored magnetic pieces that kids can play with to build and create.  What I like about these is that each piece is covered with a soft plastic with different textures for kids to explore.  This building toy is great for working on improving bilateral coordination, hand-eye coordination, visual motor and perceptual skills, spatial awareness and grasping and manipulation skills.  Since there is no right way to play with these, they are great for encouraging a child to be creative and use their imagination at a very young age. 

Props In A Bag/Props In A Box-pretend play is a critical part of a
toddler's development.  Through pretend play children gain a better understanding of social emotional roles in life.  Pretend play also helps develop cooperative play skills with siblings/peers, improves imagination and creativity, improves problem solving and can work on improving fine motor skills.  The Props in a Bag and Props in a Box sets are a great gift for your little ones and come with all that you need to help your children's imaginations soar.  The Props in a Box sets (The Dino & The Pirate, The Princess & the Chef, The Fisherman & the Astronaut and The Doctor & the Farmer)comes with a variety of props and costumes for 2 characters, a large backdrop and allows you to download the Props in a Box Movie Maker App that allows your child to add special effects to movies that you can create with them.  The Props in a Bag sets (The Builder, The Camper, The Magician and The Superhero) comes with props and costumes for one, a backdrop and access to the Props in a Box Movie Maker App.

Car Pretend Play Stickers/Kitchen Pretend Play Stickers-one of the things we all get lots of during the holiday season are cardboard boxes.  As a toddler...and still to some point today...my daughter loved building things with the cardboard boxes.  She and my husband would spend hours building and playing in these structures.  When I saw these Pretend Play Stickers by Eeboo I knew they had to make my gift guide this year.  Each set of the stickers comes with four giant sheets of reusable stickers to make a kitchen or car out of a cardboard box.  Kids will work on improving their creative and imagination skills while having fun!  At the same time, kids can work on improving fine motor and grasping skills, bilateral coordination (as they take the stickers off the sheets) and visual motor and visual perceptual skills. 

Ooly Mumbo Jumbo Markers-I am not one of those people who believes that you should wait to let kids experiment with writing instruments.  One of my daughter's greatest gifts for her first Christmas was an easel.  We had it for years and years and it got more use than just about any toy.  At that time, it was more difficult to find markers for her small hands.  When I discovered the Mumbo Jumbo markers, I was super excited and wished they had been around when Quinn was little.  I've been using them with all of my little friends at the gym and recommending them to anyone who will listen to me.  This set of 16 markers are short and have a thicker barrel making it easier for little hands to hold.  Because of that thicker barrel, it helps to encourage an appropriate grasp when using them. 

Monkey Around-finding board games that are good for your little ones can be challenging.  Peaceable Kingdom has a bunch of great family games and I love this one for toddlers because it gets them up and moving.  Monkey Around has 40 different cards that have all players do movements together.  Some of the movements kids are asked to do are giving high fives, balancing on one foot and marching.  This is a great game to work on improving gross motor skills, motor planning, coordination and organizational skills.  It also builds confidence and self-esteem as your little ones master the various challenges on the cards.

Sneaky Snacky Squirrel Game-this game by Educational Insights was one of my daughter's first board games and she never tired of it.  It is also a favorite of many of the kids I work with and the kids who attend The Meeting House.  The point of the game is to feed your hungry forest friends acorns; the first player to fill their log with all the colored acorns is the winner.  One of my favorite parts of the game is that kids pick up the acorns using chopsticks so they can work on improving fine motor skills while learning about colors.  Kids can also work on improving hand-eye coordination, visual motor and visual perceptual skills, focus and attention and strategic thinking.  Sneaky Snacky Squirrel is a perfect family game that helps teach your young kids about turn-taking and other social skills related to game playing. 

These are just a few of the things I love for younger children.  Each of them help children develop crucial skills they will need as they get older and the academic and social expectations increase.  I've tried to make recommendations that parents will enjoy playing with as much as their children do.  And the things that are a little pricier than you want to spend are things that will last forever and be part of your child's collection for years to come.  Does your child have a favorite toy, game or building blocks set that you would recommend to me or my readers?  I love hearing from you all and am only a click away. 


Monday, November 13, 2017

Game Time!


This part of my Holiday Gift Guide focuses on games.  Some of these games make my list each and every year but many are new this year.  I even consulted with one of my favorite speech therapists who made some great suggestions that were included this year.

When looking for games, I try and look for a few things.  The most important thing is that they are motivating games that the kids will enjoy playing.  I also try and find games that will help meet occupational therapy goals, such as improving fine motor or visual motor/perceptual skills.  I love to find games that can be adapted for children of different ages and skill sets.  This year, I have included a bunch of collaborative games....games that kids work as a team in order to accomplish a mission.  I had such fun putting this list together.  Check out my favorite games below!


Burger Mania-because I am a total OT nerd, I am a complete sucker for any game that comes with a pair of chopsticks or tweezers.  I was in Toys "R" Us the other night and stumbled upon Burger Mania and knew it had to be part of game collection at work.  It's only been a couple of days but every single one of the kids I worked with after and my own daughter  can't get enough of this game. The game comes with a working conveyer belt, the ingredients needed to make burgers, tiny plates, tweezers and cards with pictures of different kinds of burgers that need to be made.  Burgers are made by grabbing the ingredients with tweezers!!  Whoever makes the most burgers is the winner.  There are 3-different speed levels so that the conveyer belt moves faster to make it more challenging as the kids master the game.  Great for working on improving fine motor skills such as grasp strength and manipulation skills, improves hand-eye coordination, visual motor and visual perceptual skills and works on improving executive functioning skills like focus, attention, organization and motor planning. 
*one of the things I have done to make it easier for some of my younger kids is to have them just make burgers in the order in which you put the ingredients in their storage spots.  They are still working on all of the aforementioned goals, but you are taking away the difficulty of following the game cards.

What Letter Do I Start With-I know a game is good when my daughter doesn't want me to take it to work with me.  I was surprised because she usually doesn't feel that way about educational games!  This game is perfect for emerging readers but will entertain older children as well. The point of the game is simple:  be the first to find an object on the board that starts with the letter on the card flipped over.  Kids have to scan the board, find a matching picture and place their color token on the picture.  The first person to get rid of all 10 of their tokens is the winner.  This is a fast-paced game that works on letter recognition, visual motor and visual perceptual skills, hand-eye coordination, improves fine motor skills and helps with improving focus, attention and organizational skills.
*whenever possible, I like to work on other goals when playing games with the kids.  When playing What Letter Do I Start With with some of my older kids, I will practice handwriting by having them write the name of the object that they found.

Perfection-I've had this game in my closet since I began working as an OT approximately a million years ago ;) and was really bummed when they stopped making the 25-piece game and replaced it with a smaller 9-shape game.  Maybe it was all my complaining, but you can now find the original 25-piece game in stores again and I couldn't be more happy.  For those of you who don't know the game, Perfection is a beat the clock game where you try and match all the shapes before the timer goes off and the board pops up and the shapes go flying.  It's a great game for working on improving visual motor and visual perceptual skills, improves fine motor skills such as grasping and in-hand manipulation skills and works on improving focus, attention and organizational skills.
*some of the adaptations I make while playing the game is to hide the pieces in putty and have the kids find them; this works on increasing grasp strength.  For some of my kids, the idea of a timer stresses them out so I will start it after they put a certain number of pieces in.

Tumbling  Monkeys-this is another game that continues to make my list year after year because it continues to be a hit with my kids at work.  This game is similar to Kerplunk, but instead of marbles, there are monkeys.  Once you put the tree together (a great fine motor activity!), kids roll the dice and pull out the stick of the same color and see what happens.  While the rules of the game say that the winner is the person with the fewest monkeys I play so they have to rescue as many of them as possible.  This is particularly helpful with the younger kids I work with who don't have the clinical reasoning and understanding quite yet.  In addition to being great for working on developing grasping skills, it also works on improving hand-eye coordination, visual motor and perceptual skills and can work on improving executive functioning skills like focus, attention, organization and planning skills.
*one way I adapt this game is  having the kids use Zoo Sticks to pull the sticks out of the game instead of their fingers.  It's a nice way to sneak in some hand strengthening in while having some fun!

Getting Ready to Write Gumball Grab-this is a great game for preschoolers.  Kids can practice sorting and matching skills while building up the strength in their hands using the special grabbers (you know how I feel about games that come with any kind of tweezer/grabbers/etc!).  Gumball Grab comes with a bubble gum machine, 4 game boards, different colored "gumballs", cards and grabbers.  Each card has directions to either add or remove gumballs to their game board.  The first person to fill their gumball machine is the winner.  In addition to working on improving grasp strength and manipulation skills, this game is great for working on improving hand-eye coordination, visual motor and visual perceptual skills, motor planning and organizational skills and improved focus and attention.  It also is a nice way to introduce kids to colors and numbers.
*for the really young kids, I remove the cards that have them take gumballs off of their board so they can be more successful and also helps move the game along a little quicker for those kids who have difficulty with focus and attention.

Silly Street-I love finding games that throw in some gross motor activities, especially for the younger kids I work with. I have found that adding movement to games helps improve focus, attention and organizational skills.  There are so many things about this game but it starts with the game set-up: you have to put together a giant 6-piece puzzle! Kids flip over cards with different kinds of directions on them; it can be to find something on the board, do a silly gross motor activity and several other kinds of challenges.  The people who created Silly Street had a goal of helping kids develop a variety of skills including social skills, communication skills, creativity, resilience and confidence.  Additionally, it works on improving fine motor skills, visual motor and perceptual skills, motor planning and organizational skills and focus and attentional skills.  When I used this in my social skills group, I had the kids work in groups of 2 to also work on encouraging teamwork while playing a game.
*I truly love this game but found it hard to follow the "street" on the game board.  I resolved that by taking a thick black Sharpie marker and outlining the street making it easier for the kids to follow.

Animal Act-A Silly Street Character-Builder Game-it's not an unusual thing for me to buy several games by the same game makers because if one is a hit, it's pretty likely the other one will be a hit as well.  Animal Act is from the makers of Silly Street (recommended above) and combines verbal and physical communication and encourages bravery and creativity while playing.  Kids roll the die and draw a card and then given some kind of challenge:  they may need to act, sing, mime to their audience....if the audience guesses correctly, you earn a ticket.  Kids move around the gameboard collecting tickets to fill their playbill.  The first player to fill their playbill is the winner.  In addition to all the aforementioned goals of the game, kids can work on improving motor planning, organizational skills, problem solving and increasing overall body strength.

Dr. Seuss Thing Two and Thing One Whirly Fun Game-who doesn't love Dr. Seuss and all of his characters??  This is a great collaborative game for younger children.  Kids work together to clean up a mess before their mother gets home. The game starts by launching a top into the living room.  Kids take turn picking cards and following the action shown.  The game ends as soon as mother reaches the last space .  If all the furniture is on a spot, the players win.  Great for working on hand-eye coordination, visual motor and visual perceptual skills, improves fine motor and manipulation skills and improves focus and attention.  I like that there are also physical challenges mixed in with the cards so kids can work on improving gross motor skills, motor planning and organizational skills. 

Yeti In My Spaghetti-another one of those simple games that quickly become a favorite of mine and the kids.  The game consists of a bowl, a plastic yeti and a bunch of pieces of plastic spaghetti.  Place the spaghetti pieces over the bowl, put the yeti on top and start playing.  The goal of the game:  take a piece of spaghetti off without letting the yeti fall into the bowl.  Great for working on improving grasping and manipulation skills, hand-eye coordination, motor planning and organizational skills and focus and attentional skills.
*I like to throw in a dice so the kids roll the dice and then have to take however many pieces they roll.  I also will have them try and remove the spaghetti pieces using kids chopsticks to work on improving grasp strength while playing.

Getting Ready to Write Gumball Grab-this is a great game for preschoolers.  Kids can practice sorting and matching skills while building up the strength in their hands using the special grabbers (you know how I feel about games that come with any kind of tweezer/grabbers/etc!).  Gumball Grab comes with a bubble gum machine, 4 game boards, different colored "gumballs", cards and grabbers.  Each card has directions to either add or remove gumballs to their game board.  The first person to fill their gumball machine is the winner.  In addition to working on improving grasp strength and manipulation skills, this game is great for working on improving hand-eye coordination, visual motor and visual perceptual skills, motor planning and organizational skills and improved focus and attention.  It also is a nice way to introduce kids to colors and numbers.
*for the really young kids, I remove the cards that have them take gumballs off of their board so they can be more successful and also helps move the game along a little quicker for those kids who have difficulty with focus and attention.

Last Letter-another game for the older crowd (suggested age is 8 and older).  In this card game, you have to come up and shout out a word from one of the picture cards that you are holding.  Sounds easy, right?  This is where it gets tricky....the word that you call out must start with the last letter of the word that was previously said.  The first person to get rid of all of their cards wins the game.
*if you are playing this 1:1 in a therapy session, you can add a handwriting challenge to the game and have them write out the words after they should the word out. 

Mole Rats In Space-for my social skills group, I like to find games for the kids to play that will not only be fun but may also encourage them to work together to win a game.  Often times, the kids I work with are so competitive and not good about winning OR losing so finding collaborative games helps develop important social skills.  Peaceable Kingdom has a ton of great these kinds of games to choose from.  In Mole Rats In Space, kids work together to collect equipment and escape the station before you're bitten by a snake or time runs out. Kids flip over cards and have to follow the directions:  they may need to move you or your teammate, move snakes around or add a new snake to the board.  Avoid getting bitten by a snake and having to return to start or even worse.  This game is geared towards older children (7 and older) and could be a great addition to a family game collection.  Great for working on improving focus, attention and organizational skills, motor planning and working as a team to accomplish a goal.

Cauldron Quest-another collaborative game by Peaceable Kingdom.  The purpose of this game is to work with your teammates to create a potion to break the spell.  Find the hidden ingredients before the wizard blocks all of the paths and you all win.  Great game for working on improving social skills, problem solving, organizational skills and focus/attentional skills.  Additionally, kids can work on improving fine motor skills such as grasping skills and improves visual motor and visual perceptual skills.  

Crazy Letters-another fun game the whole family could enjoy.  Crazy Letters from MindWare is a fast-paced word game where players try and be the first to figure out what the word on the card is supposed to be.  The word may be written backwards, letters may be flipped upside down or on their side.  There are no extra letters in the word and the letters are in the correct order (not scrambled).  The first person to collect 20 cards is the winner.  There are over 500 cards with a variety of categories; player rolls the dice to determine what category they take. This game is great for working on focus and attention, organizational skills, improves visual motor and visual perceptual skills
*if you are using this therapeutically, you can have the players work on handwriting skills by having them write the words out as they are playing.

It was really hard to not include a dozen more games in this list!  There are just so many great games out there these days.  Does your family have a favorite game?  I would love to hear what games others are playing these days.  If you are looking for a specific kind of game or would like some suggestions for your children, I would be more than happy to help you out.  I am only a click away and love hearing from you all!



Friday, November 10, 2017

For Your Young Architects...Construction Toys for All Ages

Building toys are great for a variety of reasons.  They are one of the things that I tell parents to splurge on because good building sets will last forever.  When my daughter was younger, I discovered that she and my husband loved to build and create things so I went out and bought a few sets of building toys.  To this day, her Magna-Tiles are still out and used all the time by her and her friends on play dates.  They continue to be worth every penny I paid!

One of the biggest benefits of building toys is the opportunity to offer open-ended play experiences for kids.  Open-ended play is crucial for the development of imagination and creativity in children of all ages.  Through open ended play, kids can develop a variety of social and emotional skills such as empathy, cooperation, problem solving, and improved self-confidence and self-esteem.  There are also a number of cognitive benefits of open ended play including working memory, self-regulation, organizational skills and so much more. While all of the building sets I recommend come with suggestions and visual directions, they can also use their imagination and build whatever they want.  Another thing I like about building toys is that they can be done by a single child or can be done with a group of kids, which is great for working on improving teamwork and other social skills.

In addition to working on all that I have previously mentioned, building toys are great for working on improving bilateral coordination, increases grasp strength and manipulation skills.  If children follow visual directions while building, they are also good for working on improving visual motor and perceptual skills.

Tegu-these continue to be one of my favorite construction toys since I discovered them.  These wooden blocks have magnets built in so they can stick together.  Since they stick together so easily, they are great for children who may present with decreased grasp or upper extremity strength or have difficulty with bilateral coordination due to physical limitations.  Tegu blocks come in a variety of color-waves and each set comes with a variety of different shapes.  In the last couple of years, they have begun offering kits that you can make different vehicles, monsters, robots and smaller travel packs that are perfect for throwing in your bag to keep kids entertained in the car, at a restaurant or while waiting in waiting rooms.  One of the things that I love is that because they are magnetic, they can stick to any metal surface like a refrigerator so you can work on building upper extremity strength at the same time as creating.

The Offbits-I had been on the lookout for construction sets that would be more motivating and
challenging for the older children on my caseload.  I wanted something they could build by following visual directions or could just use their imagination to build things.  I was excited to discover The Offbits while on the Fat Brain toys and they have become a big hit with the older kids on my caseload.  Using a variety of spare parts (nuts, bolts, screws, springs, etc.), children can build robots and vehicles.  Each set comes with an instruction manual with a handful of ideas and directions or kids can use the bits and pieces to make whatever they want.  They come with mini tools which are great for working on improving fine motor skills such as strength and manipulation skills.

Plus Plus-I was originally drawn towards Plus-Plus Mini pieces because of their bright colors and convenient packaging (the tubes were just perfect to throw in my bag and keep my daughter entertained when we were on the go).  Once I started using them, I realized what a great tool they were for reaching occupational therapy goals.  In addition to being an awesome open ended building toy to work on improving creativity, they were ideal for working on improving fine motor skills such as grasping, strengthening and bilateral coordination and for working on visual motor and perceptual skills.  Kids can follow the visuals provided with each set to build something or can use their imagination and create whatever comes to mind.  For younger children, be sure to check out the Plus-Plus Midi pieces.


Timber Planks-sometimes kids need opportunities to build and create without any rules....to have an opportunity to play where there is no right or wrong to what they are doing. Timber Planks are perfect for this.  This set comes with 300 planks (270 natural wood and 30 bright orange) that kids can stack and arrange to create large structures.  Not only is this a great toy to work on increasing creativity and imaginative play,  it is great for working on improving fine motor skills, visual-motor and perceptual skills and improving focus, attention and organizational skills.  Kids can play with them on their own or can be used in groups.

Build & Imagine Building Sets-I've been a long time fan of Magna-Tiles and they make my list every year but this year, I have become obsessed with the Build & Imagine building sets.  Instead of colored tiles, the Build and Imagine sets are made up of tiles with pictures that when put together create a castle, a pet portrait studio and many other things.  In addition to the tiles, each set includes a bunch of magnets to add details to the tiles and dolls that can be dressed and played with.  Kids can work on so many skills when  playing with the Build & Imagine sets including developing fine motor and manipulation skills, improving spatial awareness, hand-eye coordination and visual motor and perceptual skills.  At the same time, kids are offered an open-ended play experience that builds creativity and imagination skills.  My speech therapist friends love how kids can work on improving their language skills and work on storytelling skills when playing with them.

Natural Building Blocks (Waldorf Construction Toy)-one of my daughters favorite playgrounds in Brooklyn is found in Prospect Park.  It's a natural playground that has been built using fallen trees.  When my friend Heather from Hope Learning Toys showed me these natural birch and oak building blocks, I immediately thought of them and how much kids enjoy playing and building when out in nature.  Now with this all natural open-ended building set, kids work on building imagination and creativity skills as well as spatial awareness and hand-eye coordination.  The 30 piece set comes with a different sized blocks and opens young minds to create and construct.

Fort Boards-if you have a kid who loves to build forts, these are a great gift for them.  The sets come in a handful of colors and can be used indoors or outdoors to build. Fort Boards are large tiles that snap together and can be turned into structures that kids can play inside of.  We have been using Fort Boards with our kids at The Meeting House and the kids just can't get enough of them.  I love that while they invite kids to play together to create and build a fort....and what I have noticed is that the bigger the structure is, the happier the kids are!  Fort Boards are great for working on increasing grasp and upper extremity strength, improves spatial reasoning and hand-eye coordination, encourages creativity and imagination skills, and is a fun way to work on improving executive functioning skills such as focus/attention, planning and organizational skills.  

Groovy Blocks-these are bright colored plastic construction toys that come in a variety of shapes.  Each block has grooves on all four sides so pieces can slide together to build structures. Kids build by sliding the grooved pieces together; since they are connected, their structures are very sturdy which means they won't get knocked down which can cause a lot of frustration for the kids I work with.  In addition to encouraging creativity and imagination skills, Groovy Blocks are great for working on improving fine motor skills such as grasp strength and manipulation skills, improves bilateral coordination and works on spatial skills.  Additionally, they are great for working on problem solving and organizational skills.  Unlike a lot of construction toys, these are small and lightweight making them easy to throw in a bag and keep kids entertained when outside of the house.

Popoids-I discovered Popoids when on a mission to buy a bunch of birthday gifts and they have been one of my favorite finds of the year.  This open-ended construction toy encourages problem solving, organizational skills and creative thinking.  The set comes with 36 colored mini poptubes and 24 different shaped connectors that kids use to build and create.  The set comes with some suggestions on what to make but when I have my kids use them at work, I have them build whatever they want.  Popoids are great for working on a variety of occupational therapy goals such as improving grasp strength and manipulation skills, bilateral coordination and hand-eye coordination.

Click Blocks-this 100 piece set of natural wooden blocks comes with different colored and shaped blocks that invite kids to build and create.  These are something that your kids will play with for years and years and well worth the investment.  For many of the kids I work with, building with blocks can cause a lot of frustration because they may have decreased coordination and can easily knock down their creations.  The Click blocks are similar to Legos in the sense that they can be pushed together and stay together until you pull them apart.  In addition to being great for encouraging creativity and imagination, they are also great for working on increasing grasp strength and manipulation skills.  They also work on improving bilateral coordination, visual motor and perceptual skills and hand-eye coordination.

These are just a handful of the amazing construction sets that are out there.  Does your family have a a set that they love?  I would love to hear what kinds of sets other families or therapists/teachers use with their kids.  I am always a click away and love hearing from you all.



Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The Holiday Book Guide

In addition to being an occupational therapist, I also run a social skills group called The Meeting House Juniors.  We are a recreational based social skills program for children ages 4-7 years old who have a variety of social struggles.  While our number one goal is to make them feel more socially comfortable and prepare them for the increasingly more demanding social demands they may face as they get older, we also want them to enjoy coming.  This means that we have had to find fun ways to talk to them and work on social skills.

As I was trying to develop our curriculum this year, I decided that one of the most effective and fun ways would be to use picture books to teach our social skills lessons each week.  We used to end each session at TMH Juniors last year by reading a picture book and it the more I thought about it, the more I realized how much they looked forward to that time of the afternoon.  It also made me realize that younger children have a hard time being able to identify and recognise their own social deficits but with the right platform, they are able to recognize it in other people and the characters in books.  Using picture books in our group has been a great way to talk about different kinds of social emotional challenges that kids might face and can be a great way to brainstorm, problem solve and include parents in our process so that kids can be better prepared for a variety of challenging social situations.

Below, I share just a handful of the very extensive number of books that make up my personal and professional library.  What they all have in common is that they are beautifully written, have amazing illustrations and teach a life lesson that will help our children become more socially aware.


After The Fall (How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again) by Dan Salent
We all know about Humpty Dumpty but do we know about what happened after he was finally put back together?  This is the story about Humpty Dumpty overcoming his fear of heights after taking that great big fall and building up the courage to climb the wall again.  So many of the kids I work with have giant fears and those fears may get in the way of them trying new things or doing things that they were once comfortable doing.  As they follow Humpty Dumpty through the story, they learn that sometimes it's not easy and we still may be a bit scared, but if we are brave and show courage, we end up overcoming our fears and doing great things.

Stick and Stone by Beth Ferry and Tom Lichtentheld
In this children's book the main theme is about bullying and being a good friend.  Stick and Stone are both feeling alone and sad until Stick comes upon Stone being picked on by a pine cone.  They become fast friends and spend all of their time together until Stick is blown away during a storm.  Stone won't stop searching for his best friend and they are eventually reunited.

Fair Is Fair by Sonny Varela and Peter Mahr
What parent or teacher hasn't heard the words "It's not fair!".  Whether it be about not getting a special treat for dessert or going to bed earlier than their older sibling, kids are always worried about things not being fair and even.  In this book, three animals in the zoo (elephant, giraffe and a bunny) don't understand or think it's fair that one animal gets more than the other two.  Kids learn about fairness and just because someone may get something you want or more of something, it doesn't mean that you aren't equally loved.

The Color Monster by Anna Llenas
Teaching children about emotions and feelings is an important lesson that helps them not only understand their own feelings, but gives them perspective about other people and how they might be feeling.  The Color Monster is a beautifully illustrated popup book that helps children learn about emotions by matching it with a color.  Kids love this interactive book and it is a great way for parents and younger children to talk about feelings and what they can do when they are feeling certain ways.

Be A Friend by Salina Yoon
This is one of my favorite and most recommended books, especially for children who feel different.  Dennis is an ordinary little boy who likes to express himself through miming.  He doesn't use his words to try and connect with his peers and because of that, he feels alone.  That is until he meets a little girl named Joy who accepts him for who he is and a beautiful friendship develops because of her willingness to be open-minded.  As more children are being integrated into mainstream classrooms, this book is a must for parents and classrooms to help children develop an open mind for children who are different than them and to not be scared of them.

We Are All Wonders by R.J. Palacio
One of my all time favorite books was the young adult novel Wonder so I was thrilled when I discovered that they released a picture book for younger children.  This book is a wonderful way to introduce kids to the importance of empathy and kindness.  We Are All Wonders is old from the perspective of Auggie, a young boy who was born with a variety of facial differences that has required countless surgeries which has kept him out of school.  He talks about how even though he looks different than other children, he does ordinary things and is much more like his peers than they think and how he wants them to see him for who he is and not how he looks.

The Smallest Girl in the Grade by Justin Roberts
In this book, the theme is about speaking up and making yourself heard.  Sally is the littlest girl in her whole class and nobody seems to notice her.  The thing is is that she notices everything, especially the kids who are bullying and getting bullied.  One day, Sally decides she just can't take watching the mean kids any more and says something and makes herself heard by standing up to the bullies in her school.  We all know a kid (or many!) who need to be encouraged to use their voice and either stick up for themselves or for others.  This book is an important read, especially for kids who need to learn about the importance of speaking up and making themselves heard, even when they don't think anyone will listen to them.

Pete The Cat: I love My White Shoes by James Dean
One of the biggest lessons we can teach our children is how to differentiate between little and big problems.  For most kids, when a something happens to them, it is the biggest problem that they will ever face. Pete the Cat shows us how to make the best out of a problem by not getting upset and just moving on. Many of the Pete the Cat books teach a similar lesson and because of the sing-song way the book is written, the kids can really get into reading with you.  In addition to working on size of the problems, Pete the Cat books are great for teaching kids about the importance of being a flexible thinker, especially when things don't go the way  you want them to. 




The Dot by Peter H. Reynolds
We all have children (either our own or ones that we work with) who are resistant to try new things, especially if they are fearful that they may not be as good as they would like to be at it.  In The Dot, children learn about the power of persistence and taking the a risk of trying something outside of their comfort zone.   Vashti is discouraged by an art project.  At the end of her class, all she has is a blank piece of paper; instead of being angry with her, her art teacher encourages her to just draw a dot and and sign her name on the paper.  When she arrives in the classroom next, she sees her picture hanging up for all to see.  That is all it took to encourage her to draw and paint more.  As her artistic abilities grow, so does her confidence and self-esteem.

Rude Cakes by Rowboat Watkins
One of the things that many parents, teachers and caregivers have to deal with is a child who is not always polite. In this book, kids can begin to learn about being polite and the importance of being kind to others with a tremendous amount of humor.  Rude cakes never say please or thank you, are known to take things that don't belong to them without asking.  He is known to be inconsiderate and ungrateful, bullies other sweets and disrespects his parents.  That is until he is taken to another land where Giant Cyclopses (who are silly but very polite) end up using rude cakes as a hat where he learns the importance of being kind and patient and is able to change his ways when he returns home.


Let's Get Along Books-this is a series I found that works on more specific social difficulties.  These short and engaging books focus on raising awareness for positive behaviors.  In this box set, kids will be introduced to a handful of students from Miss Clayton's classroom.  The illustrations are fun and the stories are easy for preschoolers (these are really targeted towards younger children/preschool age) to follow.  These are great books for any classroom setting as the issues that they focus on (being kind, sharing, working together and calming down) are things that come up all the time for children in all classrooms and schools!

So these are just a handful of the dozens and dozens of books that I recommend this holiday season.  I'm always adding to my book collection so if you have any books that you love or would recommend, please share them with me.  I know that my readers will also appreciate hearing any suggestions you might have.  If you have a child who has other social difficulties and would like some recommendations on books that might be good for your child, please don't hesitate reaching out to me....I am always a click away and LOVE being able to share my recommendations with everyone.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Bits and Pieces FTW!

I am sure we all have that website that just sucks you in and you can be hypnotized to buy just about anything.  For me, when I see an email or get a catalogue from Fat Brain Toys, I have to make a decision to look at the email and know that I will be spending money or just delete it immediately.  At the end of the summer, I got an email that I decided to open and I am so happy I did.  In it they featured The Offbits building toys and I was immediately obsessed.  It's easy for me to find toys and products for the younger kids on my caseload...the real challenge is finding things that will motivate my older kids who tend to give up or become bored faster.   When I read about The Offbits, I knew that my older kids were going to love them and that they would be a great way to work on a variety of their goals without it seeming like work.

The Offbits kits are made up of a variety of "bits and pieces" that you might find in the bottom of a junk drawer or in a tool box.  To clarify, each kit comes with various screws, nuts, bolts, springs, etc. that can be used to build robots, vehicles or whatever else your child's imagination can come up with.  Each kit comes with a book with instructions to build something specific but also provides challenges with the bits and pieces provided in the back of the book.  Once kids are confident in their building skills, you can provide them with a bunch of pieces and see what they con come up with.  Like I have already mentioned, there is no right or wrong which I find helps kids have more fun when building with the bits and pieces.  The greatest thing is seeing a child's confidence and self-esteem soar as they build something from nothing.  If your child does better with step-by-step instructions, you can check out The Offbits website and take a look at their challenge section.  Here they show off other people's creations and give picture step-by-step directions.  I'm a particular fan of the ones they have for the holidays including the adorable CupidBit below for Valentine's day (it also includes a printable set of wings).  

I have a 7 year old daughter and she has actually become my partner in crime in toy testing.  As she has gotten older, watching her play with different toys and products I pick up has given me an idea of how to better use them with the kids I work with who struggle with different things.  For example, if she is having difficulty for some reason, it gives me the opportunity to come up with ways to adapt it so my kids can be successful.  When my collection of The Offbits  arrived, she was immediately interested in playing and building with them.  I was psyched because I love it when she chooses to play, explore and build in place of watching tv or using the iPad.  What was even more fun was when my husband came home from work and sat down and joined in on the fun!  These have definitely turned into something our whole family enjoys.

One of the things I like the most about The Offbits kits are that while they come with specific instructions on what to build, they also encourage you to challenge yourself and make your own creation.  There is no right or wrong when it comes to playing with them.  It's about exploring the various pieces and creating something.  I have noticed that before my kids can build something on their own/without a visual template, they need to follow the visual directions first.  This gives them a foundation and understanding of what the different pieces do, how they fit together, etc..  The other thing I love about The Offbits kits is that they are small and easy to bring places to keep your kids busy.

Increase Grasp Strength/Improve Manipulation Skills-the bits and pieces provided are really small (which is why these are geared towards kids 6 and older) which is great for working on improving manipulation skills; I encourage the kids to pick up the pieces using their "pinchers".  There are mini screwdrivers and wrenches included with each set which provided kids which makes the kids really work those little muscles in their hands.  In order to complete their creations, kids are required to screw nuts and bolts together, screw tiny screws tight and push springs into places.  All of this helps to improve overall grasp strength which is important for being able to write for long periods of times, manipulate buttons/snaps/fasteners and lots of other things.

Improve Bilateral Coordination-so many of the kids I work with will only use their dominant hand for activities.  They require constant reminders from me to use two hands because it isn't something that comes naturally to them.  When building with The Offbits kits, it's virtually impossible to only use one hand in order to put your robots, vehicles or whatever you are making together.  One hand must hold a screw while turning a nut onto it or hold the creation while using the screwdriver or wrench.  The nice thing about this is that kids figure this out pretty quickly on their own because they just won't have success building if they don't use two hands.

Improve Visual Motor/Perceptual Skills-as I have already mentioned, each kit comes with step-by-step directions in order to build a robot or vehicle.  Often times, the kids I work with don't like to work on things that challenge them and many have difficulty with visual motor and perceptual activities.  The Offbits provide many opportutnies to work on this skill in a fun and motivating way.  Some of the visual skills that can be worked on are:  visual tracking-to follow the instructions; visual scanning-to find the bits and pieces needed for each step; visual figure ground-to locate the right piece in a pile of pieces for each step; visual discrimination-to find the right size and color piece in a busy working field.

Improve Executive Functioning Skills-as kids get older, finding fun ways to work on improving executive functioning skills gets more and more challenging.  The Offbits provides so many opportunities to work on this.  Some of the executive functioning skills that can be worked on are: initiation by figuring out what the first step of the activity is...what pieces they need first, etc.; planning what the goal of the activity is and setting a goal; organization-this is something many of my kids struggle with.  With The Offbits, I sometimes have the kids organize themselves by sorting the different bits and pieces into piles so that it is easier for them to grab what they need for each step.  I also talk to them about looking at and following the directions so they can be successful; emotional control-one of the things I have to work on with my older kids is being able to not get too frustrated during challenging activities.  Sometimes this means providing them with challenging activities so they can come up with strategies to work through the challenges.  Many of my kids refuse to ask for help, which is a great strategy during challenging tasks.

Improves Social Skills-while kids can build The Offbits sets on their own, it can be a great activity for kids to do together.  They can come up with a game plan before they begin to build and work together to either follow the visual instructions or come up with their own creation.  It may mean sharing the materials, being able to compromise about a plan and patiently wait for your turn when necessary.  Once the kids build and create, you can have them act out different scenarios (you can collaborate with children's team members to see if there are certain social things they struggle with that they can act out through their Offbit robots).

As you can see, The Offbits can be used to work on so many occupational therapy goals.  I love when I can find something that parents can do at home with their kids.  Even better, this is something that you can do with your children and all have fun.  Oftentimes, I suggest parents have their kids do some kind of "warm-up" activity with kids before they begin their homework to warm up their hands.  This could be a great way to get your kids organized and warm up their hands for their homework.

If you have ever used The Offbits or have something similar you like to play and build with, I would love to hear about them.  I am always a click away and love hearing from you all.