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.

Friday, September 22, 2017

More Than Pen and Paper

As an occupational therapist for school age children, one of the things I work on a lot of the time is the development of age-appropriate  graphomotor skills (the combination of cognitive, perceptual and motor skills that lead to drawing and writing).  For most kids, this is a skill that they learn naturally and without much support required.  However, for some, this can be a really frustrating thing for some kids I work due to a variety of reasons.  For some, decreased grasp strength and manipulation skills makes it challenging for some kids to have the endurance to write for long periods of time.  Some kids may have visual motor and perceptual difficulties so they may have a hard time learning how to draw or learn how to write letters and numbers.  Then there are the children with learning challenges.

No matter what is causing them to have trouble with the development of graphomotor skills, my  job is to make sure that when I am working with the kids, that I make it as fun as possible.  I try and with so I try and make it as fun as possible.  I also like to come up with activities and ideas that can be done at home with parents and caregivers so they can practice and generalize the skills. And for a variety of reasons, I try and come up with ideas that don't require the use of pen and paper.  Not only is it better for our environment, kids tend to think that the activity is less work and more fun if you don't require them to use an actual writing instrument.

Below, I share a handful of the products and activities I have found to be helpful in teaching kids how to draw and write without using pen/pencils and paper.  They are things that I have not only found useful at the gym when working with kids, but have also heard from parents that they can use at home with success.  

Etch-A-Sketch-I remember using an Etch-A-Sketch as a child and always being frustrated by not having the coordination, motor planning or creativity to make something cool on an Etch-A-Sketch.  In the end, I would have some crazy looking mess on the screen!  So when I was in a local store (Stoopher and Boots) on the UWS, and saw the newest version, the Etch-A-Sketch Freestyle Drawing Pad,  I knew I had to get it for work.  There are a lot of things I like about this for handwriting purposes.  First of all, it comes with a stylus attached to it; it is the perfect size for little hands and encourages a proper grip for my emerging writers.  It's lightweight and and doesn't take up much space making it perfect for throwing into a backpack or bag when traveling.

Boogie Board-I've been a big fan of the Boogie Board for years and always have a couple of them in the gym.  This LCD writing tablet is a great way to work on improving graphomotor skills.  I love how the Boogie Board has evolved over the years and now there are 3 different kinds that were designed for kids.  We use the traditional Boogie Board to create lists with the kids who require more structure and routine to be successful in the sessions.  After they complete each activity, they check it off.  I really like the Scribble n' Play board because it is colored and comes with 4 different kinds of stylus' (each with a different tip) to use when drawing on it.  The Magic Sketch set is another favorite with the kids.  This set comes with a see through screen that allows kids to trace pictures, letters, numbers, etc..  It also comes with 4 different kinds of writing instruments, a roller stamp, 3 stamps and 60 stencils with different kinds of activities.  All of the Boogie Boards are lightweight and can be thrown in your bag making it perfect for traveling, entertaining kids at a restaurant or while waiting for appointments.

Buddha Board-this simple toy is great for working on drawing and handwriting.  The Original Buddha Board comes with a board to draw on, a bamboo paintbrush and a stand to prop the board in to.  Kids dip their paintbrush into water and draw away.  What I really like about the Buddha Board is that it requires nothing but water....there is no ink to stain clothing.  I also like how the stand allows for the board to propped up so kids can work on a vertical surface which we know is great for kids.

iPad with a Stylus-the use of an iPad is not for all, but I have found it to be a highly motivating tool for learning how to write, especially for my more resistant clients.  I never use just the iPad but will use it in conjunction with a Boogie Board, chalkboard or dry erase board. I've found some really great drawing and letter writing apps that make learning fun for the kids.  LetterSchool is one the most popular apps amongst all my kids; nobody ever complains about having to practice writing when I bring this app out.  Whenever kids use the iPad, they have to use a stylus so we can work on grasp development at the same time.  My favorite one is the Cosmonaut stylus; it's a bit more expensive, but it's incredibly durable and is wider than most of them which encourages a tripod like grasp.  Another app I use a lot for drawing and writing is Bord, which turns your iPad into a chalkboard.  Kids like that they can choose the color

Legos-for some kids, using Legos can motivate them to do just about anything!  In my gym, we have a big container of extra Lego pieces so we can allow the kids to be more creative when playing with them.  Years ago, I bought these Lego Mosaic sets that come with tons of little square cubes and see-through baseplates so you can copy picture designs.  Recently, I have been writing letters on paper and having the kids practice writing their letters this way.  Another thing I am hoping to add to the gym I work in is installing a couple of large Lego baseplates onto a wall on the gym so kids can use our extra Legos to practice making letters, numbers and shapes.  One of the reasons I like this activity is that it also works on improving grasp strength and in-hand manipulation skills at the same time.  Additionally, if you have a baseplate on the wall, you can have kids work on a vertical surface which is great for increasing upper extremity strength, shoulder stability and core strength.

Cookie Sheet with Sprinkles-another fun way to practice drawing and writing is by putting different kinds of foods on a cookie sheet or a baking pan (cover the entire surface) and either having the kids use their fingers or a paintbrush to draw.  Some ideas of foods that can be used are rice, beans and sprinkles.  This is an easy activity to grade for kids at different levels.  For example, younger kids can copy letters or shapes from flashcards while older kids can write them with just a verbal prompt from a grownup.  If you have a child who has an immature grip on writing instruments, make sure to provide them with a paintbrush so they can work on that at the same time.  If you have a child with tactile defensive tendencies, this would be a good activity to do with them.
Playdough-playdough is another material to use to practice shapes, letters, numbers, etc..  There are two ways you can do this based on the age of the children and their skill level.  For younger children who are just learning, I suggest that parents get a set of letter and number cookie cutters or stamps.  I love this set of Alphabet Stamps by Lakeshore Learning because they have a nice handle for the kids to hold onto.  Have the the kids roll the playdough out and start making "cookies" or press the stamps into the playdough.  If using cookie cutters, you can have them match letters on a puzzle or alphabet placemat or write the names of all your family members on pieces of paper and have them match the letters to the names.  For older children, you can have them form playdough into letters without any kind of visual prompt provided.
This activity has an added benefit of working on improving fine motor strength and manipulation skills, encourages bilateral coordination and can work on improving visual motor and perceptual skills.
Shaving Cream/Bathtub Crayons-I like to offer activities to parents that are easy to fit into a schedule.  So many parents feel guilty about not being to spend as much time working on occupational therapy goals so I try and come up with ideas that are easily built into their routine.  An easy thing to do is work on handwriting and drawing during bath time using shaving cream.  Have kids spray a generous amount on the wall and have them practice drawing shapes or pictures and writing letters and numbers.  Mr. Bubble has kid-friendly shaving cream that can also double as soap to clean your kids.  Some kids are resistant to touching shaving cream so you can also check out these awesome Bathtub Crayons by Crayola (these might be even better for some of your older kids so you can sneak in some work on pencil grip!).
In addition to being great for graphomotor skills, this activity also works on increasing upper extremity strength, shoulder stability and core strength because they are working on a vertical surface.  This could also be a fun chance to work on social skills with a sibling by having them create scenes together or play games like Tic-Tac-Toe or Hangman.

Dry Erase Boards/Chalkboards-one of my top recommended gifts on my annual gift guide, especially for pre-schoolers, is an upright chalkboard.  It's a great way to encourage creativity and introduce young children to letters and numbers.  At the same time, kids can work on increasing upper extremity strength, shoulder stability and core strength while having fun.  As kids get older, I have found that they tend to like a dry erase board better.  My daughter loves to practice her spelling words on her portable dry erase board.  One thing I like to do with the kids at work with both my portable chalkboard and dry erase board is to write letters, have the kids erase them and then write them again.  This multi-step way of practicing helps them learn quicker.  Plus, they can practice, make mistakes and not worry about wasting a ton of paper.
For many of the families I work with, an upright chalkboard may take up some precious real estate in their already cramped apartment so I couldn't have been more excited to find removable chalkboard and dry erase panels at Paper Source.  The Wallies Chalkboard Panels and the Writeyboard are removable sheets that can go on a wall or back of the door....or anywhere really....without taking up
any space.

Things to keep in mind with handwriting:
*Providing a multi-sensory approach to learning how to write not only makes it more fun for children, it helps them retain the information more effectively.
*When possible, have kids work on a vertical surface.  Working on a vertical surface is great for improving wrist and shoulder stability which is required for the development of fine-motor and manipulation skills.  It's also great for working on improving core strength and encourages good posture.
*Don't push kids too much during handwriting tasks.  If you see they are fading out or getting frustrated, take a break or switch the activity up.  We want to make sure that kids are having fun and learning instead of having it be something anxiety producing.
*Find things that interest a child (characters, sports, etc.) and incorporate them as much as possible into handwriting activities.  For example, for some of my older kids who are really into sports, I have them practice by writing sports teams or their favorite players. 

As you can see, there are a lot of ways to make drawing and writing fun without picking up an actual pen and wasting paper.  Do you have activities that you do at home or at work with your kids that they love?  I would love to hear your ideas and know my readers would as well.  I am always a click away and love getting new ideas to put into practice at work and at home with my own daughter.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Ten OT Tools For Under $10

Often times, parents of the kids I work with are looking for activities that they can do at home to carryover the work we do in our sessions without spending a ton of money.  Seeing how it is NYC and people don't have a ton of space, they also don't want anything that takes up too much space.  Personally, I like to provide suggestions to parents that they can throw in their bag and easily take places.  Things that can keep kids occupied while waiting for an appointment, at a restaurant or for traveling.

There are so many great items out there that parents can use at home that will help develop skills in children.  These are things that don't cost a ton of money (which is a bonus if you have to buy for multiple children) that can be as therapeutic as the expensive toys out there.  Below, I share some of my favorite therapy tools that are all under $10.  Many can be found in little toy stores but I have shared links for online ordering.

Slime Suckers-I found these at a Learning Express and knew they would be a huge hit with the kids. First of all, I discovered them as the slime fad was at it's peak so anything slime related motivates kids.  Secondly, what kid doesn't love something a little gross?  This simple little toy is great for working on improving grasp strength and manipulation skills, bilateral coordination, hand-eye coordination, motor planning and organizational skills.  With a little squeeze, the animal (there are monsters, hedgehogs, pigs, etc.) sucks up the slime in the container; with another squeeze, and maybe have the kids make a silly sound, the slime comes shooting out of the toy.   One of the really great things about this toy is that it is small, lightweight and easy to carry around.  So if you are a therapist that travels a lot for work, these are perfect for you.

Zoo Stix-these are easily one of my favorite and most recommended tools for parents.  You can find them in lots of independent toy stores (I get mine at Little Things in Park Slope or Stationery and Toy World on the UWS of Manhattan).  These child-friendly chopsticks have different objects on top that connect the sticks together.  There are a variety of animals, cars, etc. so if you find the right object and color, the kids truly love using them.  Using child friendly chopsticks are a great way to work on improving grasp strength and manipulation skills, encourages bilateral coordination, hand eye coordination and can work on motor planning.  I've been using them at work since day one and love how versatile they can be.  In therapy sessions, I have kids use them to help pick up small pieces of games but their favorite thing is when I have them rescue my squishy dinosaursrobots, frogs and other animals.

Sticker Puzzles-a few years ago, when wandering around a local NYC toy store, I discovered these awesome sticker puzzles by Lee Publications.  I was initially drawn to the books because they had Frozen characters on them and that was the big thing at the time.  Each book comes with 8 different puzzles  and then they match numbers (as few as 8 and as many as 48 stickers per puzzle) to create images from their favorite tv shows and movies.  Kids are super motivated by this activity because they get to take their finished product home and show off what they did.  These are great for working on improving a variety of visual motor and perceptual skills, grasp and in-hand manipulation skills, hand eye coordination, number recognition, focus, attention and organizational skills.  There's a lot of ways to adapt this activity to work on other goals as well.  For example, if you need to work on improving shoulder stability and upper extremity strengthening, you can hang the picture up on the wall or on any other inclined surface.

Super Sonic Gyro Disc-I was so excited when I came across this toy in a little bookstore while on vacation a few weeks ago.  I remember playing with something similar to the gyro disc as a child and thought it would be a perfect addition to my occupational therapy tool box and a great toy for parents to have at home.
This simple and inexpensive toy (I picked mine up for under $5)  is great for working on improving bilateral coordination skills, increasing upper extremity strength, motor planning and organizational skills.  Kids are motivated by the spinning noise and how the LED lights light up once they get it going.  This can be tricky for the kids to get started so I sometimes offer hand-over-hand assistance until they feel like they have the hang of it.  For older kids, I add a challenge by having them do this activity while balancing on a balance board or a bosu ball.

Hog Wild Popper Toy-finding the right toy to work on hand strengthening can be tricky because kids who are weak are very good at avoiding those kinds of activities.  When it comes to doing it at home, it really has to be motivating and seem like a toy and not a therapy activity.  The Hog Wild Popper toys are perfect for this and definitely are more fun than work.  My unicorn obsessed daughter has been gifted more of these than I can count and loves them.  There are TONS of poppers to choose from ranging from animals to team mascots and all are just under $10.  The balls are foam so there is little risk for them hurting someone else or breaking anything in your house.
In addition to hand strengthening, they are great for working on improving bilateral coordination, hand eye coordination, motor planning and focus and attentional skills.  You can also combine working on improving visual and gross motor skills by setting up a target that kids aim towards and then having them wheelbarrow walk, run or do some kind of animal crawl to retrieve the ball.

Wikki Stix-I first discovered Wikki Stix when at a restaurant with kids years ago.  Instead of the usual crayons and activity menu, this place gave out little packs of Wikki Stix to entertain the kids.  At first I was confused and wondered how it would possibly keep them quiet for an entire meal, but then I was fighting with the kids to play with them and I quickly understood.  For those of you not in the know, Wikki Stix are basically different colored wax covered yarn that can be bent into different shapes.  They can be used for play and for learning.  Kids can practice making different shapes, letters or numbers by bending the Wikki Stix.  For younger kids, you can have them put the Wikki Stix on printed out shapes, letters or numbers and for younger kids you can provide them with a blank piece of paper and have them create them without a visual cue.  They are incredibly durable and can't be ripped or torn (you can cut them into smaller pieces if you need to).  Wikki Stix are great for working on improving fine motor skills, such as improving grasp strength and manipulation skills, encourages bilateral coordination and can help work on improving tactile defensiveness because of it's sticky texture.

Wrapper Snapper/Pop Tubes-sometimes the simplest toys can bring kids tons of joy.  Wrapper snappers, or pop tubes as some call them, are one of those toys.  I always make sure to have a stash of them at work and they are always included in my annual gift guide.  They are great for working on improving bilateral coordination, grasp and upper extremity strength and motor planning.  If you get a bunch of different colors, they are a fun way to work on color recognition.  In our gym, we have kids use them as "slides" and they take small sorting bears and sort them into colored cups.  These are a great toy to have at home because they are lightweight and you can throw them into a bag.  An added bonus, they are really inexpensive so you can get some for all your kids!

Travel Notebook-another easy thing to have around that helps school age children who are working on improving their handwriting skills is a cool notebook.  There are a lot of notebooks to choose from, but I really like this one from OOLY because it comes with a little folder to hold things (my kid like to collect business cards, pamphlets, etc.), a place to store a writing instrument (comes with one but you can swap it out for whatever works for your kid) and a variety of different kinds of paper (lined, graph and plain) to write or draw on.  I love having a notebook with me at all times to keep my daughter entertained while at restaurants or when traveling.  Some things you can do with your kids:  play games like Hangman, Tic-Tac-Toe or the Dot Game.  I like to do things like I Spy with my daughter and have her write down things that might start with a certain letter, different types of animals she sees, etc..  It's a great way for her to practice handwriting and spelling and keeps her connected to her environment.  She loves that she has her own special notebook that nobody else can use and there are no real rules attached to it (like a school notebook which has to be used for very specific things).

Mad Libs-one of my absolute favorite things to recommend to work on handwriting at home is Mad Libs.  Who doesn't remember doing these as kids?  Not that I had forgotten about them, but I hadn't used them in a while until my daughter was learning how to read and write.  She was becoming so frustrated with learning this new skill that we had to find ways to make it fun and motivating.  She zipped through page after page and with each one, her writing and reading improved.  An added bonus, she was able to learn all about verbs, nouns, adjectives and all other parts of speech.  The variety of Mad Lib books that one can choose from is awesome.  They range from sports to Star Wars and other popular movies.  In addition to being a great way to work on handwriting, this can be a perfect social opportunity between siblings or on play dates.  For younger children, who are not quite ready for regular Mad Libs, you can check out Mad Libs Junior.  One is never too young (or old based on how much my husband and I enjoy doing them) for Mad Libs.

Mini Sport Games-the toughest kids to work with at home are the school-age kids because they are so busy with other things.  It's critical that if you are going to try and work with things at home with them that they are highly motivating and are matched with their interests.  There are a whole bunch of mini-sport games out there that can work on improving fine motor, manipulation, visual motor/perceptual and executive functioning skills (focus, attention, organization, etc.).  These games can also be used to work on improving social skills, especially to practice sportsmanship for kids who might struggle with winning/losing.  There could be lots of opportunities for role playing and working on strategies on how to deal with problems that might come up during sports.  Here are some of my favorites and all are priced under $10:
Fingerboard Ice Hockey
Football Fingerboard
Fingerboard Golf
FIKA Basketball
Mini Tabletop Basketball

Now that I have shared some of my favorite and affordable OT tools, I would love to hear from you about some of your favorites.  I know there are tons of things out there and would love to know what kinds of toys and products you use with your kids that get them to work without making it feel like work.  I am only a click away and love hearing from you all.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

These Are A Few Of My Favorite Supplies!

I have been procrastinating getting myself and daughter ready for the new school year.  For some reason, no summer seems to have gone by quicker than this one and I am not quite ready for the demands of a new school year.

One of the most exciting parts of a new school year, even as a parent, are the new school supplies.  There is something about the look of brand new supplies that makes me feel giddy!  As a therapist, parents ask me for advice about the best supplies for their children and I love being able to recommend ones that I have used at the gym and with my own daughter.  Some kids need a different kind of school supply in order to be most successful.  Whether it be a particular kind of writing instrument that helps encourage a proper grip or tools to help during homework time, it's important that we find what works for each child.  Below, I share some of my favorite school supplies and how they can help children.

See Through Pencil Case-for kids who have a difficult time with keeping track of and organizing their supplies, you can get a transparent pencil box or case.  If you put supplies in a box, you can sort pencils, crayons and miscellaneous items into smaller Ziploc bags so they can grab what they need without having to waste time on digging through everything.  Tiger Brand makes some great (and sturdy) zippered pencil cases in two different sizes which is another great option.

Colored Folders-another way to help kids as organized as possible is to assign different colored folders to each subject.  If your school requires a certain kind of folder, than you can place colored labels on top of the folders in order to help the kids find their folders easier.  Make sure you are consistent with the colors you use to label each subject.
*I tend to suggest plastic folders for the kids I work with as they don't rip as easy.  Kids I work with are prone to shoving lots of papers into their folders which can lead to them ripping.  Plastic ones have a bit more give and can handle a bit more wear and tear than the cardboard ones.  I love the Yoobi brand of folders for my own daughter; they are sturdy and offer a variety of colors for different subjects.  Even better, for every sale, Yoobi will donate supplies to classrooms in need all across the country.

Dry Erase Weekly Calendar
-one way to keep your family organized is to have a calendar visible for all to see.  This is not to keep track of homework, but more about keeping track of after school activities, parties, appointments, etc.. I typically suggest doing a weekly calendar and not a monthly one as it can get too overwhelming for kids, especially if you have a child who has organizational difficulties.  If you have more than one child, assign a different color dry erase marker so they can easily spot their activities.  Sitting down as a family on a Sunday and filling out the schedule together is a great way to get the whole family ready for the upcoming week and to discuss any plans or changes that might be happening.  This is particularly important if you have a child who presents with anxiety.

Mighty Zipper Pouch-I love this large pouch from OOLY for keeping things organized, especially for older kids who might have more and larger supplies (think calculators, rulers, etc.).  The pouch has 3 compartments with one of them being see-through making it easy to see some of the more important or most used supplies that your child may need.  The three compartments means you can organize writing instruments in one compartment, larger supplies in the other and miscellaneous supplies in the third.
**if you have a child who has a tendency to forget things in school, you can have one for home and one for school

Do-Overs Highlighters highlighters are an important school supply, especially as children get older and the demands increase.  They can be a helpful tool for organization during homework time.  I am a particular fan of the Do-Over highlighters by Ooly because it allows for kids to not get stressed out over making mistakes.  Highlighters can be used for lots of different things.  Obviously, highlighters are needed when reading and having to keep track of information.  For some kids, I have suggested that they use a highlighter to keep track of what homework they have completed; once they finish an assignment, they highlight it.

Weekly Planner- a good weekly planner is an essential tool for kids to help keep them organized.  As my own daughter climbs her way up in the grades, she is becoming responsible for having to write down her homework assignments and not count on a handout from her teacher with all of the assignments.  She is still too young for a full-on daily planner, but I have been on the lookout for them just in case it might help her or any of the other kids I work with.  I have fallen in love with the weekly planners by Yoobi as each week is on a side-by-side two page spread.  There is lots of space for them to write their assignments and room for extra notes when necessary.  In addition, there are coloring pages for the kids to fill in at the end!

Triangular Crayons-the triangle crayons by Crayola are my favorite, especially for younger children who are working on developing a proper grip on writing instruments.  The triangle shape and thicker width of the crayon encourages a tripod-like grasp.  I encourage parents and teachers to break the crayons into two or three smaller pieces because the smaller the crayon is, the less likely they are to hold onto it with a fisted grip.

Sticky Note Tabs-over the years, I have been asked to help kids with their homework during my sessions.  One of the things that I have observed is that for some kids, trying to ruffle through folders or workbooks to find their homework can be an incredibly disorganizing and a stressful way to start the homework process.  One method I have used is using sticky note tabs to mark the homework before leaving school could help homework time be less stressful at home.  That way they can reach into their folder and easily see what needs to be done.  Once they are done with the homework, they can remove the tab and put the paper back in their folders. For younger kids, I love the variety of sticky tab packs by OOLY (I actually had a hard time making a choice!).   For older kids, the Post-It Flags (which come in a variety of colors and sizes) are a great way for kids to organize their homework folders.

Accordion Folders-I don't know about you, but one of the things that I struggle with each year is what to do with all the assignments and art projects that my daughter comes home with.  One of the things we will be doing this year is getting a great big accordion folder that we can fill up at the end of every week or two with old assignments that she wants to keep.  For her, this 7-pocket folder by Five Star is plenty big enough as it will expand as we add things to it each cleanup and it will keep her homework folder and her backpack from getting cluttered and disorganized.

Some things to keep in mind:
* if you find something you love, make sure that you stock up on them just in case your child loses it, breaks it, etc.
*if you know you have a kid who has a tendency to leave things behind, be sure to have a backup stash at home; this is particularly important for a pencil case with all of the necessary supplies for homework.

So, these are a few of my favorite supplies.  Have you found special school supplies that have helped your children be more successful at school and at home?  I would love to hear what kinds of supplies and strategies have been helpful to be able to recommend them to my clients.

I hope that everyone has a wonderful, successful and organized school year!

Friday, July 21, 2017

The Plus of Plus Plus Blocks!

As I mentioned in my last blog post, I am spending the summer learning as much about open ended play and how I could incorporate it more into my therapy sessions.  While I understand the importance of having specific activities in order to reach goals and parent/teacher expectations from occupational therapy, I think that there is an incredible benefit to incorporating open ended play materials into my sessions.  For me, I have come to the realization that if I search hard enough, I can find open ended materials that will work on reaching a variety of occupational therapy goals.

One might wonder what my sudden interest in open ended play is.  My interest was initially peaked by watching my daughter during the school year and how her structured routine over the course of the week was having an impact on her ability to "play" without us helping her decide what she should do and how she should do it.  She was constantly worrying about whether or not things were right and would like what she was doing or would they be disappointed with it.  I was watching her become more anxious about things and not enjoying them as much as she should have.  So, with some inspiration from the Instagram feed from the Workspace for Children, I began exploring the idea of open ended play with Quinn.  What I learned about open ended play is that it it 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.  So the more opportunities that children have to engage in open ended play, the more we are preparing them to be successful in school.

One of the first things that I purchased from the recommendation of Lizzie from the Workspace for Children were Plus Plus construction toys. I am not stranger to the Plus Plus products, and there have been many times in which I walked into different toy stores over the years and would be drawn to those little tubes filled with little pieces that look like plus signs.  There were several times I had them in my hand to purchase and then looked at those little pieces and thought about kids putting them in their mouths or getting frustrated if they were hard to put together.  I can't believe that I waited so long to bring these into work (or introduce them to my own daughter).  They are a great tool for any occupational therapist's tool chest because even if you move around from school to school or between homes, they are lightweight and take up very little space.  There are a variety of colors, so you can work on having kids learn their colors or work on matching and sorting when using them.  I have been encouraging kids to make whatever they want using the pieces and tell them they will have to tell me a story about what they built after.  There is no right or wrong thing to build or story to tell.  The most important thing is that they have fun.  For some of my older kids, I might tell them they need to use a certain number of pieces in whatever they create because even though I want them to be creative, I also want them to gain strength in their hands.  For smaller hands or children who might not have the strength and dexterity to use the regular size Plus Plus, you can use the Plus Plus Midi which are the same design but bigger and easier for smaller hands to manipulate.  Like the regular Plus Plus blocks, they come in a variety of bright or pastel colors.  I have been using them to help some of my younger kids learn their colors while they build.

One of the newest products from Plus Plus also happens to be another one of my favorite occupational therapy tools.  The Baseplate Builder is similar to the baseplate for Legos.  It acts as a platform for kids to be able to build scenes or anything else they want with the blocks.  My daughter happens to love everything rainbow and unicorns and built this awesome two level waterfall and rainbow scene using two baseplates while she was building a few weeks ago.  One thing that I have seen done with them is to practice building letters, numbers or shapes.  Any opportunity a child has to learn these types of things in a multi-sensory and playful way, the more likely they are to learn them at a faster pace.

In addition to all the things already mentioned, Plus Plus blocks can be used to work on the following occupational therapy goals:

Improves Grasping and Manipulation Skills-sometimes the simpler something is, the better it is.  In this case, Plus Plus' are just the right size to encourage appropriate grasping skills.  I have noticed more often than not, the kids are utilizing a fine-pincer grasp to pick them up and then manipulate them to put them together.  If you want to really work on developing age-appropriate grasping skills, you can use the Baseplate Builder.  I have had the kids use their pincers to place the pieces in and then remove them.  For some of my older and stronger kids, I have them lie in the net swing and use the Plus Plus' and the baseplate.  This is a great way to work on increasing upper extremity strength; increasing upper body strength leads to improved fine motor and manipulation skills.

Improves Bilateral Coordination Skills-the beauty of this activity is that you have to use two hands in order to put the pieces together and build things.  If you are using the baseplate, kids are forced to hold the plate down with the hand that is not putting the pieces in or taking them out.

Improves Visual Motor and Perceptual Skills-while I like to let the kids use them and build whatever they want, you also provide kids with templates on how to build certain things.  There are many kids who are in occupational therapy because they need to strengthen their visual skills so following visual directions when building with the Plus Plus blocks is a fun way to work on this skill.

Improve Social Skills-I have purchased a few sets of both the Plus Plus Midi and regular Plus Plus' blocks in a variety of colors so there are plenty for kids to share.  Whether it be at home, at the gym or in my social skills groups, I like to encourage kids to work together to create something.  For some kids, they need to work on thinking outside of their box and following the plan that someone else might have come up with.  In my social skills group, I allow the kids to play with the blocks for a few minutes on their own but tell them that in x-amount of time they will need to combine whatever they are building to make something bigger.

I could have gone on and on about the benefits of the Plus Plus building bricks!  The most important thing to me is that I provide a place and the proper tools for the kids I work with to work on all these skills.  I take great joy in knowing that there are materials out there that can provide so many therapeutic benefits without it seeming like a therapy toy.  This makes it more likely that the  kids will want to play with them not only during our sessions, but at home with their parents, siblings or with their friends.  I know that many families are planning on going on summer vacations and looking for things to bring with them and I couldn't recommend Plus Plus building bricks more.  They are lightweight and take up almost no room at all.  They are great for airplanes or keeping kids occupied in a restaurant without having to pull out an iPad or phone to keep them from complaining.

Do you have a favorite open ended building toy?  Especially ones that travel well?  Would love to hear your family favorites....I am only a click away and love hearing from you all!

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

A Popping Good Time!

There are a few toys/tools that pretty much every occupational therapist and therapeutic gym has.  One of those are wrapper snappers or pop tubes.  This simple toy can bring endless hours of joy to kids and the therapeutic benefits are endless.  They are great for working on improving bilateral coordination, grasp strength, manipulation skills and problem solving and motor planning.  Kids love the funny sounds that they make as you push them together and pull them apart.  And you can be super creative and do lots of other fun things with them like make a marble run or use it as a slide for little toys to sort into different color containers.  The best part, they are inexpensive and easy to throw in a travel bag.

This past weekend, I was in my local toy store looking for a birthday present.  Imagine my surprise, okay, my childlike excitement when I found this amazing box filled with mini wrapper snappers and little plastic connecting pieces called Popoids.  Upon closer inspection, I discovered that Popoids was a popular toy in the late 70s/early 80s (my own childhood).  The toy is basically the same as the original one with some minor changes.  Each box comes with 60 pieces....36 pop tubes in a variety of colors and 24 connectors.  Don't get scared about that number of pieces....the box they come in is incredibly sturdy so you can use that as storage.  And if you want to keep your kids occupied on a long car ride, to take on vacation or eating out, you can pack a handful in a ziploc bag and throw them into your bag.  There are plenty of things your child can create with just a handful of the Popoids.

I am going to put this out there and say it might be one of the best toys I have purchased in a really long time.  In the week that it has been in my gym, just about every kid has used it and has had the best time.  One of the things that I am looking for in toys these days is that they encourage creativity in kids.  During the summer months, I want to not only work on meeting the IEP goals of kids, but also want to help kids think outside of the box and begin to use their imagination when building with different toys.  The best thing about this particular toy is that not only does it work on a bunch of occupational therapy goals, it encourages creativity and open-ended play.  There is no right or wrong which is a welcome change for so many kids who are used to having to do things just right in school or therapy.  Providing children with the opportunity to play with open ended materials such as Popoids help develop problem solving skills and enhances cognitive and executive functioning skills such as working memory, flexibility and self-regulation.

In addition to all that I have already mentioned, Popoids help work on the following occupational therapy skills:
Improves Grasp Strength/Manipulation Skills-pop tubes have been one of my go to finger/upper extremity strengthening activities since day one.  I have been using the smaller pop tubes from the Popoids set to "warm up" the muscles of the hands before kids do graphomotor activities.  The good thing is that the kids are having so much fun, they don't even realize they are doing work.
Improves Bilateral Coordination Skills-whether you are pulling the pop tubes apart or pushing them together, attaching pop tubes to each other or to the other pieces, kids have to use two hands.  For some of the kids I work with who have decreased upper extremity strength and shoulder stability, I have to really encourage them to not use their belly to stabilize/make this task easier.
Encourages Creativity-while there is a little guidebook to show you some of the things you can make with the Popoids, very vew of the kids that have played with them have wanted to use it.  They are having more fun building their own creations.  Whether it be a fireman hose, robots or a some kind of crazy alien, kids are choosing what they want to make and then they choose their pieces, put them together and then playing with them.  So in addition to improving creativity, it is encouraging open-ended play opportunities which many of the kids I work with don't get nearly enough time to do.
Improves Social Skills-I've had more fun watching the kids I work with play together and come up with something to build and then play with.  They have had to sometimes negotiate and be flexible about trying something different than they were thinking about making.  They have to share pieces or sometimes help their friend put the pieces together.  Once they are done creating their masterpieces, they can play together.

Here are a few other things you can do with the Popoids.
*have kids work on matching and sorting colors.  Make sure that you have them identify the colors as they sort them.
*for kids working on shapes, have them put together a few pop tubes and manipulate them into shapes.
What are some of your favorite open ended building materials?  I would love to hear from you about other great toys that will encourage and motivate creativity.  I am only a click away and love hearing from all of you.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Sum..Sum...Summertime Writing!

For some kids, summer vacation is well under way.  For others, like my daughter, there are still a handful of days left.  We are so excited for the summer and a more relaxed schedule.  While many parents look forward to the more relaxed schedule, many of the families I work with, especially the older kids who will not be attending therapy due to long days at camp or because they will be spending the summers at their vacation homes, get anxious about their children regressing and losing some of the skills they worked so hard to gain during the school year.  For these parents, I often suggest things like having a pen pal over the summer (what kid doesn't love to get mail???) or keeping a journal of your fun summer activities.

For some kids, that open-ended kind of writing presents an increased challenge for them causing them to avoid it at all costs.  Since I want to work on keeping my daughter's creative juices flowing over the summer and get her ready for the increased demands of second grade, I have been trying to find motivating activity books or journals that will make this seem like less like homework.  Through my research (spending a whole lot of time in bookstores browsing their journals and activity books), I have found that there are so many great books out there that help to make writing fun.  There are a ton of books that provide you with a simple writing prompt which can help jumpstart those kids that are struggling to come up with what to write about.  Depending on the child, you may even want to have a discussion about the subject before they begin writing to help them organize their thoughts.

Below, you will find some of my favorite journals and activity books that will not only work on handwriting, but will encourage creativity,  stimulate possible conversation and eventually lead to increased confidence and self-esteem.

Mad Libs-I love when I find things from my own childhood that still brings about tons of joy to today's kids.   Mad Libs have been a huge hit with my own daughter and one of the biggest benefits is that she learned all about nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs.  For kids who are able to write, be sure to take turns in letting them be the interviewer and have them write the words in themselves.  In addition to working on improving handwriting skills, Mad Libs are great for working on creativity and social skills.  For the younger kids, be sure to check out Mad Libs Junior.  Instead of having to come up with the words, they choose from lists (there are different shapes and under each shape are a bunch of words for them to pick from).  The best part of any Mad Lip collaboration between people is hearing the kids laugh like crazy as they read they completed story.

Write and Draw Your Own Comics-I have been a big fan of all things Usbourne for ages.  Now that some of my clients and my daughter are getting older, I have had to move from their coloring and sticker books to books that will meet their needs.  My daughter is a big fan of reading graphic novels so when I introduced the idea of creating her own comics, she was so excited.  In this book, kids are provided with simple step-by-step instructions and tips to show them how to create their own stories.  What's great about this book is that in addition to the templates, there are lots of ideas about characters and storylines to help those kids who might need assistance in getting their creative juices flowing.  For added detail, this book comes with a bunch of stickers to add to their completed comics.  This is a fun way to motivate kids to write, create and draw.  Additionally, it helps with executive functioning skills such as focus and attention, planning and organizational skills.
For kids who might not need the help with getting their ideas started, you should check out The Blank Comic Book For Kids.

Journal of Awesome-my daughter was given this journal by a family friend and we both love it.  I'm always struck at the increased educational demands that are placed on children and how it can have such a negative impact on their self-esteem and confidence level.  The Journal of Awesome helps to remind your child just how great they are and inspires them to remember how important the little things in life truly are.  Each page provides you with something to write about that will make you think of all the good things in life instead of focusing on the things that are going wrong or may be challenging for you.  Some of the things that they have you write about:
-coming back to your own bed after a long trip
-secret handshakes
-wearing a new pair of shorts
In addition to working on improving writing skills, kids will work on improving executive functioning skills such as focus, attention, planning and organizational skills.  They will also be encouraged to focus on the positive side of things which will help develop confidence and self-esteem.

Choose Kind Journal-one of my favorite books is R.J. Palacio's Wonder.  For those of you not in the know, the book is about a boy named Auggie who was born with significant a significant facial deformity that has kept him from attending school.  The book Wonder follows Auggie on his first year in school with the overall message being all about choosing kindness.  When I saw the Choose Kind Journal-, I bought several copies.  This was something I not only wanted to do with my 7 year old daughter, but also to share with the kids I work with.  The Choose Kind Journal- is definitely geared towards older kids are are more independent in their writing skills.  However, you can easily go through and pick out questions that you can have conversations with your child about and write their answers down for them.  This journal provides daily prompts on how children can do something kind each day through quotes and questions for the kids to think more deeply about kindness.  Some of the things they will write about are:
-what annoys you that you will choose to ignore this week?
-is there someone older in your life that you feel might be lonely?  Spend a day asking him or her questions about life at your age.  What might you want to know?
-Today is random acts of kindness day.  What random acts of kindness will you do for someone today?
In addition to working on handwriting skills, this journal can help generate empathy and kindness in children who might need support in that area.
**if you are looking for a great summer reading book, I can't recommend Wonder enough.  My daughter and I are reading it together and the conversations we have about acceptance and kindness have been wonderful.  

Me:  A Compendium: A Fill In Journal For Kids-this fill in the blank journal is geared towards the preschool set of kids and helps them to identify all their unique qualities.  If kids can write themselves, have them fill in answers themselves (do not focus on the spelling); if they can't write, do it for them.  What I like about this book is that on many of the pages, kids can either write or draw their answers.  This book is filled with kid-friendly illustrations that get the kids thinking about things about themselves, things they like and how they might see different images.  For example, one page has a picture of two pieces of bread and they have to draw what they like inside of their sandwich.  Another page has a picture of a person and they have to either draw or write what's in their brain right now.
Kids will work on developing graphomotor skills, creativity and executive functioning skills such as focus, attention and organizational skills.  This is a fun book to do with your child and can stimulate conversational skills, confidence and self-esteem as they complete each page.

I Like.....Activity Book-similar to Me, this activity book is geared more towards younger children (but kids of all ages will have fun filling it in) and can be done with a grownup if a child might need more help.  Kids can fill in the blanks while writing a letter to someone (encourage a child who can write to fill in the answers without worry about the spelling), draw toppings on a pizza or circle multiple choice questions about themselves.  The illustrations by Sara Walsh are beautiful and kids will love looking back at this as they get older.  In addition to working on improving graphomotor skills, it can encourage conversation and creativity skills.  Also great for working on improving executive functioning skills such as focus, attention, planning and organizational skills and improving confidence and self-esteem.  

642 Things to Write About: Young Writer's Edition-this book encourages children ages 4-8 years to become more creative writers through over 600 prompts.  If you have a younger child, you will have to write their answers down for them but I would encourage you to have them draw a picture to go along with the story.  Older kids who are independently writing should write on their own.  For kids who might have a hard time organizing their thoughts for writing, you may want to have them talk through their response before writing and help them outline what they will write.  This will help improve executive functioning skills such as focus and attention, planning and organization.  Some of the things that your child might be asked to do are:
-write a story that includes a streetlight, a bear and a kid with a jar of honey
-describe your dream house (have your kid draw a picture at the same time!)

In addition to improving creative writing and graphomotor skills, kids' confidence and self-esteem will improve.

Just Between Us:  a no-stress, no-rules journal for girls and their moms-as a mother to a young girl, I aim to have meaningful conversations with her as often as possible.  Sometimes it ends up being much more challenging than others to get her to share her feelings with me, tell me about her day or talk about a variety of things.  When I saw Just Between Us, I was so excited about a way to deepen our conversations over the summer.  Through a variety of writing prompts, quizzes and questionnaires, moms and daughters get to know each other a little better and helps encourage conversation in a stress-free way.  I love how it includes pages for mom and daughters to make lists about things and has lots of free space to encourage writing about things that come up at any given time.  It's important to establish guidelines as a unit about using this book.  Make sure your daughter feels safe that the information she shares with you will stay between the two of you.  And make sure you are having fun while getting to know one another just a little bit better.
Some of the things moms and daughters will write about are:
-answering 20 different questions about yourself (page for mom and for daughter)
-things I talked about with my mom at your age/things I wish I had been able to speak to her about (mom)

And because I never want to leave anyone out, I found these other journals for parents and kids to complete together:
Between Mom and Me: A Mother Son Journal
Dad & Me: Journal for Fathers and Their Sons or Daughters

Scribbles and Doodles:  Kid's Summer Journal-this summer journal is intended for children 6 and up and most appropriate for kids who are generally independent writers.  The 90-page journal has a kid-friendly design with the top half of the page meant for writing about your day and the bottom half blank space for drawing.  While it is meant for kids to keep track of what they did each day during the summer, I had a different idea for my own daughter when I saw it.  When I saw this book, I immediately thought of how it would make a great journal for keeping track of her daily reading.  Since my daughter has been journaling about her reading all year in school and is now obsessed with reading chapter books, I figured she wouldn't mind doing a daily writing activity.  She was especially excited about the idea of having the space to draw a picture about what she read that day.  
In addition to working on improving writing skills, Scribbles and Doodles works on improving creativity skills and executive functioning skills such as focus, attention, planning and organization.  

Putting this list together has been so much fun.  Perhaps it is because my own daughter will benefit so much from so many of the books that I have suggested.  I think it was mostly fun because I was able to discover so many great books that not only encourage children to write, but make it fun and motivating at the same time. During the summer, we want to keep our kids thinking, want them to continue to let their creative juices flow and prepare them for the increased demands of the next school year.  Most importantly to me, is that kids realize just how fun writing can be and how many ways there are to work on this skill.  The added bonus for me is that we can boost a child's confidence and self-esteem by making this kind of work as much fun as possible.

A few final important reminders/tips to make summer writing as successful as possible:
-find fun writing instruments to make summer writing more fun/less work.  My favorites are the Super Duper Scented Gel Pens by Ooly and the Cadoozle Colored Mechanical Pencils.
-focus on the content and not the other words, don't correct spelling or suggest changes.  If you start to micro-manage what your child is creating, you run the risk of them not wanting to participate at all.
-make this fun for your child....if you are going to set aside time each day or a few times a week, make them look forward to it.  I plan on picking up a special snack that my daughter can have while she is writing.
-if your child has decreased hand strength/endurance, encourage them to take breaks.  Maybe start the writing activity with a quick strengthening activity like playing with Discovery Putty or building with Legos.  My new fine motor obsession, which I will blog about soon, are Plus-Plus toys.  

While I want to say it the most important message from this blog is that kids will become better writers, that would be a lie.  I really worked hard to find books that would help kids get a better sense of who they are, help in create relationships with people they might write with each day, encourage kindness and empathy and help kids become more confident in their skills.  

Keeping writing fun and as stress-free as possible is the ultimate goal with each of the books I suggested. If you have any journals or activity books that you recommend, I would love to hear about them.  I am always a click away and love hearing from all of you.