Friday, September 25, 2015

One Bead at a Time

When my daughter was coming up with her list for Santa Claus last year, she kept this arts and crafts kit she had seen at Toys R Us.  She couldn't tell me much about it but said they had all kinds of beads that you could spray together to make animals and other things.  She was so excited but I had no idea what she was talking about.  When she unwrapped her Beados machine from her babysitter, I though she might explode with happiness.  I, on the other hand, was scared at first and just imaged these little beads spilling and going all over the place.  I also didn't see how Quinn would be able to complete this particular art activity without me helping her for almost the whole thing.  There were some tears (by both of us at one point), but once we successfully finished our first Beado project, we felt really good and excited to make more.  As an occupational therapist, I couldn't help but thinking about how great this particular product would be for some of the kids I work with.

For those of you who haven't heard of them, Beados and Aquabeads are small, colorful beads that stick together when sprayed with water.  They are two different brands of a pretty similar product but do exactly the same thing.  Each kit comes with several templates, a work palette, hundreds of different colored beads and a pen/wand that you use to put the beads into place.  My daughter has this work station kind of thing that comes with a base, a storage spot on the top for all the beads and a special pen that helps put the colored beads into the correct place.  There are tons of different sets out there including magical creatures, foods and sea creatures.  I am a big fan of the Alpha Set by Aquabeads which I have used at work with a bunch of my kids already.  My goal is to have my kids help me make the whole alphabet and then attach magnets or velcro to them and have kids work on letter recognition and practicing spelling words and other kinds of fun alphabet games.  

Total disclosure because it wouldn't be cool of me to not share some important facts about this product.   First of all, there are a lot of tiny pieces...lots and lots of little water beads that you need in order to complete all the patterns.  If they spill, you will be stepping on them for days to come. I highly recommend that you do this at a table with good lighting.  If you have younger children, it might be best to do this with your older kids while they are doing something else because your help will likely be needed.  Secondly, you (as a parent) need to have a lot of patience as your child is completing them.  Your kid will end up getting frustrated or annoyed because it is highly likely that they will end up messing up their design before it's completed.  It may take several attempts before you figure out the best way to complete this activity.  

With all those warnings above, there are a lot more benefits to using Aquabeads or Beados and I have been using them a ton with the older kids on my caseload.  I have found that motivating my older kids to work on things that challenge them becomes increasingly more difficult and they become very good at avoiding them.  Another thing that I have found is that if there is some kind of really cool thing to take home with them and the end of a session, it makes them more excited to work harder and work through those challenges.
Here are a few occupational therapy skills that can be worked on when using Aquabeads or Beados:
Improve Fine Motor Skills-as soon as I started playing with Aquabeads and Beados with my daughter, I thought about how great it would be for those kids who need to work on improving their hand skills.  While they are definitely tricky, they are great for working on developing fine motor skills such as grasping skills.  You can use the special pen that it comes with (it's about the size of a regular pen or pencil) and encourage the children to hold it in a tripod grasp.  If you want to really challenge a kid, you can have them use their pincer grasp to pick up the small beads and place them into the palette.  For an even bigger challenge, have them pick up a few at a time and make them hold them in their palm and translate them to their fingertips as they place them in the palette.  
Improve Visual Skills-there are so many different visual skills that can be worked on while playing with Aquabeads and Beados.  First of all, you have to be able to visually track between the beads and the palette with the template under it.  You need to be able to recognize what color bead you need (some of the colors are similar) and place it where it goes.  This is also a great way to work on improving visual motor integration/eye-hand coordination.  
Improve Executive Functioning Skills-finding fun and motivating activities for my older kids can be challenging, especially for those who present with difficulties with executive functioning skills.  Aquabeads and Beados are great for working on so many of the key executive functioning skills.  For example, if you have a child who has a difficult time with planning and prioritizing, you can talk to them about how they want to complete their picture.  Do they want to place the beads into the palette row by row or complete one color at a time?  Do they want to place the beads in from top to bottom or from left to right?  Make the child come up with a game plan and then have them evaluate how they did once they complete it.  Another great executive functioning skill that can be worked on is practicing how to control impulses.  So many of the kids I work with move quickly, not thinking about how those actions will effect his/her work.  Kids will learn quickly that if they move too fast, they will mess up their work and have to start over again.  When I do this with kids, I talk to them about how important it is to keep their bodies calm and in check.  These are also great for working on improving a child's attention and focus.  Depending on a child's attention span, I give them different templates to choose from.  I want them to be able to complete the project in one sitting and if it is too big, some kids won't have the attention or ability to sit still long enough for them to be successful.  I always want to set my kids up to be successful, especially with new activities, so making sure we set reasonable goals makes it more likely they will be successful.  
Improve Confidence and Self Esteem-while it is likely that your child may become frustrated during this activity, it is also highly likely that they will be so proud of their completed project that it will make them forget about how frustrated they got.  I actually just did this the other day with a little girl who had tried doing it a few days before.  Her mother said that she got so frustrated when she messed up that she ended up in tears and threw away the project.  We ended up talking about what had happened the other day and she decided she really wanted to try it and wouldn't get upset.  We came up with a plan, talked about how she needed to keep her body calm and not move too quickly and that if anything got messed up, we would fix it and move on.  We worked for a long time and when she finished it, she literally squealed with joy over her completed Shopkin Beado.  She also couldn't stop talking about how she didn't get frustrated and that she kept her body calm so it didn't get messed up while she was working on it.  
Improve Social Skills-this is one of those activities that can be done independently or with a group.  If you have a couple of super-crafty kids that you work with, you can easily have them complete a project together.  With my daughter and her friends, they take turns placing the beads into place.  They have to compromise who will go first, how many beads they get to put in, etc..  I love the language it encourages, especially if you make one of the sets with characters (we are a big fan of the ShopkinsFrozen and Hello Kitty sets).   Once they are completed, they can act out scenes and make up stories together.

Like I have mentioned, Aquabeads and Beados are not for everyone and I am very careful about who I would give them as a gift to.  If you are a crafty and patient person and love spending time with your kids doing these kinds of activities, then I highly recommend them.  If you have a child who has fine motor difficulties and resists working with you at home, then this could be a fun way to get them to do work without them realizing that they are working!  I'll admit, I find myself totally wrapped up in an Aquabeads or Beados project with my daughter and love seeing the beads come together to make something fun.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Let's Play(dough)!

Did you know that today is National Playdough Day?  Either did I but know that I do, I am going to do some really fun activities with my kids at work today using playdough!  In discovering this fact, I stumbled upon this fun list of facts about playdough.  Here are the most interesting ones:

*Did you know that Play-doh was first sold as a way to clean wallpaper?  People could remove soot and dirt from wallpaper by rolling it along the surface!
*It wasn't until 1955 that Play-doh was sold in stores as a toy?  Up until then, it was only offered in an off white color.  Once it hit the shelves as a toy they added red, blue and yellow!
*Over 2 billion cans of Play-doh have been sold since it's introduction!

Kids love playdough...and oftentimes, so do their parents.  It's a great activity that can be done at home to work on all kinds of occupational therapy and developmental goals.  Most importantly, it seems more like play than work for the kids so they are not as resistant to it.  There are so many benefits to playing with playdough.  In addition to being a great way to improve fine motor skills, it can be used to work on the following skills:
*increase upper body (shoulder and arm) strength-all that heavy work of pushing, rolling, smashing, etc. is great for building strength.  Remember, fine motor skill development is dependent on good upper body strength
*improve bilateral coordination-use different kinds of tools when playing with playdough to work on using two hands together.  For example, get an old rolling pin and have them roll the playdough into a flat surface before using cookie cutters to make shapes and other pictures.  They need to be able to use two hands in order to pick up the cookie cutters and push the playdough out of it.  All of those fun playdough kids by Play-Doh often require the use of two hands as well.
*improve manipulation skills-playdough is a perfect tool for working on improving manipulation skills such as grasping skills and finger isolation.  Have kids pinch little balls of dough using their "pinchers" or work on pointing by using their pointer finger to squish a hole into each ball.
*improve social skills-i've run many social skills groups before, and playdough is always used.  I love having it as a warm-up activity when kids are trickling in.  Sometimes I let the kids make their own creations or can have them work on something together as a group.  For example, give each kid in a group a different color of the rainbow and have them work as a group to put the rainbow together.

Here is a simple, 4-ingredient playdough recipe you can do with your kids today.
You will need:
1/2 cup of iodized salt (do not use sea salt)
1/2 cup of water
1 cup of flour (for mixing in the dough) plus an additional 1/2 cup for sprinkling/kneading
Food Coloring (this is optional but kids love color!)

1.  Measure your ingredients (except the food coloring) and put them all into a large mixing bowl.
2.  Mix ingredients together with a spoon or spatula until it starts to stick together.
3.  Once the ingredients start to come together, put your food coloring in and mix it just until it has a swirly, marble-like experience.
4.  Sprinkle flour onto a dry surface and dump the dough out and use your hands to knead the dough together.  Once the color is evenly distributed, you can begin to play!
**to store dough, place in a zip-loc bag or an airtight container***

Playing with playdough is not only fun, but therapeutic.  It can be used in therapy sessions to work on a variety of goals.  The best part is that kids are having so much fun squishing, squeezing and creating, that they don't even realize that they are doing work.  Here are some of my favorite playdough activities that you can do with your children today to celebrate National Playdough Day!

*grab a rolling pin and a bunch of cookie cutters and begin playing.  This is great for working on improving bilateral coordination, eye-hand coordination and increasing upper body and hand strength.  If you have a child who is struggling with learning shapes, numbers or letters, find some cookie cutters and work on it this way.
*roll playdough into ropes and have your kids cut the rope into little pieces with a pair of scissors.  Take a shape cookie cutter and gently press into a piece of flattened out playdough (do not push all the way through) and then have them cut the shapes out.  Great for working on improving scissor skills, bilateral coordination and strength.  
*check out this link here by a fellow OT blogger, MamaOT.  You will find 40 different playdough mats to use with your kids.  For those of you who are wondering what a playdough mat is:  they are pictures or drawing that have been laminated and encourage children to interact with the pictures using playdough.  For example, a child may need to "dress" a person, decorate butterfly wings or practice making the letters of the alphabet.  They can encourage kids to be creative and use their imagination while working on increasing hand strength and fine motor skills.  
*roll little pieces of playdough into balls and then have them pick them up and place them in a container using tongs.  This works on improving grasp strength, bilateral coordination and eye-hand coordination skills.  
*hide small beads, buttons or other manipulatives (I like to use these little animals from an old Mancala game of mine) and have the kids find them as fast as they can.  I remind my kids to pull the pieces out with their pinchers.  Once they have found all of the hidden pieces, have them hide them again for the next kid.  Great for working on improving grasp strength and manipulation skills, bilateral coordination and focus/attention.  

I have to admit, I love to play with playdough.  I love the way it feels in my hands, the way it smells and the way it can be used for a million different things (I will have to try the cleaning of wallpaper sometime).  My 5 1/2 year old daughter could play with it for hours on end.  However, my OCD definitely kicks in when people try and mix colors together!  In honor of National Playdough Day, I am going to challenge myself to pick up some fresh bottles of it for my daughter and play with her tonight and not worry for a second about mixing them up!

Do you have a wonderful activity to share using playdough?  A tried and true recipe you use with your kids that you would like to share.  I am just a click away and love hearing from you all!

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

If We Could Turn Back Time...and Just Play

In the last few months, I have been reading up a lot on play and how research is finding how important it is to social emotional development for children.  We have become so focused on teaching our children the ABCs and 123s, that we have ended up decreasing the amount of time they get to just play.  I know that there is lots of time during the school day for kids to "play" but it is often directed by the adults because kids are given a choice to play in one station or another.  There is often an adult guiding their play.  I can't tell you how many times I have walked into a classroom observation and seen kids on the outside of the group having to be brought in and directed how to "play" by one of the classroom team members.  Play, unfortunately, is something that has taken a backseat these days as we as a society place a greater importance on teaching our kids and making sure they have all the academic skills.  You don't hear parents bragging about that awesome block castle their kid build all by themselves, do you?  What you hear are things like "My 3 year old already knows how to write all their letters!" or "My 4 year old learned how to read!"  While these are both critical skills for every child to learn, they don't need to be taught at such a young age.  Leave that to their teachers and begin playing with your kids!

Why is play important?  There are endless reasons, but here are just a few:
*children are given the opportunity to practice both verbal and nonverbal communications skills by negotiating roles and gaining an understanding of other peoples feelings.
*they learn important social skills that they will need for the rest of their lives such as turn taking, sharing materials and waiting for their turn.
*play and physical activity has been linked to helping kids be more creative thinkers and have a better ability to connect with others.  They are better able to negotiate, share and resolve conflicts when given ample opportunity to play independent from their caregivers.
*play helps to improve fine motor skills.  Children who have been given lots of playground play opportunities are given the chance to hone their body strength and coordination skills which leads to improved fine motor skills.  It also helps them to build gross motor skills, improve self-control and modulation skills.
*play has been proven to relieve stress in children, especially as the academic demands begin to increase.  I always tell the parents I work with that what we expect from kids today is abnormal.  We are asking way more from them than is developmentally appropriate.  According to a poll of parents by Let's Play, 46% of the parents said that the focus on academics was one of their kids' biggest barriers to play.

The countless articles I have read have gotten me thinking a lot, especially as I watch my daughter grow and mature.  I have always been impressed how she has always been able to interact with her environment.  Not just the people in her environment, but the toys and objects as well.  Now, don't get me wrong.  I am not preaching, judging or trying to tell anyone what is right or wrong when it comes to play and the kinds of activities and toys we expose our children to.  My daughter is an expert when it comes to playing with and exploring an iPad.  Maybe it is a bad thing at times but it has helped motivate her to learn how to write letters, begin learning how to read and kept her from freaking out during some long car and plane rides.  I'm definitely guilty of buying those battery operated toys that she has seen on television (she's an commercial addict and MUST have everything she sees) because she "has to have them".  But what I love the most is that as much as she loves those things she sees on tv, she can play for hours with her little Maileg bunnies and mice I've been collecting for me...I mean her...since she was born.  She can play in her kitchen and cook for her daddy and me coming up with some of the most delicious meals.  When I would pick her up from school, she would run around with her friends without a care in the world playing tag and other kid games.  I know that even if she is exposed to too much television and screen time on the iPad, she has a vivid imagination, can sit and color and draw for long periods of time and socialize with her peers without me having to step in more than what any parent of a kindergartener expects to.

These articles have also gotten me thinking about my childhood and what I did outside of school.  I am one of four girls, my younger twin sisters being less than 2 years younger than me.  We would come home from school and not have to do homework and were forced to go out and play.  Even in the most awful of weather, we were outside.  My mom would pull the car out of the garage and we would ride our bikes, play games and just play.  In the fall, we were given rakes and made leaf mazes and homes.  In the winter, we were given shovels and made snowmen, threw ourselves in the snow and made snow angels and have snowball fights.  It didn't matter what season it was, my sisters and I were encouraged to just play and have fun.  In those moments, we learned how to fight, how to resolve our conflicts and how to compromise with each other.  It wasn't always clean and there were several times that our parents had to intervene, but I know that these opportunities to just play shaped us and our relationship as grownups.

These articles and focus on play has also gotten me to think about the toys we used to play with growing up.  They were so simple yet kept us focused and engaged for such a long time.  Most of them didn't require batteries, didn't make a lot of noise and could be shared with a sibling or friend and encourage social interactions, such as turn taking, compromise and being flexible.  These toys encouraged you to be creative and think outside of your comfort zone.

Here are some of the toys from when I was growing up that are still around today. They may have been modernized to some degree, but not too much.  They are still great toys and in my opinion, ones that we should be getting our kids:
Hula Hoop-do you know the Hula Hoop we know today was invented in 1958?  They are great for working on improving trunk control, motor coordination, focus and attention and increasing frustration tolerance.  Hoop Mamas, an Etsy based store, custom makes hula hoops in different sizes and colors!  A great gift for your those kids you know who love to hula hoop!
Sit N' Spin-the Sit N' Spin is still as awesome today as it was nearly 40 years ago.  They have upgraded the original one several times since its debut in the early 70s, but I am happy to see that they have a non-singing, non-lightup version available now.  The Sit N' Spin is great for working on bilateral coordination, modulation/regulation skills, building upper body strength and motor coordination skills.
Colorforms-Colorforms have been around for over 60 years and one of the oldest and best known toy brands.  These vinyl re-stickable playsets started off as basic shapes (you would put the shapes together to make pictures) and has evolved to popular characters from tv shows and movies.  I'm pretty sure I had a Strawberry Shortcake set way back in the day.  I use Colorforms in my therapy sessions and the kids love them.  Every time you play with them, it can be a little different.  They are great for working on fine motor skills such as grasping, visual motor and perceptual skills and improving language skills.
Wacky Wally-recently, my daughter and I were in a toy store and she found this sticky starfish that can "walk" down the wall.  She got the biggest kick out of it and would fall to the floor laughing as it clumsily made its way to the floor.  It totally brought me back to my childhood and how much fun I would have with my sisters and friends having Wacky Wally races.  It was the simplest of toys yet it provided endless entertainment.  I've actually used other kinds of sticky toys during my therapy sessions.  Sometimes I have them throw them at targets on the wall or mirrors which they love to do.  This simple and inexpensive toy is great for working on decreasing tactile defensiveness (because of it's sticky texture), upper body strength and motor coordination skills.
Snoopy Sno-Cone Maker-first introduced in 1979, the Snoopy Sno-Cone Maker was on every kids wish list growing up.  While things have evolved and we have the ability to make much more sophisticated cool treats, there is something about this sno-cone maker that just takes ice, juice and/or flavoring to make them yourself.  Great for working on bilateral coordination, increasing upper body strength, focus/attention and many other OT skills.  Also great to use with a small group of kids to work on improving social skills such as turn-taking, compromise and improving pragmatic language skills.
Connect 4-even though there are several versions out there now, the original game came out in 1974.  The 2 player game was easy to put together and was simple to play.  Choose a color and start putting the pieces into the board.  The first person to get four in a row, is the winner.  Great game for working on focus/attentional skills, improving executive functioning skills, eye-hand coordination, visual motor and perceptual skills.  Also a great game to play in a small social skills group.
Spirograph-this arts and crafts set has been around for over 50 years and kids today are still enjoying it.  Spirograph was originally designed by a mechanical engineer for use as a drafting tool.  The gears and wheels work together to create cool and colorful swirling designs.  There are now several versions to choose from, including a My Little Pony one that I think my daughter would lose her mind over!  For you traditionalists, no need to worry.  The original set is still available.
Great for working on bilateral coordination skills, improves eye-hand coordination, visual motor and visual perceptual skills and focus and attentional skills.  Also great for encouraging kids to be creative and think outside of the box.
Cats Cradle-I remember spending countless hours playing Cats Cradle with my friends and don't know why I haven't done this at work with my kids!  Using a long circular string, you can create a series of string figures.  This two-person game is great for working on improving fine motor skills, visual motor and perceptual skills, eye-hand coordination, executive functioning skills and many other occupational therapy skills.  I'm definitely going to get myself the book and re-learn how to play this game and start using it at home with my daughter and at work!
Card Games-a simple pack of cards can go a long way in entertaining kids.  I feel like each family has "their" card game.  My sisters and I used to play the game Spit all the time and my now 7 and 10 year old nieces are following in that tradition.  I've used cards to help reinforce number learning with some of the kids I work with.  I love this article by Today's Parent that has the directions to 10 family friendly card games.   
Jenga-did you know that Jenga was released in other countries before coming to North America in 1986?  I remember playing this game with my friends and family as a kid and as stressful as it was, it always ended up with everyone laughing!  After you stack the 54 blocks into a tower, you take blocks out and place them back on the top of the tower. The game continues until the tower falls.  This game is great for working on fine motor skills, eye-hand coordination, modulation and regulation skills, focus and attentional skills, motor planning and social skills.  I've actually taken a Jenga game and written questions on each block so each time the block is pulled, a player has to ask the other players social questions.  This can be a great ice breaker game for any social skills group!

These are just a very small handful of games and toys.....I could have gone on and on and on!  As it is, I have a wish list on a mile long on old toys and games I MUST have.  I would love to hear from you about your favorite toys or games growing up.  For you parents reading this post, is there any toy/game from your childhood that you play with your kids?  What about you therapists? do you have anything form your childhood that you use in your therapy sessions that the kids just can't get enough of?  I am only a click away and love hearing from you all!

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

What's On My iPad

I had grand plans this summer to do wonderful things with my blog and write at least weekly...maybe even more.  Well, the beach and my kid called and I hardly wrote at all.  Now I am playing catch up because this time next week, I'll be in that back to school panic mode and worry I won't have time to write.

I spend a lot of my summer trying to figure out ways to get things new and fresh for the new school year.  While there are a ton of apps on my iPad that I've had for years and that the kids never tire of, I like to add new ones.  In this post, I will share the apps that are the most popular with the kids in my life right now.  Some may have been written about before and others will be new.  The common factor is that they are fun, motivating and worth every penny (for those that you have to purchase).

I know that using an iPad in therapy is not for everyone and I certainly don't use as my sole means of
teaching a child a skill.  The truth is that using an iPad and finding good apps can be really motivating, especially to children who are struggling with skills.  I have found that an iPad is exciting for them, particularly for those children who don't have access to one at home.  Another great thing about it is that it is easily used in conjunction with other activities that address similar goals.  For example, how many of you have a kid or work with a kid who will avoid handwriting at all costs?  I have had so much more success with getting a kid to pick up a pencil and copy a shape or write a letter or number after they have practiced it on the iPad.  There are also a lot of ways to make using an iPad more therapeutic:
*use a stylus whenever you can while using the iPad, especially if you have a child who needs to work on improving their grip on writing instruments.  My favorites are the the iCreate Crayon stylus, the Kikkerland Retro Stylus and the Paper Mate 2 in 1 Stylus pen.
*whenever possible, I have my kids lie prone on the net swing or over a bolster when using the iPad.  This works on improving upper body strength but they are often so focused on what's on the screen that they aren't focusing on being or getting tired.
*when appropriate, try and have kids work together to play the iPad.  People don't think something like an iPad can encourage social skills, but I have found that it is a wonderful tool for that.  Turn taking, problem solving for puzzle games and increasing pragmatic language are all things that can be worked on using an iPad
*bring parents in and show them the apps you are using with their child so they can do them with them at home.  Parents are always asking me for things that they can do that isn't really work.  I know from trying to "work" with my own child, that if it looks like work to her, she won't do it for me.  Making sure it is fun goes a long way and parents feel good that they are having quality time with their children while working on important skills.

Here are my iPad choices for right now.  Each of them has been kid tested and therapist approved!  

Star Gurus-I'm always looking for connect-the-dot like apps but most of them are boring and the kids tire of them quickly.  Additionally, you get a couple of puzzles and then have to keep paying extra money in order to add more to your collection.  A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled upon Star Gurus by Colto, a wonderful a creative studio dedicated to creating educational apps that will "make your kids smile", and was so excited by how captivating and motivating they were.  In addition to teaching your kids to count, it works on improving eye-hand coordination, visual tracking and several other occupational therapy skills.  One of the things I like about this particular connect-the-dot app is that you also have the option of counting by 2s or 10s which makes this more appropriate for some of the older kids on your caseload.  I have also found that the kids I work with are super motivated about the final product of connecting the dots....once all the stars are connected, they form a constellation.  Very motivating and exciting for kids, especially those who are interested in stars!

Shape Gurus-another great app by Colto, Shape Gurus is a fun and motivating way to learn about shapes, colors and early geometry skills (I wish I  had something like this for myself when I was growing up!).  This app is appropriate for children as young as 2 years old, but the older preschoolers and young school age kids on my caseload are loving it.  Shape Gurus stimulates creative problem solving, sequencing, visual motor and visual perceptual skills and many more.  I like how each puzzle moves into the next one allowing the parent or therapist to work on building language skills at the same time.  At the same time, it can work on increasing attention span.  Since each puzzle moves into the next one, the kids are engaged and not wanting to stop playing the game.  Some of my kids with the shortest of attention spans easily spent the 15 minutes it took to complete the whole game without any encouragement from me.   

Lazoo Art Box-I wrote about this one in great detail here a few weeks ago, but didn't want to leave it off this list of my favorites.  Lazoo has been a long time favorite of mine and I discovered their apps because of the amazing activity books that they have developed over the years.  They have taken the magic and uniqueness of their books and put them into a truly dynamic and motivating app that encourages, motivates and gets kids excited about art.  The best part for me is that while there are clear ideas and suggestions about what to do (i.e. draw something coming out of an elephant's trunk, put swirly wool on a lamb or color in an airplane before it takes flight), they leave plenty of room for a child to think outside of the box and be as creative as they want to.  Lazoo Art Box is a great way to work on improving graphomotor skills such as 

LetterSchool-as for as handwriting apps go, LetterSchool continues to be my go to and the first one I recommend to parents who are looking for a fun way to practice letters with their children.  Whether you want to begin working on teaching children how to write their letters or if you want to review what they already know, this is the best app out there.  It comes with three options:  uppercase, lowercase and numbers.  There are two levels of play for lots of practice.  For each letter and number, you work through 3 games (tap, trace and write) in order to earn stars.  Once you have completed both the silver and gold levels of play, you can then unlock the opportunity to do free-form writing.   Don't forget to use your stylus when using this app!

Winky Think-Spinlight Studio is a series of logic puzzles that will help your kids develop problem solving and fine motor skills.  Due to the puzzles getting increasingly more challenging, this app is appropriate for preschoolers and school age children.  To quote my 5 year old daughter, "This started really easy but it's getting more difficult!"  However, it doesn't stop her from doing the harder puzzles and feeling more proud of herself when she gets the puzzles on her own.  I've tested it out a few times and must admit that I ended up getting sucked into it as well!  With each puzzle, kids learn a new tool that will help them solve puzzles that will show up later in the game.  One of the things I like most about this is that there is no timer and the children are given as much time as they need in order to solve each puzzle.  Often times these kind of math and reasoning games are timed and end up causing the kids I work with to get nervous and have increased difficulty in completing it.  Another great app for older kids.

Avokiddo Think Rolls/Think Rolls 2-another one of those apps that I have written about in great detail before but can't be left off this list.  Most of the apps I have are geared towards the preschool or early school age kids.  Finding apps that will keep the attention of the older kids on my caseload is more difficult and when I find one, I am super happy.  You can read all about all of the Avokiddo apps in this post here but Think Rolls and Think Rolls 2 is awesome for the older kids on my caseload.  Kids choose a character and have to move them through a series of obstacles and mazes.  Each chapter introduces a new object with a unique physical property that kids will have to manipulate and experiment with in order to get through each puzzle.  These games are great for working on focus, attentional and problem solving skills.  I sometimes have kids play this game together in order to work on improving social skills.  It's a great app for kids to problem solve and work together to solve the puzzles...especially as it gets more and more challenging.

So, these are the apps that are getting the most screen time on my iPad.  I love that almost all of them are appropriate for a wide range of ages and that they are interesting and challenging enough that parents won't mind playing them with their kids.  As a new school year begins and you might be looking for educational but fun apps for your kids, I recommend any or all of these 6 apps.  I know that we tend to try and decrease the amount of screen time our kids have during the school year, but rest assured that any of these will help with learning and building important skills that will carryover into what they are focusing on in school.

Do you have any great apps you discovered this summer?  Now that my own child is going into school, finding wonderful apps is even more important for me.  Send along any suggestions, questions or thoughts to me.  I am only a click away and love hearing from each and every one of you!

Monday, August 31, 2015

Gearing Up For a New Year

Many kids have already begun the school year but by the middle of next week, after all those Labor Day picnics and parties, almost everyone will be starting school.  For some of the kids, it will be their first time going to school and for others, they will be returning to school.  While this time of the year can be very exciting, it can also bring about anxiety in children.  For many of the kids I work with, this time of the year can be difficult and parents are as anxious as they are about how the new year will go and what they can do to best prepare their children for the upcoming year.  Each of us has our own thoughts and ideas about this and it is most important to figure out which of these strategies work for your child and his/her areas of need.  As I prepare my own daughter (she begins kindergarten next week) for a new school year, I will be doing some of the following with her to get her ready and excited for all this new year has to bring.  

1.  Start your school year routine with your children the week before school begins.  This includes waking up to an alarm if necessary, eating meals the way you will during the school year and getting a bed time routine worked out before those first few days of school.  This is important for all kids, but especially those who have a difficult time with transitions and changes in routines.  If it helps, find some kind of daily schedule you can hang up for your children that they can look at before leaving the house for school so they have an idea of what to expect.  You may even want to put that schedule together right before bedtime the night before so your child can feel as prepared for the next day as possible.

2.  One of the things I remember most about growing up is the annual shopping trip for a new backpack and lunchbox.  This was super exciting and always made me feel slightly less anxious for a new school year.  Allow your children to be part of the process of picking out their new backpack and lunchbox.  If they are feeling anxious about going to school, make a big deal about showing their friends whatever they pick out.  I am one of those parents who avoids getting supplies with characters (but my daughter is more into pretty designs like clouds, stars and unicorns) but if you have a child who is into Disney Princesses, Cars or any other popular character, let them get it.  It doesn't seem like it would be a big deal but it really is!  
When picking these bags out, a few tips: 
*make sure that the backpack and lunchbox are not too big for your child to carry independently.  We send our kids to school to become more independent people, but if their bags are too heavy and cumbersome they are going to rely on grownups to take care of it for them.
*if you can find a backpack that has a lunchbox that will attach to it, even better.  I am a big fan of the new big kid backpacks by Skip*Hop.  In addition to being large enough to accomodate all the things a school age child needs to carry back and forth, there is a compartment built in for the lunch box to slip right into.  
*if you have a child who has decreased trunk strength, you might want to consider a bag that has wheels on it for them.  This way they have the option of carrying or dragging their bag.

3.  School supply shopping can be a daunting project but it is a necessary one.  My daughter starts kindergarten in a public school next week and the long list of supplies is crazy.  Since she has fine motor issues (nothing major or that warrants therapy...the poor kid has a mom who is an occupational therapist and is all over her!), I want to be sure that I get her supplies that she will be able to use and that might help support some of her difficulties.  Here are some of the things we will be getting for her and I will be recommending for the children I work with:  
Crayons-for the younger kids, especially those who may have a delayed grasp, I suggest the Crayola Triangular Crayons.  It comes in a box of 16 colors and are a bit thicker than the regular sized crayons. Additionally, the triangle shape helps encourage a tripod grasp when using them.
Colored Pencils-again, I am a fan of any of the Crayola colored pencils.  For the smaller hands, their Pip-Sqeaks Colored Pencils are perfect.  As they get older and still struggle with using a proper grip, you might want to consider getting the regular sized pencils and breaking them in half. The smaller the writing instrument, the more it encourages a proper grasp.
Scissors-I have always been a fan of the Fiskars blunt-tip scissors.  They are the perfect size for those little hands.  They also have left-handed scissors which not all companies carry.  You can find them in almost all chain drug stores but their website also has a large selection and you can find the exact color for your child!
Student Planner/Assignment Books-some schools now give each student a planner at the beginning of the school year which I think is amazing.  Many of the kids I work with struggle to keep their assignments organized, often forgetting what each of their teachers has asked them to do.  As children get older, they need strategies in order to keep themselves organized and more independent for classroom success.  Go to Staples or book stores and look at their selection and figure out which would be best for your child.  There are so many to choose from and there may be something about one that is better than another for your child and his/her needs.   It's important to go over what you expect from them when using this book.  Be sure to go over this before the school year begins and maybe even copy a few pages so you can do some practice runs before they have to use it for real.  
Folders-I don't care what brand you pick out but do have some suggestions, especially as kids get older.  First of all, if you have a kid who has difficulty keeping their backpack clean and organized, get those thick folders made out of plastic.  They can take a beating as they are shoved into their bags!  Also, I would suggest getting different colored ones for each subject so they don't have to open and close each one every time they need to complete an assignment.  If you have an older kid who you need to come up with organization strategies for, you can consider getting a binder to put all of the folders in so everything is in one place.
Pencil Case-be sure to find a pencil case that is big enough to carry what your child needs, but not so big that they have a hard time finding all they need.  If you have a child who presents with difficulty with organization and other executive functioning skills, you may want to find something that has compartments so it is easy to find everything when they need them.  You don't want your kids to lose out on time to complete assignments because they are too busy digging through their pencil case.  I am a big fan of this one here by Yoobi.  It's a little larger than the typical case, but it you can definitely find what you need when you need it without a problem.  Be sure to check out all the other products on Yoobi because for each product you purchase, they will donate one to a classroom in need.  

4.  A new school year can be most difficult partly because of all the new faces that a child may have to learn.  For kids who have learning, language or sensory delays, this is even more challenging.  Many of the kids I work with don't only have to worry about new teachers, but new therapists both in and out of school.  When possible, try and schedule a meet and greet with your child's new teacher and therapists prior to their first day with them.  While on these meet and greets, you can ask to take pictures for them to go back and look at leading up to their new schedule beginning.  You can also use these pictures to set up some kind of visual schedule for your child to look at the beginning of each day so they know where they will be going, who they will be seeing and what they can expect from their day.  This seems simple, but it can go a long way in setting your child up for a successful day.  

5.  It may seem crazy, but since I have a kid who is a picky eater I have to worry about her snacks and lunch for the school week.  Summer has led to bad eating habits (you know, eating ice cream for dinner or snacking on junk food during the day instead of having dedicated meal times) for us and one of my biggest concerns is will she have enough to eat during the day to ready her for brain learning all she has to do.  Packing protein filled meals is important to keep our kids from being hungry.  And since there are so many classrooms that are peanut and nut free, we have to become creative in what we pack for our kids.  When possible, take your child shopping for snacks and lunch foods.  I find that when they get to help choose them, they are more likely to eat them.  For kids with fine motor, sensory or feeding difficulties, be sure to pack foods that your child can eat independently.  Cut food into small, bite-sized pieces so they can easily take a piece with a fork or use their fingers.  If they have a hard time with using spoons, get squeezable fruit packs, applesauces or yogurts so they don't have to worry about using a spoon or asking for help.

Do you have any back to school tricks that you would like to share with my readers?  Any strategies that you have used with your sensory sensitive kid that made the transition back to school that much smoother and easier for not only your child, but your family leading up to the first day of school?  I am sure us parents and therapists have a lot of advice we can offer one another to make this anxiety producing time of the year less stressful and more enjoyable.  I love hearing from each and every one of you and hearing your helpful advice and know that when you share it with me, you are sharing it with tons of others!  I am only a click away and look forward to hearing from you!

As you all, parents, therapists and especially the kids that we love, begin this new school year, I wish you a wonderful and exciting year!  

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Ready, Set, Let's Do Art!

As a pediatric occupational therapist, much of my "free" time is spent looking for new things for work.  Whether it be games, apps, activity books, etc., this is something that takes up a lot of my time.  When I find myself getting bored with the activities I am presenting to the kids I work with, I have to wonder what is going through their heads as I offer them the same sorting game or puzzle every other session.

I've written about coloring and activity books several times on my blog.  One of the reasons for that is that almost all of the kids I work with have handwriting and graphomotor goals that need to be worked on during every session.  Since this is typically something that isn't easy for them, they can find a million excuses to get out of doing them.  That right there is one of the main reasons I am constantly on the search for motivating activity books...if you find a good one, you can easily work on so many of those handwriting, coloring or drawing goals.

A couple of weeks ago, I was researching new and fun apps.  I have actually used much of this summer to take a break from using the iPad.  Maybe the reason for that was that I couldn't watch or hear the same things one more time since the kids often pick the same apps every time.  When I discovered the Lazoo Art Box app by PBS Kids, I wasted no time downloading it.  The Lazoo activity books may be my favorite ones out there.  They are totally unique and incredibly motivating for the little ones I work with.  The pictures often have a simple direction for them to follow which not only works on improving their coloring/drawing skills, but also works on expanding their creative skills.  It also works on executive functioning skills such as organization, planning and following directions.

Lazoo Art Box is one of those apps that you get a lot for what you pay.  The app has four different modes that you can choose from in the beginning:  Let's Squiggle, Let's Color, Let's Draw and Draw from Scratch.  In each of the modes, kids can complete a series of unfinished drawings by following the directions/suggestions provided.  For example, you can add squiggly wool to a family of sheep, color in balloons or draw teeth on an alligator or make hair on people.  Once you have finished your pictures using a variety of colors and stamps, you can bring your picture to life.  The kids just love watching their work come to life!  If kids would like to create a picture from scratch (or from a picture stored on your iPad), they can do that as well.  Just like the other modes, once they are done with their picture, they can bring it to life.

What I love the most about the Lazoo Art Box app is that it combines three of my favorite activity books (sadly, they are not easily available these days) into one great app. Because I am one of those crazy people who likes to collect things she likes, I happen to be lucky enough to have a couple of each of these activity books in my possession.  I only wish I had thought to photocopy the pages before it became impossible to find.  One of the things I have been doing is looking through the books and finding pictures that match with some of the pictures offered on the iPad app.  This allows the kids to practice and learn what is expected from them before using something more permanent.  It depends on each child, their age and their skill set, but sometimes I will "erase" what they have done on the iPad if I find that they aren't doing their best work.  Let me be clear about one thing:  best work doesn't mean a child has to do things perfectly.  It means that they are focusing, paying attention and following the directions that were given to them.  I am all for fostering creativity, but for some of my kids if not encouraged to remain on task, they will not complete it properly.

I am going to do something a little different with the end of my post this time.  Instead of talking about all the therapeutic benefits, I am going to introduce you to one of my little friends.  Meet Mack.  He is a super star.  We have been working together for about 13 months now.  When I first started working with him, he had such significant sensory processing difficulties that I couldn't even begin to work on figuring out his fine motor delays.  We could easily spend a full 45-minute session in the cuddle swing and it still wouldn't be enough.  I'm still recovering from our first session when I put him on a therapy ball and he screamed so loudly and jumped off the ball so quickly that I wasn't quite sure where he had gone.  He initially refused to participate in all table top activities, especially any that involved coloring, drawing or handwriting.  Within two sessions, Mack was calmer and more relaxed.  He is a sensory seeker, craving a tremendous amount of proprioceptive and vestibular input in order to organize his body for most tasks.  A year later, the amount of  input he requires varies but is definitely not what he needed last year.  He is more independent in all tasks presented to him and will actually ask for us to do graphomotor activities that he used avoid at all costs.

Last week, I decided to pull out the Lazoo Art Box app and one of my old Let's Color activity books.  I searched through the book to find an image that was also available on the iPad so we could start with coloring on the iPad and bring it to life first and then have Mack color in the same picture using crayons.  Since Mack is such a smart guy, I decided to make it a little more tricky for him and make him color the balloons in the same color on both the iPad and his coloring page.  It's a great way to generalize the skills that we are working on in a fun and motivating way.  Mack LOVED it and for the first time, actually asked if he could take his work home and show it off to everyone.  His mother later reported that he showed it to EVERYONE he met....his doorman, his dad, his sister and his baby sitter to name a few!  This is a really big deal and proved to me that Mack is beginning to not only enjoy these kinds of activities but has the confidence in himself to know that he can be successful with them.

A couple of things I did with Mack that you can do with your kids to work towards his/her occupational therapy goals are:
Start with a Strengthening Activity-before beginning most graphomotor activities, I like to warm up those small muscles of the hand by doing some kind of strengthening activity.  Some of my favorites are Discovery Putty, poptubes or Lego activities.  Always have a couple of options and let the kids choose which one they want to do.  
Use a Stylus-when appropriate, I always have my kids use a stylus when using the iPad.  This allows us to work on improving grasping skills when using writing instruments.  I typically use one of these three stylus':  Paper Mate's 2 in 1 Stylus pen, the crayon stylus by iCreate or the Retro Mini Stylus Pen by Kikkerland.  Choose whichever one your child feels most comfortable with.
Work on an Incline-for many of the kids I work with, working on an inclined surface helps with success with graphomotor tasks.  It puts their wrist in an optimal position and also can work on increasing upper body strength.
Use Broken Crayons or Short Markers- especially for the younger kids on my caseload, I recommend using small crayons or short markers.  The smaller writing instruments encourage a more appropriate grasp.  Crayola makes a box of triangular crayons that I find to be particularly good.  They also make PipSqueak markers (both think and thick) which my kids really love too.  For kids who have significantly decreased grasp strength, starting with markers because they don't require as much pressure and they can have more success without getting as frustrated.  As their grasp strength improves, start introducing crayons or colored pencils.

As we approach a new school year, I know many of the families I work with are asking what they can do to get their children prepared for the upcoming school year.  If you want to start off slowly and in a fun way, I highly recommend the Lazoo Art Box app by PBS Kids.  This is a great app to have on your iPad as you head off to your final summer vacations.  It can keep your kids occupied on long car rides or when you are going out to dinner.

What are some of your favorite activities to give to families or use with your kids to get them thinking about school and doing work?  I would love to hear from you all and I am sure all us parents would be grateful for some new ideas to try with our own kids.  I am always a click away and love hearing from you all!

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Finger Looming Good

Two summers ago, the must have toy for everyone was The Rainbow Loom.  It would sell out in stores before they even had a chance to placed on the shelves.  You would go to the beach or the pool and see gaggles of kids gathered around their looms chatting, sharing their ideas and bracelets.  It was such a phenomenon.  I wrote about it in depth in this post here (which happens to be the most viewed post of mine) which still gets hits even two years later.  While Rainbow Loom isn't as popular as it was two summers ago, I find that kids still like making them, particularly my 6-8 year old kids.

The other day, I had time to kill between clients and walked into Learning Express and saw a handful of new items. One of the things that caught my eye was the Finger Loom.  Made by the creators of the original Rainbow Loom, this kit requires no hook and bracelets are made using just your fingers.  Even though I knew how great it would be for me to have in my bag of tricks at work, I immediately thought of my 5 year old daughter.  When the Rainbow Loom craze was going on, she was a sassy 3 year old who wanted to do everything her 5 and 7 year old cousins were doing.  She was so frustrated and sad when she couldn't do it but has been asking to learn ever since.  We have tried the bigger loom, but she would give up pretty quickly.  Yesterday, I was spending the day at the beach with just her and figured this would be a fun thing to bring out and show her.  At first, she wanted me to do it for her, but I insisted she at least give it a try.  When she first started, I agreed that we could take turns making the bracelet but after just a couple of times, she took the loom and the bands and took over the bracelet making.

There are a lot of things I like about this particular loom, especially for younger kids.  While I take out the original loom quite a bit at work, I find that for my kids who lack coordination, the big size can be awkward for them to hold onto and they require more help.  I also love that this doesn't require a hook to complete the bracelet.  This allows kids to get the hang of the process of making the bracelet without worrying about manipulating the hook, especially if they are holding it the right way.  Since there are only 4 pegs, there is less for them to be distracted by and they can keep their focus on just the bands and not the rest of the loom.  For so many of my kids, this will be a great way to introduce them to Rainbow Loom bracelet making and get them motivated to be challenged and try the bigger ones once they have master the Finger Loom.

Like the original Rainbow Loom, the Finger Loom has a tremendous amount of therapeutic benefits. Some of the skills that can be worked on using the Finger Loom are:
Improve Fine Motor Skills-this bracelet maker might be small, but it it is a great way to work on improving grasping skills and in-hand manipulation skills.  From picking the bands out of the pile, to placing them on the loom to using your fingers to pull the bands off the pegs, there an endless number of skills that can be addressed.  The best part is that the kids are so engaged and motivated by the bracelet making, that they don't realize that they are actually doing work!
Improve Bilateral Coordination Skills-this is a great tool to work on improving bilateral coordination skills (the use of two hands in a coordinated manner). It is nearly impossible to be successful making a bracelet without using both hands.  My 5 year old daughter tried it and realized quickly that she needed both hands because I wasn't going to hold onto the loom for her while she made her bracelet.  Once I prompted her to hold the loom with her non-dominant hand and to do all the fine motor work with her dominant hand, she become more independent and successful.
Improve Focus and Attention/Improve Executive Functioning Skills-like the original loom, the Finger Loom is great for working on building executive functioning skills.  If you want to work on working memory, you can give a child the directions and have them either write them down or repeat them back to you or another friend.  If you want to work on organizational skills, you can have the child you are working with pick out a pattern that they must follow and get out all of the bands that they will need to complete the bracelet out before beginning.  I like to have older kids work on these more challenging activities in a room with some distractions present in order to work on being able to build their focus and ability to attend and complete tasks in a more typical environment.  It seems silly, but if they can do something like making a bracelet with distractions present, they will be more likely to complete classroom assignments.

As we head into the end of July, I know many families are getting ready to go on family vacations and are always looking for things to keep their kids occupied on long drives, dinners out or time at the beach or by the pool.  The Finger Loom is a perfect thing to pack as it is light, small and takes up very little room in a bag.  It is also very reasonably priced (you can get a party pack of 9 looms for $16 on Amazon!) so you can pick one up for all the kids and/or guests who might enjoy them.  So in addition to being a great occupational therapy tool, it can be an activity that can keep a group of kids engaged with each other and develop social skills (sharing the bands, making bracelets for each other, etc.).

Happy Looming!