Tuesday, February 2, 2016

A Book Worth Reading

I'm sure many of you have had this experience before:  you walk into a bookstore with something in mind and you are drawn to another book (or 5) for whatever reason.  This happens to me a lot lately.  In addition to my work as an occupational therapist, I run a social skills group for The Meeting House.  The group is made up of children 5-8 years of age with a variety of social delays.  During the beginning of the weekly group, we have free choice and one of the very popular choices is reading books.  It's been so fun to find books that help children learn about feelings, emotions and other aspects of social emotional learning. 
Last week, I saw drawn to the beautiful cover of the book Be A Friend by Salina Yoon.  I was brought close to tears reading the story in Barnes and Noble and have shared it with just about every person I have run into since.  The story and illustrations are so incredibly beautiful and teach such an important lesson:  it's okay to be different.  

The basic premise of the book is simple:  Everyone Needs Someone.  In this case, that someone is a little boy named Dennis who doesn't speak but has a wild imagination and shares his thoughts and ideas through his actions.  Not many of the kids who are near him can be bothered by his behaviors but one day a little girl named Joy decides to take the brave step to get to know Dennis a bit more.  With time, they develop a beautiful friendship that relies on accepting and embracing someone who might be different.  In the end, the other children in Joy and Dennis' class saw what fun they had together and ended up joining in on their imaginative play.  

If you work with children, have a children or know anybody with children, I highly recommend this book being part of their library.  Sometimes children learn lessons better through stories and this story will be such an opportunity to have conversations with your children about accepting and understanding how every child is different.  Just because they may look, act or talk differently, it doesn't mean that you can't be their friend.  

I have several books about friendship for kids, but I have a special love for Be A Friend.  If you have a child who feels different from others, be sure to get this for them and read it to them again and again.  

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

How to Make Handwriting Fun....not Work

I've been a mom for almost 6 years now and each and every day has been a learning moment.  This year, as she is a real deal student and kindergarten has probably been the biggest and most challenging parenting experience thus far.  To make things totally clear...I don't like to push my girl academically. I figure, like everything else in her little life, it will just come along when it comes along.  However, this kindergarten and homework thing has been overwhelming and taught me more than I could imagine.

One of the things I focus on at work with all my kids is making "work" fun.  What is the point of all of this therapy if the kids aren't having fun and looking forward to coming to their sessions?  What's funny is that for all those kids I work with, making handwriting and other graphomotor skills fun is kinda easy.  With my daughter, all I tend to feel is stressed which clearly hasn't been helpful for her or me.  One of my New Year's resolutions is that I will do whatever I can to make learning, particularly handwriting and learning how to read, fun for Quinn.

Interestingly enough, I have a kid who happens to have a terrible grip on writing instruments.  I have tried to correct it and encourage her to hold it the "right" way but I have found that that ends up causing a problem and stress before we have even begun working on our actual handwriting.  It's been difficult, but I have had to let go of that and just let her hold it her way.  I have found that this simple practice has made a bigger difference than I could have imagined.

1.  Practice "writing" with different materials-who says that the only way to learn how to write is with pencil and paper?  As a therapist with a lot of years under my belt, I have found that writing with a pencil is actually the last thing you should do, especially for younger kids.  Make it fun, make it hands on and make it an experience that they are excited to literally dig their hands into.  Use shaving cream in the bathtub or on a really big mirror if you have one.  Pour some rice on a cookie sheet or in a tupperware.  Roll playdough into a flat surface, find alphabet cookie cutters and write words with them.  There are so many options here so you can be totally creative.  This kind of activity is also great for working on building up kids' tolerance for playing with different materials if they tend to be resistant and also great for working on improving grasp strength and manipulation skills.

2.  Word Games-I have found that playing "games" with my daughter makes her attention last longer and get less frustrated.  I have a bunch of these awesome vintage letter rocks from Hope Learning Toys on Etsy and Quinn loves them.  One of the things we have done with them is to take her sight words and practice spelling and reading them while using these.  She loves digging through the letters and finding what she needs and is so proud of herself when she finally gets the word.  We will often use a Boogie Board to then practice writing the words afterwords.  Another great word/letter game is Spot It.  I am a huge fan of all things Spot It but was super psyched when I saw they created a whole line of alphabet and word games.  The kids I work with are super in love with the Spot It alphabet and word games that feature some of their favorite characters like Anna and Elsa from Frozen, Princess Sofia, Disney Princesses and their favorite Pixar characters .  Be sure to check out my post from a couple of weeks ago talking all about another wonderful line of Blue Orange games, the Super Genius series.  There are so many other great word games out there too....Boggle Jr., Scrabble Jr. and Zingo Word Builder are just a few of them! The best part of all of these games are that they can be played as a family or with friends.

3.  Magnet Play-I am pretty sure that most of us grew up with those plastic alphabet magnets on their fridge.  Little did I know growing up how awesome those alphabet magnets would be and how I would use them in my actual profession.  If you have a kid who is interested in learning how to write words but is struggling for some reason with the actual handwriting aspect of things (decreased grasp strength, poor grip, decreased handwriting endurance, poor confidence/self-esteem....I could go on), start with magnets.  Not only can you find a variety of alphabet (upper and lowercase) magnets, you can also find lots of great magnet sets for sight words (check out these by Educational Insights).  As your kids get older and are actually reading but need some encouragement for writing, check out this set by Magnetic Poetry for Kids.  Start by having them pick out their word magnets and "write" their story. This could take as long as you need for them to feel awesome about what they have written.  Once the story is complete, you can have them start to copy it (as much as they are comfortable with at a sitting) into written form.  If you want to get real crazy, have them illustrate their story as they are copying it.

4.  iPad Games-using technology isn't for everyone and that is something I totally get.  For me (with my own kid and the kids I work with), the iPad has been a bit of a game changer for me.  Let me get this out of the way....I don't use the iPad exclusively.  I use it as a motivator.  I use it to get my little ones excited about learning.  And it has worked.  The most important thing is picking the right apps to put on your iPad. It's hard to navigate that massive App Store...there are so many intriguing and beautiful looking apps out there that you can easily be convinced to buy those that aren't that great.  Here are my favorite and most recommended alphabet and reading apps:
LetterSchool-easily my most favorite handwriting app out there.  All my kids love it and are so motivated by the awesome graphics to learn how to write their letters and numbers that I use it and recommend it over and over again.
Endless Alphabet-I really can't get enough of all the Originator apps, but their original Endless Alphabet app will always hold a special place in my heart.  Kids not only learn how to identify letters, they learn their sounds and how to put those letters together to make words.  My daughter's understanding of vocabulary has really increased (like the word belch is super funny) from using this app.
Writing Wizard-this app by L'Escapadou is another one of my go-to's in regards to handwriting.  What I like about this one is that you can not only practice letters, but create word lists for your child.  Great for working on sight words!
***one of my favorite iPad tricks is to use a stylus for all appropriate apps.  My new favorite is the Cosmonaut Stylus, the iCreate Crayon Stylus and the Kikkerland Design Mini Retro Pen Stylus.  

5.  Write Books-one of the most motivating activities I have done with handwriting involves stickers.  When my kids have hit a bit of a wall with handwriting but I know that they know how to write the letters, I have parents pick up a bunch of stickers of something their kids are super motivated by.  For example, I had a kid years ago who put up such a fight about practicing his letters.  It was clear that he was bored and we needed to spice things up.  Well, this kid loved sports and I had his mom buy all kinds of stickers and he had to write the team names for each sticker.  It was so fun to watch him learn to love how to write.  For the first time, he began to understand that if you put a bunch of letters together you could write words and the most exciting thing for him was that he could write the names of sport's teams.  I have done this with the Disney Princesses, Shopkins, superheroes and a bunch of other things.  In the end, the kids get to take home this booklet (I also will print out coloring pages with pictures of similar themed things as to the book they are writing) and show off their weeks of hard work.

6.  Find a Penpal-one of the reasons I am really excited for my daughter to learn how to really write is because once she does, she will begin writing a Circle Journal with her aunt who lives in California.  Basically, they will write letters to each other in a journal that will go back and forth between Brooklyn and Los Angeles.  This is something my sister already does with my older nieces and I know that it is something that will not only help with Quinn learning how to write better, but something that will help her keep in touch with someone she loves who she doesn't get to see all the time.  While we are fortunate enough to have Facetime and email, I love the idea of my daughter being able to write letters and look forward to getting actual mail.  For your kids, you can pick out a bunch of fun postcards or have them help decorate their own stationery and choose one person per week to write to.  Designate a night to write the letter so it becomes something to look forward to each week.  Make sure that you choose people to write to who will write back so they can have the excitement of not only sending mail, but recieving it.

So these are some of the ways I am making handwriting fun not only for the kids I work with but my own kid.  Not to repeat myself, but it's so important that in a day and age where learning has become such work at such a young age, I want to stress how important it is to make it fun when at home. Sometimes just finding the best writing instruments (we are a big fan of the Yummy Yummy Scented Glitter Gel Pens in my house) for your kid will make handwriting fun.  Maybe it is finding the coolest journal or making fun stationery that will make your kid excited to write.  Whatever it is that motivates and excites your kid, make sure you maximize on that opportunity.

Now that I have shared some of my ideas, I would love to hear from any and all of you....parents, teachers and/or therapists....please let me know what your favorite writing activities are.  I am always so excited and grateful to hear from you all and your ideas help so many people.  I am only a click away and truly love hearing from you all!

Friday, January 22, 2016

Snow Day!

With the anticipation of the impending snow this weekend, I thought I would focus today's post on both outdoor and indoor activities you can do with your little ones.  We know that kids love being outside playing with the snow...making snow angels, going sledding, building snowmen and snowball fights are the obvious ones.  But we all know that as soon as your kid has to use the bathroom or they get cold, they want to be inside STAT!  Once they are inside, us parents are all worried about what we will do to keep everyone sane the rest of the day.

Below, I have shared some of my favorite winter activities that you can do with your kids.  All are fun and have a therapeutic value to them.  Whether it be building overall body strength, working on improving fine motor skills or encouraging cooperative play and social skills, they are all fun and don't require much more than things you will find at home or outdoors.

1.  Wanna Build a Snowman?-if the forecast is correct, many of us will have enough snow to make a snowman!  Snowman building is a great activity for so many reasons.  It's perfect for encouraging working as a group with your friends or siblings.  Also great for working on improving upper body strength, body awareness and encouraging creativity.  If building with little kids, use this as an opportunity to talk to them and teach them about all the different body and face parts.

2.  Snowball Games-kids love making snowballs!  Who am I kidding....everyone loves snowballs!  Sometimes snowball fights can get out of control so you have to think of solutions for that not to happen.  How about setting up targets for your kids to throw snowballs at instead of at each other?  Or how about a snowball catch where you see how many times you can toss it back and forth to each other before it falls apart?  There are lots of fun things you can do with snowballs that doesn't have to be throwing it at another person.

3.  Make Hot Chocolate-nothing tastes better after spending hours outside playing in the snow than a cup of hot chocolate.  Let your kids help you make the hot chocolate.  Whether you have them scoop the chocolate powder into the mug and let them stir or make hot chocolate from scratch.  Check out these great recipes from this PopSugar post a couple of winters ago.

4. Blow Bubbles in the Cold-when the temperature drops below 32 degrees, really cool things happen with bubbles.  Try and dig out some of your bubbles that you have hidden somewhere waiting for summer weather and bring them out into the cold.  See what happens when you blow them and catch them with the wand!  You and your kids will all be amazed by what happens.

5.  Tic-Tac-Snow-use a stick to make a giant tic-tac-toe board in the snow.  Collect some branches to make Xs and pinecones or rocks for Os.

6.  Snow Ice Cream-this may be harder for us city dwellers, but snow ice cream is an easy and fun activity to do with your kids.  You will need:
1/2 cup half & half or whole milk
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla
4 cups clean snow
Blend the milk, sugar and vanilla together until the sugar dissolves.  Mix the 4 cups of snow and stir until the mixture is the consistency of ice cream.  Eat plain or add your favorite toppings!

7.  Paper Snowflakes-if your kids need to warm up and you aren't quite ready to plop them in front of the television quite yet, how about having them make their own snowflakes.  I remember spending hours and hours as a kid making paper snowflakes.  I loved how you could do it again and again and like a real snowflake, no two snowflakes were ever the same.  As I have been on the hunt for fun winter themed activities for my  kids at work, I stumbled upon these name snowflakes on Childhood 101.  It takes a little bit of practice and definitely better for older kids but once you get the hang of it, you will be obsessed and want to make one for every single person you know!

8.  Craft It Up-there are a lot of fun and simple crafts that you can do on these snowy days.  I don't know about you all, but I happen to have a little girl who could craft all day long and doesn't need snow days as an excuse.  Some of our favorites are:
Make Homemade Playdough
Valentine's Day Crafts
Homemade Snow Globes
Washi Tape Crafts
Coloring and Activity Books (click on the link to check out my post from the holidays for ideas)

9.  Send out Postcards/Write a Letter-one of my sisters has a job that takes her all over the USA.  One of the things that she has started with all the kids in her life is to send postcards from wherever she ends up.  My daughter looks forward to this mail and learning about new places in our country.  One thing you can do with your kids is have them pick out a friend, cousin or other family member to write a letter to and tell them all about their snowy day adventures.  It's not only a great way to work on handwriting but also a great way for kids to recall and talk about what they did with people who may not have been home to enjoy it with them.

10.  Get Physical-if your kids start to get a bit stir crazy and need to get some energy out, think of all the great games that you can play inside to get them up and moving.  I tend to suggest to parents that they have a secret stash of games that they take out on cold or rainy days.  I especially like ones that encourage movement in kids.  Here are some board games/activities that are you can save for these kinds of days:
5 Little Monkeys On The Bed
Kids on Stage
Zoom Ball
Simon Says
Hide and Seek

While I know that I will be outside as much as I can, I do know that I will need to have backup plans to keep my own daughter busy and not attached to an iPad or television once we are inside.  I can't wait to begin some new snowy day traditions with her now that she is older and doing so much more.  Do you have any favorite snowy/cold day activities, crafts or cooking/baking activities that you do with your kids?  Would love to hear what kinds of fun and creative things you all do!  I'm always a click away and love hearing from you all!

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Stick It To Me!

According to my friends at Red Tricycle today is National Sticker Day which I love to know.  I have always loved stickers.  As a matter of fact, I have a little folder at home with some of my favorite childhood stickers and my daughter loves to look at them!  Stickers play a huge role in my work life as well.  They are used for way more than just a reward at the end of a great session.  Stickers can be used to work on improving fine motor skills, grasping skills and a ton of visual motor and perceptual skills.  You can work on improving bilateral coordination and crossing midline by taking the stickers and placing them on one hand and having them take the stickers off with their other hand.  I have also worked on improving upper body strength by placing a piece of paper on a wall above a child's head, placing stickers on the floor or on their feet and have them bend down to take them off and reach up high to put them on the paper.  Below, you will find a few more ideas of what you can do with stickers with your kids.  The best part about these all of these activities are ones that they are easy enough to do at home with them.

Writing-I have found that once kids learn how to write the letters of the alphabet, they need to start using that skill in a functional way.  I have used stickers of sports teams, characters or various objects to do just that and kids adore it.  I actually just started a Shopkins Book with one of my little guys who was clearly getting bored of just practicing his letters.  I couldn't get over how motivated he was and how all those letters that he had been struggling with were written with ease.  I was also excited because he was asking how to write the letters he didn't know and immediately practiced them.

Cutting-using stickers during cutting activities is a great motivator as well.  I will have kids put stickers on the top of a piece of paper and then draw lines from the bottom of the paper up to the sticker.  Depending on the child's skill level, the lines will be straight, curved or zig zags.  When cutting out shapes, I place the stickers along the shape (i.e. at the corners of a square or triangle) which gives them a visual reminder to turn the paper once they cut to that sticker.

Orb Factory Sticky Mosaics-I have probably talked about these a million times on this blog but they are the best and can work on so many occupational therapy goals.  These little sticker squares are great for working on improving grasping skills, grasp strength and eye-hand coordination.  At the end, the kids get a piece of art or some kind of cool project that they have completed that they get to show off.  My daughter's favorite are these Silly Snack ones because they remind her of her current obsession, Shopkins.  The variety in the Orb Factory line is amazing and you won't have any problem finding a set that will be sure to bring a smile to your child's face.  These are also a great activity to use during therapy sessions.  Place it on an easel to work on improving shoulder stability and upper extremity strength or have them work on it while they are lying prone over a bolster or on a new swing.

Sticker Puzzles-another one of my favorite therapy activities.  These sticker puzzles by Lee Magic Pen are an incredibly motivating activity for my little friends at work.  They also come in a variety of sizes so you can find ones that are good for preschoolers and ones that are good for the older kids in your life.  The goal is simple:  you have a grid with numbers on them.  You then take the a sheet of stickers with numbers on them (in mixed order), peel the stickers off and place them in the matching square.  These tend to be even more motivating for the kids on my caseload because there are 8 different puzzles in each booklet and they feature popular characters.  The Frozen and Cars ones are by far the most popular amongst my kids.  Great for working on improving fine motor skills like grasping and strengthening, eye-hand coordination and visual tracking skills.  I like that you can grade the activity based on each child's skill level.  For example, if you are working with a young child, you can give them the stickers in order so they don't get frustrated.  For older kids, you have them do it indepenently.  Best part, these are crazy inexpensive, lightweight and travel easily to keep your kids occupied on a plane, in a car or at restaurants.

Stickers in general are a great thing to have in your bag of tricks. They are relatively inexpensive and easy to carry around.  If you check out your local toy stores or stationary stores, you will be shocked to see the variety of great stickers at an affordable price.  My favorites are Smickers scented stickers and books and the Kawaii stickers.  Another big hit amongst my kids (especially my own daughter) are the Usborne Sticker Dolly Dressing books.   What I love about them is that you can be creative with them and kids love them so you can really hide the fact that you are doing "work" with them.

Now that I know it is National Sticker Day, I plan on having a lot of sticky fun with my kids today.  What are your favorite things to do with stickers?  Do you have a favorite sticker book or collection that you would reccomend to me and my readers? I am just a click away I love hearing from you all and value your ideas!

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Genius...Super Genius!

My daughter is in the process of learning how to read.  She's on the verge but for whatever reason, is resisting and has hit a bit of a wall which can get frustrating for this mom!  Part of me thinks that she is afraid that once she learns how to read that we will stop reading to her.  Even though we have promised her that we will always have our nighttime reading routine, she doesn't seem to want to take the final leap and read herself.
In the process of her learning, I have also tried to find fun word games that will help us work together to get her over this hump.  As you all know, there are a ton of options out there and many of them are just too educational which is just not going to be what works with my daughter.

The other day, I spent some time at one of my local Park Slope toy stores at their game choices.  My eyes quickly spotted the Blue Orange logo on a learning game and I was sold.  For those of you who aren't familiar with Blue Orange, they are the masterminds behind some of my favorite games:  Thumbs Up, Doodle Quest and all of the Spot It games.  Not only are their products fun, they are educational.  But they are more fun than educational making kids want to play them over and over again.

I picked up Super Genius First Words and Super Genius Reading 1 to use with my daughter who is still focusing on learning simple sight words (at this point, we are trying to master 3 letter words) and so far, so good.  There are other versions of the game for those who are already reading and can handle the challenge of larger words.  There is also a math version of the game that works on addition and multiplication.  I've used this a bit with my daughter and can't wait to bring it to work to test out with some of my other kids there.

If you are familiar with and love the the Spot It games, you will be a big fan of the Super Genius games.  The concept of the game is pretty similar:  you have to find the matches between two cards.  The biggest difference is that instead of finding the matching pictures, you are trying to match the word to the corresponding picture or in the case of the math ones, you are looking for the matching number and math problem.  There are many ways to play the game which keeps it fresh and exciting for you and your kids:
Face Off-Score the most cards at the end of the game by being the first to find the match between the two faceup cards
Flip Flap-get rid of your cards as fast as possible
Sardines-have the most cards at the end of the game
Click Clack-find the pair between two cards
Cooperative-remove all the cards from the table by matching them to their neighboring cards

Super Genius works on the following skills:
Visual Perceptual Skills-great way to work on improving eye-hand coordination, visual tracking and visual attention.  As you scan your cards for matching pictures and words, you are building crucial visual skills necessary for reading and writing.
Executive Functioning Skills-fun game to work on improving focus, attention and organizational skills.  These are critical skills for school aged children as the academic expectations increase and they are required to focus for longer periods of time.
Speech/Language and Reading Skills-clearly this game was meant for working on improving reading skills.  But it is also great for improving speech and language skills.  This can be used by parents and speech therapists to also work on building a child's language and conversational skills.
Graphomotor Skills-If you are working on a 1:1 basis with a child and they are also working on handwriting skills, you can adapt this game so that they have to write the words as they find the match.  Encourage them to work on spacing, sizing and/or upper and lowercase letters.  If you have a child who needs to develop drawing skills, you can have them draw a picture for every word they write as well.  When possible and appropriate, encourage kids to work on holding their writing instrument with an appropriate grasp.
Social Skills-what I love about almost every single one of the Blue Orange games is that they all have a social focus.  Whether it be working as a team to find the matches or encouraging kids to be a good sport when they win or lose, Super Genius can be used to work on many social skills that are vital for kids growing up to work well with others.

For any of you who are dealing with a kindergartener (or any student) and all the unrealistic learning expectations, I completely sympathize and understand how important it is to try and keep learning fun. Due to the nature of my job, my own kid ends up not getting as much of my focus and attention at the end of the day when it comes to her school work.  Because of that, I have made it a point to find fun games that will motivate both of us at the end of our busy work and school days.  I was so happy that my daughter was excited to play Super Genius.  I was even more excited that she didn't feel stressed out and ended up feeling proud of herself as she sounded out the words and then found the matches between the two cards.  Keeping learning fun is my goal with not only my daughter but every single child I work with.

What are your favorite educational games?  Specifically, what educational games focused on reading and literacy are your favorites?  I'm more personally interested these days...I know the power of reading and how magical it is and can't wait for that for my daughter.  Please feel free to share your ideas with me.  I am always a click away and love hearing from you all!

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Make Your Kids Appy!

Typically, I include a section in my Holiday Gift Guide that talks about great apps, but decided to keep that off this year.  However, I have been asked by many of the families what they can put on an iPad.  In today's world where technology appears to be taking over things, I think it's important that if we do introduce our kids to an iPad that we are at least mindful about what our kids are playing.  It's easy to just go to the app store and pick out the free ones but you would be surprised about some of the content on those apps.  Sometimes it's totally worth it to pay for a good app.  I also find that parents are more likely to use an iPad during the winter months (I mean, if winter ever arrives) when they find themselves stuck inside more.  They may spend lots of time playing with their toys and being outside, but need something more sometimes.

Speaking from personal experience, sifting through the countless number of kids apps on iTunes can end up being a full time job.  It can also get incredibly frustrating because many of the apps are no good and you end up wasting money and using space on your iPad that you could use for better things.  I have broken down my app suggestions for you into categories to make it easier to find what you are looking for.

Alphabet/Reading: of course you can use flashcards to teach children letters and numbers.  However, sometimes, especially for the kids I work with, they need something really motivating to get them to focus and attend to learning. Trying to figure out which ones should be on your iPad can get frustrating because there are just so many of them.  Here are a few of my favorite kid-tested alphabet apps.  
Faces iMake ABC-this alphabet app has two different games.  The first one, Learn ABC shows you a picture of something that starts with that letter and then breaks into a bunch of pieces.  The children then have to drag all the objects back into place like a puzzle to put the picture back together. The second game, Find ABC, has a letter and then a dozen different objects.  Your child's job is to collect the 5 objects that begin with that letter and place them in a grid. This hands on ABC game will be sure to get your kids excited about learning their letters.  
ABC Gurus-created for early learners/preschoolers, this ABC game is fun and creative and helps them not only learn their letters, but the sounds each of them make.  Kids love that they can pick a letter and then personalize it by coloring it and adding faces to it.  Once they are done personalizing their letter, they can then interact with it.  Kids don't only work on being able to identify their letters, they are working on learning the sounds of them and working on their creativity skills.  
Avokiddo ABC Ride-I am a giant fan of all of the Avokiddo apps.  More importantly, the kids I work with love them and ask to use them over and over again.  In this app, kids choose a character (Beck or Bo) and take them on an alphabet biking adventure.  Kids get to learn about the letters of the alphabet (you can choose to go in order or have the letter show up randomly) through fun mini-games.  For each letter of the alphabet, there is a fun activity/work associated with it.  Once they finish the game (catch the falling apricots in a basket, find the H hidden under a hat, etc.), they have to drag the letters of word back into place.   There are 26 different interactive scenes where kids get to practice spelling words depending on the letter of the alphabet.
Endless Alphabet-this app by Originator Kids might have been the one that convinced me that the use of an iPad during therapy might be far more beneficial than I had ever imagined.  In this truly delightful and interactive educationally based app, kids will their letters and begin to learn how to spell.  I love that my daughter has learned a bunch of new words and has been able to generalize them in the real world (she is a big fan of belch).  For each word (and there are a bunch of them), kids get to watch a short little video explaining the words after they drag all the letters back into place.  I like to challenge my kids to place the letters in their spot in order, but that can be too difficult for some of the younger kids I work with.  Just recently, Originator Kids has launched a comprehensive app called Endless Learning Academy.  I haven't had a chance to play with it much, but plan on it being used a ton in 2016.  Kids will learn letters, numbers, shapes, spelling and even Spanish while hanging out with their favorite loveable monsters. This is more of a subscription plan kind of app, but based on what I have seen so far, it is totally worth it.

Handwriting/Drawingfinding good handwriting and drawing apps is really important to me since it is one of the things I work on the most with the kids I work with.  I don't ever just use an iPad/tablet when working on handwriting but I do use it as a motivator to practice letters and numbers.  I always have a Boogie Board or a paper right next to me when using the handwriting apps so as soon as the kids finish up practicing the letter on the iPad, they then have to write it again.
LetterSchool-this is by far my favorite and most used/suggested handwriting app for the last several years.  Children can work on learning how to write upper and lowercase letters and numbers.  There are two levels to move through and for each letter or number, there is a 3-step process of practicing them.  First you learn where a letter starts and watch it being made.  Second, you have to drag the lines to complete the letter.  Lastly, children have to write the letter.  I like that this isn't solely a tracing app and the kids actually have an opportunity to practice their letters without lines being provided.  
Writing Wizard-this Montessori based app is another one of my go-to handwriting apps.  It not only allows you to practice letters and numbers, but also has shapes and pictures for you to practice.  One of the things I like about this graphomotor based app is that it is very colorful and engaging for the kids.  You can also customize it based on the child you are working with and his/her particular goals. Another nice thing about this app is that you can practice writing words that you personally add to the word list.  While grownups will like the learning aspect of the game, the kids will have fun learning since there are different ways to interact with the letters/shapes/numbers once you have successfully completed tracing them.   Similar to LetterSchool, there are options for the children to practice writing the letters, numbers, etc. without tracing.  
Little Writers-this is a great graphomotor app for younger kids. Like the previous two apps, this one is not just a tracing app; as the child progresses in their skills, you can increase the level of difficulty and have the dots disappear.  In the full version of the app, kids can work on learning how to write both upper and lower case letters, numbers, shapes, etc..  You can customize the whole app making it perfect for your child by recording your own voice, adding your own words to the list and adding pictures of people and objects!  Kids love the cute graphics and how easy the app is to use.  I love that it is so motivating and engaging for the kids making learning how to write a non-stressful and fun activity.  
Stella and Sam Draw Along-Stella and Sam are a brother and sister and their drawing app is a favorite of so many of the kids I work with.  It's an engaging drawing app that gets kids excited to draw.  All they have to do is a pick a shape, decorate and watch it come to life.  Kids can save their images which is always a big deal for kids.  I love that while working on drawing, kids are also working on increasing their creativity and imagination skills.

Visual Perceptual Skills: visual skills can be broken down into a few categories:  visual perception, visual motor and visual attention.  All of the apps below work on all of these plus so much more.  Kids who struggle with visual skills may have a more difficult time with putting together puzzles, learning how to write and draw and complete patterns and sequences.  When children struggle with things, they tend to avoid them all together.  The iPad is a perfect tool to work on building confidence and self-esteem in this area of development.  Once children realize that they can be successful with something on the iPad, it is easier to generalize that skill to an hands-on activity.  In my sessions, I try to follow-up the iPad activity with a more hands-on game or puzzle and recommend that parents do the same thing.  There are a lot of great apps out there, but here are the ones that are the most popular with my kids now.
Winky Think Logic Puzzles-this is a great app to work on improving problem solving and motor skills.  At the same time, kids are having fun and being challenged to use their brain to solve a variety of mind puzzles.  It's a fast moving game that works on improving visual motor and perceptual skills, executive functioning skills and can be played individually or with a friend.  There are three different levels of play, making this good for a wide range of ages.
Lumio Shape Arts-I remember playing with those plastic and wooden tangram sets growing up and having so much fun.  When I started in private practice ages ago, I tried to find the perfect tangram set to use with my kids.  Fast forward to the introduction of the iPad and then my search for the perfect tangram app began.  Shape Arts is the closest to perfect tangrams app that I have found (and my wallet will let you know that I have tried too many).  Great for working on improving eye-hand coordination, visual motor and visual perceptual skills, executive functioning skills and focus/attentional skills.
Bugmazing-in this game by LittleBit Studios, kids can work on developing crucial visual motor, visual perceptual and executive functioning skills.  Choose a level of play and kids will be able to travel through a series of mazes while learning patterns, colors, letters of the alphabet and so much more.  There are over 20 different challenges for the kids to work their way through.  They love that they can collect coins and jewels along the way.  I love that they can work on important visual skills while having loads of fun!
Toonia Differences-there was a time in my life when I was absolutely addicted to that Spot the Difference game that was all the rage when iPhones first came out.  I could spend hours on it trying to beat my best score.  When I discovered the Toonia Difference game, I was psyched that someone had created a version suitable for kids.  The game is simple to play:  compare two pictures and try and spot the differences between them as fast as you can.  The pictures are cute and can encourage conversation at the same time they are working on improving a variety of visual and executive functioning skills.  

For Little Kids (2-5 years):
Lazoo Zoo-this is a super cute interactive app that allows kids to interact with all kinds of different animals at the zoo.  Their job is to feed the animals and after they do, they will watch the animals transform and change depending on who they are and what they eat.  Great for learning about colors, foods, animals, etc.. Also great for working on improving eye-hand coordination and language skills. 
Sago Mini Pet Cafe-this is one of my favorite apps for my younger kids.  Actually, you can't really go wrong with any of the Sago Mini apps available right now.  The funny thing is that some of my older kids still love to play this game even though it's too young for them.  Through 3 different games, kids will learn about colors, numbers and other educational concepts.  Also great for working on improving visual motor and perceptual skills, eye-hand coordination and focus and attentional skills.  
Look and Find Elmo on Sesame Street-my little girl never got into Elmo or Sesame Street like so many of the kids I work with, but I think that makes her the exception.  It's amazing to see how excited so many of the kids I work with get over Elmo and all his buddies.  In this app, kids can entertain themselves and work on improving eye-hand coordination, visual motor and visual perceptual skills while looking for different items hidden throughout 6 different Sesame Street scenes.  Kids love it because Elmo will keep popping up cheering them on while they are looking for the different items.
Bugs and Bubbles/Bugs and Buttons/Bugs and Buttons 2-I love all of the apps by Little Bit Studios and while I put this in my younger kids section, they are all appropriate and loved by my bigger kids as well.  These apps are still as entertaining and as motivating as they were when I downloaded them years ago.  They are still one of my  most recommended apps for parents to add to their app collection.  First of all, each app comes with 18 different games that teach your child a variety of things:  colors, shapes, matching, eye-hand coordination and a million other things.  Second of all, there is such a variety in the games that your child can play it over and over again without getting bored.
Pepi Doctor-still one of the most recommended apps at work (and at home), even after years of play.  I think kids connect with the characters in the game and love helping them feel better.  They start by choosing one of the 3 characters.  Once they choose their character, they then get to be the doctor in 5 different games.  Whether it be cleaning their teeth or putting back together a broken bone, kids are motivated and engaged during this game.  I find it's a great game not only for improving visual skills, but to encourage language skills and social skills.  It's a great game for kids to play together to learn how to take turns, compromise on what games to play and to talk about the game.

For Bigger Kids (5 and older): so many of the bigger kids I work with are walking a fine line of being too big for "baby" games but too young for the older kid games.  I try and stay away from things like Candy Crush, Minecraft or other games that I know that they can play at home.  It's been fun to discover some of the games below and see how engaged and excited the kids get.  Little do they know that while they are having fun, they are developing critical skills that will help them become better students.  Here are a few of my favorites for the bigger kids.  
Thinkrolls/Thinkrolls 2-these games have been a big hit with many of the older kids on my caseload.  There are two versions of this game and each of them are totally worth spending the money on because they will keep your kids occupied and thinking for a very long time.  There are several puzzles to play that works on improving problem solving, memory and spatial organizational skills. Kids can learn about all about science and physics while exploring the different levels of both Thinkrolls and Thinkrolls 2. 
Toca Blocks-in this app by Toca Blocks, children are able to create and explore worlds that they build.  Using different kinds of blocks, children build an explorable environment filled with different characters and adventures.  Great for working on improving focus and attention, improves creativity and problem solving and can be used in a small group of kids to encourage social skills, teamwork, cooperative play and stimulate conversation.
Fruit Ninja-some of my older kids shy away from any apps that look as though they are made for "babies" so I have tried to put a few games on my iPad that are more mainstream but at the same time will work on important therapeutic skills.  Fruit Ninja is simple:  slice as many fruits as you can in a given amount of time or before you hit a bomb/drop too many pieces of fruits.  This game is great for working on improving visual attention, focus and attention, eye-hand coordination and a ton of other visual skills.  For my kids who are working on grasping, I have them use a stylus while they play.  I also like to throw in my own challenges to work on following directions.  For example, I will tell them to only slice red fruits or ones that you have to peel before eating.  Makes them not get too sucked into the game (although it is a truly addicting and fun game).
Whac A Mole-I've been a fan of the board game Whac A Mole for years.  This is definitely an app for older and more patient kids and a wonderful way to build up their frustration tolerance.  It's not an easy app and while I wish there was a way to slow it down at times, I like the challenge of it.  With over 60 levels to play, your kids will have fun while also working on improving focus/attention, eye-hand coordination, visual scanning and several other skills.

Apps are only as good as the design companies who make them.  If you look through my iPad, you will notice that I have several games from the same companies.  I am constantly looking at the following websites to see what amazingness they have in store for us app-addicted people:
Toca Boca
Sago Sago
Originator Kids
Lumia Kids
Duckie Deck

Here are a few suggestions to make using an iPad even more therapeutic for your kids at home.  
*whenever possible, use a stylus instead of their fingers.  This is a great way to work on improving your child's grip on a writing instrument and improve eye-hand coordination.  There are a lot of different stylus' to choose from but my favorite are the iCreate Crayon, the Kikkerland Mini Stylus Pen or the Cosmonaut stylus.  They are all a bit smaller than a lot of the other stylus' you might see out there encouraging a more appropriate grasp when holding it.  Additionally, both the crayon and Cosmonaut stylus are a bit thicker and have a rubbery grip making it a bit easier to hold onto for those little hands.  
*work on a raised surface when possible.  In order to do this, you can place the iPad on an easel or get some kind of stand to put it on when they are playing with it and have them sit on a chair or a therapy ball.  Make sure that the iPad is at eye level.  First of all, this is great for working on improving shoulder stability and strength.  Without proper stability and strength, developing age-appropriate fine motor skills becomes much more difficult.  Secondly, working on a raised surface works on building wrist control and strength which often times leads to a more proper grasp when holding onto writing instruments.
*when at the gym, I have kids work on the iPad while lying over a bolster or when on the net swing.  This allows us to work on building their upper body strength, shoulder stability, wrist control and head/neck control at the same time.  I have found that when kids are having fun playing an app, they are distracted about how hard they are working on this swing and last for much longer periods of time 
*when possible, have your child or children work with a sibling or a peer on the iPad.  This encourages socialization and conversation which is often the main complaint I get about children using iPads and other forms of technology.  If used the correct way and if playing the right apps, it can actually be used to facilitate conversation amongst children, work on turn taking, compromise and collaborative play.

While many of us make New Year's resolutions to spend less time looking at the screen, it's important to keep in mind how beneficial and motivating it can be for kids who have a hard time with learning.  Whether it be because they have a hard time learning or interacting with his/her peers, when used correctly and in moderation, the iPad can end up helping children become more confident and willing to take risks.  Making sure that I have a hands on activity after playing the iPad is a huge thing for me.  For example, if you have a child who is totally resistant to drawing or writing letters, start with something like LetterSchool and then have a Boogie Board writing tablet close by so they can immediately practice their letters.  Keep learning fun, motivating and offer many opportunities for success.

I'd love to hear from you guys about your favorite apps.  Do you have any winners that I should be using in this new year?  I love to start the year off fresh and exciting for not only the kids, but for me.  I find an updated selection of apps is good for everyone and keeps us focused and keeps therapy fun.  Be sure to send me an email with your suggestions.  I'm always a click away and love hearing from you all!

Wishing you all a very "appy" 2016!  

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Let's Get Social!

The holiday season has always been my favorite but since moving to New York City and having a child of my own, it's become even more special.  When you work with kids, the holidays take on a whole different meaning.  If you read my blog, you will know that I take gifts for the holiday seriously.  VERY seriously.

All of the gifts that I included on my Holiday and Tween Gift Guides this year have been kid tested and therapist approved.  All of them are fun....I mean what is the point of giving a gift that a child won't have fun with.  Since I am an occupational therapist, I made sure there was an educational or developmental skill that could be worked on with them.  Finding gifts that children will be happy about is important. But finding ones that will be fun and work on developing age appropriate skills is equally important to me.

In the latter half of my career, I have had the great opportunity to be part of an amazing organization called The Meeting House.  In short, TMH is a recreational based (afterschool and weekend) program for school age children who have social difficulties.  It might be that they become overstimulated in larger crowds or that they may get anxious talking in front of their peers.  Or maybe it is that they have language difficulties that cause them to have difficulty being successful with their peers in social situations.  Whatever it is that brings them to TMH, we welcome them with open arms and give them a safe, supportive and accepting place to learn new social skills and become more confident in social situations.

Being part of TMH has been the inspiration for me to look at toys and think about not only the fine motor, visual motor/perceptual or sensory aspect of toys but the social benefits that toys can give. Parents are always looking for activities that they can have on hand at home to encourage their children to play together as well.  So many of the kids I work with are more comfortable playing on their own and resist playing with someone else, even if it is their brother or sister.  As children get older and rely more on technology, they are losing social skills.  Something as simple as looking a person in the eye when talking to them is something that can be challenging for many kids these days.  Having a back and forth conversation and answering questions can also be really difficult for many of the kids I work with.  Having the right toys, games, etc. at home is important to encourage and practice these critical social skills.

Below, you will find my 10 top gifts that will promote social skills. They are all included in my regular gift guides but I talk a bit more about the social aspect of each toy instead of the occupational therapy aspect.

1.  Polaroid Camera-as many of us know, kids are most likely spending more time with their phones than they are with anything else these days.  One of the things they like to do with their phones is take pictures.  Probably  more so than any generation of kids, tweens don't know a time where they couldn't see a picture immediately after taking it.  Polaroid Cameras are (kind of) immediate but also require a little bit of patience, focus and attention.  They require your kids to connect with their environment and make conscious decisions about what they will take pictures of since they won't be able to erase it.  I've been using a Polaroid camera with my kids at work and they love it and doing even mind having to wait to see the picture.  Both Polaroid and Fujifilm make instant cameras that come in a variety of fun, bright, bold colors. I love the idea of kids working together to think about what they will take pictures of.  Not only is it fun to see all the different pictures that are taken, but it is a great way for kids to engage in conversation.    

2. Games-kids may outgrow certain kinds of toys, but good games will last through the ages.   I was actually in Target last week and noticed that they have a whole display of the classic board games in their original packaging.  They call it the Retro Series and they feature some of the best games ever...Sorry!, Clue, Twister, CandyLand and Scrabble.  I'm tempted to get a couple just because I like the old school packaging!
Having a good collection of board games is important for all houses.  While so many kids are more inclined to spend their free time on an iPad or hooked up to some kind of game system (there is nothing wrong with that and there are a ton of benefits to children playing video games), I think it is important for playdates and hangouts be less about technology and more about real face-to-face interactions.  Depending on what games you choose, your child can work on improving their fine motor, visual motor/perceptual and executive functioning skills (focus, attention, organization, sequencing, etc.).  Some of the other social skills that can be worked on playing board games are learning how to take turns, how to be a good winner and loser and practicing conversation skills.  Here are just a few of the great games out there to consider this holiday season:
*Connect 4 (I'm a big fan of Connect 4 Launchers)
*Uno (I also really like Uno Dare because there is an added gross motor component built in)
3.  Large Coloring Pictures by Pirasta-I am in love with these giant coloring pages that are actually created right in my beloved Brooklyn.  This is a great group activity (we are actually in the process of completing the New York City Big Apple one with our kids at The Meeting House).  Be sure to check out the Pirasta website to see their entire collection!  While I love the posters, I am also a big fan of the coloring sheets that they have.  If you look at the picture to the left, you will see my own daughter and niece completely engaged and focused on completing one of these coloring pages together.  They had to compromise on who was going to color what, share their materials and be able to be okay with the other person using colors that they may not have chosen.  In the end, they were just happy that they got to do this together.  With the holidays and all those family and friends gatherings coming up, these are the perfect thing to stock up on!  If you are in the Park Slope, be sure to check out Lion in the Sun for their extensive collection of Pirasta products.  

4. Zoom Ball-this is a great gross motor activity that works on bilateral coordination, motor planning and upper body strengthening.  A perfect activity to work on social skills, particularly team-work and cooperative play.  One of the things I like to work on while using a zoom ball is conversation skills.  Sometimes what  I ask kids to do is to have them ask a question before sending the ball back to their friend; before their friend can send it back, they have to answer the question.  Depending on the kids you are working with, you can come up with social goals using the Zoom Ball.  Whether it be conversational skills, or just being good at working as a team, the Zoom Ball is a wonderfully affordable and motivating tool!

5. Dueling Stomp Rocket-Stomp Rockets are one of the most underrated gross motor toys but bring
hours and hours of fun. Not only is it great for encouraging gross motor skills, stomp rockets can be used to encourage motor planning, focus/attention and social skills. The Dueling Stomp Rocket is as awesome as the original but has a lot of great social features since there are two pads to jump on.  Just like the original stomp rocket, you stomp on the launch pad and send the rockets flying.  With this double one, you can have a competition to see whose goes further and who can run faster to catch/or pick theirs up. If you have larger groups, you can do relay races.  There are lots of fun social activities that can be done and it is great for children of all ages when using the stomp rocket!  

6. OgoSport Discs-I love this sports game.  They call it a hand trampoline for all different kinds of balls.  Great for working on improving focus/attention, motor planning, organizational skills and upper body strengthening.  Additionally, a great activity to encourage teamwork and cooperative play amongst kids.

7. And Then I Wrote A Story/And Then...Story Starters Set 1-these cards can be a great social activity if you  have kids who love to tell stories or act things out. The Story Starters set comes with 20 beautifully illustrated cards and the beginning of a story.  It's up to your child to decide how the story will end.  They can write their stories in the And Then I Wrote A Story notebook.  But if you happen to work in groups, you can give each of the kids an opportunity to add to the story.  You can use the story starter card and then go around and let each child add a sentence or two to the story.  Be sure to have someone write it down or record it for them so they can hear it aftewards!

8.  MagnaTiles-Building toys are always great to have for playdates and I especially love MagnaTiles because they are easy to use and don't require a lot of work/strength in order to use them.  In addition to working on visual motor and perceptual skills, eye-hand coordination and bilateral coordination, MagnaTiles are a great social tool.  Kids have to work together to come up with a plan to decide what to make.  They need to be able to share materials, take turns and help each other out as they are building.  They also require children to be flexible and maybe build something that they don't want to in order to make their friends happy.

9.  Orb Factory Sticky Mosaics-I'm a huge fan of the Sticky Mosaic brand and have been gifting these and using them in therapy sessions for years and years.  They are a motivating and simple craft activity that works on so many fine motor, visual and executive functioning skills. Sticky Mosaics are picture templates with numbers all over the picture.  Each number has a colored sticker or gem that it coordinates with.  Kids have to take the stickers and put them on the squares in order to make a really colorful picture.  While they can be done individually, they are also a great activity to do with a friend or in a small group.  It's a great way to teach kids how when you work together, things can get finished quicker.  It's also a great way to teach kids about coming up with a plan together.  For example, they should figure out if they want to work on the same color/number or each take their own.

10.  Puzzles-Jigsaw puzzles are a great social activity.  It's one of my go-to activities when I am working with a pair or group of kids.  You can choose your puzzle based on group interests and skill level.  For example, if you have a group of children who love vehicles, get a transportation based puzzle.  Choose the number of pieces based on the children's ages, skill level and what they will be able to complete in the time that you have set aside for the activity.  What I like most about it is that there is a very simple end goal: you need to take all those pieces and put them together.  It requires focus and attention, staying in the group and helping your friends out.  It requires teamwork and being patient with your peers.  At the end, once the puzzle is completed, the kids can feel really good about completing the puzzle as a group.  Plus, working together makes something like this easier to finish in less time.  Some of my favorite puzzles are made by Eeboo.  They tend to be made out of thicker paper and can handle the wear and tear of being used over and over again.

So here are my picks for toys, games, crafts, etc. that work on social skills.  While there are literally dozens and dozens of other ones I could have included, I chose these because I have seen the success in person with the kids I work with and the groups I run.  The OT in me also chose them because I knew that there were also fine motor, gross motor, visual motor or executive functioning skills that could also be worked on while using them.

Parents, therapists, teachers....do you have a particular game or activity that you love to use to promote social skills?  I am always on the lookout for new and motivating products and am sure that my readers would also love to hear your ideas.   I am always a click away and love hearing from you!