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!

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Let's Get Cooking!

It's totally crazy to think about how quickly this summer is going.  I don't know about you, but even though we are having a lot of fun and doing lots of things with our own daughter, my husband and I are sometimes trying to figure out what to do with her.  We are getting to that point, especially these last few days, that it's so hot out that we don't even really have the motivation to go outside.  So even though there are several weeks left of summer, it is now it is time to get creative and keep us all from going to stir crazy.

One thing that brings me more joy than pretty much anything is baking.  It is something that connects me to my father and acts as my personal therapy.  As soon was Quinn was old enough, I started having her bake with me.  As a matter of fact, one of my favorite gifts for her was her first apron (thank you Carrie Cook!  Quinn still wears it when baking all these years later).  It started off simple and I would have her pour all the ingredients in for me.  As she got older and could be more involved, I'd let her do more.  The day I let her crack her own eggs was a pretty exciting day for her.  Baking with Quinn has been something that has not only been something we could do together to bond over, but has been a fun way to teach her new things.

Cooking and baking with your kids can be a wonderful activity, especially in air conditioning on these super hot days.  When parents are asking me for things to do over the summer to keep their kids up to speed with their occupational therapy goals, baking is one of the first things I suggest.  Not only is it fun, it can be tremendously therapeutic. Additionally, introducing kids to cooking/baking early on in life makes them more likely to take risks when eating and try new foods.  There are also a lot of ways to sneak in opportunities for learning when baking.  For example, if your child is working on learning their letters and numbers, they can make cookies using alphabet or number cookie cutters. If they need to work on building up strength, you can do it while stirring ingredients.

**before I begin the next half of my post, I am going to admit I am much more of a baker than a cooker.  So going forward, when I say baking, it represents both baking AND cooking***

Some of the therapeutic benefits of baking with your kids are:
Improve Upper Body and Hand Strength-baking is a great way to work on this skill in a fun and sneaky way.  Stirring the ingredients, especially as they start blending all together, can become increasingly difficult and require a lot of strength and endurance.  When baking for your family, I suggest that parents let their kids roll up their sleeves and mix with their hands instead of a spoon or a spatula....this really helps with building up the strength in those small muscles of the hands.
Improve Bilateral Coordination-baking is a great way to work on improving bilateral coordination because there are so many parts of this activity that require the use of two hands.  For example, when pouring the ingredients you need one hand to hold the measuring cup or spoon and the other pours the ingredients.  When mixing the ingredients together, it's essential that you hold the you hold the spoon or spatula with one hand and keep the bowl stable with the other one.  How about cracking an egg?  You need to hold the egg with one hand and keep the cup or bowl still with the other.
Improve Fine Motor Skills-do you have kids who need to work on improving cutting, grasping and other fine motor skills?  Baking is a great way to do that in a really fun way.  Need to work on cutting?  How about getting your kids to cut open the bag of chocolate chips?  If you have a ton of patience and time, you can use a pair of Zoo Sticks to put some of the smaller ingredients in (chocolate chips, pieces of fruit, etc.).  Even the simple task of pulling the paper off the butter is a great fine motor activity.
Improve Visual Motor/Visual Perceptual Skills-baking is a great way to work on improving visual skills.  When you are following a recipe, you have to be able to visually track between the recipe and the ingredients.  You need to be able to pour ingredients into a measuring cup or spoon and be able stop pouring them when they hit the line.
Improve Executive Functioning Skills-what I love about baking is that it is a great activity to work on improving higher level skills for older children.  Baking requires an incredible amount of focus and attention.  It requires one to be able to organize their ingredients, sequence and follow directions.  If you one doesn't (and I have lots of experience here) follow directions and focus carefully, you can end up with a mess of a project.  Baking is a great activity for older kids who need to work on improving their executive functioning skills and the best part is that much of the work can be hidden.
Improve Social Skills-baking is an incredibly social activity. Even though I am an occupational therapist and I tend to see kids on a 1:1 basis, I have also been lucky enough to spend a lot of my time working in social skills groups.  As a matter of fact, in September, I will be working with The Meeting House again as we begin our TMH Juniors group.  One of our program offerings will be a baking/cooking class once per month.  The social benefits of baking are endless and can be easily carried over at home with siblings and friends.  You can work on taking turns (pouring ingredients in), work on compromise and working as a team to complete a final project.  Once a cooking project is finished, there is a tremendous social opportunity to take advantage of.  You can set up a table or a picnic blanket and let the kids have conversations about what is happening in their lives.  If you have kids who have difficulty with conversation, you can throw a pile of conversation cards out in the middle of the table for them to reach out for when there is a lull in conversation.

There are a lot of fun and simple baking and cooking activities that you can do with your children...some that don't even require oven or heat!  Just keep in mind, when cooking with children, you will need patience and extra time.  Kids will ask a lot of questions, make a mess and may even lose their attention part way through your activity.  One thing to do in order to prevent that from happening is set up all the materials before you call your kids in....have your ingredients out, eggs cracked and in a cup, measuring spoons and cups ready, etc..  As children have more success with a cooking activity, you can start to add on responsibilities such as having them take out the ingredients.
Here are a few ideas for you to try with your kids, either at home or at work. I've tried them all and they have been a huge hit!

Zipsicle-I saw these when in Bed, Bath and Beyond a few weeks ago and had to try them.  Who doesn't love a refreshing ice-pop?  How about making your own with your kids?  These little pouches are perfectly designed for making your ice pops.  If you go here, you will find a bunch of tasty and easy recipes you can follow to make your very own ice pops.  The best part, is that you can avoid artificial flavors and colors, which so many of the kids I work with are unable to eat, and add lots of fruits and other healthy ingredients.  
Zoku-this is another fun way to make your own ice pops at home.  I wrote out the Zoku ice pop maker about two years (check out that post here) and since then, they have expanded their line.  They still have their original pop maker, but now have smaller ones that don't take up as much room in your freezer.  They also have molds that are in the shape of fish, people and rockets, which might make your little ones more willing to try a new flavor. You can follow one of their recipes or make something of your own.  
Rainbow Fruit Kabobs-another activity that doesn't require the use of an oven or heat.  I love the idea of fruit kabobs and have actually made these with many of my kids when I was running social skills groups.  This activity is great because it can encourage your child to try new fruits.  It works on building fine motor, visual motor/perceptual and bilateral coordination skills.  For younger children who are just beginning to learn their colors, it's a fun way to reinforce it for them.  It's also nice to work on improving organizational and sequencing skills for older children who are struggling with both of these things.  Lastly, this is a simple enough of an activity that you can do it in small groups and encourage conversation, cooperation and team work.
Alphabet Cookies-I have always found that if you hide the work in learning, kids are more likely to hold onto the information.  I have always had a set of alphabet cookie cutters in my office to use with playdough and the kids really love it.  At home, you can take those same cookie cutters and make cookies instead.  If you are motivated, you can make your dough from scratch but if you want to
make it simple and fast, buy the rolls of sugar or chocolate chip dough at the store....the end product is the same.  There are so many opportunities to talk about the letters during this can have them look through the pile to find a certain letter and talk about words that start with certain letters.  Once they are all baked (and cooled), you can have children put them in order.  And if you want to make it really fun and therapeutic, you can decorate the cookies after using icing, sprinkles and other fun decorations.

These are just a few ideas to get you started but really, you can make any recipe a good recipe for kids.  I know that my daughter just loves being part of the process.  It can be as simple as pouring the cheese, butter and milk into the macaroni when making mac and cheese or as complicated as shredding cheese with a grater (kid friendly of course) for meals.  In addition to all of the skills that can be worked on while baking or cooking, it's a great source of pride for a child to be able to tell people that they helped make whatever they are eating.

Do you have a favorite recipe or cooking activity that you do with your child?  It would be fun to be able to put together a list of things that you have been successful with and share them with each other.  While I am an avid baker, I am always looking for new and tasty recipes to try with Quinn.  I'm always a click away and love hearing from you all.

Stay cool and fun baking with your kids.  Who knows, if you start your kids off early in the kitchen, maybe they will be the next top chef!

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Make the Fourth Fun!

As I prepared for my July podcast with Parenting Roundabout that will go live this morning, I thought I would share my Fourth of July pointers with you all.  As exciting as this day can be for some, it can be equally as stressful and scary for children, especially those with sensory processing difficulties.  For some of the children I work with, they have a heightened sense of sound.  What sounds pleasant to you and I can sound horrifying for them and make a fun event (watching fireworks, going to a picnic, etc.) an incredibly difficult experience for them.  And we all know that a difficult experience for a child means that those around them may have an equally negative experience.

There are so many things that can go right on this fun summer holiday.  There are a ton of opportunities to hang out with friends and family....go to the beach or the parks and have picnics, go to Fourth of July town parades and of course, watching fireworks.  All of that sounds fabulous, right?  Well, if you have a child who has sensory processing difficulties, it can be as stressful as fun.  For example, those parades can be lots of fun but the unexpected noises and large crowds of people getting in your space can be a disaster.  Same thing with the fun beach or picnic event you attend each year.  The sand or the grass may cause your sensory defensive child to not want to get off the blanket or out of their strollers.  Or maybe it is too sunny or their is loud music playing close-by or the water just splashed them and got them wet.  And where do we start with the fireworks?  To most people, the fireworks are a thing of excitement and beauty but for those defensive kids, it can be a scary, scary thing between the loud noises and the crazy bright and flashing lights.  

For some families, avoiding these kinds of events are the easiest solution.  However, that is not a realistic solution and could mean that several other family members who were really looking forward to these special things will lose out on the fun.  I am going to provide a few strategies below that might help this Fourth of July weekend go smoother and be fun for everyone.  

Plan Ahead-if you know that you will be attending an event that might be difficult for your child, be sure to plan ahead and problem solve.  For example, talk to your child about what to expect, the schedule of events, who they might see and what might happen that might be hard for them.  Some things you can do are:
*take your child on a quick visit to the destination before the event.  Spot out a quiet/safe spot for them to go to in the case of an emergency.  Let them know that even if they are scared, there will be a place you can go to together to get calm and away from all the action.  
*get to your destination early before the crowds arrive.  Get your child comfortable and make a game of watching all the people arriving.  Maybe play a game of I Spy and talk about all of the different Fourth of July things you can see while you wait for the action to start.  
*if you are going to a party at a friends house, be sure to not only arrive early but to talk to the host with your child and tell them that there is a chance you may need to sneak out for a bit and take a break from the festivities.  Ask them if they have a special spot close-by that they sneak out to to get some quiet time.  Rest assured that if you have been invited to a friend's house and they know your child has some sensory difficulties, they will be more than happy to help you and your child have the best experience possible.  
*watch a fireworks display online before watching them live.  Talk to them about what was exciting and what was scary and what you can do in order to make watching fireworks a fun experience for them.  

Have A Bag of Tricks-it's times like this that you want to be sure to have a bag filled with tricks/supplies in order to make this a great holiday for your whole family.  
*if you have a child who is afraid of loud noises, bring along a pair of noise-canceling headphones.  Your child may really love the looks of fireworks, but the loud and unpredictable noises may be too much for them.  Be sure to test these out before going to a fireworks display. It's never a good idea to try something out prior to an event to find out your kid hates the way they feel.  If you really want to get festive, find some stickers to cover the headphones!  This can make your child who might be resistant to wearing them more likely to put them on. 
*bring your child's favorite lovie or stuffed animal to an event so they know they have a friend and source of comfort during a scary moment.  
*pack a bottle of bubbles.  Whether you are at a crowded park or parade, bubbles will make things better.  Blowing bubbles encourages kids to take deep breathes which helps to calm and organize themselves.  The best thing about bubbles, especially in a crowd of people, is that they will just add to the fun of the event.  
*pack a pair of sunglasses to dim the excitement of the holiday.  Maybe your kids don't mind the loud noises but the fast and flashing lights may become too much for them.  There are so many good child-sized sunglasses  to choose from so make sure you take your kids to try them on and find the ones that they are most comfortable in. 
*bring your child's favorite snacks/comfort food.  As a grownup, I have my special foods that I keep in my bag for those stressful moments in life.  Kids can be easily comforted by their favorite foods so be sure to have them in hand (and plenty of them) during times that may be more stressful for them.  Chewy foods, such as gummy snacks and dried fruits, are highly recommended as they provide a lot of sensory input.  
*if your child is of stroller age, be sure to bring it with you to these events.  It can be a place of comfort for your child.  I remember going to concerts in Prospect Park with our daughter...she loved the music but would often pull down the top of her stroller and chill out in her little cocoon of a space to listen to the music.  For older children, you can bring their favorite reading or activity books and let them chill out in there while all of the excitement is taking place. 
*for family/friend parties, bring a bag of activity books and coloring instruments.  Not only is this a very calming and organizing activity, it is one that can encourage socialization and conversation with other children at the event.

While I love the Fourth of July and all the things that go along with it, I know from a professional standpoint, that it can bring out lots of sensory behaviors.  It's important to recognize if the behaviors you are seeing from your child are coming from sensory overload or if they are just being poorly behaved.  I hope that some of my strategies will be helpful for you and your littles this holiday weekend.   I would love to hear from any of you about some of your "tricks" that you use for your children when they become overstimulated and overexcited.  I am sure that if they help your child, they will help other parents and children have a happier and less stressful time.

Have a happy and safe Fourth of July! 

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Put Your Arms In The Air Like You Just Don't Care!

In an effort to make this blog more informative for my readers, I am going to begin sharing interesting and helpful blog posts that I stumble upon.  For some reason, it hadn't occurred to me until just today that if I found these articles helpful, that my readers would also feel the same way.  The internet is a wonderful resource, especially when working with children. There is a ridiculous (in the best way possible) amount of information out there to be shared with everyone.  However,trying to sift through all the information can be exhausting and time-consuming.  So thanks to Kristin, here is my first article share blog post!

Today, the mom of one of my clients sent me a great article that talked about the importance of working on a vertical surface.  It was written by Lauren Drobjnak, a pediatric therapist and mother who began The Inspired Treehouse with her colleagues in order to share playful activities for children that promote development and wellness.  Their belief is that if kids are given a little help, they can build strong and healthy bodies and minds through play and exploration.  Do yourself a favor and check out and subscribe to their blog here...I promise you won't be disappointed by their emails.

Motor Skills and More!  Working on a Vertical Surface is a quick, easy and informative read about
what can be achieved by working on a vertical surface.  Some of you may be asking "What is a vertical surface!?!?".  Simply put, a vertical surface is a chalkboard or an easel... a surface that is on an incline that requires a child to have to raise their arms in order to write on it.  It is something that requires upper body strength and endurance.  When I was growing up, there was a chalkboard in every classroom I entered.  Daily, I was asked to go up and answer a math question or write the answer to a teacher's question on that board.  I never would have imagined that that simple task, something that seems so "normal" to so many of us, would be something that isn't really part of a kid's school routine these days.  Nowadays, we have the SmartBoard or a dry erase board in classrooms.  You may not sneeze because of all the dust from the chalk, but it will serve the same purpose in writing on a raised surface and sharing information with your classmates.

Whenever I am asked by parents about what can be done at home to help support our work in therapy, one of the first things I suggest is to get an easel.  Living in NYC, some parents worry that they don't have the space for a large and bulky is limited and we all know that kids come needing a lot of things to keep them busy!  For those parents, I suggest that they get a chalkboard or a dry erase board that can be mounted to the back of a door or the wall of a bedroom.

Working on a vertical surface can be beneficial for children of all ages, especially those who need to work on increasing core strength and postural stability.  Depending on the height of the working surface, you can have a child kneel, stand or sit on a therapy ball to draw, paint or write.  Another great thing about working on the vertical is that it is ideal for working on improving bilateral coordination skills.  I have kids hold a piece of paper up with one hand while using their other to hold the writing instrument.  This article talks about playing with stencils to also work on developing skills.  Please click here to learn about all the other benefits of working on the vertical that Lauren Drobjnak talks about.  

Fort those of you wondering what kind of vertical surfaces would be good for you and your home, I have provided a few suggestions below.
Chalkboard Wallie (Extra Large)-these extra large panels can easily be repositioned and placed wherever is most convenient/space allows.  Hang on the refrigerator, the back of a door or in a playroom.  I have one of their smaller versions hanging in my kitchen and my daughter has loved drawing pictures and practicing writing her letters on it.  They are easy to clean and can be used with any kind of chalk.  Be sure to hang them up in a way that makes your child have to have their arms extended in order to work on increasing upper body strength.

Dry Erase Board-there are a lot of dry erase boards to choose from that will work on all of the things mentioned in Motor Skills and More!  Working on a Vertical Surface.  I have always been partial to this one by The Container Store simply because it takes up no room at all and is easy to hang up.  It can go on the back of a door, inside a closet or wherever you happen to have the space for.   Also, another important thing, it is very reasonably priced!

Artist's Portrait Easel-if you happen to have the real estate in your apartment for a real deal easel, don't look any further than this one by Land Of Nod.  When my mother asked me what she could get my daughter for a Christmas gift one year, this was the one and only thing that came to mind.  It's been a favorite of Quinn's for years and has gotten so much use since it was gifted to her.  My favorite thing about this easel is that while it is large, it isn't bulky.  It can be folded up and set against a wall without taking up too much space.  Another great feature is that it is double-sided and can be used for many things.  One side has a chalkboard while the other has a dry-erase board.  That's not the top you will find a place to hold a roll of paper for drawing with crayons or markers or paintbrush or finger-painting.  A bonus's modern and sleek looking.

Backpack Slant Board-Fun and Function, one of my favorite therapeutic catalogues, has a variety of slant boards to choose from.  I recommend slant boards for many of the older kids I work with for homework time.  Slant boards are great because they don't take up a lot of room.  This one I have
suggested is even better because it can easily fold up and fit into a child's backpack making it easy for them to transport back and forth with them.  The most important thing about using a slant board for kids with graphomotor difficulties is that the design of a slant board automatically puts the wrist in an extended position, thus encouraging hand stabilization for greater ease in controlling writing instruments.  I don't only use this for handwriting/grasphomotor activities...when using an iPad in therapy, I will put the iPad on it to accomplish the same thing.

Thank you to The Inspired Treehouse for this wonderful and informative article!  I hope you all find this as helpful as I did!

Friday, June 19, 2015

Coloring...Not Just For Kids!

I wrote a long time about about coloring books and often refer to my favorites in some of my posts.  I
love having a good selection of coloring and activity books in my office and at home.  One thing that I have discovered is that coloring isn't just for kids these days.  I will often join the kids I work with or my own daughter when she is coloring.  I do this for several reasons:
*if I am engaged in a coloring activity, I find that the kids will color for longer which ends up building up their grasp strength and endurance.  It also helps on increasing a child's attention span
*I will often mess up or ask a child for their suggestions on what colors I should use to help them understand that their pictures don't have to be perfect or that they shouldn't get too frustrated when coloring
*I find coloring to be one of the most calming and organizing activities.  Not just for kids, but for anyone.  

In this post, I am not going to focus just on kids coloring/activity books, but also ones that are good for older kids and for adults who may love to color.  Coloring with your kids is a great way to stimulate conversation and imagination skills.  It is a wonderful way to build confidence and self-esteem...when a child completes a picture that they have worked really hard on, they feel really good about themselves and want to show it off to their people.  There is no greater source of pride for my own daughter when someone compliments her on her work and then hangs it up.

Some of my favorite coloring and activity books right now are the following:
Secret Garden and Enchanted Forest-these two books by Johanna Basford are more than just coloring books.  They are also coloring adventures that take you on a journey through a beautiful garden and an enchanted forest to discover what is in the magical castle.  The pictures are all in black and white and have so many little details to color in.  In addition to coloring some of the most magnificently drawn pictures, you have to find objects hidden within each picture.  I also like that some of the pages have mazes to go through and pictures to complete.
While these books are most definitely for older children, they are definitely something that could be done together with your child.  Having them look at the pictures and tell a story based on what they see is great for building up their language and imagination skills.  You can play a game of I Spy while looking at the pictures to find some of those hidden objects.  I first discovered these beautiful books when shopping at my local toy store, Norman and Jules, but you can also find them at the bigger bookstores and other speciality toy/bookstores.

Color Me Calm-this is a book that was designed for busy and crazed adults.  At a time where life gets busier and more complicated each day, we find ourselves to become more stressed and overstimulated by work and family obligations.  Created by art therapist Lacy Mucklow and artist Angela Porter, Color Me Calm has about 100 different coloring templates that were created specifically to get a person to color themselves to a calmer and more relaxed state of being.  The book is broken down into seven therapeutically-themed chapters including Mandalas, Water Scenes, Wooded Scenes, Geometric Patterns, Flora and Fauna, Natural Patterns and Spirituality. The intention of the book is for adults to put pencil to paper and get themselves into a state of creativity and relaxation.  Some of the pictures could be appropriate for younger children, but this is definitely intended for older children and adults.

Daydream Doodles-I've been looking through the shelves at Barnes and Noble and other bookstores non-stop lately trying to find new coloring and activity books for not only the kids I work with, but for my own daughter who has officially turned into one of those kids who can't stop drawing and coloring.  While I love to see her imagination come to life on paper, it isn't always so easy for her and she needs some jumping off ideas.  Throughout this book, there are several different kinds of activities.  You can color in pictures, complete different kinds of pictures or draw your own patterns on objects.  This coloring book is definitely more appropriate for older children (they suggest 6 and older).  In addition to working on improving visual motor and visual perceptual skills, it is great for working on creative thinking and imagination skills.  I like that you can also work on language skills while the kids are completing their pictures.  You can also work on improving executive functioning skills be encouraging them to talk about what they are going to draw, how they are going to do it, etc..

Usborne Big Book of Drawing, Doodling and Colouring-I am a huge fan of all the Usborne activity books.  They have a wide range of coloring and drawing books that will spark the imagination of children.  This book is especially awesome because it has a wide range of activities in one book.  There are pictures and patterns to color in and complete, various scenes for children to color in and add their own details and pages that will teach your child how to draw things step-by-step.  The book is filled with a ton of modern and stylish pictures ranging from monsters, animals and food.  I have found that many of my kids, even those who typically resist any kid of drawing/coloring activities, love looking through this book and finding the "right" picture for them.   My favorite pages are those that teach kids how to draw different animals, people and objects step-by-step.  The directions are easy to follow but also leave plenty of room for kids to use their imagination and add their own details to pictures.  This book promises to be fun not only for your children, but for the adults who want to color and draw with them!

Here are a few handwriting/coloring tips to keep in mind when coloring with your children:
*always encourage a child to hold a writing instrument properly.  Broken crayons or short colored pencils are an easy way to get a child to hold a writing instrument with a tripod-like grasp. Some of my favorites are the Faber-Castell Jumbo Triangular Colored Pencils, Flip Crayons by Handwriting Without Tears and the Staedtler Triplus Fineliner Markers.
*if you are working on increasing upper body strength, have children color on an elevated surface like an easel or tape the paper to a wall.
*let kids do what they want with colors....let them choose whatever color they want for what they are doing without telling them what they should do.  Coloring should be an activity that allows kids to express themselves and expand their imagination skills.  They want to color an elephant pink...go for it!
*try and encourage a child to stay in the lines when coloring, but don't make a big deal about it if they don't.
*work on building language skills by having children tell you a story about their picture.  Encourage them to elaborate and talk about the details by asking them meaningful questions.

With summer just a few days away, I'm finding that parents are asking me more about what they can do for their children to keep working on their fine motor and visual skills while they are taking a break from therapy.  Coloring, drawing and activity books are a great and fun way for kids to keep working on skills that have been addressed in therapy during the school year.  So many parents want to be more involved in their child's therapy but complain that the kids won't "work" for them.  Coloring is a great way to hide the therapy piece.

The books I suggested in this post are definitely geared more towards older kids, but there are many other books out there for younger kids.  If you want to read about books that are better suited for younger/pre-school aged children, check out this post here.

Do you have any great coloring or activity books that I should add to my library?  I'm looking forward to nights of coloring with my little girl this summer and would love to test out some new ones.  I am always a click away and love hearing from you all.