Friday, October 17, 2014

It's The Most Boo-tiful Time of The Year!

Let's face it, Halloween is a really fun time of the year.  Not only do the kids love it, grownups do too.  The gym I work in is all decorated for Halloween right now and the kids have been squealing with delight when they see all the pumpkins and ghosts.  As a therapist who works with kids, I find this a great time of the year for fun craft projects.  Kids LOVE Halloween and all that comes with it.  Here are a few crafts that I have done and will continue to do with the kids at work over the next couple of weeks.  I try and choose ones that don't require a ton of supplies or time to complete so the kids can take them home and show off their completed project to their families.  

Pipe Cleaner Spiders-a few weeks ago, my daughter and I were walking around our Brooklyn neighborhood and saw a fence all decorated for Halloween.  The spiders that were attached to the fake cobwebs were so cute and upon careful inspection, we realized we could easily make these at home.  It's a simple project that only requires two supplies:  medium size beads (we have been using wooden circle and square shaped beads) and pipe cleaners (I LOVE the Eeboo pipe cleaners that come in all kinds of beautiful colors).  For each spider, you will need 4 pipe cleaners and one bead.  Decide on the length of the legs (we have made large mommy and daddy spiders and smaller baby spiders at home); if you are making a smaller spider, you can cut two pipe cleaners in half.  When the pipe cleaners are your desired length, put them all together and string them through the bead all at once.  Separate and bend the legs and your spider is done.  My daughter likes to put googly eyes on her spiders but you can use permanent markers (adult supervision required of course) to add details to your spider's face!  This activity is great for improving bilateral coordination skills, eye-hand coordination skills and improving grasping skills.

Paper Pumpkins-there are easily thousands of paper pumpkin ideas out there.  I like this pumpkin craft because it is great for working on cutting skills.
-orange paper
-scissors (regular or zigzag)
-pipe cleaner
-hole punch (make sure that it is easy enough for the children you work with to use this independently.  Some hole punchers can be very difficult to use)
Before the kids begin this project, I use a ruler to divide the paper into an 1 or 2" think lines (depends on the child's skill level) so they can cut the paper.  Make the lines thicker for kids who have a more difficult time with cutting.  Once the strips are cut, have the child use the hole punch and put a hole on either end of each strip.  I like to place an X or a dot on each end for the children to have a target.  Take one of the pipe cleaners and twist a loop at the end then thread one side of each strip of the paper.  After all of the pieces of paper are threaded, then thread the other end of the paper onto the pipe cleaner.  Twist the top of the pipe cleaner in a loop to trap the paper in place.  Take the paper strips and spread them out until they form a pumpkin.  Take a marker or stickers and add eyes, nose and a mouth.


Paint Chip Puzzles-I won't lie, I have gone into Lowes and
Home Depot many times for something for our house but always leave with paint chips to use at work.  They are great for working on color recognition.  They are also amazing for working on improving cutting skills.  The thickness of the samples are great for kids learning how to cut.  Take a look at this wonderful Halloween project...I can't wait to try it with my kids in the next couple of weeks.
-Halloween colored paint chips (square/rectangle shaped)
-permanent markers (adult supervision required!)
Depending on the age of the child you are working with, you can adapt how much or how little they do.  Make pumpkin, ghost or monster faces on the paint chips.  Once you are done drawing on the paint chips, cut the chips into your desired number of pieces.  If you are working on improving cutting skills with a child, turn the chips over and draw lines on the non-colored side and have them cut the puzzle up.  
This activity is great for working on visual motor and visual perceptual skills, cutting skills, drawing skills and can even work on color recognition.

Halloween Sensory Bags-the kids I work with love making sensory bags.  They are an easy project and inexpensive.  For many of the kids I work with, Halloween can be overstimulating and cause anxiety.  Have them make one of these bags and keep them in their trick-or-treat bag to use as a fidget when they start to feel anxious.
-Green, Orange and/or Purple hair gel
-ziploc freezer bags
-miscellaneous craft supplies like googly eyes, pompoms, etc.
-plastic spiders
I love this project because it is an easy one for kids to do all on their own.  Have the kids pick out the color gel they want to use and squeeze enough into the bag that it will cover fill the whole bag when laying flat.  Place the googly eyes, spiders, pompoms in the bag and seal it tight (parents, make sure the bag is completely sealed before letting them play with it to avoid a giant mess!).  If you want to add to this activity, grab a pair of kid's chopsticks and have them put the spiders, eyes, etc. into the bag to work on grasp strength.

These are just a few of the millions of Halloween projects you can do with your children over the next few weeks.  I look forward to any holidays because it gives me a chance to switch things up with the kids I work with and find new ways to work on their fine motor, visual motor/perceptual and other skills.  Kids love to take their projects home and show off what they are practicing at therapy.  I try and find projects that are easy enough for parents to do at home with the rest of their family.  For some of my older kids who are working on higher level skills (organization, motor planning, executive functioning skills), I like to send them home with the supplies they need in order to complete the project and have them teach someone else how to do it.  This is also great for building up their self-esteem and confidence which is something so many of the kids I work with lack.

Do you have any fun, easy and quick Halloween craft ideas?   I would love to have more ideas to test out over the next couple of weeks and I am sure my readers will as well.  If you have any great ideas, please share with us all!  If you have any questions or comments, I'm always a click away and love hearing from you all.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Tiggly...Take 2

Several months ago, I blogged about Tiggly Shapes and the associated apps.  I am happy to say that even after months of use, I am still as happy with them as can be.  More importantly, the kids who I work with are still happy and motivated by them.  For those of you unfamiliar with Tiggly Shapes, it is an interactive iPad app that allows you to use actual geometric shapes to enhance shape recognition and creativity.  For many of my kids, it has been a motivating to work on visual motor and visual perceptual skills.  I have been able to use the Tiggly apps in conjunction with other therapeutic activities to make sure that they are generalizing the concepts of shapes .

Just a couple of days ago, I was invited to test out Tiggly's newest product.  I was excited for many reasons but mostly because I have been searching for good early math apps to begin working on this with  my daughter.  Quinn is most definitely my hardest client and gives me more trouble than anyone else when I want to work on anything to get her prepared for school.  So when I told her about Tiggly Counts, I was thrilled to see how excited she was to learn about math.

Both of us were very excited when the box arrived on Saturday and wanted to get started immediately.  In short, Tiggly Counts is a iPad math toy created for children 3 and older that will begin teaching children about counting, number sense and math skills.  Using 5 counting rods (inspired by the cuisenaire rods typically used in Montessori schools), a child is able to interact with 3 different math apps and learn early math skills like counting and addition.   It can be adapted to work for a child's skill level.

Below you will find a description of each of each of the apps and what they will teach your child:

Tiggly Adventure:  cute little Tiggly is on an adventure to deliver apples to his grandmother.  You will need to use your counting toys to build bridges, ladders and much more in order to help him get to her.  Tiggly Addventure introduces children to number-line concepts while improving their number sense and counting skills.

Tiggly Cardtoons:  I love this app and have used it with some of my younger and more involved children.  It's simple yet totally interactive and easy to use so even those younger/more involved children can use it independently.  You place any one of the 5 counting rods on the iPad screen and the same number of dots will show up.  After you touch each dot, they start to move around and you have to catch them and place them in circles.  Once all of them are in place, two pieces of cardboard turn into a variety of things.  A juggling owl, a hungry shark or a truck filled with snakes are just a few of the fun things your child can create.
*great for working on visual motor, visual perceptual and visual tracking skills
*encourage a child to use their pointer finger when playing with the dots.  For those who need to work on grasping skills, you can use a stylus with this game.
*for early learners, a fun way to work on counting skills like one to one matching

Tiggly Chef: this has definitely been the favorite in my house and with the few kids I have tried it with.  Using the counting toys, you help the chef create some of the most fabulous and silly dishes!   Your job is to add the exact number of the ingredients the chef asks for.  You can use the exact counting rod (this is what I have been doing with my daughter) or you can use several counting blocks to add up to the correct number.  There are different levels and with each one comes different challenges.  This helps keep it fresh and exciting for older children.

In addition to all of the skills mentioned above, Tiggly Counts can work on improving focus and attentional skills and improving frustration tolerance.  When working with older children, you can focus on improving executive functioning skills such as organizational skills.  For my speech therapist colleagues, there are tons of opportunities to work on language skills when using all of the apps.

As I am getting to know the new apps, I have only used Tiggly Counts 1:1 with the kids but look forward to trying this with a small group of kids to work on social skills at the same time.  I think that all of the apps lend themselves to working as a team or in a small group.  For example, each child can take a turn putting ingredients in while playing Tiggly Chef.  Math can be a frustrating thing for many kids and watching and working with their peers is almost always more beneficial than it being led by a grownup.

Tiggly Counts is available for pre-order until October 21st.  If you order before then, there is a 25% discount and free shipping.  For any of my therapist/educator colleagues who use the iPad with kids, this is a great addition (no pun intended) to your bag of tricks.  I have already tested it out with some of my kids and it's been a huge success.  I have even gotten my kids to lie in the net swing while playing with it so we have been able to work on building upper body strength at the same time.  For educators and parents, this is a highly motivating system to work on math skills.  If you have a hard time getting your kids to sit down and do work with you, I guarantee this is something your children will not only enjoy but will ask to play!

Friday, October 3, 2014

Tell Me a Story...with Dice!

I am always looking for fun, motivating and interesting ways to work on handwriting with the school age kids I work with.  For many of the kids I work with, this is one of the biggest things that they struggle with and finding ways to work on it without frustrating them can be really tricky.  I have used apps on the iPad but there haven't been many I have fallen in love with and use much.  Plus, when it comes to my older kids and the handwriting thing, I try and keep technology out of the equation if possible.

I'm going to give a big shout out to my friends at Norman & Jules, a toy store (or my home away from home) in Park Slope.  In the two years they have been in my neighborhood, I have spent a lot of time (and a lot of money) walking through the store finding the most amazing of toys for my own child and the children I work with.  They have an eye for unique gifts but what I love most is that they sneak in the educational piece in a really good way.  They find things that can work on academic skills but in the most interesting and fun way.

One of my most recent purchases are the storytelling dice designed by Hannah Waldron.  There are two sets, a pirate themed set and a fairy-tale themed set, that will be sure to get your child motivated to work on expanding their imagination and storytelling skills.  The Pirate Adventure Dice set has 9 wooden dice with different pictures on each side of the dice.   A child is encouraged to create a story using the pictures that they roll.  Some of the pictures on this pirate themed set includes a ship, mermaids, parrots, a message in a bottle and several more!  The Magic & Fairy-Tale Dice, also 9 wooden dice with all different pictures.  Using pictures like magic potion, a wizard, a frog and a ball gown, a child can create their own fairy tale.  From beginning to end, the story belongs to the child(ren) and how they interpret each of the pictures.  There is no right or wrong and a child is allowed to be as creative as they want.  Just try and remember each child's abilities and don't expect more from them; always set up a situation where the child will be successful and motivated to try something more challenging the next time around.

These dice can be used in so many ways and can be adapted to work for any child, no matter what their skill level is.  It can be used in a 1:1 therapy setting, in a group/social skills setting or at home for family game night!  Many of my families ask me for suggestions on what they can do at home to work on what I am working on in therapy and it's most important to me that my suggestions are fun for everyone and cause as little stress as possible.  These dice will be fun for everyone!

Suggested Uses
For beginners or younger children, I recommend choosing 3-4 cubes to roll at first.  Work up to adding more pictures.  Work together to come up with a story using the pictures.  Great for working on sequencing and organizational skills.  Have the child really think about what makes the most sense when arranging the pictures.  If you are in a small group setting, give each child one dice and allow them to add to the story.

For older children who are working on handwriting goals, this is a great tool to use to get them excited about writing.  I have used these with great success for just that purpose with a wonderful 9 year old boy who struggles with organizing his writing and struggles even more to get his wonderful ideas onto paper.  Again, start off small and don't overwhelm a child.  I start with 4 dice for the older kids, have them roll them and then work with them to organize the pictures into place before beginning the actual writing part of the activity.
**require a certain number of sentences for a story, making sure that there is a beginning, middle and end.  This can be really difficult for some children but if you let them talk through the story before they write it, you may find they are more successful.  I find it is helpful to give some children a set amount of time to work on their story to encourage them to take their time.
**discuss what is expected before beginning this writing activity.  For example, if you are working on spacing, sizing, etc., go over those rules before they begin to write.

These are also great for groups up to 9 kids.  I can't wait to try these with an older group of kids I work with.  Not only will it be great for working on storytelling, it will be great for working together to come up with a collaborative story.  Compromise, turn taking and being flexible are important life lessons, both socially and academically, and it's important to teach kids about these things.  To make it more exciting for a group of kids, you can take a picture of the pictures used and have someone write up the story that they came up with as a group to share with their families and friends.
**if you are working on specific social skills with a group, you can have the kids come up with a story based on that theme.  It could be a really fun way to help generalize the skill and get the kids to think of your lesson in a more meaningful way.

Another great thing about the Pirate Adventure Dice and the Magic & Fairy-Tale Dice is that it is hard to get bored with them.  Every time you roll the dice, your pictures are different which means your stories are always going to be different.  I can't think of a better way to keep the imagination flowing for kids of all ages.

So if you are in the New York City area, I highly recommend making the trip to Park Slope to check these dice out in person at Norman & Jules.  I apologize in advance to those of you who walk out with an empty wallet because I guarantee you won't be able to walk out without many of their awesome toys!  For those of you out of town, be sure to check out their website.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Spot It and Disney....A True Happily Ever After Ending!

I didn't really need another reason to love the game Spot It by Blue Orange Games but last weekend I discovered a whole new series of Disney Spot It games.  For me, this is a game changer for some of my kids who are much more resistant to learning their numbers and letters...especially a certain 4 year old little girl I know.  I had to hold myself back from buying every single version of the Disney Spot It games.  Instead I decided to try out the Frozen and Doc McStuffins for now with the intention of slowly adding to my collection.   They have already been used a ton of times and it's been a big hit so far!

Each of the new Disney Spot It games has a different educational focus. While there are alphabet and number Spot It games, I haven't found them to be that motivating for the kids I work with.  Just seeing the letters and numbers wasn't exciting enough for them so when I saw these Disney versions of the game, I was pumped.  In addition to a certain educational focus, there are pictures of your favorite characters and objects from the television show/movies.  The best part is that the variety allows for you to find one that will be good for your child.  There are ones that are targeted to the preschool population and others that are targeted to the older kids.
Doc McStuffins-numbers, shapes and alphabet
Jake and The Neverland Pirates-numbers and shapes
Sofia the First-alphabet
Disney Princesses-words/pre-reading

I have written about Spot It before here so I won't go on for long.  For those of you who aren't familiar with the game, it is a card game that requires a child to find matches between two cards.  Even when you don't think it is possible, every single card has a match to another card.  There are several ways to play the game but the simplest form is to hand out an equal number of cards to each player; flip one card in the middle and start spotting your matches.  The first person to get rid of all of their cards first is the winner.  For some of my older kids who are working on organization and sequencing skills, I will have them tell me the directions, set up the game and deal the cards.  This can be tricky but since there are not many steps to the game, it is a good game for them to attempt this task.

Spot It is great for a variety of other skills such as:
Improving Visual Perception/Motor Skills-finding and matching your letters, numbers, shapes, pictures, etc. is the point of the game.  Having good perception skills is important for many other things like puzzles, handwriting, cutting, etc..  A child also has to be able to visually track in order to look at both the card in the middle and the card in their hand.
***for some of my older kids who are working on handwriting, I have been making them write the letter or number that they have found when playing the game.  It slows the game down, but it's a fun way to get the kids to work on their graphomotor skills.
Improving Speech and Language Skills-my speech therapy friends can certainly elaborate much more than I can about all the speech and language benefits of this game.  When I play with the kids, they must shout out their match and not just point it out.
**each of these games comes with a guide of what each picture is so you can go over that with the kids prior to playing to make sure they can identify everything before the game begins
Improve Focus and Attention-this game typically lasts about 10-20 minutes depending on the speed of the kids playing.  I like that there is a definitive end to the game and can encourage my kids to stick with it until someone wins.  Often times, the kids I work with struggle with completing a game, especially ones that are more challenging for them.  If you have children who really have a hard time with focus and attention, don't start with a full deck of cards and work towards being able to play the game with the full deck down the line.
Improve Upper Extremity Strength-looking for a way to work on other goals at the same time?  Try putting a child prone on the net swing while playing Spot It to work on increasing upper extremity strength and head/neck control.  This can be difficult for some kids so I like to give them a goal of a certain number of cards need to be put down or a certain amount of time must pass before they can get out.  Sometimes get so into the game, that they forget they are tired and work through it!
Improve Social Skills-Spot It can be played with as few as 2 people and as many as 8 (I like to start small and build up to more kids/stimulation).  Great game to work on developing good social skills such as compromise, being a good winner/good loser and many other skills.  For older kids, let them negotiate how they want to play the game including the rules.

So if you are looking for some new and motivating ways to work on some of these academic skills and work on a variety of occupational therapy goals at the same time, I highly recommend the Disney Spot It games.  I have already introduced them to my daughter and for the first time, she is asking to play a game that she knows will work on something she typically avoids.  And while she still gets frustrated, we work together to help find the numbers or letters of the alphabet and she is quickly picking them up and generalizing that knowledge to other things.

If you have any questions or suggestions on other ways to use these games, please do share with all of us.  I am a click away and love hearing from you all!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Learning Can Be Fun!

One of the things that my colleagues know about me is that I love using the iPad during my therapy sessions.  I was an early lover of the iPad and what it could bring to a therapy session.  There were many times I felt really bad about my iPad causing a distraction to the other children and therapists around me.  As the years have gone by, many more of my colleagues are joining me and realizing that when used in conjunction with a ton of other therapy approaches, the iPad can be a tremendously motivating and useful.  What I love most about it is that you can combine the iPad with a ton of other occupational therapy goals and kill two birds with one stone.  Have a kid who needs to work on building upper extremity strength and is resistant to those activities?  Place them on the net swing and find a game for them to play; I guarantee you will get them to stay in that challenging position for much longer!  Do you have a child who needs to work on improving handwriting skills or grasping on a writing instrument?  Give them a stylus when doing handwriting apps so they are working on both letter writing and using a proper grip.

Recently, I have been asked to share my favorite iPad apps with my colleagues and the families I work with.  As more people begin to join the tablet world, they want to make sure that they have enough on their iPads to meet the needs of their children.  There are SO many great apps out there and sometimes it's so overwhelming looking through the app store that people get scared away.  While I have shared many of my favorite apps recently, I thought I would share this comprehensive list I created last week.  There are probably a million more apps out there (and please share your gems with me...I am ALWAYS looking for new ones), but I thought I would share my most recent list with you all.    There are a lot here but it's just a sampling of what is on my iPad and what I use during my sessions.

Little Bit Studio happens to have some of the most amazing and motivating apps that I know of.  Not only do the kids that I world with love them, I love to play them with the kids!  They all range in price from $1.00-3.99.  For some, that might seem like a bit of a steep price for an iPad app, but each game comes with about 15 mini games.  

 Bugs and Buttons-18 really fun games that work on a variety of academic skills.  Great game for working on fine motor, visual tracking, visual motor and critical thinking.  
 Bugs and Buttons 2-follow up game to Bugs and Buttons, another 18 games that work on pinching, counting and letter recognition.  
 Bugs and Numbers-another 18 games that make learning math loads of fun for preschool and school-age kids.  Number/shape identification, sequencing, tracking numbers and learning fractions are just a few of the math skills a child can work on when using this app.
 Bug Mazing-created for pre-school and school age children.  Great for working on reinforcing number, letter and shape recognition while working on fine motor and problem solving skills.  

Binary Labs has created a series of apps that are great for preschool and school age children.  What I love about this company is that they recognize the importance of how good fine motor skills can support handwriting and math skills down the line.

Dexteria-the first app I discovered by Binary Labs has been one of the apps I regularly recommend to other therapists and parents.  There are few apps that work on fine motor skills such as grasping, pinching and fine motor control like dexterity and control skills.  Great for older children or even adults who need to work on developing these skills.

Dexteria Jr-hand and finger exercises that develop fine motor skills for kids between the ages of 2 and 6.  The activities are fun and motivating so the kids don't realize they are working on skills!  Squish the Squash works on finger isolation/using your pointer finger while Pinch the Pepper works on developing grasping skills and improving finger strength.

Dexteria Dots-I have been on the hunt for good math games so was thrilled when I heard about this game.  Fun and intuitive game that work son teaching kids the concepts of addition, subtraction and relative size.  There are different levels so this game is good for children between the ages of 2 and 8.

Dextetia Dots 2-this is a great app that works on fine motor, visual motor and visual motor skills while doing math at the same time.  Helps to reinforce math concepts such as greater/less than/equal to from a conceptual standpoint for school age children 5-10 years of age.

Fizzbrain Apps is a mom and pop company that has dedicated themselves to creating a series of apps that will motivate children to learn.  My favorite ones are their series of Touch and Write apps which . In addition to these apps, they have many apps created for children on the autism spectrum.   
Touch and Write-kids can practice writing the letters of the alphabet using 16 different materials; my kids really love practicing writing with shaving cream or jello!  What I love about this handwriting app is that not only can you practice writing individual letters, but they give you the option of personalizing this for each child and making word lists so they can work on spelling at the same time.
Touch and Write Cursive-for older children who need help with learning cursive.  This app is the same as the original and offers you the opportunity to practice upper and lower case letters and full words.  
**with both of these apps, I suggest using a stylus so you can encourage a proper writing grasp.  I also like to have the children write the letters and words on paper after they have practiced on the iPad in order to generalize their skills.  

Highlights Hidden Pictures-just like the classic puzzles found in the Highlights and High Five Magazines, this app has over 50 puzzles to choose from.  You can change the level of difficulty by turning hints on and off.  Great for working on visual skills such as visual perception, visual tracking and visual organizational skills.  My school age children love this app.  Sometimes, I will have them use the iPad first and complete a puzzle and then give them a page in workbook after to work on generalizing the visual skills.

Whac-a-Mole-I was really excited to see that one of my favorite games to use with my kids was also an app.  There are over 50 levels of play with it getting more challenging as you beat them.  The object of the game it to earn as many coins as possible as you tap and swipe the moles out of your way.  This is a great app for older children who need to work on visual motor skills.  In addition to improving visual motor skills, you can work on executive functioning skills such as organization, focus and visual attention.  

MOMA Art Lab-wonderful app that works on improving creativity and art skills.  Intended for children ages 7 and older, this app allows children to explore how artists can use lines, shapes and colors to create artwork inspired by some of the artwork seen at MOMA.  I love to use this with small groups of older children and watch them work together to create a piece of art.
So many of the kids I work with have a difficult time doing a more abstract art project.  They can be successful with activities that have clear rules and expectations, but get frustrated by more open-ended art activities. This can be a great app to show them that they can be successful and expand their imagination.  If you want to take it to the next level, have materials available for them to make a real life project that resembles what they have just practiced on the iPad.

Pinch Peeps-fast paced and fun app that works on improving fine motor, visual motor and visual perceptual skills.  Pinch and drag together similar peeps in order to score as many points as possible.  The faster you go, the more points you get.  I love using this with my older kids who need a fun way to work on improving executive functioning skills such as organization, focus and attention and following directions.  As an added requirement, I have my older kids tell me the rules and steps of this game before they can play the game.

Faces iMake ABC-looking for something fun and different to work on teaching your little ones their letters?  Faces iMake ABC is just for you then!  This is an interactive game that works on letter recognition and learning the sounds of each of the letters.  What I love about this is there is a puzzle for each letter of the alphabet which works on visual skills, such as tracking, eye hand coordination and perceptual skills.  The kids I work with love how they use every day objects like buttons and different foods to turn them into pictures.
If I have a child who is working on learning how to write the letters, I will let them put the puzzle together first and then they have to practice writing the letter after.  For those who need encouragement for handwriting, I find this to be motivating.
There is a second piece to this game that is more appropriate for older children.  For each letter, the child is asked to find the 5 objects in a field of about a dozen pictures that start with the letter.  This works on improving organizational skills, focus and attention.  

Dipdap-do you have a child who has a really time with drawing?  This is a really fun app that can work on improving drawing skills in a unique way.  Dipdap is a cute character and your job is to help him through 16 different adventures by completing pictures.  In each of the 16 pictures, an object is missing that your child has to draw.  For example, Dipdap is in a car but the whole outside is missing.
For kids who shy away from drawing because they have difficulty with it, I find this to be a non-threatening drawing app that they can be successful with.  I like to talk through it with them before they start drawing; for some kids the planning part is more difficult than the actual drawing part.
As I like to do with the handwriting apps I use, immediately after a child draws on the iPad, I like to get them to practice drawing a picture on paper that they can take home and show off to their people.
Don't forget to have a child use a stylus of your choice when doing this drawing app.  I think it's tremendously important for a child to always be encouraged to use a proper grasp when drawing so find the one that your child is most comfortable with and let them draw away!

Letterschool-one of my favorite handwriting apps out there.  The more important thing is that it also happens to be the favorite of my of the kids I work with as well.  Not only will your child work on letter (upper and lowercase) and number recognition, they will also be learning the sounds that go with each letter.  For each letter, there are three different choices....tap (this helps a child learn where each part of the letter starts) and watch the lines get drawn; drag (drag the arrow from the starting point to the end point) and draw on the chalkboard.  Once the letter is complete for each game, the letter comes to life....racecars zoom, flowers bloom and a train moves along the tracks are just a few of the fun things that your child is rewarded with after they have completed the letter.
I love that you can change the mode so if you are doing the Handwriting Without Tears program with a child, you can use this app along with it.  For my kids, they know that when they use Letterschool, they will have to practice writing the letter either on a chalkboard or a piece of paper.

L'Escapadou has created two wonderful handwriting for print and one for cursive...that my kids love to play with.
Writing Wizard/Cursive Writing Wizard-practice writing all the upper and lowercase letters and numbers while tracing them using animated stickers and sound effects.  Once the tracing is complete, they can interact with the letters.
The game is customizable and you can play around with the settings to make it best for your child.  There are two modes:  free and 5 Stars mode.  In the 5 Star mode, the focus is on learning the letter by tracing it 5 times.  Once it's successfully traced 5 times, the child earns a star that is then displayed on the home screen with all of the letters.
Don't forget to use a stylus when using this app with your kids.  Also, anytime possible, have them practice writing on paper or a chalkboard immediately after completing it on the iPad.  

Pepi Play has a series of apps that are ideal for preschoolers that work on fine motor, visual motor/perceptual and other academic skills.  My own daughter can play these games for hours and they are often the go to apps when my children at work have earned iPad choice!  
Pepi Tree-in this educational game, children get to explore a variety of tree-dwelling animals and learn about some of their habits.  They get to learn about where they live, what they eat and what different animals look like.  There are six separate games in this app and each one works on some kind of occupational therapy goal.  My kids really love feeding the caterpillars different foods and watching them turn into beautiful butterflies.  I like the owl who uses his night vision to find all of the other animals who are also away at night.  Highly motivating app that works on improving visual motor, visual tracking, fine motor, bilateral coordination and focus/attentional skills.

Wallykazam!  Letter and Word Magic-this preschool literacy app is a big hit amongst my preschoolers and younger school age children.  For kids who are struggling with reading, I find that they are more motivated to work on this skill when some of their favorite characters are involved.  The goal of the game is to help Wally and all his friends in a variety of adventures.  There are several games built into this app that work on phonemic awareness, letter recognition and letter-sound associations.  Additionally, your child can learn how to write letters by tracing them in the stars.  It is highly interactive and keeps even the most frustrated early learner motivated and engaged.  For some of my older children, I have them trace the letters using a stylus so we can work on proper grasp on writing instruments.  If you have children who are struggling with handwriting as well, this is a good game to use in conjunction with handwriting activities.  After they have traced the letter in the sky, have them write it on paper or on a chalkboard.

Super Stretch-while I am not one who does yoga personally, I recognize and appreciate the therapeutic benefits of it and have used it often in my sessions.  Not only is it great for working on overall body strength, it also works on motor planning, focus/attentional skills and breath control.  Whether you do it individually or in a small group, I have found that my kids love following Super Stretch on his adventures.  I like that you can pick and choose which poses you want to work on so it can work on individual goals for each child.  I have used this in my social skills group many times and I love how the kids look at each other to figure out how to get themselves in the different poses.  If you have a child who has modulation and focus/attention difficulties, you can use this app in the beginning of your sessions to work on grounding them and getting them ready for their session.

I know this is a lot of information...perhaps too much!  I also know that this is just a small sampling of the amazing apps out there that can be used to motivate and encourage children to learn a variety of skills.  I feel like it is highly important for me to repeat that it's important to use the iPad as an addition to your regular therapy sessions and not let it replace the hands on, multi-sensory experiences you offer in your work environment.  For some of my kids, the iPad is used as a reward for doing all of their other work.  For others, it is used as a side-by-side activity when working on handwriting.

If you have any outstanding apps that you would like to share, please let me know!  I am always excited to learn about new apps out there and use them during my sessions.  I also know that many of my readers would be excited to hear what you have to say as well.  As always, I am just a click away!

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Oldies but Goodies

After over a decade at my sensory gym, I am making a move.  Not a big move (just a couple of blocks away) but for me, it's a big move because I don't like change.  Things are working just fine where I am.  I have met amazing people, worked with the coolest kids in NYC and made some amazing memories.  This is just a new chapter of my life and one that will help simplify my life and hopefully lead to a more organized and less hectic me.  While it is hard to imagine that I won't be back at my current gym to work again, I know that I am making a move makes more sense. After two years of being in two gyms and having my supplies scattered between the gyms andhome, I am looking forward to having my professional roots firmly planted in one place.

With this new chapter comes a cleansing of sorts.  I will admit it here...I am a toy hoarder.  It's impossible for me to walk away from a cool new toy or game without trying it out. I love finding new toys that will get my kids to work on things that they typically avoid.  My work closet it busting at the seams.  BUSTING!  I have gotten rid of so much stuff the last several years but have held onto much more than I have thrown away.  I'm using this move as an opportunity to really take a look at what I have, what I use and what I still need and I must admit, it feels good to get rid of things.

As I have been sifting through my treasures, I have realized how some of the best stuff I have are the most simple of toys.  Many of them have been in my closet since they were placed there when I first moved in.  The saddest thing is that many of the games I am about to talk about are no longer available. Those that are available have been updated in a way that don't compare to the original game.  I'm not sure why they tried to fix something that wasn't really broken and still have hopes that they offer the original game soon.  That hope is re-ignited as I have seen versions of the original Monopoly and Candyland in local toy stores in the last few months!

Out of all of my "treasures", the ones listed below are my favorites.  More importantly, the kids love them and they work on so many occupational therapy goals.

Fisher-Price Matchin' Middles
Still a favorite amongst my toddler, preschool and younger elementary school kids and in near perfect condition!  A shape has gone missing here and there, but between extra sets, I still have a complete set of this game in the box!  This game was really well made and has withstood being played with literally thousands of times the last 10 years!  It's a great game because it can be easily modified depending on the skill level of all children. There is no right or wrong way to play this game which is one of the reasons I think my kids don't get bored with it.  
My favorite way to play this game is by combining it with some kind of strengthening activity.  I either have the kids sit on a large ball and work on improving trunk strength by going back to pick up a piece or work on increasing upper extremity strength by having them match the shapes while lying prone on a net swing.  For the older children, I have them stand on a balance board or the platform swing while putting the cookies together to work on improving balance skills.  
Improve Bilateral Coordination-great simple game to work on using two hands together.  In order snap the cookies back together, a child has to use two hands.  For the more complicated shapes (heart, star, etc.), one hand must hold one side of the cookie while the other hand is used to twist the other side until it snaps into place.  If you have a child who doesn't consistently cross midline during activities, set the game up so a child is forced to cross midline to find the match. 
Improve Visual Skills-perfect for children who need to work on visual motor and visual perceptual skills.  Place all the cookie parts (choose either the brown or the white part) in one place and a child will have to scan them to find the matching shape. 
Improve Shape Recognition/Matching Skills-this is a great game to introduce shapes to the younger set and to help older children learn some of the more complex shapes.  
Improve Social Skills-if you are working in a small group, this is a perfect game.  You can use it more like a memory game or modify it to work on whatever skills you are focusing on with the children you are working with.  

Barnyard Bingo
Another very simple game. No batteries required and really well made.  The object of the game is to take the animals out of the barn and match them to their animals. This game can also be adapted and modified to work on whatever it is you are focusing on with each child.   There are two playing sides to the matching boards; one is just colors and the other is colors and animals.

I tend to use this game with my toddlers and preschoolers more than any other age group.  Like the cookie game, I tend to have the kids play this game while doing some kind of other activity on the ball or on a swing.  Work on increasing upper extremity strength while lying prone on the net swing; place all the animals on one side of the "field" and they have to rescue them and place them back in the barn.  If you have a child who is working on motor planning skills, use this as part of on obstacle course.

Other skills that can be worked on while playing Barnyard Bingo are:
Improve Color Recognition/Matching Skills-fun game to introduce young children to colors.  I like that you can start very simple by having the kids matching the animals to the right color board and then as they master it (which is quite quickly for many kids), you can flip the cards over and they can work on matching both the animal and the shapes.  
Improve Fine Motor Skills-I encourage my kids to use their "pinchers" when placing the animals in the barn or removing them to then place it on the matching picture.   
Improve Bilateral Coordination Skills-no matter how you play this game, the kids favorite part is taking the animals out of the barn.  I often have all the pieces in the game already so they are motivated to play the game and get the animals out of the barn.  Encourage a child to hold the barn with one hand while using the other hand to take the animal out of the barn.  
Improve Social Skills-while this can be played with just one child, it can also be a great game to begin working on game playing with the younger children.  Each child can take two colors and they have to match all their shapes.  Great for working on turn taking and how to be a good sport.  If the kids get an animal that doesn't match for them, I encourage them to hand it off to their friend and help them.  This can be very hard for some kids but a great way to begin teaching kids how to be a good friend.  

I don't think I have ever been more disappointed by any game update more than when I saw new Perfection game.  The original, pictured below, has 25 different shapes to match.  The new version has 9.  Maybe 25 was too many for some kids but 9 is just ridiculous.  The good news for me is that I still have a pretty intact version of the original.  It's missing a few of the pegs from the shapes, but for the most part, the game is in great condition.  For those of you who want the older version, you will have to shell out a little more money but you can still find a new/gently used game on

I love this game because it can be adapted to suit the needs of so many children.  It's easily adaptable for many ages and skill levels.  I rarely play it the traditional way which is to get all of the shapes in their matching spot before the timer runs out and all the pieces pop out.  For many of my sensory kids, the popping sound can be upsetting so I have them put all the pieces in; if they don't mind the sound, we will let them pop out after they get them all in.  For my older kids who are up for the challenge, I tend to wait until they have about half the pieces in before starting the timer so their is a greater chance for success.  Like the other games, I like to pair Perfection up with some kind of strengthening activity.  This is a great game to play while lying prone on the net swing or place the pieces at the top of a scooter board ramp and have the kids pull themselves up to the top to retrieve them.  

Other skills that can be worked on while playing Perfection are:
Increase Grasp Strength-I love killing two birds with one stone when working with the kids.  With this game, I take the pieces and hide them in theraputty so they can work on making those little hand muscles stronger.  Take a look at this link at Fun and Function to choose the right resistance putty for your child.  For some of my kids, I will have them pick up the shapes using a pair of the Zoostick chopsticks as another way to increase grasp strength and also promote proper grasping patterns. 
Improve Fine Motor Skills-each piece has a little peg which is perfect for working on improving grasping skills.  I encourage my kids to use a fine pincer grasp when picking the pieces up from a flat surface.   If you want to work on in-hand manipulation skills, you can have the kids pick up more than one piece at a time and have them move the pieces from their palm to fingertips; increase the challenge by increasing the number of shapes they have to pick up.  
Improve Visual Motor/Perceptual Skills-great game for working on matching and visual scanning.  No matter how many times the kids play this game, they still need to scan the playing board in order to find the matching shape.  I don't have a single child who has been able to memorize the board and know exactly where each shape goes without scanning it first.  

Who doesn't remember playing the arcade game Whac-A-Mole growing up?  I still have visions of playing that game for hours!  I was really excited when I discovered that it was a game that I could play with my kids.  And when I say play with my kids, I mean I really like to participate in playing this game!

Whac-A-Mole is great because it can be played individually or with other people.  I like to to get my kids comfortable with the rules before having them play with a peer.  There are three levels of play:  Solo, Easy and Difficult.  Solo (which I actually find harder than the actual difficult mode) allows a child to try and beat the game (which I have never done EVER) by hitting all of the moles.  Easy mode gives each player a sound that will go off every time the mole lights up.  Difficult mode gives each player a sounds but no light will go off; this requires a tremendous amount of attention and I rarely play on this mode.  Because of the different modes, this game can be used with children of all different ages.

Once the kids master the rules of the game, I like to pair it with a strengthening activity.  It must be clear to all my readers that my favorite swing is the net swing.  It allows you to work on improving upper extremity strength, increase neck/head control and improve wrist control/stability.  What I love most about the net swing is that you can pair it up with so many different activities, such as playing games like Whac-A-Mole, and you can distract kids from the hard work that it requires.

Like Perfection, Whac-A-Mole has gone through a bit of a facelift since I first purchased mine.  I haven't really tested the new one out so I have no idea how it compares to the one that I have had for years.  I'm not sure why they had to change it since this one was so good to begin with, but I'm happy to know that you can still find new/gently used games on as well.

Other skills that can be worked on while playing Whac-A-Mole are:
Improve Eye-Hand Coordination-fun way to work on improving visual motor skills, especially eye hand coordination.  I start with having kids only being able to use their hands when playing the game and tell them they get to earn the hammer only after they have shown me they can play by the rules.  I like to use hands better because so many of my kids do well with the sensory input from hitting the top of the mole's heads with the palm of their hands.
Improve Modulation/Regulation-I am surprised I haven't lost my voice telling kids to not hit their moles before they hear their sound and see the hat light up.  They get so excited about winning that they just start hitting away.  This game is also great for helping kids work on modulating how much pressure they use when they hit the moles on the head.  It is the kid's instinct to hit as hard as they can.  I want this game to last forever and tell the kids that they might break the game if they use all their muscle power on hitting the heads.  I encourage kids to be gentle which can be quite difficult for them once they get excited, and sometimes anxious, about winning.
Improve Focus and Attention-it can be very difficult for a child to focus and attend to only their mole.  They often get distracted by the other flashing lights/sounds and miss the chance to hit their mole on the head.  I don't know of many games that require such visual attention as this one.  As they master the simple mode and move onto the difficult mode, it requires a tremendous amount of auditory attention.
Improve Social Skills-my older kids love playing this game against each other.  I let the kids decide amongst themselves what color mole they will be and what level of play they will tackle.  Choosing a color can be difficult for many of the kids I work with; they get stuck on only being able to play their favorite color and need to be flexible about their choice sometimes.  As with all other games, this is a great game to work on being a good sport, especially being a good winner (and a good loser).

So now that you have gotten a taste of my oldie but goodie favorites, I would love to hear from you guys about some of your favorite occupational therapy toys, games, etc. that have played a role in your therapy sessions.  I focused on just the games, but must say that there were so many other things I found while cleaning out my closet that I have used for years and years.  What do you have in your bag of tricks that hold a special place in your therapy heart?  More importantly, what do you have that you won't part with because your kids love them year after year?
I look forward to hearing from you.  I am always a click away and loving getting emails and comments from you all.

A happy holiday weekend to you all.  May you spend some special time soaking up the last days of summer and enjoying time with those you love before the craziness of a new school year hits us all!

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Back to School Already??

Summer is flying by and school supplies are out on the shelves for purchase.  While I am not even remotely thinking about the fall and trying to take in all that summer has to offer, I know that there are some people who want to get their kids thinking about school.  One of the big things parents want to do over the summer is keep their kids busy with fun activities, but also make sure that they don't lose any of the academic skills that they worked on during the school year.  Now that my daughter is getting older, I find myself spending time this summer getting her prepared for pre-k.  She is a typically developing girl but I have discovered that she is very hard on herself about getting things just right and gets frustrated easily and gives up when she isn't able to accomplish that.  I have found that working on things like handwriting needs to be done in a way that is fun and meaningful to her.  And this is not just for her but for all kids, especially those who may struggle with learning in the most traditional way.

If you read my blog consistently, you already know how much I love the iPad in motivating children to learn.  It is not the only thing I use and will often use it with an activity that is related to what the app is working on.  For example, if I am using an app that is working on learning shapes, I will use a puzzle, shape sorter or shaped beads as a related activity so they can do something hands on and sensory based to help generalize the skill.

Whenever possible,  I use a stylus when kids are engaged in apps so they can work on improving their pencil grip at the same time.  Find one that your child feels most comfortable with and try and make it a rule that if they want to use the iPad, they have to use the stylus.  My favorite is the iCreate Crayon stylus by Fred & Friends as it is just the right size for those little hands.  In addition, children have to work on using the proper amount of pressure when using the stylus; if they press to hard, it won't work as well for them.

The app store is a magical place with new and amazing apps being added daily.  It's hard to keep up with what is out there and even more difficult to really know which ones are worth the money and the space on your iPad.  For those of you (parents and therapists alike) who are looking for some new apps that will keep your kids motivated while also working on preparing them for the upcoming school year, I will share with you what has been hot with my kids this summer and what you can use to get your kiddos geared up for the upcoming school year.

Curious About Shapes and Colors:
Looking for a fun app to motivate your preschoolers to learn their shapes and colors?  Curious George and the Man with the Yellow Hat lead you through five different levels of matching and sorting fun to help build a toy. Within each level, you will find 5 or 6 activities.  After you have completed all of the activities in each level, there is a game for you to play with whatever you have built....a robot, a boat, a train, a dinosaur, a castle or a spaceship.

While this game is most appropriate for the younger preschool set, I have found that my 4 and 5 year olds attention can be held as well.  The nice thing about this app is that there is no reading involved and that the directions are all spoken to the children so they can be somewhat independent (a child should always be supervised when they are using the iPad but it's also important for children to become more independent when engaged in educational apps).

Skills that can be worked on using this app are:
*Improving matching and sorting skills
*Working on introducing colors and shapes to younger children
*Begin introducing concepts such as same/different and spatial concepts such as in, around, below, etc..
*Improving attention span and frustration tolerance

Other early learning apps worth exploring:
*Monkey Preschool Fix-It by Thup
*Tiggly Safari by Tiggly
*Endless Alphabet by Originator Kids

Writing Wizard:
I am always on the lookout for the perfect handwriting app.  I have found that nothing motivates a child to learn how to write more than using the iPad.  As I have already mentioned, I NEVER use just the iPad to teach a skill but will use it in order to get a child motivated to try something that consistently causes them frustration.  It is a great tool to use to show a child struggling with handwriting that they can be successful; not only will it be fun, it will be educational and can give them the motivation to try handwriting with less argument.

There are a lot of writing apps out there but I am a particular fan of Writing Wizard by L'Escapadou.  There is also a cursive version of this app which I have used with the older kids on my caseload who are struggling with learning how to write in cursive.  Writing Wizard allows a child to practice upper and lowercase letters, different shapes and pictures and numbers.  There are two different modes:  Free Play Mode and Star Mode.  With Free mode, you can practice 1 letter (shape or number) at a time and move onto the next one.  With Star mode (you can set it to 1-5 stars), you practice the same thing over and over again with it getting more challenging each time.  For example, the first time you practice, you just trace the letter.  Eventually the letter will become smaller and the lines will even disappear and a child then has to draw it by memory.  What makes this different from other apps, is that there are 26 animated stickers and "pencils" to draw with and interact with after you are done writing.  My kids especially love watching the flying objects fly back into place to make whatever they just practiced.  

Be sure to practice writing each letter with a writing instrument and paper after you use this app in order to generalize the skill.  In my opinion, it doesn't matter if a child knows how to write the letter on the iPad if they can't do it on paper as well.  A child does not "master" writing letters for me until they are able to write letters in both the iPad and paper.  I tend to find that my children are more motivated to write their letters if it is done in a fun way so I ask parents to send in stickers with their favorite characters, sports teams, etc. so we can practice writing the names out.  Kids will run out of our sessions with their page full of stickers and their names written out and a huge smile on their face.  

Skills that can be worked on while using this app are:
*Improving shape, letter and number recognition
*Improve tracing skills
*Improve grasping skills (use a stylus when using this app to encourage a proper grasp)
*Improve letter and number writing skills

Other handwriting apps worth exploring:
*Touch and Write (shapes, letters, cursive) by Fizzbrain

Highlights Hidden Pictures:
One of my favorite childhood memories was when my issue of Highlights came in the mail.  There were so many great activities to do in the magazine (and I am happy to say that we get this magazine now for my daughter and it is still wonderful) but nothing compared to the excitement I felt after finishing a Hidden Pictures page.

I have been keeping my eyes open for a Hidden Pictures app for ages but it wasn't until recently that Highlights came out with one that resembles the magazine version.  This is a great app for my older children who have visual motor difficulties.   One of the nice things about this app is that you can grade it for children who may need more help by using the "clue" option.  I tend to see if my kids can do it without the clues before turning that on.  For my children who need to work on handwriting, I have them work on practicing while finding the pictures.  After they find each hidden item, they then have to write the name of the object that they have found. With over 50 different pictures, it's difficult for kids to get bored with this app.

Skills that can be worked on using this app are:
*Improving visual perceptual skills, including visual spatial skills and visual organization skills
*Improving handwriting skills by writing out the objects you find after you find them
*Improve attention span, frustration tolerance and many other executive functioning skills

Other visual perceptual apps worth exploring:
*Bug Mazing by Little Bit Studios
*Pick-Up Sticks
*Jigsaw Box

Bug Art:
It's no secret how much I love all the apps by Little Bit Studios.  My kids NEVER tire of them and any time a new one comes out, I have to get it.  Bug Art is their newest app and works on inspiring imagination, creativity and play in children.  Children can paint, design and explore the app in a fun and easy way.  They are encouraged to paint whatever comes to their minds (some kids may need a little help from their grownups to think about what they want to make and how to go about that).  Some may be able to draw independently and others may need the interactive tracing...whichever allows for your child to be successful!  Once they create a bug all of their own, they can then play one of the several games built into the app.  For example, they can take their bug and have them participate in fast and furious bug racing.  For those children who might not be ready for that, they can test out having their bugs fly through different environments.

Skills that can be worked on using this app are:
*Improving visual motor and visual perceptual skills
*Improve grasping skills (be sure to use a stylus whenever possible)
*Improve attention span and frustration tolerance
*Improve creative skills

Other drawing apps worth exploring:
Doodlecast by Sago Sago
Draw Along with Stella and Sam by Zinc Roe Designs

These are just a handful of the many apps that have been played by the children I see all summer.  As we head into the final weeks of summer and parents are asking you how to get their children back into the whole school mode, you can suggest some of the apps listed above.

Do you have any apps not mentioned here that you have loved working on with the kids that you work with?  I am always looking to freshen up my iPad and keep my kids motivated by changing out apps often.  Like the toys that I have in my closet, it's important to rotate the apps that you present to the kids to make sure they are constantly learning.  If you have any great apps to share with all of us, please let us know!  As always, I am just a click away and love hearing from people.  Not only do I appreciate you taking the time to read, I appreciate the suggestions I have received from you all.

Enjoy your final weeks of summer.  I hope that you are spending them creating memories with your loved ones!