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!