Friday, April 17, 2015

Spring Has Sprung!

After what seems like the longest winter ever, spring has finally arrived in my corner of the world (Park Slope in Brooklyn, New York).  Flowers are blooming, windows are open more than closed and there is no sign of snow or winter anywhere.  Don't get me wrong...I love winter and all that comes with it.  But when March and April roll around, winter gets gross in New York City.  The snow is dirty and when it finally melts, there is so much gross stuff on the sidewalks that you want to walk around with your eyes closed.  So the fact there are flowers growing and birds chirping is totally welcome and exciting for me.

As an occupational therapist, there are a lot of exciting things that can happen therapeutically once the warmer weather arrives.  Parents are always asking me for things that they can do with their children to get them outside, get them moving and get them away from the television and other electronics that tend to be used to entertain our kids during the colder months.  I typically see a huge jump in skills with the kids I work with this time of the year because they are spending more time outdoors in the park or at the playground.  They are watching the big kids do things and they want to try and be just like them.  After months of therapy and boosting their confidence in their skills, kids who were once timid about taking risks at the playground are trying things they couldn't do before.  They are spending more time socializing with other kids and less time indoors so you tend to see a huge boost in their language skills as well.

Below, you will find a handful of activities that I suggest to parents to try with their kids in order for them to carryover some of the things we are working on in our sessions.  In order for kids to really learn skills, they need to be able to generalize them in different environments.  All of the activities will work on improving fine motor, gross motor and sensory processing skills.  They also can help in developing improved language and social skills.  Most importantly, they are guaranteed to be lots of fun!

Grow a Garden-in NYC, we don't always have the luxury of having a lot of space for such things.  With that said, my husband and I have found a way to get our 5 year old daughter into gardening in the last couple of years.  We are fortunate to have a garden in front of our brownstone and can really garden with her and it has been such a great experience for her.  If you don't have the outdoor space, you can get a couple of clay pots and have your kids grow herbs or flowers that don't require a lot of sunshine to grow.  Gardening is good for so many occupational therapy related goals from the moment you pick out the seeds to that magical moment when the flowers actually bloom.  Have kids fill up pots with soil using kid sized gardening tools.  This is great for working on building upper body strength, bilateral coordination and improving eye-hand coordination.  If you have a child who presents with tactile defensive behaviors, encourage them to use their hands to put the soil into the pot to work on that.  Gardening also teaches kids responsibility and gives them an opportunity to have a "job" every day.  Use a spray bottle to water your plants every day; this will work on increasing grasp strength and bilateral coordination skills.  Check out this adorable Garden Tote with tools perfectly sized for your little ones.

Ride a Scooter-in the winter, it's easier to get from place to place by throwing your kid in the stroller and not having to worry about them getting cold or slipping on the ice.  Now that it is nicer out, make sure you leave enough time in your day to allow your kids to get themselves to places on their own two feet.  Whether it be walking or scooting, getting your kids moving is key.  My favorite is the Mini Micro Kick scooter as I have found that it is light weight and easy for the kids I work with to use.  Even the kids on my caseload who have difficulties with balance, coordination and motor planning have success with this scooter.  So many parents come to me and tell me that the hardest time of their child's day is starting the school day.  Oftentimes, I find that kids are rushed through their morning routines, thrown into their strollers so they can be brought to school on time and then are thrown into the morning craziness and get overwhelmed and have difficulty.  When possible, I suggest to parents that they let their kids walk part of the way.  Even better, let them scoot the whole way.  It provides them with an incredible amount of organizing input to their sensory system.  The foot to pavement action gives them a ton of deep proprioceptive input that helps kids to be more organized and ready for a great day at school.
**one of the biggest complaints I get from parents about getting their kids to use a scooter is that they don't like the helmets and how they feel.  Take your kid to the store with you and have them try on helmets and let them pick which one they want.  Kids are way more likely to wear a helmet if they feel like it's one that they really like!

Chalk It Up!-one of my favorite things about the warmer weather is coming home at the end of the work day and seeing my own daughter outside drawing with chalk in front of our apartment.  She has learned how to write her name, draw pictures of people and so many other great things.  Writing with chalk is a great activity and can really be most enjoyed during this beautiful spring weather.  There are so many chalk choices these days:  think, thick, one colored or rainbow, egg or square shaped.  Keep in mind that using thinner chalk will most resemble a writing instrument in turn encouraging a proper grasp when using writing instruments.  If you can, have your kids draw on an elevated surface to work on increasing upper extremity strength.  If you don't have a driveway or a place in front of your apartment, grab the chalk and go to the playground.
You can make this a social experience by gathering a few kids together and having them make pictures together.  For example, draw a picture of a person and have each kid add their how part to complete the person. Or play a game of tic-tac-toe or hangman.  You can work on letter recognition, executive functioning and social skills at the same time!  If you have the space, you can have your kids draw a hopscotch board so they can work on improving gross motor skills too!

Bubblerama!-I don't know what it is, but kids and bubbles go together like bread and butter.  They just love blowing them, chasing them, catching and popping them!  A fun thing you can do with your kids is make your own bubbles.  Sure, you can go out and buy bubbles anywhere, but making them can be really fun and is really easy.  It is also great for working on a lot of occupational therapy goals in such a fun way that your kids don't even realize that they are working.  For example, you can work on improving bilateral coordination (holding bowl while pouring ingredients in and stirring all the ingredients together), increasing upper body strength (stirring the ingredients) and working on improving executive functioning skills like focus, attention and organizational skills.  For older kids, you can give them a list of all the supplies needed for the activity and have them gather them before beginning.  You can also write out the steps on a piece of paper, cut them into strips and have the kids put the directions in the proper order before beginning the activity.

To make your own bubbles, check out this recipe:
6 cups water (you can use tap but distilled is better)
1/2 cup blue Dawn dish detergent
1/2 cup corn starch
1 tablespoon baking POWDER
1 tablespoon glycerine

Dissolve the cornstarch in the water, stirring really well.  Once the cornstarch is completely dissolved, gently stir in the remaining ingredients (in no particular order) trying to not make too much froth.  Let the mixture sit for at least an hour, stirring occasionally if you see that the cornstarch is settling to the bottom.   Don't get discouraged if your first few bubbles don't come out too great...the mixture gets better after a few uses.

You can use bubble wands and blow bubbles (great for improving oral motor strength) or you can make your own super big bubble wand using straws and yarn (you need your yarn to measure about 6 to 8 times the length of a straw).  Take the yarn and string it through the straws, tie a knot and you have your bubble wand.  You can take your bubble solution and put it in a big bucket and start making giant bubbles!  Guaranteed fun for kids of all ages!

These are just a handful of fun and simple activities that you can do with your kids now that the weather is nicer.  I have chosen activities that can be done whether you live in the city or in the country...they just may need to be adapted based on what kind of space you have.  What are you most excited about doing with your kids now that spring is actually here?  Please feel free to share your fun outdoor activities with me and my readers.  I'm just a click away and love hearing from each and ever one of you!   I am looking forward to a fun-filled outdoor weekend with my own family and wish you all a very happy and warm weekend!

Friday, April 10, 2015

Two Thumbs Up!

Good, simple and fun games are surprisingly hard to come by these days.  Too many games require batteries, make lots of loud sounds and can end up over-stimulating so many of the kids I work with. Obviously, the most important thing I look for in a game is that the kids will have fun.  After that, I look at the directions and make sure that they are kid-friendly and that they can be adapted for a variety of ages and skills.  Lastly, I begin to think about all the occupational therapy goals that can be worked on while playing the game.  

Thumbs Up, by Blue Orange Games (makers of Spot It and several other wonderful games that sit in my work closet), is one of those games that you don't think will be that big of a hit until you start playing it and then you just don't want to stop!  The goal of the game is simple:  be the first to stack different colored rings on your thumb based on the order shown in the challenge card that you pick up.  Sounds easy, right?  From personal experience, I can tell you it is way harder than you think.  First of all, try taking a kid who has sensory processing and body awareness issues and tell them they have to place all these rings on their thumb...and that they need to keep their hands in a hands up position for the whole game.  It's probably the biggest challenge I have witnessed with the kids I have been playing it with.
"That's your pointer finger" and "Tuck those fingers in" have never been repeated more often in my life than the last few days.  The other challenge is that each card is very different from each other.  You have to really take a moment or two before starting to collect your rings to look at the card and get a sense of the order.  So many of the kids I work get excited/anxious and just dive into a game without thinking about the most organized way to do it.  I have found that for the kids I have been playing it with, it has been helpful to play a round or two together and talk out strategies before beginning the actual competition.  I actually have gone through the cards and picked out the ones that I think the kids I am playing with will be successful with.  For the younger kids, this is a great opportunity to talk to them about colors and matching and you can play the game with them without dealing with competition part of it.

One of the best things about this game, especially if you do any kind of therapy that takes you into homes or schools, is that once taken out of the box, it takes up very little space and weighs almost nothing.  It's can be thrown in a bag and not take up much space at all.  As we are all dreaming of warmer days, it is a great game to take with you to picnics and on vacations.  It's not just for kids...I promise grownups will love to play it too!

In addition to what I have already discussed, Thumbs Up can work on the following occupational therapy goals:
Improve Grasping Skills-the rings are very thin and I encourage my kids to pick them up using their "pinchers".  As they get into the game, it's harder for them to focus on what kind of grasp they are using because they are so focused on winning!  I've actually working on improving grasp strength and grasping skills by having the kids clean up the rings using Zoo Sticks.
Improve Focus/Attentional Skills-it's super easy to get distracted while playing this game.  I noticed that the kids I played this game with were more focused on how I was doing that they kept losing track of where they were and what they should be looking at.  They were hyper-focused on winning that they would become distracted and lose track of where they were.  After that happened a few times, I had to remind them that they needed to keep their attention/eyes on their challenge card and not be so worried about what I was doing.  For a competitive kid who really wants to win, this proved to be quite a challenge, but a very important lesson.
Improve Visual Skills-so many great visual motor and perceptual skills can be worked on while playing this game.  You need to be able to visually track from the challenge card to the stack of colored rings and then put it on your thumb.  You also need to be visually organized to look at the challenge card and find the number and color you need to pick up.
Improve Social Skills-great game for 2-6 players which means it could be perfect for those of you who run social skills groups.  Since it is a fast-paced game that doesn't require much set up, it's perfect to have in your bag of tricks when your group needs a little something to get you going.  From start to end, the game lasts about 10 minutes (you can change that based on the kids you are working with).  I've been playing against the kids I work with and maybe haven't been trying as hard as I can to allow them to win, but kids aren't going to play that way.  If working in a group, you can use this game as a perfect opportunity to talk about how to be a good vs. a bad loser, being a good sport vs. a bad sport, etc..  If you want to, you could pair kids up into teams and have them work together to be the first to get all of their rings stacked (one can pick up the rings as their partner calls out the color to them).

Blue Orange Games continues to make quality games that keep kids learning and having fun at the same time.  I found Thumbs Up at a great toy store located on the Upper East Side of Manhattan called Fantastic Kids Toys.  Be sure to check out your local toy stores and support those small businesses who work so hard to keep your kids entertained.