Saturday, July 25, 2015

Finger Looming Good

Two summers ago, the must have toy for everyone was The Rainbow Loom.  It would sell out in stores before they even had a chance to placed on the shelves.  You would go to the beach or the pool and see gaggles of kids gathered around their looms chatting, sharing their ideas and bracelets.  It was such a phenomenon.  I wrote about it in depth in this post here (which happens to be the most viewed post of mine) which still gets hits even two years later.  While Rainbow Loom isn't as popular as it was two summers ago, I find that kids still like making them, particularly my 6-8 year old kids.

The other day, I had time to kill between clients and walked into Learning Express and saw a handful of new items. One of the things that caught my eye was the Finger Loom.  Made by the creators of the original Rainbow Loom, this kit requires no hook and bracelets are made using just your fingers.  Even though I knew how great it would be for me to have in my bag of tricks at work, I immediately thought of my 5 year old daughter.  When the Rainbow Loom craze was going on, she was a sassy 3 year old who wanted to do everything her 5 and 7 year old cousins were doing.  She was so frustrated and sad when she couldn't do it but has been asking to learn ever since.  We have tried the bigger loom, but she would give up pretty quickly.  Yesterday, I was spending the day at the beach with just her and figured this would be a fun thing to bring out and show her.  At first, she wanted me to do it for her, but I insisted she at least give it a try.  When she first started, I agreed that we could take turns making the bracelet but after just a couple of times, she took the loom and the bands and took over the bracelet making.

There are a lot of things I like about this particular loom, especially for younger kids.  While I take out the original loom quite a bit at work, I find that for my kids who lack coordination, the big size can be awkward for them to hold onto and they require more help.  I also love that this doesn't require a hook to complete the bracelet.  This allows kids to get the hang of the process of making the bracelet without worrying about manipulating the hook, especially if they are holding it the right way.  Since there are only 4 pegs, there is less for them to be distracted by and they can keep their focus on just the bands and not the rest of the loom.  For so many of my kids, this will be a great way to introduce them to Rainbow Loom bracelet making and get them motivated to be challenged and try the bigger ones once they have master the Finger Loom.

Like the original Rainbow Loom, the Finger Loom has a tremendous amount of therapeutic benefits. Some of the skills that can be worked on using the Finger Loom are:
Improve Fine Motor Skills-this bracelet maker might be small, but it it is a great way to work on improving grasping skills and in-hand manipulation skills.  From picking the bands out of the pile, to placing them on the loom to using your fingers to pull the bands off the pegs, there an endless number of skills that can be addressed.  The best part is that the kids are so engaged and motivated by the bracelet making, that they don't realize that they are actually doing work!
Improve Bilateral Coordination Skills-this is a great tool to work on improving bilateral coordination skills (the use of two hands in a coordinated manner). It is nearly impossible to be successful making a bracelet without using both hands.  My 5 year old daughter tried it and realized quickly that she needed both hands because I wasn't going to hold onto the loom for her while she made her bracelet.  Once I prompted her to hold the loom with her non-dominant hand and to do all the fine motor work with her dominant hand, she become more independent and successful.
Improve Focus and Attention/Improve Executive Functioning Skills-like the original loom, the Finger Loom is great for working on building executive functioning skills.  If you want to work on working memory, you can give a child the directions and have them either write them down or repeat them back to you or another friend.  If you want to work on organizational skills, you can have the child you are working with pick out a pattern that they must follow and get out all of the bands that they will need to complete the bracelet out before beginning.  I like to have older kids work on these more challenging activities in a room with some distractions present in order to work on being able to build their focus and ability to attend and complete tasks in a more typical environment.  It seems silly, but if they can do something like making a bracelet with distractions present, they will be more likely to complete classroom assignments.

As we head into the end of July, I know many families are getting ready to go on family vacations and are always looking for things to keep their kids occupied on long drives, dinners out or time at the beach or by the pool.  The Finger Loom is a perfect thing to pack as it is light, small and takes up very little room in a bag.  It is also very reasonably priced (you can get a party pack of 9 looms for $16 on Amazon!) so you can pick one up for all the kids and/or guests who might enjoy them.  So in addition to being a great occupational therapy tool, it can be an activity that can keep a group of kids engaged with each other and develop social skills (sharing the bands, making bracelets for each other, etc.).

Happy Looming!

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Let's Get Cooking!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Make the Fourth Fun!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a happy and safe Fourth of July!