Friday, October 23, 2015

The Monster Mash!

Halloween is just around the corner and it's really beginning to feel a lot like it in the air.  All around New York City, decorations are up (I'm ignoring the fact that Christmas decorations are also popping up everywhere as well), kids are talking about trick-or-treating and their costumes and I'm going a little crazy with arts and crafts projects with my kids at work.  However, some of the kids I work with aren't into crafts but still want to get into the Halloween Spirit.

For those of you who read my blog, you will know that I am a big fan of using the iPad during my sessions.  When used in conjunction  with other therapeutic activities, it can be a highly motivating and educational tool.

Go Away, Big Green Monster-I've been a big fan of the Ed Emberley book of the same title for years.  I love the way the kids can interact with the story and how it helps some of the younger kids I work with learn about body parts.  The app brings the book to life and allows the kids to add and remove all the parts of the monster. Once he is put together, they can poke at him and see how this scary looking monster is nothing to be scared about.  I like that the kids can choose to read along with either a 4-year old narrator or hear the book be read by Ed Emberley himself. 
I like that you can add a hands on activity once you have finished playing with this app.  You can have all the pieces cut out of construction paper so you can have the kids make their very own Big Green Monster.  If you are working on teaching kids how to draw people, this can be a fun activity to reinforce where all the parts of the face go.
Sago, Sago Mini Monsters-Sago Sago has been a long time favorite of mine and children love all of the apps that they create. Each of these great apps are colorful and engaging and stimulate language, fine motor and visual motor/perceptual skills.  In Sago Min Monsters, children are able to create their own colorful monsters.  They can add details to make their monster their very own.  When they are all done creating them, they can interact with the monsters with pain, food and decorations. Kids think it's hilarious that they can feed the monsters and if they don't like the food, they will spit it out at them.  They can have them play with toys and instruments.  All of the interactive components make this a great app for working on following directions and language development.
You can add a fine-motor/craft component to this by cutting out similar monster parts and having the kids create a paper monster that they get to take home.
Labo Halloween Car-the kids I work with love the racing games so when I saw the Halloween Car app by Labo Lado, I had to have it.  I've used it with a few of the kids I work with and they really are loving it.  They get to choose from 12 different cars, several of them being Halloween themed (think bat, pumpkin and ghost).  They get to color it any way they want, add wheels and then add details and a character to make their car their very own.  Once they have completed designing it, they get to take it on a ride through different spooky racing routes.  
This app is great for working on improving graphomotor skills, encouraging creativity and visual motor/perceptual skills.  Also great for working on executive functioning skills, such as focus and attention and organizational skills.   
Stella and Sam Halloween Band-I've been a longtime fan of all things Stella and Sam by Zinc Roe Design since they are so interactive and work on so many occupational therapy goals.  If you haven't checked out their other apps, do yourself a favor and do it!  In this Halloween themed app, you get to join Stella and Sam in their band!  There are 6 different instruments to play.  You can change the sounds by moving the band members side to side or up and down.  If you look carefully, you will see bats, spiders and other characters floating around that you can interact with.  Great for preschoolers or young school-age children.  You can work on color recognition by having the kids hit the different colors when you ask them to.  As they get more familiar and comfortable with their colors, you can make this more complex by having them follow sequences.  For some kids, you might want to make them remember the order just by telling them and for others you may want to put out a visual for them to follow.  Kids will creating their own music while learning at the same time.  
Spooky Letters-I have a ton of great handwriting apps, but thought it would be fun to spice things up with this Halloween themed writing app by MadeByEducators.  In this app, children can practice writing upper and lower case letters, cursive letters, shapes/pictures and words.  What I really love about this particular handwriting app is that there is a big focus on phonics.  After practicing writing each letter, the kids then have to put letters in order for a word that starts with that letter or put together a simple puzzle that reveals what monster is hiding in the box.  For example, after you write the letter "K", a jumbled up word (key) comes up and they have to put them in order.  During the whole thing, the kids are hearing the letters being sounded out which is great for those who are struggling with learning how to read.
**one thing I noticed is that some of the letters that we typically start at the top (M and N for example), actually start at the bottom.  Could be confusing for some kids but there are a lot more positive things about this app that make it a good one to add to your handwriting app choices.

If you are concerned about using an iPad during therapy, keep in mind that there are a ton of ways to make it more therapeutic.  I also can't Here are a few examples of things you can do to make using the iPad more meaningful, whether it be at home or during your therapy sessions:
*use a stylus-many of the apps can be done using a stylus.  So even though the kids are absorbed in the app, they are working on developing a proper grasp.
*many of the kids I work with need to work on increasing their overall body strength, particularly upper body and neck/head.  Have them go on the net swing and play the apps.  
*if you work with groups of kids, almost any of these apps can be good for a small group setting.  They will have to compromise about colors for their cars, what to feed the monster, take turns playing instruments, etc.. There are a lot of great social opportunities available when using the iPad in a therapeutic setting. 

I would love to hear if any of you have some great Halloween or fall-themed apps that I should check out.  I like to take advantage of holidays and mix things up during my sessions.  Between the great arts and crafts activities, baking activities and the iPad apps, I have been rejuvenated the last couple of weeks during my sessions.  The kids are also having a great time and excited for new things at the gym.  So if you have any fun things to suggest to me or my readers, please share them!  I am always a click away and love hearing from you all!

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Let's Boogie...Again!

In February, I wrote a post all about the Boogie Board writing tablet.  I was obsessed with it back then and still am.  So when I was in Mary Arnold Toys on the UES of Manhattan last week and saw the Boogie Board Play N' Trace, I was quite excited.  A quick recap for those of you who are reading who don't know about the Boogie Board.  The cliff note explanation is that it is an ultra-light LCD writing tablet (think Magna Doodle but smaller, thinner and easier to take places with you) that can be used for a variety of writing and drawing activities.  In my private practice, I will use it to practice letter and number writing to try and decrease the amount of paper I use.  We also use it to make plans and lists for the kids we work with who need that visual schedule in order to keep them organized and on task.  There are an endless amount of uses for the Boogie Board and it is one of the most recommended items when parents ask me what they can get their kids.

The Boogie Board Play N' Trace was specifically designed with children in mind.  The differences between the original Boogie Board and the Play N' Trace are:
-the shape and size:  The original Boogie Board is a light-weight rectangular shaped board that is about the size of a large envelope.  It can be easily thrown into a bag, making it perfect for passing away time on the subway, in waiting rooms, etc..  The Play N' Trace is still light-weight but larger and not as easy to carry around in a purse (great for a therapist who is traveling all around and carrying  larger bag).  It's oval shaped with a nice little thumb hole that's perfect for kids to grab onto.
-the screen:  unlike the original Boogie Board, the Play N' Trace has a transparent green screen so you can easily trace different things.  Once you are done drawing, you can place it over a darker surface so you can see the image better.  
-the stylus:  the stylus for the Play N' Trace is a little bit thicker, which is better for those little hands.  It is also double-tipped with one side being pointed like a pencil and the other beveled like a crayon.  If you want, you can put a pencil grip on it to encourage a more appropriate tripod-like grasp.  

The Boogie Board Play N' Trace can be used a variety of different ways in your therapy sessions.  I have used it for things as simple as having kids imitate lines and filling in face parts on a blank face. When practicing writing letters and numbers, it's a great tool to use because you can practice over and over again without wasting lots of paper.  Plus, I've learned that the kids LOVE to keep practicing because they can magically make their images disappear with a simple push of a button.  Each board comes with 3 sheets of letters and numbers for you to have the kids trace, but I find that they are too small for many of the kids I work with.  I am going to find larger/individual letters for them to trace from the Handwriting Without Tears book.  It's great that the board comes with some activity sheets, but for so many of the kids I work with, the letters and numbers on those sheets are too small since they are just beginning to work on learning these things.  Personally, I like to work on individual letters/numbers/shapes and letting kids master one at a time without having too much in their working field.  Since so many of the kids I work with are under the age of 5, working on mastering individual letters is far more important and effective.
In addition to all the great graphomotor related things you can work on, the Boogie Board Play N' Trace can be used for the following:
Improve Grasp-I've already talked about how you can use the Play N' Trace to work on graphomotor skills, but want to talk more about the ability to focus on working on improving pencil grip.  I like that the stylus that comes with the board and it is perfect for children who have a normal grip when holding writing instruments.  For those who don't, the stylus is the perfect size for most pencil grips.  I would suggest experimenting with different pencil grips to see what works best for the kids you are working with.   
Improve Bilateral Coordination-so many of the kids I work with have a difficult time with using two hands during writing activities.  I am constantly reminding them to take their non-dominant hand and hold the paper down during these tasks.  With this board, you have very little choice but to use two hands.  Hold the board with one hand, the stylus in the other and draw away.  When you are done drawing, you have to hold the board with one hand and erase your image by pushing the button with the other hand.  
Improves Visual Skills-there are a bunch of activities that you can do in order to work on improving visual motor and visual perceptual skills.  For example, you can draw a picture and then erase it and have the child remember what you drew and have them replicate it.  You can work on improving coloring skills by drawing shapes on the board and having the kids color them in trying to stay in the line as much as they can.  Draw simple mazes and have the kids complete them without going out of the lines.  Practice writing letters, numbers, shapes, etc..  Practice visual attention by finding simple (or more complex) images and placing them under the board and having kids trace them.  I could kep going and going but I won't bore you all...oh, the ideas are endless!

As I just said, I could go on and on and on about how great the Boogie Board Play N' Trace is, but I won't bore you any more.  What I would love to do is open the conversation up and hear how others might use the Play N' Trace during their therapy sessions or with their kids at home.  I'm always a click away and looking forward to hearing from you guys about ways to use the Boogie Board Play N' Trace.  

Friday, October 16, 2015

Let's Build These Cars and Take Them For a Test Drive

As the holiday season approaches, I've been keeping my eyes peeled for hot toys and games to add to this year's gift guide.  Parent are already asking me what they can get their children and what they can suggest that others get them.  While parents want to get things that their kids want and will like, they also interested in getting things that will help them reach some of their therapeutic goals.

I've always been a fan of Legos and have quite the collection that I use at home and at work.  For some of the older kids on my caseload, working with Legos can be motivating and get them to work on a number of skills.  They are great for working on increasing hand strength and improving manipulation skills, which  is important for handwriting, cutting and all kinds of other academic activities.  It helps with executive functioning skills, especially improving organization, problem solving and focus and attention.  At the end, the kids have a final product that they have built themselves and there is a tremendous amount of pride.

Many of the kids I work with are under the age of 5 and have significantly decreased grasp strength and poor fine motor skills.  Therefore, regular Lego sets are typically not appropriate for them and end up causing more harm and frustration than good.  In the past few years, Lego has expanded their Duplo products and there are some pretty amazing ones to choose from.  The other day, I was looking around and stumbled upon the Creative Cars set.  First of all, I was impressed with the affordable price tag of $20.  The set comes with 40 different colored blocks in a variety of shapes, including windows, sirens and other truck parts.  With those 40 Duplo blocks, you can create tons of different cars and trucks, including a dump truck, a police car or a tow truck.  The set comes with a poster that shows you all the different things you can make.  The best part is that the pictures are big and make it very easy to follow the directions.  Depending on the child you are working with, you can make something small and simple or bigger and more complicated.  I like that most of the cars and trucks use less than 10 pieces (most of them are closer to 5 or 6 blocks) so they can complete them in a short amount of time.  After the kids have built all the different vehicles, you can ask them to try and create their own.  If you have kids who need to work on being more creative, you can put a handful of pieces in front of them and have them come up with their own creation.  

Some of the other occupational therapy skills that can be worked on using the Duplo Creative Cars set are:
Improve Grasp Strength-as previously mentioned, all Legos, no matter the size, are great for working on increasing grasp strength and making those little muscles in the hands stronger.  Many of the kids I work with tend to avoid working with manipulative kinds of toys because they are hard for them so it's important that I find things that are interesting and exciting to them.  I've only been using these for a couple of days, but I can tell you that the kids are loving them and asking to build more and more cars instead of giving up after just one.  

Improve Bilateral Coordination Skills-building with Duplos are great for working on bilateral coordination/using two hands together during activities.  For so many of my little kiddos at work, this is a difficult thing for them.  I spend a lot of my time telling kids to use both hands.  Even with blocks and other manipulative toys, I watch kids not use two hands and they get frustrated because the blocks aren't sticking together.  Bilateral coordination is important for so many things, including handwriting, cutting and other academic activities.  It's important to find motivating ways to work on this skill, and this car set is proving to be very motivating!
Improve Visual Motor/Perceptual Skills-as I mentioned earlier in this post, the set comes with a poster with pictures of all the different cars and trucks that you use as a reference when building with the blocks.  This is great for kids to work on improving their visual skills, such as visual tracking and visual perceptual skills.  Kids have to be able to look through and scan the big pile of blocks to find what they need to build the car or truck of their choice.  Once they have all their pieces gathered, they need to be able to be able to look at the diagram and figure out what pieces go where.  It can be tricky sometimes because some of the pieces look really similar so I have the kids double check their pieces before they begin building.
Improve Executive Functioning Skills-there are so many executive functioning skills that can be worked on when building with this Duplo set.  First of all, being able to follow the directions and maintain their attention is very important in order for children to be successful when building their cars and trucks.  They also need to be able to sort and organize their blocks before building.  Sometimes kids can frustrated when things aren't easy and give up easily.  Being able to ask for help instead of giving up and getting upset is a really important skill that can be worked on as well.  
Improve Social Skills-these cars are great for working on improving social skills with younger children.  I had a small group of 3 boys playing with them yesterday and it was fascinating to watch them work together to build cars and then play with them.  The great thing about this set is in addition to being able to build cars and trucks, you can build a gas station so you can expand play skills at the same time.  In my social skills group, I had the kids build a garage using Magna-Tiles which they thought was really fun.  Using the Creative Car set with a group of kids will help them work on sharing, compromise and working together to build something.  This can be a difficult thing for kids and is something that's important to work on so they can be socially successful in a classroom setting later on.

While I have only had this Creative Cars set for a few days, it has been a popular activity amongst all the kids on my caseload.  When I told one mom that her son had played with the Duplo blocks for almost 10 minutes, she didn't believe me.  "My kid doesn't play with Legos, Meghan." I think that the building of vehicles and then being able to play with them are highly motivating for the kids.  If you wanted to add another level of play to this, you could get this Road PlayTape and have the kids set up a course for their vehicles to drive along.  There are so many things that you can do with the vehicles once they are built.  As I mentioned earlier, you don't have to just make the vehicles that they have pictured on the poster.  Sometimes kids need to be able to think outside of the box and become more creative in their play.  Have them build vehicles and tell stories about them.  Have them give the vehicle a name, a magic trick it can do or a place they are going to go on some kind of magical adventure.  Being able to be imaginative and tell stories is a really difficult but important skill for kids, even preschoolers.

Whether you use these with an individual child or a group of children, there is so much that you can do with the Creative Car set by Duplo.  While they are having fun, you can be happy knowing that they are working on developing a ton of skills that will help them become stronger and more confident little people!

Be sure to check out your local toy stores (I found mine at Mary Arnold Toys on the Upper East Side of Manhattan) before going to Amazon or the other big box stores.

If you have any questions, I am only a click away and love hearing from you all!