Wednesday, January 27, 2016

How to Make Handwriting Fun....not Work

I've been a mom for almost 6 years now and each and every day has been a learning moment.  This year, as she is a real deal student and kindergarten has probably been the biggest and most challenging parenting experience thus far.  To make things totally clear...I don't like to push my girl academically. I figure, like everything else in her little life, it will just come along when it comes along.  However, this kindergarten and homework thing has been overwhelming and taught me more than I could imagine.

One of the things I focus on at work with all my kids is making "work" fun.  What is the point of all of this therapy if the kids aren't having fun and looking forward to coming to their sessions?  What's funny is that for all those kids I work with, making handwriting and other graphomotor skills fun is kinda easy.  With my daughter, all I tend to feel is stressed which clearly hasn't been helpful for her or me.  One of my New Year's resolutions is that I will do whatever I can to make learning, particularly handwriting and learning how to read, fun for Quinn.

Interestingly enough, I have a kid who happens to have a terrible grip on writing instruments.  I have tried to correct it and encourage her to hold it the "right" way but I have found that that ends up causing a problem and stress before we have even begun working on our actual handwriting.  It's been difficult, but I have had to let go of that and just let her hold it her way.  I have found that this simple practice has made a bigger difference than I could have imagined.

1.  Practice "writing" with different materials-who says that the only way to learn how to write is with pencil and paper?  As a therapist with a lot of years under my belt, I have found that writing with a pencil is actually the last thing you should do, especially for younger kids.  Make it fun, make it hands on and make it an experience that they are excited to literally dig their hands into.  Use shaving cream in the bathtub or on a really big mirror if you have one.  Pour some rice on a cookie sheet or in a tupperware.  Roll playdough into a flat surface, find alphabet cookie cutters and write words with them.  There are so many options here so you can be totally creative.  This kind of activity is also great for working on building up kids' tolerance for playing with different materials if they tend to be resistant and also great for working on improving grasp strength and manipulation skills.

2.  Word Games-I have found that playing "games" with my daughter makes her attention last longer and get less frustrated.  I have a bunch of these awesome vintage letter rocks from Hope Learning Toys on Etsy and Quinn loves them.  One of the things we have done with them is to take her sight words and practice spelling and reading them while using these.  She loves digging through the letters and finding what she needs and is so proud of herself when she finally gets the word.  We will often use a Boogie Board to then practice writing the words afterwords.  Another great word/letter game is Spot It.  I am a huge fan of all things Spot It but was super psyched when I saw they created a whole line of alphabet and word games.  The kids I work with are super in love with the Spot It alphabet and word games that feature some of their favorite characters like Anna and Elsa from Frozen, Princess Sofia, Disney Princesses and their favorite Pixar characters .  Be sure to check out my post from a couple of weeks ago talking all about another wonderful line of Blue Orange games, the Super Genius series.  There are so many other great word games out there too....Boggle Jr., Scrabble Jr. and Zingo Word Builder are just a few of them! The best part of all of these games are that they can be played as a family or with friends.

3.  Magnet Play-I am pretty sure that most of us grew up with those plastic alphabet magnets on their fridge.  Little did I know growing up how awesome those alphabet magnets would be and how I would use them in my actual profession.  If you have a kid who is interested in learning how to write words but is struggling for some reason with the actual handwriting aspect of things (decreased grasp strength, poor grip, decreased handwriting endurance, poor confidence/self-esteem....I could go on), start with magnets.  Not only can you find a variety of alphabet (upper and lowercase) magnets, you can also find lots of great magnet sets for sight words (check out these by Educational Insights).  As your kids get older and are actually reading but need some encouragement for writing, check out this set by Magnetic Poetry for Kids.  Start by having them pick out their word magnets and "write" their story. This could take as long as you need for them to feel awesome about what they have written.  Once the story is complete, you can have them start to copy it (as much as they are comfortable with at a sitting) into written form.  If you want to get real crazy, have them illustrate their story as they are copying it.

4.  iPad Games-using technology isn't for everyone and that is something I totally get.  For me (with my own kid and the kids I work with), the iPad has been a bit of a game changer for me.  Let me get this out of the way....I don't use the iPad exclusively.  I use it as a motivator.  I use it to get my little ones excited about learning.  And it has worked.  The most important thing is picking the right apps to put on your iPad. It's hard to navigate that massive App Store...there are so many intriguing and beautiful looking apps out there that you can easily be convinced to buy those that aren't that great.  Here are my favorite and most recommended alphabet and reading apps:
LetterSchool-easily my most favorite handwriting app out there.  All my kids love it and are so motivated by the awesome graphics to learn how to write their letters and numbers that I use it and recommend it over and over again.
Endless Alphabet-I really can't get enough of all the Originator apps, but their original Endless Alphabet app will always hold a special place in my heart.  Kids not only learn how to identify letters, they learn their sounds and how to put those letters together to make words.  My daughter's understanding of vocabulary has really increased (like the word belch is super funny) from using this app.
Writing Wizard-this app by L'Escapadou is another one of my go-to's in regards to handwriting.  What I like about this one is that you can not only practice letters, but create word lists for your child.  Great for working on sight words!
***one of my favorite iPad tricks is to use a stylus for all appropriate apps.  My new favorite is the Cosmonaut Stylus, the iCreate Crayon Stylus and the Kikkerland Design Mini Retro Pen Stylus.  

5.  Write Books-one of the most motivating activities I have done with handwriting involves stickers.  When my kids have hit a bit of a wall with handwriting but I know that they know how to write the letters, I have parents pick up a bunch of stickers of something their kids are super motivated by.  For example, I had a kid years ago who put up such a fight about practicing his letters.  It was clear that he was bored and we needed to spice things up.  Well, this kid loved sports and I had his mom buy all kinds of stickers and he had to write the team names for each sticker.  It was so fun to watch him learn to love how to write.  For the first time, he began to understand that if you put a bunch of letters together you could write words and the most exciting thing for him was that he could write the names of sport's teams.  I have done this with the Disney Princesses, Shopkins, superheroes and a bunch of other things.  In the end, the kids get to take home this booklet (I also will print out coloring pages with pictures of similar themed things as to the book they are writing) and show off their weeks of hard work.

6.  Find a Penpal-one of the reasons I am really excited for my daughter to learn how to really write is because once she does, she will begin writing a Circle Journal with her aunt who lives in California.  Basically, they will write letters to each other in a journal that will go back and forth between Brooklyn and Los Angeles.  This is something my sister already does with my older nieces and I know that it is something that will not only help with Quinn learning how to write better, but something that will help her keep in touch with someone she loves who she doesn't get to see all the time.  While we are fortunate enough to have Facetime and email, I love the idea of my daughter being able to write letters and look forward to getting actual mail.  For your kids, you can pick out a bunch of fun postcards or have them help decorate their own stationery and choose one person per week to write to.  Designate a night to write the letter so it becomes something to look forward to each week.  Make sure that you choose people to write to who will write back so they can have the excitement of not only sending mail, but recieving it.

So these are some of the ways I am making handwriting fun not only for the kids I work with but my own kid.  Not to repeat myself, but it's so important that in a day and age where learning has become such work at such a young age, I want to stress how important it is to make it fun when at home. Sometimes just finding the best writing instruments (we are a big fan of the Yummy Yummy Scented Glitter Gel Pens in my house) for your kid will make handwriting fun.  Maybe it is finding the coolest journal or making fun stationery that will make your kid excited to write.  Whatever it is that motivates and excites your kid, make sure you maximize on that opportunity.

Now that I have shared some of my ideas, I would love to hear from any and all of you....parents, teachers and/or therapists....please let me know what your favorite writing activities are.  I am always so excited and grateful to hear from you all and your ideas help so many people.  I am only a click away and truly love hearing from you all!

Friday, January 22, 2016

Snow Day!

With the anticipation of the impending snow this weekend, I thought I would focus today's post on both outdoor and indoor activities you can do with your little ones.  We know that kids love being outside playing with the snow...making snow angels, going sledding, building snowmen and snowball fights are the obvious ones.  But we all know that as soon as your kid has to use the bathroom or they get cold, they want to be inside STAT!  Once they are inside, us parents are all worried about what we will do to keep everyone sane the rest of the day.

Below, I have shared some of my favorite winter activities that you can do with your kids.  All are fun and have a therapeutic value to them.  Whether it be building overall body strength, working on improving fine motor skills or encouraging cooperative play and social skills, they are all fun and don't require much more than things you will find at home or outdoors.

1.  Wanna Build a Snowman?-if the forecast is correct, many of us will have enough snow to make a snowman!  Snowman building is a great activity for so many reasons.  It's perfect for encouraging working as a group with your friends or siblings.  Also great for working on improving upper body strength, body awareness and encouraging creativity.  If building with little kids, use this as an opportunity to talk to them and teach them about all the different body and face parts.

2.  Snowball Games-kids love making snowballs!  Who am I kidding....everyone loves snowballs!  Sometimes snowball fights can get out of control so you have to think of solutions for that not to happen.  How about setting up targets for your kids to throw snowballs at instead of at each other?  Or how about a snowball catch where you see how many times you can toss it back and forth to each other before it falls apart?  There are lots of fun things you can do with snowballs that doesn't have to be throwing it at another person.

3.  Make Hot Chocolate-nothing tastes better after spending hours outside playing in the snow than a cup of hot chocolate.  Let your kids help you make the hot chocolate.  Whether you have them scoop the chocolate powder into the mug and let them stir or make hot chocolate from scratch.  Check out these great recipes from this PopSugar post a couple of winters ago.

4. Blow Bubbles in the Cold-when the temperature drops below 32 degrees, really cool things happen with bubbles.  Try and dig out some of your bubbles that you have hidden somewhere waiting for summer weather and bring them out into the cold.  See what happens when you blow them and catch them with the wand!  You and your kids will all be amazed by what happens.

5.  Tic-Tac-Snow-use a stick to make a giant tic-tac-toe board in the snow.  Collect some branches to make Xs and pinecones or rocks for Os.

6.  Snow Ice Cream-this may be harder for us city dwellers, but snow ice cream is an easy and fun activity to do with your kids.  You will need:
1/2 cup half & half or whole milk
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla
4 cups clean snow
Blend the milk, sugar and vanilla together until the sugar dissolves.  Mix the 4 cups of snow and stir until the mixture is the consistency of ice cream.  Eat plain or add your favorite toppings!

7.  Paper Snowflakes-if your kids need to warm up and you aren't quite ready to plop them in front of the television quite yet, how about having them make their own snowflakes.  I remember spending hours and hours as a kid making paper snowflakes.  I loved how you could do it again and again and like a real snowflake, no two snowflakes were ever the same.  As I have been on the hunt for fun winter themed activities for my  kids at work, I stumbled upon these name snowflakes on Childhood 101.  It takes a little bit of practice and definitely better for older kids but once you get the hang of it, you will be obsessed and want to make one for every single person you know!

8.  Craft It Up-there are a lot of fun and simple crafts that you can do on these snowy days.  I don't know about you all, but I happen to have a little girl who could craft all day long and doesn't need snow days as an excuse.  Some of our favorites are:
Make Homemade Playdough
Valentine's Day Crafts
Homemade Snow Globes
Washi Tape Crafts
Coloring and Activity Books (click on the link to check out my post from the holidays for ideas)

9.  Send out Postcards/Write a Letter-one of my sisters has a job that takes her all over the USA.  One of the things that she has started with all the kids in her life is to send postcards from wherever she ends up.  My daughter looks forward to this mail and learning about new places in our country.  One thing you can do with your kids is have them pick out a friend, cousin or other family member to write a letter to and tell them all about their snowy day adventures.  It's not only a great way to work on handwriting but also a great way for kids to recall and talk about what they did with people who may not have been home to enjoy it with them.

10.  Get Physical-if your kids start to get a bit stir crazy and need to get some energy out, think of all the great games that you can play inside to get them up and moving.  I tend to suggest to parents that they have a secret stash of games that they take out on cold or rainy days.  I especially like ones that encourage movement in kids.  Here are some board games/activities that are you can save for these kinds of days:
5 Little Monkeys On The Bed
Kids on Stage
Zoom Ball
Simon Says
Hide and Seek

While I know that I will be outside as much as I can, I do know that I will need to have backup plans to keep my own daughter busy and not attached to an iPad or television once we are inside.  I can't wait to begin some new snowy day traditions with her now that she is older and doing so much more.  Do you have any favorite snowy/cold day activities, crafts or cooking/baking activities that you do with your kids?  Would love to hear what kinds of fun and creative things you all do!  I'm always a click away and love hearing from you all!

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Stick It To Me!

According to my friends at Red Tricycle today is National Sticker Day which I love to know.  I have always loved stickers.  As a matter of fact, I have a little folder at home with some of my favorite childhood stickers and my daughter loves to look at them!  Stickers play a huge role in my work life as well.  They are used for way more than just a reward at the end of a great session.  Stickers can be used to work on improving fine motor skills, grasping skills and a ton of visual motor and perceptual skills.  You can work on improving bilateral coordination and crossing midline by taking the stickers and placing them on one hand and having them take the stickers off with their other hand.  I have also worked on improving upper body strength by placing a piece of paper on a wall above a child's head, placing stickers on the floor or on their feet and have them bend down to take them off and reach up high to put them on the paper.  Below, you will find a few more ideas of what you can do with stickers with your kids.  The best part about these all of these activities are ones that they are easy enough to do at home with them.

Writing-I have found that once kids learn how to write the letters of the alphabet, they need to start using that skill in a functional way.  I have used stickers of sports teams, characters or various objects to do just that and kids adore it.  I actually just started a Shopkins Book with one of my little guys who was clearly getting bored of just practicing his letters.  I couldn't get over how motivated he was and how all those letters that he had been struggling with were written with ease.  I was also excited because he was asking how to write the letters he didn't know and immediately practiced them.

Cutting-using stickers during cutting activities is a great motivator as well.  I will have kids put stickers on the top of a piece of paper and then draw lines from the bottom of the paper up to the sticker.  Depending on the child's skill level, the lines will be straight, curved or zig zags.  When cutting out shapes, I place the stickers along the shape (i.e. at the corners of a square or triangle) which gives them a visual reminder to turn the paper once they cut to that sticker.

Orb Factory Sticky Mosaics-I have probably talked about these a million times on this blog but they are the best and can work on so many occupational therapy goals.  These little sticker squares are great for working on improving grasping skills, grasp strength and eye-hand coordination.  At the end, the kids get a piece of art or some kind of cool project that they have completed that they get to show off.  My daughter's favorite are these Silly Snack ones because they remind her of her current obsession, Shopkins.  The variety in the Orb Factory line is amazing and you won't have any problem finding a set that will be sure to bring a smile to your child's face.  These are also a great activity to use during therapy sessions.  Place it on an easel to work on improving shoulder stability and upper extremity strength or have them work on it while they are lying prone over a bolster or on a new swing.

Sticker Puzzles-another one of my favorite therapy activities.  These sticker puzzles by Lee Magic Pen are an incredibly motivating activity for my little friends at work.  They also come in a variety of sizes so you can find ones that are good for preschoolers and ones that are good for the older kids in your life.  The goal is simple:  you have a grid with numbers on them.  You then take the a sheet of stickers with numbers on them (in mixed order), peel the stickers off and place them in the matching square.  These tend to be even more motivating for the kids on my caseload because there are 8 different puzzles in each booklet and they feature popular characters.  The Frozen and Cars ones are by far the most popular amongst my kids.  Great for working on improving fine motor skills like grasping and strengthening, eye-hand coordination and visual tracking skills.  I like that you can grade the activity based on each child's skill level.  For example, if you are working with a young child, you can give them the stickers in order so they don't get frustrated.  For older kids, you have them do it indepenently.  Best part, these are crazy inexpensive, lightweight and travel easily to keep your kids occupied on a plane, in a car or at restaurants.

Stickers in general are a great thing to have in your bag of tricks. They are relatively inexpensive and easy to carry around.  If you check out your local toy stores or stationary stores, you will be shocked to see the variety of great stickers at an affordable price.  My favorites are Smickers scented stickers and books and the Kawaii stickers.  Another big hit amongst my kids (especially my own daughter) are the Usborne Sticker Dolly Dressing books.   What I love about them is that you can be creative with them and kids love them so you can really hide the fact that you are doing "work" with them.

Now that I know it is National Sticker Day, I plan on having a lot of sticky fun with my kids today.  What are your favorite things to do with stickers?  Do you have a favorite sticker book or collection that you would reccomend to me and my readers? I am just a click away I love hearing from you all and value your ideas!

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Genius...Super Genius!

My daughter is in the process of learning how to read.  She's on the verge but for whatever reason, is resisting and has hit a bit of a wall which can get frustrating for this mom!  Part of me thinks that she is afraid that once she learns how to read that we will stop reading to her.  Even though we have promised her that we will always have our nighttime reading routine, she doesn't seem to want to take the final leap and read herself.
In the process of her learning, I have also tried to find fun word games that will help us work together to get her over this hump.  As you all know, there are a ton of options out there and many of them are just too educational which is just not going to be what works with my daughter.

The other day, I spent some time at one of my local Park Slope toy stores at their game choices.  My eyes quickly spotted the Blue Orange logo on a learning game and I was sold.  For those of you who aren't familiar with Blue Orange, they are the masterminds behind some of my favorite games:  Thumbs Up, Doodle Quest and all of the Spot It games.  Not only are their products fun, they are educational.  But they are more fun than educational making kids want to play them over and over again.

I picked up Super Genius First Words and Super Genius Reading 1 to use with my daughter who is still focusing on learning simple sight words (at this point, we are trying to master 3 letter words) and so far, so good.  There are other versions of the game for those who are already reading and can handle the challenge of larger words.  There is also a math version of the game that works on addition and multiplication.  I've used this a bit with my daughter and can't wait to bring it to work to test out with some of my other kids there.

If you are familiar with and love the the Spot It games, you will be a big fan of the Super Genius games.  The concept of the game is pretty similar:  you have to find the matches between two cards.  The biggest difference is that instead of finding the matching pictures, you are trying to match the word to the corresponding picture or in the case of the math ones, you are looking for the matching number and math problem.  There are many ways to play the game which keeps it fresh and exciting for you and your kids:
Face Off-Score the most cards at the end of the game by being the first to find the match between the two faceup cards
Flip Flap-get rid of your cards as fast as possible
Sardines-have the most cards at the end of the game
Click Clack-find the pair between two cards
Cooperative-remove all the cards from the table by matching them to their neighboring cards

Super Genius works on the following skills:
Visual Perceptual Skills-great way to work on improving eye-hand coordination, visual tracking and visual attention.  As you scan your cards for matching pictures and words, you are building crucial visual skills necessary for reading and writing.
Executive Functioning Skills-fun game to work on improving focus, attention and organizational skills.  These are critical skills for school aged children as the academic expectations increase and they are required to focus for longer periods of time.
Speech/Language and Reading Skills-clearly this game was meant for working on improving reading skills.  But it is also great for improving speech and language skills.  This can be used by parents and speech therapists to also work on building a child's language and conversational skills.
Graphomotor Skills-If you are working on a 1:1 basis with a child and they are also working on handwriting skills, you can adapt this game so that they have to write the words as they find the match.  Encourage them to work on spacing, sizing and/or upper and lowercase letters.  If you have a child who needs to develop drawing skills, you can have them draw a picture for every word they write as well.  When possible and appropriate, encourage kids to work on holding their writing instrument with an appropriate grasp.
Social Skills-what I love about almost every single one of the Blue Orange games is that they all have a social focus.  Whether it be working as a team to find the matches or encouraging kids to be a good sport when they win or lose, Super Genius can be used to work on many social skills that are vital for kids growing up to work well with others.

For any of you who are dealing with a kindergartener (or any student) and all the unrealistic learning expectations, I completely sympathize and understand how important it is to try and keep learning fun. Due to the nature of my job, my own kid ends up not getting as much of my focus and attention at the end of the day when it comes to her school work.  Because of that, I have made it a point to find fun games that will motivate both of us at the end of our busy work and school days.  I was so happy that my daughter was excited to play Super Genius.  I was even more excited that she didn't feel stressed out and ended up feeling proud of herself as she sounded out the words and then found the matches between the two cards.  Keeping learning fun is my goal with not only my daughter but every single child I work with.

What are your favorite educational games?  Specifically, what educational games focused on reading and literacy are your favorites?  I'm more personally interested these days...I know the power of reading and how magical it is and can't wait for that for my daughter.  Please feel free to share your ideas with me.  I am always a click away and love hearing from you all!