Friday, July 21, 2017

The Plus of Plus Plus Blocks!

As I mentioned in my last blog post, I am spending the summer learning as much about open ended play and how I could incorporate it more into my therapy sessions.  While I understand the importance of having specific activities in order to reach goals and parent/teacher expectations from occupational therapy, I think that there is an incredible benefit to incorporating open ended play materials into my sessions.  For me, I have come to the realization that if I search hard enough, I can find open ended materials that will work on reaching a variety of occupational therapy goals.

One might wonder what my sudden interest in open ended play is.  My interest was initially peaked by watching my daughter during the school year and how her structured routine over the course of the week was having an impact on her ability to "play" without us helping her decide what she should do and how she should do it.  She was constantly worrying about whether or not things were right and would like what she was doing or would they be disappointed with it.  I was watching her become more anxious about things and not enjoying them as much as she should have.  So, with some inspiration from the Instagram feed from the Workspace for Children, I began exploring the idea of open ended play with Quinn.  What I learned about open ended play is that it it is crucial for the development of imagination and creativity in children of all ages.  Through open ended play, kids can develop a variety of social and emotional skills such as empathy, cooperation, problem solving, and improved self-confidence and self-esteem.  There are also a number of cognitive benefits of open ended play including working memory, self-regulation, organizational skills and so much more.  So the more opportunities that children have to engage in open ended play, the more we are preparing them to be successful in school.

One of the first things that I purchased from the recommendation of Lizzie from the Workspace for Children were Plus Plus construction toys. I am not stranger to the Plus Plus products, and there have been many times in which I walked into different toy stores over the years and would be drawn to those little tubes filled with little pieces that look like plus signs.  There were several times I had them in my hand to purchase and then looked at those little pieces and thought about kids putting them in their mouths or getting frustrated if they were hard to put together.  I can't believe that I waited so long to bring these into work (or introduce them to my own daughter).  They are a great tool for any occupational therapist's tool chest because even if you move around from school to school or between homes, they are lightweight and take up very little space.  There are a variety of colors, so you can work on having kids learn their colors or work on matching and sorting when using them.  I have been encouraging kids to make whatever they want using the pieces and tell them they will have to tell me a story about what they built after.  There is no right or wrong thing to build or story to tell.  The most important thing is that they have fun.  For some of my older kids, I might tell them they need to use a certain number of pieces in whatever they create because even though I want them to be creative, I also want them to gain strength in their hands.  For smaller hands or children who might not have the strength and dexterity to use the regular size Plus Plus, you can use the Plus Plus Midi which are the same design but bigger and easier for smaller hands to manipulate.  Like the regular Plus Plus blocks, they come in a variety of bright or pastel colors.  I have been using them to help some of my younger kids learn their colors while they build.

One of the newest products from Plus Plus also happens to be another one of my favorite occupational therapy tools.  The Baseplate Builder is similar to the baseplate for Legos.  It acts as a platform for kids to be able to build scenes or anything else they want with the blocks.  My daughter happens to love everything rainbow and unicorns and built this awesome two level waterfall and rainbow scene using two baseplates while she was building a few weeks ago.  One thing that I have seen done with them is to practice building letters, numbers or shapes.  Any opportunity a child has to learn these types of things in a multi-sensory and playful way, the more likely they are to learn them at a faster pace.

In addition to all the things already mentioned, Plus Plus blocks can be used to work on the following occupational therapy goals:

Improves Grasping and Manipulation Skills-sometimes the simpler something is, the better it is.  In this case, Plus Plus' are just the right size to encourage appropriate grasping skills.  I have noticed more often than not, the kids are utilizing a fine-pincer grasp to pick them up and then manipulate them to put them together.  If you want to really work on developing age-appropriate grasping skills, you can use the Baseplate Builder.  I have had the kids use their pincers to place the pieces in and then remove them.  For some of my older and stronger kids, I have them lie in the net swing and use the Plus Plus' and the baseplate.  This is a great way to work on increasing upper extremity strength; increasing upper body strength leads to improved fine motor and manipulation skills.

Improves Bilateral Coordination Skills-the beauty of this activity is that you have to use two hands in order to put the pieces together and build things.  If you are using the baseplate, kids are forced to hold the plate down with the hand that is not putting the pieces in or taking them out.

Improves Visual Motor and Perceptual Skills-while I like to let the kids use them and build whatever they want, you also provide kids with templates on how to build certain things.  There are many kids who are in occupational therapy because they need to strengthen their visual skills so following visual directions when building with the Plus Plus blocks is a fun way to work on this skill.

Improve Social Skills-I have purchased a few sets of both the Plus Plus Midi and regular Plus Plus' blocks in a variety of colors so there are plenty for kids to share.  Whether it be at home, at the gym or in my social skills groups, I like to encourage kids to work together to create something.  For some kids, they need to work on thinking outside of their box and following the plan that someone else might have come up with.  In my social skills group, I allow the kids to play with the blocks for a few minutes on their own but tell them that in x-amount of time they will need to combine whatever they are building to make something bigger.

I could have gone on and on about the benefits of the Plus Plus building bricks!  The most important thing to me is that I provide a place and the proper tools for the kids I work with to work on all these skills.  I take great joy in knowing that there are materials out there that can provide so many therapeutic benefits without it seeming like a therapy toy.  This makes it more likely that the  kids will want to play with them not only during our sessions, but at home with their parents, siblings or with their friends.  I know that many families are planning on going on summer vacations and looking for things to bring with them and I couldn't recommend Plus Plus building bricks more.  They are lightweight and take up almost no room at all.  They are great for airplanes or keeping kids occupied in a restaurant without having to pull out an iPad or phone to keep them from complaining.

Do you have a favorite open ended building toy?  Especially ones that travel well?  Would love to hear your family favorites....I am only a click away and love hearing from you all!

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

A Popping Good Time!

There are a few toys/tools that pretty much every occupational therapist and therapeutic gym has.  One of those are wrapper snappers or pop tubes.  This simple toy can bring endless hours of joy to kids and the therapeutic benefits are endless.  They are great for working on improving bilateral coordination, grasp strength, manipulation skills and problem solving and motor planning.  Kids love the funny sounds that they make as you push them together and pull them apart.  And you can be super creative and do lots of other fun things with them like make a marble run or use it as a slide for little toys to sort into different color containers.  The best part, they are inexpensive and easy to throw in a travel bag.

This past weekend, I was in my local toy store looking for a birthday present.  Imagine my surprise, okay, my childlike excitement when I found this amazing box filled with mini wrapper snappers and little plastic connecting pieces called Popoids.  Upon closer inspection, I discovered that Popoids was a popular toy in the late 70s/early 80s (my own childhood).  The toy is basically the same as the original one with some minor changes.  Each box comes with 60 pieces....36 pop tubes in a variety of colors and 24 connectors.  Don't get scared about that number of pieces....the box they come in is incredibly sturdy so you can use that as storage.  And if you want to keep your kids occupied on a long car ride, to take on vacation or eating out, you can pack a handful in a ziploc bag and throw them into your bag.  There are plenty of things your child can create with just a handful of the Popoids.

I am going to put this out there and say it might be one of the best toys I have purchased in a really long time.  In the week that it has been in my gym, just about every kid has used it and has had the best time.  One of the things that I am looking for in toys these days is that they encourage creativity in kids.  During the summer months, I want to not only work on meeting the IEP goals of kids, but also want to help kids think outside of the box and begin to use their imagination when building with different toys.  The best thing about this particular toy is that not only does it work on a bunch of occupational therapy goals, it encourages creativity and open-ended play.  There is no right or wrong which is a welcome change for so many kids who are used to having to do things just right in school or therapy.  Providing children with the opportunity to play with open ended materials such as Popoids help develop problem solving skills and enhances cognitive and executive functioning skills such as working memory, flexibility and self-regulation.

In addition to all that I have already mentioned, Popoids help work on the following occupational therapy skills:
Improves Grasp Strength/Manipulation Skills-pop tubes have been one of my go to finger/upper extremity strengthening activities since day one.  I have been using the smaller pop tubes from the Popoids set to "warm up" the muscles of the hands before kids do graphomotor activities.  The good thing is that the kids are having so much fun, they don't even realize they are doing work.
Improves Bilateral Coordination Skills-whether you are pulling the pop tubes apart or pushing them together, attaching pop tubes to each other or to the other pieces, kids have to use two hands.  For some of the kids I work with who have decreased upper extremity strength and shoulder stability, I have to really encourage them to not use their belly to stabilize/make this task easier.
Encourages Creativity-while there is a little guidebook to show you some of the things you can make with the Popoids, very vew of the kids that have played with them have wanted to use it.  They are having more fun building their own creations.  Whether it be a fireman hose, robots or a some kind of crazy alien, kids are choosing what they want to make and then they choose their pieces, put them together and then playing with them.  So in addition to improving creativity, it is encouraging open-ended play opportunities which many of the kids I work with don't get nearly enough time to do.
Improves Social Skills-I've had more fun watching the kids I work with play together and come up with something to build and then play with.  They have had to sometimes negotiate and be flexible about trying something different than they were thinking about making.  They have to share pieces or sometimes help their friend put the pieces together.  Once they are done creating their masterpieces, they can play together.

Here are a few other things you can do with the Popoids.
*have kids work on matching and sorting colors.  Make sure that you have them identify the colors as they sort them.
*for kids working on shapes, have them put together a few pop tubes and manipulate them into shapes.
What are some of your favorite open ended building materials?  I would love to hear from you about other great toys that will encourage and motivate creativity.  I am only a click away and love hearing from all of you.