Friday, September 22, 2017

More Than Pen and Paper

As an occupational therapist for school age children, one of the things I work on a lot of the time is the development of age-appropriate  graphomotor skills (the combination of cognitive, perceptual and motor skills that lead to drawing and writing).  For most kids, this is a skill that they learn naturally and without much support required.  However, for some, this can be a really frustrating thing for some kids I work due to a variety of reasons.  For some, decreased grasp strength and manipulation skills makes it challenging for some kids to have the endurance to write for long periods of time.  Some kids may have visual motor and perceptual difficulties so they may have a hard time learning how to draw or learn how to write letters and numbers.  Then there are the children with learning challenges.

No matter what is causing them to have trouble with the development of graphomotor skills, my  job is to make sure that when I am working with the kids, that I make it as fun as possible.  I try and with so I try and make it as fun as possible.  I also like to come up with activities and ideas that can be done at home with parents and caregivers so they can practice and generalize the skills. And for a variety of reasons, I try and come up with ideas that don't require the use of pen and paper.  Not only is it better for our environment, kids tend to think that the activity is less work and more fun if you don't require them to use an actual writing instrument.

Below, I share a handful of the products and activities I have found to be helpful in teaching kids how to draw and write without using pen/pencils and paper.  They are things that I have not only found useful at the gym when working with kids, but have also heard from parents that they can use at home with success.  

Etch-A-Sketch-I remember using an Etch-A-Sketch as a child and always being frustrated by not having the coordination, motor planning or creativity to make something cool on an Etch-A-Sketch.  In the end, I would have some crazy looking mess on the screen!  So when I was in a local store (Stoopher and Boots) on the UWS, and saw the newest version, the Etch-A-Sketch Freestyle Drawing Pad,  I knew I had to get it for work.  There are a lot of things I like about this for handwriting purposes.  First of all, it comes with a stylus attached to it; it is the perfect size for little hands and encourages a proper grip for my emerging writers.  It's lightweight and and doesn't take up much space making it perfect for throwing into a backpack or bag when traveling.

Boogie Board-I've been a big fan of the Boogie Board for years and always have a couple of them in the gym.  This LCD writing tablet is a great way to work on improving graphomotor skills.  I love how the Boogie Board has evolved over the years and now there are 3 different kinds that were designed for kids.  We use the traditional Boogie Board to create lists with the kids who require more structure and routine to be successful in the sessions.  After they complete each activity, they check it off.  I really like the Scribble n' Play board because it is colored and comes with 4 different kinds of stylus' (each with a different tip) to use when drawing on it.  The Magic Sketch set is another favorite with the kids.  This set comes with a see through screen that allows kids to trace pictures, letters, numbers, etc..  It also comes with 4 different kinds of writing instruments, a roller stamp, 3 stamps and 60 stencils with different kinds of activities.  All of the Boogie Boards are lightweight and can be thrown in your bag making it perfect for traveling, entertaining kids at a restaurant or while waiting for appointments.

Buddha Board-this simple toy is great for working on drawing and handwriting.  The Original Buddha Board comes with a board to draw on, a bamboo paintbrush and a stand to prop the board in to.  Kids dip their paintbrush into water and draw away.  What I really like about the Buddha Board is that it requires nothing but water....there is no ink to stain clothing.  I also like how the stand allows for the board to propped up so kids can work on a vertical surface which we know is great for kids.

iPad with a Stylus-the use of an iPad is not for all, but I have found it to be a highly motivating tool for learning how to write, especially for my more resistant clients.  I never use just the iPad but will use it in conjunction with a Boogie Board, chalkboard or dry erase board. I've found some really great drawing and letter writing apps that make learning fun for the kids.  LetterSchool is one the most popular apps amongst all my kids; nobody ever complains about having to practice writing when I bring this app out.  Whenever kids use the iPad, they have to use a stylus so we can work on grasp development at the same time.  My favorite one is the Cosmonaut stylus; it's a bit more expensive, but it's incredibly durable and is wider than most of them which encourages a tripod like grasp.  Another app I use a lot for drawing and writing is Bord, which turns your iPad into a chalkboard.  Kids like that they can choose the color

Legos-for some kids, using Legos can motivate them to do just about anything!  In my gym, we have a big container of extra Lego pieces so we can allow the kids to be more creative when playing with them.  Years ago, I bought these Lego Mosaic sets that come with tons of little square cubes and see-through baseplates so you can copy picture designs.  Recently, I have been writing letters on paper and having the kids practice writing their letters this way.  Another thing I am hoping to add to the gym I work in is installing a couple of large Lego baseplates onto a wall on the gym so kids can use our extra Legos to practice making letters, numbers and shapes.  One of the reasons I like this activity is that it also works on improving grasp strength and in-hand manipulation skills at the same time.  Additionally, if you have a baseplate on the wall, you can have kids work on a vertical surface which is great for increasing upper extremity strength, shoulder stability and core strength.

Cookie Sheet with Sprinkles-another fun way to practice drawing and writing is by putting different kinds of foods on a cookie sheet or a baking pan (cover the entire surface) and either having the kids use their fingers or a paintbrush to draw.  Some ideas of foods that can be used are rice, beans and sprinkles.  This is an easy activity to grade for kids at different levels.  For example, younger kids can copy letters or shapes from flashcards while older kids can write them with just a verbal prompt from a grownup.  If you have a child who has an immature grip on writing instruments, make sure to provide them with a paintbrush so they can work on that at the same time.  If you have a child with tactile defensive tendencies, this would be a good activity to do with them.
Playdough-playdough is another material to use to practice shapes, letters, numbers, etc..  There are two ways you can do this based on the age of the children and their skill level.  For younger children who are just learning, I suggest that parents get a set of letter and number cookie cutters or stamps.  I love this set of Alphabet Stamps by Lakeshore Learning because they have a nice handle for the kids to hold onto.  Have the the kids roll the playdough out and start making "cookies" or press the stamps into the playdough.  If using cookie cutters, you can have them match letters on a puzzle or alphabet placemat or write the names of all your family members on pieces of paper and have them match the letters to the names.  For older children, you can have them form playdough into letters without any kind of visual prompt provided.
This activity has an added benefit of working on improving fine motor strength and manipulation skills, encourages bilateral coordination and can work on improving visual motor and perceptual skills.
Shaving Cream/Bathtub Crayons-I like to offer activities to parents that are easy to fit into a schedule.  So many parents feel guilty about not being to spend as much time working on occupational therapy goals so I try and come up with ideas that are easily built into their routine.  An easy thing to do is work on handwriting and drawing during bath time using shaving cream.  Have kids spray a generous amount on the wall and have them practice drawing shapes or pictures and writing letters and numbers.  Mr. Bubble has kid-friendly shaving cream that can also double as soap to clean your kids.  Some kids are resistant to touching shaving cream so you can also check out these awesome Bathtub Crayons by Crayola (these might be even better for some of your older kids so you can sneak in some work on pencil grip!).
In addition to being great for graphomotor skills, this activity also works on increasing upper extremity strength, shoulder stability and core strength because they are working on a vertical surface.  This could also be a fun chance to work on social skills with a sibling by having them create scenes together or play games like Tic-Tac-Toe or Hangman.

Dry Erase Boards/Chalkboards-one of my top recommended gifts on my annual gift guide, especially for pre-schoolers, is an upright chalkboard.  It's a great way to encourage creativity and introduce young children to letters and numbers.  At the same time, kids can work on increasing upper extremity strength, shoulder stability and core strength while having fun.  As kids get older, I have found that they tend to like a dry erase board better.  My daughter loves to practice her spelling words on her portable dry erase board.  One thing I like to do with the kids at work with both my portable chalkboard and dry erase board is to write letters, have the kids erase them and then write them again.  This multi-step way of practicing helps them learn quicker.  Plus, they can practice, make mistakes and not worry about wasting a ton of paper.
For many of the families I work with, an upright chalkboard may take up some precious real estate in their already cramped apartment so I couldn't have been more excited to find removable chalkboard and dry erase panels at Paper Source.  The Wallies Chalkboard Panels and the Writeyboard are removable sheets that can go on a wall or back of the door....or anywhere really....without taking up
any space.

Things to keep in mind with handwriting:
*Providing a multi-sensory approach to learning how to write not only makes it more fun for children, it helps them retain the information more effectively.
*When possible, have kids work on a vertical surface.  Working on a vertical surface is great for improving wrist and shoulder stability which is required for the development of fine-motor and manipulation skills.  It's also great for working on improving core strength and encourages good posture.
*Don't push kids too much during handwriting tasks.  If you see they are fading out or getting frustrated, take a break or switch the activity up.  We want to make sure that kids are having fun and learning instead of having it be something anxiety producing.
*Find things that interest a child (characters, sports, etc.) and incorporate them as much as possible into handwriting activities.  For example, for some of my older kids who are really into sports, I have them practice by writing sports teams or their favorite players. 

As you can see, there are a lot of ways to make drawing and writing fun without picking up an actual pen and wasting paper.  Do you have activities that you do at home or at work with your kids that they love?  I would love to hear your ideas and know my readers would as well.  I am always a click away and love getting new ideas to put into practice at work and at home with my own daughter.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Ten OT Tools For Under $10

Often times, parents of the kids I work with are looking for activities that they can do at home to carryover the work we do in our sessions without spending a ton of money.  Seeing how it is NYC and people don't have a ton of space, they also don't want anything that takes up too much space.  Personally, I like to provide suggestions to parents that they can throw in their bag and easily take places.  Things that can keep kids occupied while waiting for an appointment, at a restaurant or for traveling.

There are so many great items out there that parents can use at home that will help develop skills in children.  These are things that don't cost a ton of money (which is a bonus if you have to buy for multiple children) that can be as therapeutic as the expensive toys out there.  Below, I share some of my favorite therapy tools that are all under $10.  Many can be found in little toy stores but I have shared links for online ordering.

Slime Suckers-I found these at a Learning Express and knew they would be a huge hit with the kids. First of all, I discovered them as the slime fad was at it's peak so anything slime related motivates kids.  Secondly, what kid doesn't love something a little gross?  This simple little toy is great for working on improving grasp strength and manipulation skills, bilateral coordination, hand-eye coordination, motor planning and organizational skills.  With a little squeeze, the animal (there are monsters, hedgehogs, pigs, etc.) sucks up the slime in the container; with another squeeze, and maybe have the kids make a silly sound, the slime comes shooting out of the toy.   One of the really great things about this toy is that it is small, lightweight and easy to carry around.  So if you are a therapist that travels a lot for work, these are perfect for you.

Zoo Stix-these are easily one of my favorite and most recommended tools for parents.  You can find them in lots of independent toy stores (I get mine at Little Things in Park Slope or Stationery and Toy World on the UWS of Manhattan).  These child-friendly chopsticks have different objects on top that connect the sticks together.  There are a variety of animals, cars, etc. so if you find the right object and color, the kids truly love using them.  Using child friendly chopsticks are a great way to work on improving grasp strength and manipulation skills, encourages bilateral coordination, hand eye coordination and can work on motor planning.  I've been using them at work since day one and love how versatile they can be.  In therapy sessions, I have kids use them to help pick up small pieces of games but their favorite thing is when I have them rescue my squishy dinosaursrobots, frogs and other animals.

Sticker Puzzles-a few years ago, when wandering around a local NYC toy store, I discovered these awesome sticker puzzles by Lee Publications.  I was initially drawn to the books because they had Frozen characters on them and that was the big thing at the time.  Each book comes with 8 different puzzles  and then they match numbers (as few as 8 and as many as 48 stickers per puzzle) to create images from their favorite tv shows and movies.  Kids are super motivated by this activity because they get to take their finished product home and show off what they did.  These are great for working on improving a variety of visual motor and perceptual skills, grasp and in-hand manipulation skills, hand eye coordination, number recognition, focus, attention and organizational skills.  There's a lot of ways to adapt this activity to work on other goals as well.  For example, if you need to work on improving shoulder stability and upper extremity strengthening, you can hang the picture up on the wall or on any other inclined surface.

Super Sonic Gyro Disc-I was so excited when I came across this toy in a little bookstore while on vacation a few weeks ago.  I remember playing with something similar to the gyro disc as a child and thought it would be a perfect addition to my occupational therapy tool box and a great toy for parents to have at home.
This simple and inexpensive toy (I picked mine up for under $5)  is great for working on improving bilateral coordination skills, increasing upper extremity strength, motor planning and organizational skills.  Kids are motivated by the spinning noise and how the LED lights light up once they get it going.  This can be tricky for the kids to get started so I sometimes offer hand-over-hand assistance until they feel like they have the hang of it.  For older kids, I add a challenge by having them do this activity while balancing on a balance board or a bosu ball.

Hog Wild Popper Toy-finding the right toy to work on hand strengthening can be tricky because kids who are weak are very good at avoiding those kinds of activities.  When it comes to doing it at home, it really has to be motivating and seem like a toy and not a therapy activity.  The Hog Wild Popper toys are perfect for this and definitely are more fun than work.  My unicorn obsessed daughter has been gifted more of these than I can count and loves them.  There are TONS of poppers to choose from ranging from animals to team mascots and all are just under $10.  The balls are foam so there is little risk for them hurting someone else or breaking anything in your house.
In addition to hand strengthening, they are great for working on improving bilateral coordination, hand eye coordination, motor planning and focus and attentional skills.  You can also combine working on improving visual and gross motor skills by setting up a target that kids aim towards and then having them wheelbarrow walk, run or do some kind of animal crawl to retrieve the ball.

Wikki Stix-I first discovered Wikki Stix when at a restaurant with kids years ago.  Instead of the usual crayons and activity menu, this place gave out little packs of Wikki Stix to entertain the kids.  At first I was confused and wondered how it would possibly keep them quiet for an entire meal, but then I was fighting with the kids to play with them and I quickly understood.  For those of you not in the know, Wikki Stix are basically different colored wax covered yarn that can be bent into different shapes.  They can be used for play and for learning.  Kids can practice making different shapes, letters or numbers by bending the Wikki Stix.  For younger kids, you can have them put the Wikki Stix on printed out shapes, letters or numbers and for younger kids you can provide them with a blank piece of paper and have them create them without a visual cue.  They are incredibly durable and can't be ripped or torn (you can cut them into smaller pieces if you need to).  Wikki Stix are great for working on improving fine motor skills, such as improving grasp strength and manipulation skills, encourages bilateral coordination and can help work on improving tactile defensiveness because of it's sticky texture.

Wrapper Snapper/Pop Tubes-sometimes the simplest toys can bring kids tons of joy.  Wrapper snappers, or pop tubes as some call them, are one of those toys.  I always make sure to have a stash of them at work and they are always included in my annual gift guide.  They are great for working on improving bilateral coordination, grasp and upper extremity strength and motor planning.  If you get a bunch of different colors, they are a fun way to work on color recognition.  In our gym, we have kids use them as "slides" and they take small sorting bears and sort them into colored cups.  These are a great toy to have at home because they are lightweight and you can throw them into a bag.  An added bonus, they are really inexpensive so you can get some for all your kids!

Travel Notebook-another easy thing to have around that helps school age children who are working on improving their handwriting skills is a cool notebook.  There are a lot of notebooks to choose from, but I really like this one from OOLY because it comes with a little folder to hold things (my kid like to collect business cards, pamphlets, etc.), a place to store a writing instrument (comes with one but you can swap it out for whatever works for your kid) and a variety of different kinds of paper (lined, graph and plain) to write or draw on.  I love having a notebook with me at all times to keep my daughter entertained while at restaurants or when traveling.  Some things you can do with your kids:  play games like Hangman, Tic-Tac-Toe or the Dot Game.  I like to do things like I Spy with my daughter and have her write down things that might start with a certain letter, different types of animals she sees, etc..  It's a great way for her to practice handwriting and spelling and keeps her connected to her environment.  She loves that she has her own special notebook that nobody else can use and there are no real rules attached to it (like a school notebook which has to be used for very specific things).

Mad Libs-one of my absolute favorite things to recommend to work on handwriting at home is Mad Libs.  Who doesn't remember doing these as kids?  Not that I had forgotten about them, but I hadn't used them in a while until my daughter was learning how to read and write.  She was becoming so frustrated with learning this new skill that we had to find ways to make it fun and motivating.  She zipped through page after page and with each one, her writing and reading improved.  An added bonus, she was able to learn all about verbs, nouns, adjectives and all other parts of speech.  The variety of Mad Lib books that one can choose from is awesome.  They range from sports to Star Wars and other popular movies.  In addition to being a great way to work on handwriting, this can be a perfect social opportunity between siblings or on play dates.  For younger children, who are not quite ready for regular Mad Libs, you can check out Mad Libs Junior.  One is never too young (or old based on how much my husband and I enjoy doing them) for Mad Libs.

Mini Sport Games-the toughest kids to work with at home are the school-age kids because they are so busy with other things.  It's critical that if you are going to try and work with things at home with them that they are highly motivating and are matched with their interests.  There are a whole bunch of mini-sport games out there that can work on improving fine motor, manipulation, visual motor/perceptual and executive functioning skills (focus, attention, organization, etc.).  These games can also be used to work on improving social skills, especially to practice sportsmanship for kids who might struggle with winning/losing.  There could be lots of opportunities for role playing and working on strategies on how to deal with problems that might come up during sports.  Here are some of my favorites and all are priced under $10:
Fingerboard Ice Hockey
Football Fingerboard
Fingerboard Golf
FIKA Basketball
Mini Tabletop Basketball

Now that I have shared some of my favorite and affordable OT tools, I would love to hear from you about some of your favorites.  I know there are tons of things out there and would love to know what kinds of toys and products you use with your kids that get them to work without making it feel like work.  I am only a click away and love hearing from you all.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

These Are A Few Of My Favorite Supplies!

I have been procrastinating getting myself and daughter ready for the new school year.  For some reason, no summer seems to have gone by quicker than this one and I am not quite ready for the demands of a new school year.

One of the most exciting parts of a new school year, even as a parent, are the new school supplies.  There is something about the look of brand new supplies that makes me feel giddy!  As a therapist, parents ask me for advice about the best supplies for their children and I love being able to recommend ones that I have used at the gym and with my own daughter.  Some kids need a different kind of school supply in order to be most successful.  Whether it be a particular kind of writing instrument that helps encourage a proper grip or tools to help during homework time, it's important that we find what works for each child.  Below, I share some of my favorite school supplies and how they can help children.

See Through Pencil Case-for kids who have a difficult time with keeping track of and organizing their supplies, you can get a transparent pencil box or case.  If you put supplies in a box, you can sort pencils, crayons and miscellaneous items into smaller Ziploc bags so they can grab what they need without having to waste time on digging through everything.  Tiger Brand makes some great (and sturdy) zippered pencil cases in two different sizes which is another great option.

Colored Folders-another way to help kids as organized as possible is to assign different colored folders to each subject.  If your school requires a certain kind of folder, than you can place colored labels on top of the folders in order to help the kids find their folders easier.  Make sure you are consistent with the colors you use to label each subject.
*I tend to suggest plastic folders for the kids I work with as they don't rip as easy.  Kids I work with are prone to shoving lots of papers into their folders which can lead to them ripping.  Plastic ones have a bit more give and can handle a bit more wear and tear than the cardboard ones.  I love the Yoobi brand of folders for my own daughter; they are sturdy and offer a variety of colors for different subjects.  Even better, for every sale, Yoobi will donate supplies to classrooms in need all across the country.

Dry Erase Weekly Calendar
-one way to keep your family organized is to have a calendar visible for all to see.  This is not to keep track of homework, but more about keeping track of after school activities, parties, appointments, etc.. I typically suggest doing a weekly calendar and not a monthly one as it can get too overwhelming for kids, especially if you have a child who has organizational difficulties.  If you have more than one child, assign a different color dry erase marker so they can easily spot their activities.  Sitting down as a family on a Sunday and filling out the schedule together is a great way to get the whole family ready for the upcoming week and to discuss any plans or changes that might be happening.  This is particularly important if you have a child who presents with anxiety.

Mighty Zipper Pouch-I love this large pouch from OOLY for keeping things organized, especially for older kids who might have more and larger supplies (think calculators, rulers, etc.).  The pouch has 3 compartments with one of them being see-through making it easy to see some of the more important or most used supplies that your child may need.  The three compartments means you can organize writing instruments in one compartment, larger supplies in the other and miscellaneous supplies in the third.
**if you have a child who has a tendency to forget things in school, you can have one for home and one for school

Do-Overs Highlighters highlighters are an important school supply, especially as children get older and the demands increase.  They can be a helpful tool for organization during homework time.  I am a particular fan of the Do-Over highlighters by Ooly because it allows for kids to not get stressed out over making mistakes.  Highlighters can be used for lots of different things.  Obviously, highlighters are needed when reading and having to keep track of information.  For some kids, I have suggested that they use a highlighter to keep track of what homework they have completed; once they finish an assignment, they highlight it.

Weekly Planner- a good weekly planner is an essential tool for kids to help keep them organized.  As my own daughter climbs her way up in the grades, she is becoming responsible for having to write down her homework assignments and not count on a handout from her teacher with all of the assignments.  She is still too young for a full-on daily planner, but I have been on the lookout for them just in case it might help her or any of the other kids I work with.  I have fallen in love with the weekly planners by Yoobi as each week is on a side-by-side two page spread.  There is lots of space for them to write their assignments and room for extra notes when necessary.  In addition, there are coloring pages for the kids to fill in at the end!

Triangular Crayons-the triangle crayons by Crayola are my favorite, especially for younger children who are working on developing a proper grip on writing instruments.  The triangle shape and thicker width of the crayon encourages a tripod-like grasp.  I encourage parents and teachers to break the crayons into two or three smaller pieces because the smaller the crayon is, the less likely they are to hold onto it with a fisted grip.

Sticky Note Tabs-over the years, I have been asked to help kids with their homework during my sessions.  One of the things that I have observed is that for some kids, trying to ruffle through folders or workbooks to find their homework can be an incredibly disorganizing and a stressful way to start the homework process.  One method I have used is using sticky note tabs to mark the homework before leaving school could help homework time be less stressful at home.  That way they can reach into their folder and easily see what needs to be done.  Once they are done with the homework, they can remove the tab and put the paper back in their folders. For younger kids, I love the variety of sticky tab packs by OOLY (I actually had a hard time making a choice!).   For older kids, the Post-It Flags (which come in a variety of colors and sizes) are a great way for kids to organize their homework folders.

Accordion Folders-I don't know about you, but one of the things that I struggle with each year is what to do with all the assignments and art projects that my daughter comes home with.  One of the things we will be doing this year is getting a great big accordion folder that we can fill up at the end of every week or two with old assignments that she wants to keep.  For her, this 7-pocket folder by Five Star is plenty big enough as it will expand as we add things to it each cleanup and it will keep her homework folder and her backpack from getting cluttered and disorganized.

Some things to keep in mind:
* if you find something you love, make sure that you stock up on them just in case your child loses it, breaks it, etc.
*if you know you have a kid who has a tendency to leave things behind, be sure to have a backup stash at home; this is particularly important for a pencil case with all of the necessary supplies for homework.

So, these are a few of my favorite supplies.  Have you found special school supplies that have helped your children be more successful at school and at home?  I would love to hear what kinds of supplies and strategies have been helpful to be able to recommend them to my clients.

I hope that everyone has a wonderful, successful and organized school year!