Thursday, March 29, 2018

The Write Stuff!

There are several reasons children are referred to occupational therapy but one of the most common, especially for school age children, is because of difficulties with handwriting.  Expectations for handwriting jump pretty quickly between grades.  In most preschools, handwriting is a choice and done through more hands-on kinds of activities (which I totally support!) but in most kindergarten classes, children are expected to be able to write and then by first and second grade, they are expected to write for longer periods of time with accuracy.  Many of the kids who come my way are able to write but lack endurance or have an inefficient grip on their writing instruments that may lead to messy handwriting.

Below, I share a handful of my favorite writing instruments for children of all ages.  These are ones that I use in my practice and recommend to parents and other professionals all the time. 

Squiggle Wiggle Writer Pen-I was really excited when I saw that this pen was making a comeback.  I had used it almost daily when I first began working as an occupational therapist and loved how something could not only be motivating, but be therapeutic at the same time.  The Squiggle Wiggle Writer is vibrating pen that produces squiggly pictures.  It comes with 3 interchangeable pens which slide in and out of the tip of the pen (which is great for working on bilateral coordination).  The vibration is great for providing children with sensory input while drawing or writing which helps with focus and attention.  Kids are also given an opportunity to work on improving their creativity and imagination skills.  Since there are only three colors to choose from, I have the kids fill in details of their pictures using crayons, markers or colored pencils.
*the one downfall is that due to its weight, kids are not always able to use a tripod grasp when they hold it.  Most kids are observed to use a fisted grip to gain control of the pen which I don't always have them change.

Zebra Zensations Mechanical Colored Pencils-hands down, these are my favorite colored pencils I have used.  First of all, I am a huge fan of using mechanical pencils with children because it helps them work on grading the pressure they use when using them.  If you press too hard, the tip will break which gets frustrating after a few tries.  This set includes 24 colors but you can get a smaller set of 12 pencils here.  Another great things about these colored pencils is their triangular shape.  The triangle shape helps to encourage a tripod-like grasp when holding them.

Twist n' Write Pencil-I always have a collection of 1/2 pencils to use with the kids I work with.  The shorter a pencil is, the more likely they are to use a proper grasp.  However, there are many kids who require something else to encourage a better grip on pencils.  This typically happens due to decreased grasp strength and delayed manipulation skills.  I was introduced to the Twist n' Write pencil when I was seeking alternative writing instruments for my own daughter.  This pencil was designed for a child's hand.  The Y design not only encourages a child to utilize a tripod grasp for graphomotor tasks, it also forces them to use less pressure allowing them to write for longer periods of time without tiring.

Yummy Yummy Scented Glitter Gel Pens-I'm a complete sucker for gel pens.  Throw in scented and glitter gel pens and I am done for!  This set from OOLY is one of my daughter's favorite possessions and we must always have a backup set for her coloring, letter writing and list making projects.  I tend to only use gel pens with my older kids who I am trying to challenge more with more advanced coloring activities.  Gel pens are great because they are smoother and typically much brighter on paper.

Crayola My First Crayons-there are a lot of people who get anxious about giving toddlers any kind of crayons, markers, etc.. They are worried they may put them in their mouths or may draw on a surface they shouldn't.  I encourage parents to let their kids draw as early as possible, especially if they are showing an interest in it.  Crayola has launched a handful of new products meant just for little hands.  These egg-shaped crayons are the perfect size and shape for your little artist.  There are many benefits of children drawing at an early age including developing fine motor and grasping skills, encourages creativity and imagination, improves hand-eye coordination and bilateral coordination.  It's also a great way to introduce colors to children.  If you have an easel, I highly recommend having even the youngest of artists to use that because working on a vertical surface is great for kids of all ages.

 Mumbo Jumbo Chunky Markers-another one of my favorite products from OOLY.  As I mentioned above, it is important for even the youngest of children to explore and experiment with drawing as early as possible.  It's also important that we provide them with the right tools that will help them be successful.  These washable markers are great for little hands.  The box of 16 markers are short and have a thicker barrel making it easier for little hands to hold.  The colors are really bright.  Sometimes using markers are better for children, especially if they have decreased grasp strength since it requires less pressure to make markings on the paper.  This set of markers come in a sturdy box with a handle which my kids love to carry around.

Cosmonaut Stylus-for a variety of reasons, kids spend more time on tablets these days.  As with all things, as long as you don't overdo it, working on the iPad can provide a lot of benefits.  One of the things I recommend to all parents is that if they are going to let their kids use an iPad or other kind of tablet, be sure to have them use a stylus as much as possible to help develop fine motor and grasping skills.  I think this is especially important if your child is doing any kind of handwriting or drawing apps.  There are a lot of different stylus' to choose from but the Cosmonaut is my favorite.  It is a little pricier than some of the other ones made for children but it is far more durable.  I have had mine for several years and it still looks brand new.  The barrel of the stylus is thicker which encourages a tripod-like grasp when holding it.

Twee Sidewalk Chalk-as the weather gets warmer, kids tend to spend more time outside.  One of my favorite outdoor activity is drawing with chalk. While any sidewalk chalk will do, I am a particular fan of the fun ones by Twee.  These handmade sets are created in small batches by a Philadelphia based preschool teacher and are meant only for outdoor use.  I was drawn to them when I saw the adorable sets, especially the unicorn horn set that the Easter Bunny will be delivering to my unicorn obsessed daughter.  Some of my other favorite sets from Twee are the alphabet and letters and the sushi.  There are so many benefits of drawing with chalk outdoors including: develops fine motor skills, works on increasing upper extremity strength, motivates kids to practice letters and numbers and it encourages creativity.

Rainy Dayz Gel Crayons-one thing that motivates kids to write is when they can do it on a forbidden surface like a window or mirror!  Working on a vertical surface is wonderful as it works on a variety of developmental skills, especially promotes improved fine motor and gross motor development.  In addition, working on a vertical surface helps increase core and upper extremity strength while encouraging proper wrist position, head and neck position, promotes bilateral coordination and crossing midline skills.  There are a lot of different products out there, but my favorite are the these gel crayons by OOLY.  The colors are bright and they don't require too much pressure for colors them to show up on the mirror and window.  I like gel crayons because they do help children learn about using an appropriate amount of pressure.  Many of my kids who have decreased grasp strength are observed to use a lot of pressure when coloring.  If they use too much pressure when using these gel crayons, they will lose the tip of the crayon.  For older kids, you can play games like Hangman and Tic-Tac-Toe

Handwriting Without Tears Flip Crayons-one of the first things I tell parents, caregivers or educators when they have a child with an immature grip is to break crayons into little pieces.  To be completely honest, I don't think any preschool classroom should have full sized crayons for the kids to use.  The smaller the crayon is, the more likely it is that they will use a tripod-like grasp.  The HWOT Flip Crayons are great because they are about 2 inches long and have 2 colors making them a perfect size.

Some things to keep in mind when picking out writing tools for children:
-the smaller the writing instrument is, the more likely it is to encourage a tripod-like grasp
-for kids with decreased grasp strength, drawing and coloring with markers or gel crayons may be easier and decrease frustration when presented with more challenging activities
-work on a vertical surface whenever possible.  It's not only great for working on increasing upper extremity and core strength, it encourages wrist extension which is important for proper grasp on writing instruments

If you have any questions or are looking for something specific for your child, don't hesitate reaching out.  I am only a click away and love hearing from you all. 

Friday, March 23, 2018

Book of the Week-Waiting Is Not Easy

As an occupational therapist, a pretty common goal among many of the children I work with is helping them improve their ability to regulate themselves or be in better control of their bodies.  Our focus the last few weeks at The Meeting House has been self-control.  For those of you who aren't familiar with the term, self-control is the ability to control one's feelings or behaviors, particularly when in situations that may be difficult for them.

There are a ton of great children's books that deal with this particular subject in a fun manner.  Not only do they help children gain a better understanding of self-control but also provide some great strategies for those difficult times when they are having a hard time controlling their feelings or behaviors.  There are many ways difficulty with self-control can come across in children.  One of the most common things, especially in younger children, that they struggle with is waiting.  Kids have to do a lot of waiting.  Waiting for their turn, waiting in line, waiting for something they really want.  They have to wait for things at home, in school and even at after-school programs and at the playground.  Waiting is an unavoidable part of everyone's lives but for kids who have sensory processing difficulties, it is especially difficult for them.  You know that kid:  the one who shouts out an answer without raising their hands, the one who pushes to the front of the line or insists on being first when playing a game.  They are not trying to be "bad" so it's important for them to learn about the importance of waiting and even develop some strategies to help them through those tricky times.

This week I chose Waiting Is Not Easy by Mo Willems to help children learn about waiting.  I have been a huge fan of the Mo Willems' Piggie and Elephant series for a long time and love how they can help teach children about life lessons that so many struggle with.  In Waiting Is Not Easy, Gerald has to practice patience after Piggie tells him he has a surprise for him.  Gerald is not happy that he actually has to wait and wants it right away.  He asks questions throughout the day and grows increasingly frustrated that Piggie won't tell him what the surprise is.  At the end of the day when he finally gets his surprise, Gerald realizes that the wait was definitely worth the wait!

Below, you will find some questions you can ask your children and activities that you can do with them after reading Waiting Is Not Easy:

~ask your children about times that it has been difficult for them to wait.  Talk about how they feel when they have to wait.

~brainstorm strategies when they have to wait for something.  Some of the things I have taught kids is to take a deep breath, count backwards from 10 or sing some song.

~play games with your children.  This is a great way to practice waiting and turn taking with young children.  Make sure that they your child isn't always going first! Some of my favorite children's games are:
*Yeti In My Spaghetti
*Pop The Pig
*The Sneaky, Snacky Squirrel Game
*Tumbling Monkeys

~there are a lot of great gross motor games that work on self-control, regulation skills and waiting!  Here are a few of my favorite that you can play after reading Waiting Is Not Easy:
*Simon Says-children have to perform an action only when the leader says "Simon Says....".  For example, if the leader says, "Simon says touch your toes", they should perform the action.  If the leader says "Touch your toes", they should stay as is.
*Freeze Dance-blast music and have the kids dance (remind them to be aware of their friends and not run into their bodies!).  When the music stops, they have to freeze.  For an added challenge, I sometimes have the kids perform an action when they freeze (freeze in a big shape, freeze as an animal, etc.).  
*Red Light, Green Light-like vehicles, kids move on the green light and freeze on the red light.  Sometimes I will have a visual cue to help the kids at first.  For example, I will hold a red ball when I shout "red light" and a green ball when I shout "green light".  As they become comfortable with the game, I remove the visual prompts and have them rely on the verbal prompt.  S
*Ready, Set, Wiggle-the leader calls out Ready, Set, Wiggle and everyone has to wiggle their bodies.  When the leader calls out Ready, Set, Watermelon, nobody moves.  When they call out Ready, Set, Wigs, nobody moves.  If you want to switch out different "W" words, you can. The point of the game is that the kids wait until they hear the word wiggle. 

One of the most important ways to teach our children about self-control during waiting is to model it ourselves.  We need kids to see that we can be patient and wait for things ourselves.  If we model this behavior to our kids, they are more likely to be able to follow our lead.

I have a handful of other book recommendations that help children learn about self-control and waiting in a fun and kid-friendly way which I'm happy to share those with you.  I'm always a click away and love hearing from you all.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Book of the Week-Stick and Stone

Unfortunately, one of the things kids have to deal with these days is bullying.  What was once something you typically saw more frequently with older children is now something that you see beginning way earlier these days.  In my career, I have noticed that cliques begin forming in preschool.  On many school visits, I have seen groups of children cluster together and witnessed the leaving other children out for one reason or another.

This weeks book recommendation is Stick and Stone written by Beth Ferry and illustrations by Tom Lichtenheld.  In this book, kids learn about kindness and the importance of being a good friend.  The main characters of the book are Stick and Stone...both felt lonely until they found each other after Stick steps in to defend Stone after Pinecone is making fun of him.  They quickly become best friends and end up protecting each other when they are both most in need of a good friend.

Stick and Stone is a simple book making it easy for even the youngest of children to understand.  I've used it with my group of kids at The Meeting House and they loved it and were really able to engage in meaningful conversations about friendship and even begin a simple conversation about bullying.  I think it's important to help young children not only learn about what it means to be a good friend but also be able to recognize when someone isn't being a good friend to you or your friends.

Below, you will find some questions you can ask your children and activities that you can do with them while reading Stick and Stone.

-ask your children what makes them a good friend.  Discuss qualities that make them a good friend and what they love about different friends of theirs.  If you are doing this in a group/classroom setting, keep a running list of these qualities for children to reference throughout the year.

-in addition to talking about what makes someone a good friend, it's equally important for children to recognize the opposite.  Since bullying is beginning at a younger age, it's important for kids to be able to know if they or other friends in their class are being bullies.  Talk about what kinds of things make someone a bully (and this conversation and the language you will use will be different for different aged kids).  Talk about what they should do if they feel like they are someone else is being bullied.  Most importantly, they should not keep quiet and they should talk to grownups.

-this book offers a lot of opportunities for role playing.  If you check out this link, the author and illustrator have put together an activity pack that includes some finger puppets.  You can go through a bunch of scenarios with the kids to help them problem solve difficult moments they may encounter in school, at the playground, etc..

-this summer, I learned about a beautiful initiative called The Kindness Rocks Project.  They have two simple goals: 
~Inspire others through randomly placed rocks along the way
~Recruit every person who stumbles upon it to join in the pursuit of inspiring others through random acts of kindness. 
Painting rocks and writing messages about friendship and kindness that were brought up in Stick and Stone is a craft to do after reading the book.  Kids can paint or draw using permanent or paint markers and then hide them in their neighborhood.

While it's hard to imagine that we have to worry about the idea of kids being bullied at such a young age, I think if we begin to teach children at a very young age about being a good friend and how NOT to be a bully, we may help avoid kids becoming bullies as they get older.  One of the things we can teach our children from this book that it might not be easy, sticking up for others like Stick did for Stone when Pinecone was being mean to him could lead to lifelong friendships!

If you have any other books that may address this subject in a child-friendly manner, I would love to hear about them!   I am only a click away and LOVE hearing from all of you!

Monday, March 5, 2018

What's App?

One of the most asked questions I get is what is on my iPad?  While parents want to limit the amount of time their kids spend on electronic devices, they know that there are a lot of educational apps out there that will motivate their children to learn a variety of things.  And like most everything else, all things done in moderation will not be harmful to your children. 

Below, I share some of my favorite educational apps that I use both at work and at home with my daughter.  The most important thing to me when choosing what apps I put on this list is that they are ones that are easy for families to use.  I especially like when they can work on a variety of skills in way that makes the work seem more like play than "work".  I also am sure to add as many apps that will encourage language building skills at the same time.  I am always having the kids answer questions about what's happening or talk about the directions or the sequence of steps before they complete tasks. 

Sago Mini Pet Cafe-this was my first app by the genius' at Sago Mini and is still one of my favorites for the little ones on my caseload.  Kids learn how to count and sort while interacting with some pretty cute animals in a diner.  There are three different games to choose from: matching pictures, counting and sorting treats and making a colorful smoothie.  This app is also great for working on learning colors, improves visual motor and visual perceptual skills and great for increasing language skills.  An added bonus is that it is available in 15 languages!

Artie and The Magic Pencil-this fun and interactive app by Minilab Studios helps introduce preschool and early school age children to drawing a variety of shapes and early art concepts.  Kids get to play the hero while learning at the same time!  There's a monster on the loose and he's destroying the town.  Kids help Artie rebuild the world by tracing simple shapes bringing the town back to life.  For example, trace a triangle and put a roof back on a house  It can be played as a story or you can focus on the same part drawing until they have mastered the shape.  A nice feature of this app is that you can download drawing worksheets so kids can practice drawing with a writing instrument. 

LetterSchool-I have tested out so many handwriting apps that I have lost count.  In the end, I always come back to LetterSchool and continue to recommend it to all parents who are looking for ways to teach their kids to write.  What I love most about this handwriting app is the multi-sensory approach it has for learning all the letters and numbers.  For each letter/number, there are 3 ways to practice:
1.  Tap-this level has kids tap where the lines start and they then watch the letter get formed
2.  Trace-this level kids have to drag the lines from their starting point to end point to form the letter
3.  Write-this level has a chalkboard feel to it and the kids are given a clue as to where to start the letter but the lines disappear and they have to write it from memory
On each level, there are fun visuals to watch the letters come to life which is incredibly motivating for even the most ambivalent student.
In addition to learning how to write letters and numbers, kids can work on improving hand-eye coordination, visual motor and visual perceptual skills and introduces kids to letter sounds and names and learning how to count.

Pepi Doctor-this app by PepiPlay is another that has been on my must have app list since I discovered it years ago.  In this app, kids get to play the doctor to three different patients (Amber, Eva and Milo).  Each one of the kids has the same 5 ailments that need to be taken care of: a cold, a toothache, earache, broken bone and clean up cuts from a fall.  Each ailment requires them to complete several tasks in order for their patients to feel better.  Some of the tasks are putting the bone back together, brushing teeth, putting bandaids on scrapes and many, many more.  This app is great for improving visual motor and perceptual skills, hand-eye coordination, focus, attention and organizational skills.  It's also a great app to work on improving language skills.

Peppa Pig Theme Park-recently, I have found that so many of my kids are pretty obsessed with Peppa Pig....I can't blame them!  I remembered from my own daughter having some Peppa Pig apps and how great they were.  There are many of them, but my favorite right now is the Theme Park one because it works on a lot of skills that my younger kids need to focus on.  There are 10 different games to choose from including:
-make Cotton Candy for Peppa and her family....make sure you choose the right color and don't make it too big or they won't be able to eat it
-ride in a hot air balloon and collect balloons as you go up and down
-steer a race car around the sure to avoid the puddles!
This game is great for working on improving hand-eye coordination, visual tracking, focus, attention, motor planning and organizational skills.

Endless ABC-hands down my favorite literacy apps out there and kids of all ages on my caseload love it as well.  Endless ABC from Originator is great for introducing preschool kids to the letters of the alphabet and encourages early reading skills.  In this interactive game, kids will learn lots of new and interesting words.  Super cute monsters run across the screen and knock all the letters out of place.  Kids have to match the letters (I encourage kids to put them back in the correct order).  Once they have them all in place, there is a little video that teaches kids about the word. In addition to the aforementioned skills, kids work on improving hand-eye coordination, visual motor and visual perceptual skills, executive functioning skills (focus, attention and organization) and grasping skills.

Math Tango-I have been on the hunt for a good math app for a really long time and have been mainly disappointed by what's out there.  That was until I saw that the brilliant people at Originator came up with a math app and I couldn't have been more excited.  I actually didn't get too excited until I had my 7-year old daughter test the app out but once she gave it 2 thumbs up, I was sold and have been recommending it to others.  The game is structured in a way that kids have to complete 24 different missions where they earn monsters and other kinds of items that will help them on the island that they inhabit.  While playing over 200 different addition and subtraction games will learn some of the following concepts:
-adding single digit numbers
-adding doubles
-adding near doubles
-making 10 to add 9
-adding 10's

Trilo Spelling-when my daughter was finishing up kindergarten and preparing for first grade, I started to really panic about her reading skills.  I knew developmentally she was where she was supposed to be but living in NYC, academic expectations are higher.  I had spent a lot of time looking for the right app and each time I thought I had found it, she didn't like it.  So when we found this one, we were both thrilled!  In Trilo Spelling, there are five levels of spelling and reading fundamentals with each level introducing kids to a different letter blends.  Within each level, there are three different games/challenges they can play.  The graphics and monsters within the app are fun and friendly, motivating children to want to learn how to spell.  In addition to learning how to spell, children can work on improving executive functioning skills, hand eye coordination,

Dexteria Junior-this is a great app for working on developing fine motor and grasping skills with your little ones.  What I love about this app is that the creators worked with occupational therapists to make it.  Perfect for preschoolers and getting them ready for school.  There are three different games:
Squish the Squash-encourages children to use their pointer finger to squish squashes.  There are 15 levels for the kids to work through.
Pinch the Pepper-encourages children to use their thumb and pointer fingers to pinch the peppers.  Great for developing a fine pincer grasp which is important for the developing proper pencil grips later on.  There are 10 levels that become increasingly more challenging.
Trace and Erase-kids can learn how to draw various lines and shapes.  They first trace the lines and then use an eraser after.  Once they finish erasing the lines, they can take a silly selfie of themselves which my kids love.  I have my kids use a stylus with this particular game to encourage proper grasp patterns when holding a writing instrument.
In addition to what I have already mentioned, this game is great for working on hand-eye coordination, visual tracking, focus, attention and planning and organizational skills.

Little Fox Animal Doctor-hands down, one of my favorite apps for my preschoolers and early school age kids.  The characters are adorable and the animations are amazing.  There are 7 different animals with 15 different injuries or illnesses that you have to help cure.  First kids choose their patient and before they can help them get better, they have to watch a short little movie that explains why they are at the doctors.  Once the movie is done, there are visual directions on what kids  need to do in order to cure the animals.  Some of the ailments they will have to help with are: helping a sick animal who has had too many sweets, sewing together a wing that got torn or helping an animal with a cold.  My favorite thing about this app is the short little movie they have to watch before helping the animal out.  This is great for helping with language and organizational issues.  The other thing I like is that the visual directions help kids work on sequencing and following directions.  In addition to those skills, kids also can work on improving fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, visual motor and perceptual skills and executive functioning skills.

Planets Puzzle-this is a great app for older children who need to work on improving visual motor, visual perceptual and executive functioning skills.  In this puzzle game, kids have to put the animal in the right place on the rotating world.  They have to figure out where the animals go by matching their terrain.  For example, place the dolphin in the ocean and the elephant on the grassy patch.  There are over 30 levels of play with increased challenges as they move through the puzzle.  In addition working on the aforementioned skills, this app is great for working on improving focus and attention, organizational skills, logic and problem solving.

Thinkrolls and these two apps by Avokiddo are a huge hit with my older children and are my go-to's when I have children who need to work on improving their executive functioning skills.  Through this app, kids will improve problem solving, memory, motor planning and organizational skills.  In these interactive logic puzzles, kids learn about different scientific theories such as gravity, heat, buoyancy, speed, friction and so many more.  There are two levels of play for younger and older children.  In addition to the aforementioned, kids can work on improving visual motor skills, hand-eye coordination, focus and attention.  I have found that this is a great app for kids to do together; they have to work together and talk through a plan in order to complete each part of the game.

I always wrap up my app suggestions post with ways you can make screen time as beneficial as possible for the kids.  During my sessions, I always combine using an app with some other activity or skill.  Here are a few things you can do to make the most out of screen time for your kids:

-use a stylus whenever possible.  This is especially important when using any kind of handwriting or drawing app.  Like everything else, it can be confusing to know which stylus is best.  My two top recommendations are the Cosmonaut Wide Grip Stylus and the Crayon Stylus by Boxwave.  These two stylus' have are wider and encourage a more age-appropriate grasp, especially for those little hands.

-encourage use of language during when playing on the iPad.  One concern parents have about using an iPad with their children is that they observe them to zone out or disconnect from the real world.  When I have kids using the iPad, I am constantly asking them questions and encouraging conversations with them.  Whether it be saying the name of the letter during Endless ABC or counting out loud when playing Sago Mini Pet Cafe, I am making sure the kids don't have an opportunity to zone out. 

-there are a lot of apps that can encourage social skills.  When I am working with small groups of children who have similar goals, I will occasionally pull out the iPad.  We work on turn taking, cooperative play and being flexible with ideas peers suggest.

-work on a vertical surface when using the iPad (I sometimes lean mine up against an easel and have kids sit on a ball or bolster).  Working on a vertical surface is great for encouraging bilateral coordination, encourages bilateral coordination and helps with improving upper extremity and core strength.

-when at the gym, I have my kids work in a prone position either on the net swing or over a bolster.  This is a good way to work on increasing upper extremity strength.  I have found that my kids who tire easily with this task have more endurance when they are distracted from some fun apps.

These apps are just a handful of the dozens and dozens I have on my iPad.  If you are looking for specific suggestions for your children, I would be more than happy to help you find the right apps for them.   And if you have any great app suggestions for me, I would love to hear them....I am always happy to add something new to my app collection!  I am always a click away and love hearing from you all.