A sensory gym can be summed up in a single phrase: “Putting the FUN in FUNctional!”
If your child is beginning pediatric therapy (speech, occupational, physical, or ABA) at one of our two Fort Myers clinics, you’ve probably noticed some areas decorated with bright walls and packed with an array of Some of the equipment you see might look a lot like what you’ll observe in a playground or actual gym.
Although it may look like a bit of a free-for-all, a sensory gym is strategically designed to provide a structured environment to help children with delays and disabilities work on their sensory, motor, and communication skills.
South Florida may not have real snow like our northern neighbors (though there was that one time back in 1977), but this cool occupational therapy activity for kids is just as fun – no scarves or mittens required!
Making fake snow is an excellent tactile activity that’s great for helping our pediatric OT patients practice important life skills. Kids can help with the scooping, measuring, pouring, and mixing ingredients – all of which helps with reach, grasp, and wrist rotation. It’s also great sensory engagement that can be tailored to help with critical thinking, social skills, and communication.
We opted to try it in a couple of our recent OT teletherapy sessions, but it’s easily replicated at our Fort Myers therapy clinics. We encourage parents to try it out at home for maximum carryover of important skills.
The cheap, easy-to-find ingredients needed for this faux snow craft are:
- Baking soda
- White hair conditioner
- A bowl or bin
- Some tin foil or newspaper to lay down (if you’re doing the project indoors)
Directions: Simply mix about 3 cups of baking soda with about 1/2 cup of white hair conditioner until it’s firm. (If you don’t have that much of either ingredient, just make sure you’re using quite a bit more of the dry baking soda than wet hair conditioner.) You can use a spoon or spatula, but we opted for the extra sensory input of mixing it by hand.
“Let your child problem-solve by determining if they need to add more wet or dry ingredients to the batch,” said FOCUS Occupational Therapist Krystle Lopez. “You’ll know the snow is mixed correctly when you can pick it up and form snowballs. It will even be cool to the touch – just like real snow!”
It will last a while too if you put it in a sealed bag or bin.
Be prepared for a bit of mess – but a ton of fun!
How Making Fake Snow Helps With Pediatric Occupational Therapy Goals
Occupational therapy is a broad discipline. Some parents are confused when they’re referred to “OT” by their child’s pediatrician. After all, the first thing that comes to mind when we think “occupation” is “job.” And kids don’t have jobs… Right?
In fact, children are tasked with a dizzying number of important jobs, spanning far beyond just learning to talk and walk (which in themselves can be pretty daunting milestones, especially for children with certain delays, disorders, and different abilities).
Occupational therapists – particularly those who work in pediatrics (with kids) – are responsible to:
- Identify the developmental/functional deficits with which a child struggles.
- Develop an evidence-based plan of care that specifically outlines the goals for each individual child on a personalized timeline.
- Use each OT session to creatively to help kids “play their way” to achieving those goals.
A pediatric OT session may look a lot like goofing off (another reason the field – and its necessity – are met with confusion). But the play-based approach is deliberate. You know the saying, “Time flies when you’re having fun”? Play is what keeps kids engaged and interested, motivated and willing to push themselves just a bit harder every time. The most effective occupational therapy sessions are those that don’t feel like work at all for the child. This is rooted in mountains of evidence showing that it works.
Bilateral coordination, sometimes referred to as bilateral integration, is a critical developmental skill with which some kids struggle. It involves using both sides of the body together, and can impact both fine and gross motor skills Children who have difficulty with bilateral coordination may be diagnosed solely with developmental coordination disorder, but it’s also closely associated with other conditions such as autism spectrum disorder, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and other developmental delays and disorders.
As Fort Myers pediatric occupational therapists, we recognize there’s been an increasing awareness about what bilateral coordination is as well as what deficits might look like. A reported uptick in bilateral coordination deficits could also be partially attributed to COVID closures, as lots of kids lacked regular exposure to certain activities (PE class, playground time, etc.) that can help build these skills.
How Do I Know If My Child Has Poor Bilateral Coordination?
Some indicators of poor bilateral coordination include:
- Trouble cutting with scissors.
- Struggles with handwriting.
- Difficulty tying shoes.
- Having a hard time dressing themselves (pulling on socks, pants, and shoes).
- Trouble with fasteners, like buttons, zips, or snaps.
- Clumsy movements.
- Trouble catching a ball.
- Awkward clapping.
- Troubling using a bicycle pedal.
Parents should note there are actually three different types of bilateral coordination: Symmetrical, reciprocal and leading/supporting.
Pediatric occupational therapy isn’t widely understood by most folks. After all, kids don’t have an “occupation” do they? (In fact, they do – it’s play & learning!)
Occupational therapy (or OT for short) is a broad discipline that can cover a lot of ground for kids with a wide range of delays, disabilities, injuries, and other challenges. Pediatric OTs are professionals who work specifically with infants, toddlers, and school-age kids to help them develop critical life skills that will boost their overall development. At FOCUS Therapy, our occupational therapists want these kids not just to function, but to thrive!
Signs your child might benefit from an assessment by a pediatric occupational therapy professional:
- Trouble with fine motor skills, such as using scissors, proper pencil grasp, manipulating small objects.
- Difficulty with self-care tasks, like dressing themselves, buttoning & zipping, focusing/following through on instructions.
- Sensory regulation. You might notice they’re extremely picky eaters, bothered by loud noises, and struggle with transitions between activities and/or environments.
Learn more about occupational therapy for kids here.
A child may avoid eye contact for a number of reasons, but it’s something to really pay attention to because it’s one of the earliest indicators of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Infants who avoid eye contact with their parents – something that can be observed in a baby as young as 3 months – need to carefully monitored and assessed if the problem persists. Most babies start making eye contact no later than 6 months of age. If this is something you’ve noticed, it’s imperative to talk to your pediatrician about a potential referral for ADOS testing. If you already know your child is on the spectrum and is struggling socially, our Fort Myers OT (occupational therapy) team has some strategies that may help improve eye contact.
When Should My Baby Be Making Eye Contact?
Babies start using eye gaze to regulate behavior at around 5-6 months of age. By around 7-9 months, they use eye gaze to initiate joint attention. Joint attention is when a person purposefully coordinates his/her focus of attention with that of another person. In other words, two people are intentionally paying attention to the same thing for social reasons. If you say to your child, “Look at that big ball,” and the child looks to where you have pointed to see the ball. You’ve just engaged in joint attention. Kids on the autism spectrum struggle with joint attention, as it’s considered a social skill. Difficulty with joint attention can lead to or at least be closely correlated with developmental language delays.
As our Fort Myers OT professionals can explain, most toddlers will pair eye contact with their gestures at least half the time when they’re communicating. When kids struggle to pair their gestures or words with an eye gaze, it could be a red flag. For a child with social-communication deficits, consider that it can be really difficult to listen to someone talk, understand what they are saying and look at them at the same time.
Even as they get older, kids with autism may be apprehensive about establishing eye contact because they don’t have the ability to communicate. Some kids on the spectrum require a great deal of concentration to make and sustain eye contact. It’s important for parents not to force their kids to have eye contact, as this could result in frustration and anxiety. Instead, there are tactics we as occupational therapists can use in sessions and teach you for carryover.
Fort Myers OT Tips for Encouraging Eye Contact
With patience, positivity, and encouragement, you can help your child make and maintain eye contact. It can be difficult at first, but know that working on this skill is something that is not only going to help them in the short term, but long term when it comes to making friends and succeeding throughout life.
As the weather cools in Southwest Florida, it’s the perfect time to get outside and play with your child! It’s not just about enjoying the day and making some memories (though these are worth it in itself). Our speech, occupational, physical, and ABA therapists know that spending time outdoors is great way to boost child development.
Being in nature has been proven to boost kids’ academic achievement, physical health, mental health, and overall well-being. One analysis of hundreds of studies on the subject found that nature boosts learning in eight distinct ways. Those include:
- Improves attention.
- Relieves stress.
- Boosts self-discipline.
- Increases physical activity and fitness.
- Promotes self-motivation.
- Increases enjoyment.
- Improves engagement.
As pediatric therapists dedicated to helping disabilities and delays make strides, we have found that nature provides a calmer, quieter, and safer setting for learning. It can also help with:
- Motor skills
- Social-emotional skills
- Speech and language skills
- Executive function
- Sensory integration
- Relaxation and emotional regulation
Spending time outdoors creates opportunity for more creative, exploratory forms of play – and play is how children learn best!
Learning to get dressed is an essential function of independence. But none of us is born learning to tie, button, or zip. For kids with developmental delays and disabilities, these skills can take longer. Our FOCUS Fort Myers occupational therapy team can help.
Developmental Progression of Buttoning and Zipping
Every child develops at a different pace, so there are no hard-and-fast rules for when a child should be able to master buttoning and zipping. That said, some general milestone guidelines are:
- Can unzip zippers with large tabs.
- Can pull a large zipper tab up if an adult holds the bottom of it tight.
- Can unbutton large buttons (1 inch or more).
- Can button 3 large buttons, though they may not do so in the right order.
- Can unzip and unsnap clothing while wearing it.
- Is able to close the front snap on clothing.
- Can button and unbutton while wearing front-opening clothing.
- Opens all the fasteners on any piece of clothing.
- Can hook and zip up on their own.
5 to 6 years:
- Can hook and zip up on their own while wearing the clothing.
Autism is a neurological condition characterized, in part, by restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities. Someone with autism may insist on adhering to the same routines and rituals – and any attempt at changing the slightest element can set off a major meltdown. But the fact is: We live in an ever-changing world. As Fort Myers occupational therapists, one of our primary goals when treating children with autism spectrum disorder is to teach them flexibility.
Flexibility is the quality of being easily bent but not broken. It’s not a natural skill for any of us. Think about your reactions when events take a sudden, unexpected (and unwanted) turn. But the ability to be flexible is what allows us to move on from the big emotions of that and continue with the task or the rest of the day.
Change is just an inherent part of the world we’re in. Lots of kids with autism struggle with this – and often for seemingly very minor things. Helping them learn to get themselves “unstuck” is critical for functioning in daily life.
Your child has autism. You know it. The rest of the family knows it. His teachers and therapists know it. Maybe even a few of his classmates know it. But when should HE know it? And how should you tell him?
It’s something many of our FOCUS Therapy families grapple with at some point, and answers really depend on the individual. Some parents opt to tell their child when they’re very young, hoping an early understanding of why they struggle more with certain things might make it all less confusing. Other parents wait until their child becomes aware of their differences and starts asking questions. A few parents wait until their child is older with a better ability to fully grasp what their diagnosis means. Our FOCUS speech, occupational and ABA therapists know there isn’t a singular right answer, but we’re here to support our patients and help guide families in these discussions.
Recently, a patient’s mother asked about the best way to handle some of the questions her 7-year-old son on the spectrum was asking. Christie Lawrence, a registered behavior technician (RBT) with our Fort Myers ABA therapy team and herself the mother of a teenager with autism, offered her thoughts.
“I would say the most important part of informing your child of their autism diagnosis is to empower them,” Lawrence said. “Autism can bring many gifts, and it’s so important to teach our children to find and focus on their strengths and build confidence from their success.”