Play builds child development

5 Ways Play Builds Child Development

Our Fort Myers occupational therapists often refer to play as the occupation of children. It may look on the surface as if all we do at our clinic is have fun. (And we DO have TONS of fun here!) But what we’re really doing is bolstering child development through play, which has proven to be the most effective way to teach children critical life skills in early intervention.

Study after study has proven time and again that children learn best through play – when it’s fun!

“There’s a reason our pediatric therapists never approach a session with a child saying, ‘Ok, let’s go do some therapy,'” explained FOCUS Therapy Owner/Founder Jennifer Voltz-Ronco. “No, we say, ‘Let’s go play!’ Because we know that creating a fun, safe, upbeat environment is going to make them want to participate, want to take the next step, want to learn the new skill. Ultimately, that’s where we make the most gains. Those are the lessons that are going to stick.”

Here, we offer some basics on how child development is promoted by simple activities that involve play.

FOCUS offers pediatric speech therapy in Fort Myers and throughout Southwest Florida. Call (239) 313.5049 or Contact Us online.

Additional Resources:

Play in Early Childhood: The Role of Play in Any Setting, Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University

More Blog Entries:

FOCUS Therapy Hires Therapists Who Genuinely Care, March 3, 2022, FOCUS Therapy Fort Myers Blog

FOCUS Therapy evaluations

Why FOCUS Asks Parents to Stay in the Waiting Room During Evals, Sessions

FOCUS Therapy in Fort Myers conducts a range of in-depth evaluations for children who have been referred for speech, occupational, physical, or ABA therapies as well as ADOS testing. During our evaluations and therapy sessions, we rarely allow families to directly participate – but we have evidence-based reasons for our position.

During evaluations, we want to ensure every child receives an assessment that is as accurate as possible because that is what is going to allow us to:

  • Determine whether the child needs therapy.
  • Calculate the frequency/level of therapy that might be recommended.
  • Make a strong case to the relevant insurer(s) about the medical necessity of the therapy.

Parents, when present in the room during FOCUS evaluations, can unwittingly stand in the way of those goals. Why? Mainly because children rely on their caregivers when things get tough – to help them, to comfort them, to make it better. When a child is struggling in a certain area, such as communication or independence with self-care skills, our clinicians need to independently observe the particulars.

Parent input is a key aspect of our evaluations, but we need to see for ourselves, too. Jennifer Voltz-Ronco, MS-CCC/SLP and FOCUS Therapy Owner/Founder, explained that when a child is accompanied by a parent during the direct observation portion of the assessment, parents often interfere without intending to do so or even realizing it.FOCUS Therapy

“For example, in speech evaluations, parents might talk to the child or give clues to help their child ‘get the right answer’,” Voltz-Ronco explained. “We might ask the child to point to an object out of an array of 3-4 items by saying, ‘Show me the cup.’ Standardized testing requires that we be very specific in how we present these items – and with the requirement that we wait. And while we wait, we’re looking to see how long it takes them to process the directive and what they do. Will they look at us to see if we’re looking at the object? Will they point to it or make a face if they’re unsure? They might associate a cup to mealtime and instead point to a cookie. If the child looks to our face to get a clue, that would indicate social awareness and joint attention – key pre-linguistic communication skills. If there is a delay in their response, there may be an auditory processing issue. If they grab the first thing in reach, they may have impulsivity issues. Watching a child while they’re thinking tells us so much. But parents in the room might think the evaluator presumes the child doesn’t know the answer, so they interject. They say to the child, ‘You know what a cup is, like the blue sippie cup you have at home.’ Unfortunately, what that does is give the child numerous opportunities to hear the word, ‘cup,’ and in many standardized tests, we aren’t allowed to repeat the word or give a description or synonym. So with that, we lose the opportunity to see what we needed to see, and must in turn score the response incorrectly – which impacts the overall results.”

She went on to explain that often the key responses FOCUS therapists are looking for aren’t necessarily what an untrained observer may presume.

What’s more, some children can become what we call “prompt dependent.” That means the child looks to the parent to prompt them (to take an action, answer a question, etc.) – even if they don’t necessarily need the prompt. Many of our team members are parents ourselves, so we wholeheartedly understand how difficult it is to wait for your child to “do it themselves.” It is actually instinctual to intervene when we see or sense our child needs help. But during these evaluations, this intervention – however slight – can actually prove more of a hindrance when what we’re seeking are accurate results.

We DO Want Parents Involved in Their Child’s Therapy Journey

Although it is important for parents to remain outside the room during evaluations, this does not mean we lack transparency or that we don’t want parents involved at all in the therapy process. In fact, we get the best results from therapy when parents are fully engaged!

But we discourage direct engagement during the evaluation process and therapy sessions because we want to ensure our findings are accurate and that your child gets the true level of support they need.

While we want parents to be involved in consultation, goal-setting, education, and carryover, we strongly advise parents against sitting in during therapy sessions for the following reasons:

Fort Myers occupational therapy

Snow in Fort Myers? Check Out This Cool Occupational Therapy Activity!

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.

Fort Myers occupational therapyNote that measurements don’t need to be exact. In fact, it might even help your child exercise their executive function skills if you don’t exactly measure it all out.

“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

online occupational therapy Florida“It’s amazing how many skills can be targeted just with this simple ‘play’ activity,” Lopez said. “And I love that it’s something simple parents can do at home as well.”

occupational therapy Fort Myers

How Fort Myers Occupational Therapy Helps Kids

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

Bilateral Coordination, Explained by Fort Myers Pediatric Occupational Therapists

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.

FOCUS Therapy child development

Boost Child Development While Playing in Nature

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
  • Communication
  • 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!

Fort Myers occupational therapists

Fort Myers Occupational Therapists: Learning to Be Flexible is Key for Kids With Autism

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.

telling your child he has autism

My Son Has Autism… When – and How – Should I Tell Him?

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.”

Fort Myers occupational therapists

Fort Myers Occupational Therapists: Helping Kids With Time Management

Why did the man sit on the clock? …. Because he wanted to be on time!

Compelling a child to complete tasks in a timely manner is a daily struggle for so many parents. This is especially true when your child has developmental delays and disabilities. As Fort Myers occupational therapists, we recognize that time management is not only an executive function skill that our brains will keep working on well into our 20s (!), but it’s also an abstract concept that’s tough for a lot of kids to grasp – to their parents dismay!

For the most part, schoolchildren aren’t taught time concepts until 2nd grade. Yet we often expect kids their age and even younger to “get it” when it comes to how time works and how to manage the time they have. “You have 8 minutes before we leave for school,” or, “It’s 20 minutes until bedtime.” And then we’re frustrated when they aren’t ready or have a meltdown at the transition. After all, you DID give them a heads-up!

The good news is, there are several strategies our occupational therapists can offer to help your child both grasp the concept of time and manage it better.

occupational therapy

Put a Sock on It! Occupational Therapy Tips for Donning/Doffing Socks

For many kids, learning to independently put on their socks and shoes is an important early childhood skill and major milestone. It’s an important indicator of emerging independence and self-care, and it also lays the foundation for planning and sequencing of more complex skills. But our occupational therapy team knows it can also be difficult to learn.

Several skills are required for one to be able to put on/take off their shoes and socks, including:

  • Crossing midline
  • Bilateral coordination
  • Intrinsic and extrinsic muscle strength in hands
  • Pincer grasp
  • Hand-eye coordination
  • Biomechanical postural control
  • Forearm pronation and supination

All of this to say: It’s something that takes some baseline skills and practice! Children with delays, disabilities, injuries and other challenges may find it even more difficult to master if they struggle with:

  • Poor finger strength (needed to manipulate items).
  • Difficulty planning/sequencing (Step 1, Step 2, Step 3, etc.).
  • Trouble with self-regulation (critical to persisting with a tough task).
  • Limited interest in self care or independence.