During winter breaks, to keep kids occupied I encourage my clients and my own children to limit screen time and be creative. Children of all ages learn skills—and about their environment—through play activities. Here are some that fill both fun and functional requirements for your child!
1. Dig out the pool noodles.
Lay out the pool noodles as an obstacle course; children can step around and over them. Kids can also play limbo with the noodles or crawl under them in the quadriped (crawling) position. Also, cut in half, pool noodles can be used as balance beams for young kids; work in bare feet to make the task easier.
2. Play Lego copycat.
Use Legos or building blocks to make a creation, then ask your child to duplicate it. This activity can be switched around so that children create models for parents to follow.
3. Play the touch-’n'-guess game.
Grab any two items in your home that are the same—say, a couple of crayons, a pair of toy figurines, salt and pepper shakers—and add one of each to a paper bag. Place the second set in a line in front of your child. Ask her to feel the items in the bag and, without looking, find the matches. This skill, called stereognosis, is valuable. It is the ability to perceive and identify objects by using only the sense of touch—the same one we use when we reach into our purse feel for our lipstick or wallet.
4. Rope ‘em into housework!
Heavy work can be calming. Include children in chores and activities such as moving chairs, picking up and placing dirty clothes into a basket, vacuuming, or sweeping.
5. String up the holiday cards.
Punch holes into holiday cards with a one-hole puncher. Gather up ribbon, string or twine and lace the holes, helping your child do the threading as necessary—a great fine-motor-skill exercise.
6. Make geoboards.
Use Styrofoam as a base and attach golf tees, sticks, small pencils, or hairpins. Encourage kids to push the items into the board or pound them with a toy hammer. Help them add colorful rubber bands to create shapes such as stars and polygons.
7. Create a sensory hideout
You can drape sheets over a couple of chairs, build a hideout from a bunch of boxes, or use a small tent if you have one. Add pillows, blankets, and stuffed animals to give kids that cozy feeling. Also great: Lycra fabric in which kids can roll up and wrap themselves—that gives awesome proprioceptive input. My kids love having a flashlight in their cozy space.
With a little creativity, many activities can be fun and therapeutic. Play with your child and the memories you make together will last a lifetime!
This post is from Beverly Worth Palomba, author of Special Day Cooking: A Life Skills Cookbook. A veteran teacher who has worked in Special Education for the last 11 years, Beverly runs a life skills class for students with special needs at a local high-school—a program that inspired her book. She also holds cooking workshops at community centers. She’s doing important (and delicious!) work. As she says, “There is so much happening when your child is cooking or helping in the kitchen. They are not only making something yummy but they are learning to work as a team. It gives you and your child an avenue to ask questions or talk about what you are making together. Cooking is a natural and easy way to help build social skills, develop language, foster teamwork and build confidence and self-esteem.”
Check out her top tips for successful cooking with a child who has special needs.
1) Tour the kitchen
Show your child where the utensils, pots and pans, mixing spoons, mixing bowls, measuring spoons, cutting board, paper towels, toaster, microwave and blender are—and don’t forget the refrigerator. There are a lot of different compartments that can be confusing.
2) Prep your child for success
Go over the differences between liquid measuring cups and dry measuring cups. Use a cutting board with a rubber backing if possible, since it provides more stability for chopping; you could also place a rubber mat beneath one to help stabilize it. Use plastic knives only.
3) Make things easy to reach and move
• To make lifting and pouring from large containers easier, store ingredients in smaller, lighter containers. For example, you can keep vegetable oil in an empty spice jar or pour milk into a quart container. • Store dry ingredients like, sugar, flour, salt and pepper in wide, covered containers so they’re easier to scoop and level. • Store spices in a clear, shoe-box size container. This will make it easier to put on the counter to see which spices are needed. Start with the most common ones like salt and pepper, then add to the box as you go along. • Arrange the cooking supplies with your child. Make sure bowls aren’t in a pile, making it difficult to get to the right size. It is so important for kids to feel that they are part of the set up.
4) Choose a simple recipe
Finding a recipe to begin with that has a few ingredients (no more than four), step-by-step directions, a colorful picture and is on one page is important. You want your child to be excited about the recipe they are cooking and even more so, you want your child to have a fun and successful experience. You don’t want them to be turned off by their first recipe because it was too long and confusing. I recommend starting with a trail mix or smoothie.
5) Read together
Read the recipe with your child. You may have already done this when you were looking for one, but it will help them to focus on their task. Reading before starting will also allow you to go over any questions your child may have.
6) Break it down
Set out all the ingredients and equipment on the counter. If while cooking your child is having difficulty focusing on the ingredients or directions, cover the recipe with a piece of paper, leaving only the part they are working on showing. Then, move the paper as you go.
7) Sprinkle on lavish amounts of praise
Laugh and offer up lots of compliments. Give your family a head’s up on what’s coming so they are ready with the “Wow, that’s great” comments. Of course, there will be spills. Remember to giggle…and have your child join in on the clean up!
Come Thanksgiving dinner, as families gathered around tables give thanks, many special needs parents may be secretly adding their prayers that their children will weather the day OK. Juggling holiday gatherings with your child’s challenges can be tricky. These are some of the strategies I’ve used successfully over the years, along with ones from fellow special needs parents.
1. Don’t be a martyr.
Holidays tend to bring out the Martha Stewart in many people, but not me. For years now, we’ve ordered most of our meal from Whole Foods. As a working mom raising a child with special needs, it’s what I’ve needed to make my life work (and tasty). Says Katrina M,, “We have someone else make the meal, be it catered or super grandma. We have someone else bring the wine. We host and provide rolls for ht meal and dessert an, coffee.” Hint: It’s not too late to ask someone else to make the sweet potato pie.
2. Prep the turkey…and your kid.
Some parents find that making a social story or visual schedule of Thanksgiving day can help. Says Barbara J., whose son has ADHD, “I find that if I prep him about what to expect, where we’re going, who’s going to be there, etc., it really helps him transition.”
3. Prep your family, too.
Bianca A. primes her family about how her child’s day is going once relatives gather. I like to send out emails ahead of Thanksgiving Day noting stuff my son is into (this year, it’s fire trucks) and reminding people not to clap or cheer over stuff since that tends to set him off.
4. Change your expectations.
It used to pain me that my son didn’t want to sit at the table with us. But over time I realized he was perfectly content playing with toys in another room—why torture myself over it? “I don’t ever force my son with autism and SPD to sit and have dinner with us,” says Tracy P. “It’s much more pleasant for everyone if he gets to play with his toys while we have dinner, and if he wants to sit with us, he can.”
5. Bust out the iDevice.
Plenty of parents rely on iPads, tablets or other electronic devices to placate their children when things get too overwhelming—with no heaping helping of guilt. “The iPad is our savior!” gushes Karen P. “My daughter is allowed to use it before dinner, while everyone is visiting. It keeps her occupied and distracted, and she will often sit with the group while using it.” Mom Stacey N. goes with tunes: “Headphones and classical music on the iPod, or a walk outside.”
6. Prepare some nontraditional dishes.
Pasta on Thanksgiving? Bring it. “My son has SPD and major food issues. So I always make sure there’s Kraft mac and cheese on the table, because I know he’ll eat that,” says KL W. “He has to have other foods on his plate, for exposure purposes, and he has to take a (tiny) bite of each of these other foods, but he knows he can stuff his face with mac and and cheese, so he’s more willing to try the other foods without fearing he’ll starve.” And make enough to go around! Says Jennifer R, “I make stuff to bring that I know my kids will eat because they’re picky, but I’ll make enough to share with everyone there.”
7. Create a quiet space.
“I keep my bedroom as a quiet room for my son with severe autism,” says Dolly S. “He gets overwhelmed with all the family in the house…. He loves to go in there and pile pillows on himself and flop on the bed.” Adds Jeannette H., who has two children with sensory issues in her family, “We have a sensory room, ball, weighted blanket and bean bag chair.”
8. Have an escape plan.
If you’re headed to someone else’s home, you may need to head out early if a child is on sensory overload or just pooped out. Says Joanna Dreifus of Special Kids NYC, “It usually means leaving way before everyone else, or relying on another adult—grandparent or aunt—to bring him home early. I’ll explain he has to go to bed early and is overtired or overstimulated. Or I’ll take him home and my older kid stays on and enjoys the rest of the gathering. These are my year-round strategies for all holidays and birthday parties!”
Allow children who are overwhelmed by sights and sounds of shopping to stay home. Allow kids to have a pajama and movie night while you’re shopping.
If a child must attend the shopping trip, schedule downtime or breaks for children to de-sensitize. This can be located in the car with some crunchy snacks, a weighted blanket, and some calming music.
Encourage children to make a list of preferred toys well in advance. Give family lists of toys to choose from. I even purchase the toys my children will enjoy and provide them to my local family members ahead of time. We sometimes have a “trunk sale” and everyone chooses which give they will buy and wrap for my boys.
Go at a time of day when children are well-rested and not hungry. Do not rush and arrive early.
Write a letter or speak to the photographer ahead of time. Most studios will schedule extra time for children who have special needs. Request a photographer who is patient. If possible, schedule a photographer to visit your family outside of the studio. We have found that this may be a more affordable option than a studio because of low-overhead costs.
Be flexible. Consider that “fancy” clothes are often scratchy, have tags, and may contain textures that aren’t familiar to children. Permit the child to wear comfortable versions of colors that you’d like the family portrait to have.
Visits with Santa
If children do agree to see Santa, create a social story with pictures of Santa, including his beard, velvet/soft red suit, and the setting in which Santa will be located. Go to the location prior to the visit and watch other children. Practice, practice, practice!
Create a “safe-zone” to which the child can go whenever they feel overwhelmed. Set a password or sign that your child can use to excuse himself. Place a bean bag, calming music, a heavy blanket, and favorite hand fidget toy in the area. Practice ahead of time.
Create a letter to family members prior to family gatherings to explain your child’s wonderful progress toward goals and suggestions for conversation topics. For example: “Joshua’s had a wonderful year in therapy. He’s learned how to tie his shoes, take one turn during conversations, and how to write in cursive. Joshua likes Angry Birds. Here’s a link to the Angry Birds’ website if you’d like more information. Please know that even though he’s not looking directly into your eyes, he IS listening to you and loves you!”
At mealtime, make sure to serve a preferred food so that children who have feeding difficulties can successfully participate.
Give kids a job to do so that they will have a sense of belonging and success. Even something such as helping to create place markers for seating or setting the table can give kids a feeling of accomplishment.
Remember that heavy work is generally calming. Include activities such as moving chairs, picking up and placing dirty clothes into a basket and carrying it to the laundry room, or vacuuming are great ways to encourage children to help to prepare for the party.
Plan an “out” or an escape plan. Even a short visit that is successful can create memories that last a lifetime!
The Holidays are meant to be fun. Enjoy them with your family!
Wings for Autism, an airport “rehearsal” that helps kids with autism feel calmer about flying, held a program at Piedmont Triad International Airport in Greensboro, North Carolina this weekend. Run by The Arc of the United States, and using a Delta plane, it allowed kids with autism to experience what it’s like to go through the hustle and bustle of an airport and security, and to sit on a plane with their families. Here’s a video of the program in action at another airport:
If you have a child with autism (or sensory issues, as I do), you know how stressful plane travel can be. Max went through a phase in which he repeatedly kicked the back of the seat in front of him; it helped calm him down, though it did anything but for the nearby passengers. We had to cushion his knees with our winter jackets and, once, switch seats so that I was the one in front of him. Thankfully, he grew out of it.
What’s doubly awesome about Wings for Autism is that it gives airport, airline and security staffers the chance to observe and interact with kids with autism, and better understand them. Unfortunately, you’re on your own for dealing with the glares you occasionally get from fellow passengers. Once, we sat near a woman who remarked to her kids about the “annoying noises” Max was making (basically, his form of speech). I leaned over and said, “That’s his way of talking.” And she still gave me a look. Nice!
There are five more Wings for Autism program dates coming up, in Boston, Washington and Anchorage (here’s the schedule, with a link to registration information).