Let’s Get Social!

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The holiday season has always been my favorite but since moving to New York City and having a child of my own, it’s become even more special.  When you work with kids, the holidays take on a whole different meaning.  If you read my blog, you will know that I take gifts for the holiday seriously.  VERY seriously.

All of the gifts that I included on my Holiday and Tween Gift Guides this year have been kid tested and therapist approved.  All of them are fun….I mean what is the point of giving a gift that a child won’t have fun with.  Since I am an occupational therapist, I made sure there was an educational or developmental skill that could be worked on with them.  Finding gifts that children will be happy about is important. But finding ones that will be fun and work on developing age appropriate skills is equally important to me.

In the latter half of my career, I have had the great opportunity to be part of an amazing organization called The Meeting House.  In short, TMH is a recreational based (afterschool and weekend) program for school age children who have social difficulties.  It might be that they become overstimulated in larger crowds or that they may get anxious talking in front of their peers.  Or maybe it is that they have language difficulties that cause them to have difficulty being successful with their peers in social situations.  Whatever it is that brings them to TMH, we welcome them with open arms and give them a safe, supportive and accepting place to learn new social skills and become more confident in social situations.

Being part of TMH has been the inspiration for me to look at toys and think about not only the fine motor, visual motor/perceptual or sensory aspect of toys but the social benefits that toys can give. Parents are always looking for activities that they can have on hand at home to encourage their children to play together as well.  So many of the kids I work with are more comfortable playing on their own and resist playing with someone else, even if it is their brother or sister.  As children get older and rely more on technology, they are losing social skills.  Something as simple as looking a person in the eye when talking to them is something that can be challenging for many kids these days.  Having a back and forth conversation and answering questions can also be really difficult for many of the kids I work with.  Having the right toys, games, etc. at home is important to encourage and practice these critical social skills.

Below, you will find my 10 top gifts that will promote social skills. They are all included in my regular gift guides but I talk a bit more about the social aspect of each toy instead of the occupational therapy aspect.

1.  Polaroid Camera-as many of us know, kids are most likely spending more time with their phones than they are with anything else these days.  One of the things they like to do with their phones is take pictures.  Probably  more so than any generation of kids, tweens don’t know a time where they couldn’t see a picture immediately after taking it.  Polaroid Cameras are (kind of) immediate but also require a little bit of patience, focus and attention.  They require your kids to connect with their environment and make conscious decisions about what they will take pictures of since they won’t be able to erase it.  I’ve been using a Polaroid camera with my kids at work and they love it and doing even mind having to wait to see the picture.  Both Polaroid and Fujifilm make instant cameras that come in a variety of fun, bright, bold colors. I love the idea of kids working together to think about what they will take pictures of.  Not only is it fun to see all the different pictures that are taken, but it is a great way for kids to engage in conversation.    

2. Games-kids may outgrow certain kinds of toys, but good games will last through the ages.   I was actually in Target last week and noticed that they have a whole display of the classic board games in their original packaging.  They call it the Retro Series and they feature some of the best games ever…Sorry!, Clue, Twister, CandyLand and Scrabble.  I’m tempted to get a couple just because I like the old school packaging!
Having a good collection of board games is important for all houses.  While so many kids are more inclined to spend their free time on an iPad or hooked up to some kind of game system (there is nothing wrong with that and there are a ton of benefits to children playing video games), I think it is important for playdates and hangouts be less about technology and more about real face-to-face interactions.  Depending on what games you choose, your child can work on improving their fine motor, visual motor/perceptual and executive functioning skills (focus, attention, organization, sequencing, etc.).  Some of the other social skills that can be worked on playing board games are learning how to take turns, how to be a good winner and loser and practicing conversation skills.  Here are just a few of the great games out there to consider this holiday season:
*Connect 4 (I’m a big fan of Connect 4 Launchers)
*Uno (I also really like Uno Dare because there is an added gross motor component built in)
3.  Large Coloring Pictures by Pirasta-I am in love with these giant coloring pages that are actually created right in my beloved Brooklyn.  This is a great group activity (we are actually in the process of completing the New York City Big Apple one with our kids at The Meeting House).  Be sure to check out the Pirasta website to see their entire collection!  While I love the posters, I am also a big fan of the coloring sheets that they have.  If you look at the picture to the left, you will see my own daughter and niece completely engaged and focused on completing one of these coloring pages together.  They had to compromise on who was going to color what, share their materials and be able to be okay with the other person using colors that they may not have chosen.  In the end, they were just happy that they got to do this together.  With the holidays and all those family and friends gatherings coming up, these are the perfect thing to stock up on!  If you are in the Park Slope, be sure to check out Lion in the Sun for their extensive collection of Pirasta products.  
4. Zoom Ball-this is a great gross motor activity that works on bilateral coordination, motor planning and upper body strengthening.  A perfect activity to work on social skills, particularly team-work and cooperative play.  One of the things I like to work on while using a zoom ball is conversation skills.  Sometimes what  I ask kids to do is to have them ask a question before sending the ball back to their friend; before their friend can send it back, they have to answer the question.  Depending on the kids you are working with, you can come up with social goals using the Zoom Ball.  Whether it be conversational skills, or just being good at working as a team, the Zoom Ball is a wonderfully affordable and motivating tool!

5. Dueling Stomp Rocket-Stomp Rockets are one of the most underrated gross motor toys but bring

hours and hours of fun. Not only is it great for encouraging gross motor skills, stomp rockets can be used to encourage motor planning, focus/attention and social skills. The Dueling Stomp Rocket is as awesome as the original but has a lot of great social features since there are two pads to jump on.  Just like the original stomp rocket, you stomp on the launch pad and send the rockets flying.  With this double one, you can have a competition to see whose goes further and who can run faster to catch/or pick theirs up. If you have larger groups, you can do relay races.  There are lots of fun social activities that can be done and it is great for children of all ages when using the stomp rocket!  

6. OgoSport Discs-I love this sports game.  They call it a hand trampoline for all different kinds of balls.  Great for working on improving focus/attention, motor planning, organizational skills and upper body strengthening.  Additionally, a great activity to encourage teamwork and cooperative play amongst kids.
7. And Then I Wrote A Story/And Then…Story Starters Set 1-these cards can be a great social activity if you  have kids who love to tell stories or act things out. The Story Starters set comes with 20 beautifully illustrated cards and the beginning of a story.  It’s up to your child to decide how the story will end.  They can write their stories in the And Then I Wrote A Story notebook.  But if you happen to work in groups, you can give each of the kids an opportunity to add to the story.  You can use the story starter card and then go around and let each child add a sentence or two to the story.  Be sure to have someone write it down or record it for them so they can hear it aftewards!

8.  MagnaTiles-Building toys are always great to have for playdates and I especially love MagnaTiles because they are easy to use and don’t require a lot of work/strength in order to use them.  In addition to working on visual motor and perceptual skills, eye-hand coordination and bilateral coordination, MagnaTiles are a great social tool.  Kids have to work together to come up with a plan to decide what to make.  They need to be able to share materials, take turns and help each other out as they are building.  They also require children to be flexible and maybe build something that they don’t want to in order to make their friends happy.

9.  Orb Factory Sticky Mosaics-I’m a huge fan of the Sticky Mosaic brand and have been gifting these and using them in therapy sessions for years and years.  They are a motivating and simple craft activity that works on so many fine motor, visual and executive functioning skills. Sticky Mosaics are picture templates with numbers all over the picture.  Each number has a colored sticker or gem that it coordinates with.  Kids have to take the stickers and put them on the squares in order to make a really colorful picture.  While they can be done individually, they are also a great activity to do with a friend or in a small group.  It’s a great way to teach kids how when you work together, things can get finished quicker.  It’s also a great way to teach kids about coming up with a plan together.  For example, they should figure out if they want to work on the same color/number or each take their own.

10.  Puzzles-Jigsaw puzzles are a great social activity.  It’s one of my go-to activities when I am working with a pair or group of kids.  You can choose your puzzle based on group interests and skill level.  For example, if you have a group of children who love vehicles, get a transportation based puzzle.  Choose the number of pieces based on the children’s ages, skill level and what they will be able to complete in the time that you have set aside for the activity.  What I like most about it is that there is a very simple end goal: you need to take all those pieces and put them together.  It requires focus and attention, staying in the group and helping your friends out.  It requires teamwork and being patient with your peers.  At the end, once the puzzle is completed, the kids can feel really good about completing the puzzle as a group.  Plus, working together makes something like this easier to finish in less time.  Some of my favorite puzzles are made by Eeboo.  They tend to be made out of thicker paper and can handle the wear and tear of being used over and over again.

So here are my picks for toys, games, crafts, etc. that work on social skills.  While there are literally dozens and dozens of other ones I could have included, I chose these because I have seen the success in person with the kids I work with and the groups I run.  The OT in me also chose them because I knew that there were also fine motor, gross motor, visual motor or executive functioning skills that could also be worked on while using them.

Parents, therapists, teachers….do you have a particular game or activity that you love to use to promote social skills?  I am always on the lookout for new and motivating products and am sure that my readers would also love to hear your ideas.   I am always a click away and love hearing from you!

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