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I’m going to take a break from brooding about Christmas for a while.  I’ve finally seen some tasteful lawn decor — giant blue ornamental balls dangling from a barren deciduous tree, and not a blow-up character in sight — but I’m burning out on all the family time, holiday shopping, charity appeals, endless baking, and scheduled commitments.  I’m ready to bring you another installment in my “series” of favorite therapy toys/techniques. 

Actually, this one is more about the therapist/adult as the toy.  Surprisingly, I don’t mean this literally.  I’m well aware of the wonderful times that can be had swinging children upside-down from their toenails, flying them in circles, and flinging them onto resilient sofas.  I’ve wanted to fling many a hyperactive child, for the right and wrong reasons.  Hanen is a beautifully designed series of programs for parents helping their children to communicate.  In their program developed for children with autism-spectrum disorders or difficulty with the social aspects of communication, they advocate the human-as-toy approach, though I come at my ideas a little differently.

In Hanen, you, the adult, involve yourself as part of the play to make the play include a human aspect.  Instead of filling up a bucket with toys, you might use the bucket as a hat on your head, and let the child delight in seeing it fall off your head again and again.  You might build a train track that uses your legs as a tunnel, or hide toys in your hands.  Either way, you’re looking for opportunities for interaction and communication in play, and, truly, in a multitude of everyday activities. 

The reason I think of my ideas as using myself as part of the therapy is that I am often wearing the toy.  I am the toy.  I try to bring something irresistable (for a 3-5 year old) that impels them to communicate.  Though I may be every bit the bill-paying adult,  I often dress in a manner that is a combination of easy-maneuvering for work + machine-washable + kid-friendly that sometimes leaves me feeling a bit like I’m 12 years old.  The pigtails don’t help, I’m sure.  It’s nice not to be limited to dress pants, button-down shirts, blazers, and high-heels for work apparel.  I could very easily pull on scrubs, as many teachers and therapists who work with preschoolers are inexplicably doing these days.  I much prefer, however, to wear Snoopy skirts, striped tights, My Little Pony sweatshirts, and WALL-E barrettes.  Yes I do.  I made the Snoopy skirt out of an old bedsheet.  I made the WALL-E barrettes out of Shrinky-Dinks. 

In my personal life, I would much prefer to eschew commercialized products for children.  In my previous life teaching at a Quaker school, it was the school philosophy, and I grew to appreciate it very much.  Were I working solely with typically developing children, you’d be more likely to hear the following exchanges:

Timmy: “Look at my new light-up Disney Cars holographic supersonic animated licensed character sneakers!”

Me: “Are your shoes fast?”

Jojo: “Do you like my new Disney princess Cinderella Jasmine Ariel Belle lunchbox?  It has a matching Thermos”

Me:  “I like you!”

Now, however, I’ve found that kids who do not/will not talk about anything else, will come to life when they seem familiar characters.  Their faces will light up when they see my WALL-E barrettes.  “Why you got WALL-E in you hair?”  “Hey! Dat Robot in you hair!”  “Yook!  Wall-E!”  I remember the first time I observed this phenomenon.  A new school year has just begun, and a little girl who had a speech delay and wasn’t saying much more than 2 words at a time, even though she was almost 4, was shyly flitting around the classroom.  I tried to engage her in a conversation of some sort, and finally asked after her shoes, which looked new as they were still white.  She looked at them, she looked at me, and she burst out, “PONIES!”  We bonded over My Little Pony.

Though they don’t really recognize Snoopy anymore, and I haven’t gone all-out in Disney paraphernalia, I still marvel at the power of a familiar TV character to elicit a response in reluctant talkers.  

It is expressly for this purpose that I have kept somewhat up-to-date on my knowledge of current children’s TV programming and toys.  Well, maybe not exclusively.  I love PBS kids television shows.  I’ve been watching Arthur since high school.  I’m hooked on “Fetch” and “Cyberchase”, though those are a bit over my students’ age levels.  I know about Backyardigans and Caillou.  I can recognize Wubbzy.  I seek out Spongebob on On Demand.  Barney has always made me vomit, and I can’t sit through an episode of Blue’s Clues the way I can with Sesame Street, but I keep up.  And I think it pays off. 

The other gimmick I use in making myself the toy is nail polish.  I noticed that a particular child who otherwise would not say much voluntarily and would just sit there unnoticed in a corner of the classroom like a bump on a log took one look at my nails and launched into a dissertation on the colors and benefits of nail polish.  She counted the number of yellow-colored ones, compared it to the number of red-colored ones, and recited the alternating pattern that Mr. Apron had unwittingly created when he painted my nails in alternating hues.  She told me who paints her nails at home, and how she hopes to get them painted soon.  Even children who are non-verbal, or “communicate with their eyes” have been known to stop what they’re doing and focus on my nails.  They may rub them gently, examine their own, count them, or – gasp! – look up at me and make eye contact. 

My nail polish is my bling.  I don’t wear make-up. I don’t put much time into my hair.  I can’t wear much jewelry to work.  The one piece of jewelry I wear is my wristwatch.  No one seems to wear these anymore either, which of course immediately makes children focus on my wrist.  My watch is pretty special, too, since it’s a self-winding skeleton watch with a chunky orange band.  What does this mean?  It means that it has endless moving parts, and you can see through it to the winding mechanism in the back.  When you shake the watch, you can see the weight swing around and wind the watch.  You can see not only the hands ticking, but also all the gears moving.  It’s really cool.  And kids think so, too.  I’ve engaged a small class of children “timing” them as they run around the gym, exhausting themselves.  I’ve used it as a reward to keep kids focused for a few more minutes.  And I occasionally let them hold it (ah, only a few trustworthy kiddos) and shake it themselves. 

These little things – the familiar characters I can share, the nail polish Mr. Apron chooses, the wristwatch I use to make sure I’m giving them the right amount of therapy – make me more kid-friendly.  It doesn’t have to be Mickey Mouse scrubs, or a shirt with the entire alphabet on it.  They don’t care about how tall I am, how I wear my hair, what religion I observe, or how old I am.  They don’t care I can find acceptable gifts for my mother this year, or if I remembered to shut the dog gate this morning.  They only see what I can present to them.  Inadvertently, or by choice, I have found little gimmicks that can help me do my job by making communication with me a little more exciting, a little more rewarding, and, hopefully, for the hard-to-reach kiddos, irresistible.  

I wrote yesterday about the Craft Fair, and how many adult-like people asked me “What are they?” about the I Spy bags.  Aside from having no signage and having one woman repeat after me, “Ice Pie?  You mean you put it in the freezer?”, it occured to me that my readers (are there 2 of you yet?) might not know either. 

I shall elucidate.  The classic I Spy game is based on one person naming an object in clue form, “I spy with my little eye, something luminescent, radiant, and electric” to which the other person, upon scanning the room, says, “Is it a lightbulb?”  Kids probably say, “I spy…something blue” and then stare directly at it, waiting for you to name the dog’s water dish, while you give chase, naming all the other minutia in the room that is blue.  An I Spy bag is also a hide and seek game. 

I fill a 9″x9″ pouch with doll beads (PVC pellets) and 40-someodd small dollar-store toys (baby shower supplies are choice, small plastic animals, GI Joe figurines, party favors, hair clips) and junk-drawer mess (paper clips, bread tags, binder clips, foreign coins, buttons, puzzle pieces, bottle caps).  Then I seal it up and attach a tag listing the contents.  Here’s what my bags look like:

An I Spy bag

An I Spy bag

You can see I attached a laminated tag with a picture of all the contents.  My contents tags have a word list on one side, and a picture map on the other side.  I love the pictures because pre-literate kids can match what they find to the pictures, or go looking for an item on the card without needing a grown up to read it to them.  “Mom what’s this?  What’s it say?  Mom, what should I find next?  Mom?  Mom!”  Here’s what a picture map looks like:

I Spy bag contents

I Spy bag contents

The grid is an added “feature”.  Kids can challenge themselves or others to find all the items in box 7.  They’re grouped in some sort of order, by farm animals, round objects, vehicles, buttons, or beads. 

Here is the value:

Waiting in a doctor’s office, sitting quietly in church, riding in a shopping cart, enduring an endless car ride, children can entertain themselves quietly, with no lost pieces, no noisy buttons, and no need for adult support, even for young kids. 

Therapeutically, I can see speech language pathologists using them to build vocabulary, practice articulation targets (imagine a bag filled with just /s/ words!), follow directions (“Find the pig, then the dragon.”), teach language concepts (“Where’s the big round bead?”), or use them as a reward for doing other work.  I also work with occupational therapists, so I now understand the value of an I Spy bag in this field as well.  First, they’re weighted.  They provide sensory feedback to kids who crave it.  They also require manual manipulation to move around the pellets.  You can use one hand to strengthen it, or both hands to learn coordination.  You can squeeze it, poke it, shake it, etc, trying to find the objects and you’re not even thinking about therapy.  I received an e-mail today from a woman on craftster.org who made one for her 4 year old who has vision challenges.  With her I Spy bag, she is working on tracking, visual discrimination, focusing, matching, and never realizing it’s therapy. 

Did I mention how awesome these things are?  I think they’re worth far more than the $18 I’m offering them for.  I just need to figure a way into the market.  I know it’s a great toy.  Kids do, too.  Their parents just need to realize it.  And then pay me money for my creations.  And then all will be well in the world.