Articles

(2005) Indoor Obstacle Courses for Parents and Teachers

Published in Sensations, Volume 3, Issue 2 (September 2005), newsletter for The KID Foundation (now STAR Institute for Sensory Processing Disorder)
Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, and kids gotta climb, jump, and balance. While dangling from banisters, scooting under turnstiles, teetering on curbs, and jumping into puddles may dismay grown-ups, children persist with good reason.

How do kids learn to think and relate to the world around them? By scanning their surroundings; touching wooden, metal, rubber, or concrete surfaces; grasping and releasing handholds; changing body positions; maintaining equilibrium; and experimenting with different movement patterns. Furthermore, they are having fun, and “fun,” Dr. Ayres wrote, “is the child’s word for sensory integration.”

An obstacle course is sensational, both to provide fun and to promote praxis. Praxis, a sensory-based process, involves: Ideation (having an idea of something you want to do); Motor planning (figuring how to do it); and Execution (carrying out the plan). Just as the person who chops his own wood is warmed twice, the person who builds and moves through his own obstacle course strengthens praxis many times over.

You and your child can build an obstacle course outdoors, where everything is better, or indoors in bad weather. You don’t need special equipment – just a fresh way of looking at ordinary objects, with an eye on how they can promote sensory processing.
WHAT TO DO
1) Brainstorm, or ideate, with your kids to make three lists with these headings: Ways to Move, Prepositions, and Objects. Encourage children to tell or show you what they have in mind. For example:
Ways to Move:
Step, walk, creep (on all fours), crawl (on belly), scoot (on bottom), roll, somersault, jump (two feet), hop (one foot), leap, run
Prepositions:
Up, upon, down, into, onto, between, beneath, beside, under, over, through, across, around
Objects:
Consumables: Construction paper shapes, shoeboxes, paper plates, bubble wrap, masking tape, Bottle Babies (2-liter soda bottles, half-filled with colored water)
Kitchen: Stools, chairs, mixing bowls
Garage: Sawhorses, boards, inner tubes, tires, thick rope, flower pots, tarpaulins
Household: Wastebaskets, couch cushions, mattress, bridge table, exercise bench, telephone books, wash tubs, rugs, carpet squares, and sheet to drape over chairs for a tent
Kids’ equipment: Plastic hoops, big blocks, gym mats, Crash Pad (duvet cover, stuffed with pillows and foam blocks)

2) Together, plan the course by mixing and matching list ingredients, e.g.:
Step / Into / Shoe boxes
Scoot / Around / Wastebaskets
Creep / Under / Table
Crawl / Through / Tunnel
Walk / Between / Lines of tape
Somersault / Across / Mattress
Roll / Over / Bearskin rug
Jump / On / Bubble wrap
Vary movements, prepositions and objects to reinforce children’s ability to handle and discriminate different materials (tactile sense), stretch muscles and develop body awareness (tactile/proprioceptive senses), balance and move through space (vestibular sense), perceive spatial relationships and negotiate around obstacles (visual-motor skills), and improve motor planning, coordination and postural responses (sensory-based motor skills).

3) Execute the plan by laying out the course. In tight spaces, such as a hallway, a linear course is okay for one or two kids. In the yard or cleared room a circular course is best for a crowd. Let youngsters help! Kids with SPD often sense what their systems need; honor their ideas and be flexible about altering the plan. Also, remember that the heavy work of lifting, carrying, pushing and pulling materials into place is like over-the-counter OT.
TIPS

  • Have everyone travel in the same direction to avoid traffic jams.
  • Prior to a happy birthday party, practice building and going through a course with your child so she feels in-the-know, adept, and ready to help her friends if they get stuck.
  • For holidays, spice up the course with seasonal accents, e.g.:

Valentine’s Day:

  • Use red Bottle Babies (soda bottles half-filled with tinted water) to circumnavigate
  • Make a curvy or soft, heart-shaped path with red masking tape
  • Stick down red paper hearts to jump on and red arrows to manage the flow

President’s Day:

  • Play patriotic music
  • Emphasize red, white and blue objects (sheets, cushions, tape, hoops)

St. Patrick’s Day:

  • Tape tiny paper feet along the course so kids can follow the leprechaun’s path
  • At the start, hand each child a large gold piece to toss into a pot at the end
  • Have the kids go barefoot, or backwards, or with music.
  • Incorporate your child’s favorite theme. Does he love trains? Pretend that obstacles are the locomotive, freight car, caboose. Are planets her thing? Obstacles can be Mercury, Venus, Earth. State capitals? Hartford, Annapolis, Denver. This thematic technique may jump-start the child who is not a self-starter.
  • Be vigilant about safety. Allow sufficient space between obstacles for the child to readjust his posture before moving to the next. Always be there.

To give children the chance to master new physical challenges, learn problem-solving skills and develop praxis, make an obstacle course every day! Build it, and they will come.

For more on obstacle courses and heavy work activities, see The Out-of-Sync Child Has Fun, revised (Perigee, 2006), The Goodenoughs Get in Sync (Sensory Resources, 2004), and Growing an In-Sync Child (Sensory World, 2010).

(2004) In Praise of Mud

Published in S.I. Focus magazine (Winter issue), and adapted from a 1990 article originally in Carol’s column, “Gentle Reminders,” in Parent and Child magazine

A child comes to school on a soggy day. Tentatively approaching a puddle, she sticks in one spotless boot, watching with interest as her foot sinks into the mud. She puts in the other boot. She is entranced. Looking up, she says to her teacher, “Is this mud? It’s fun! Is it okay?”

A child comes to school in his caregiver’s immaculate car. Tearfully, he announces, “My babysitter said not to get dirty.” He cannot be persuaded to paint at the easel, jump in the mulch, or wriggle on the floor like a caterpillar, although he itches to get into the play.

A child comes to school on a wintry Monday. He says, “Daddy and I watched football all weekend. We’re couch potatoes!” Good news: Big Potato and Potato Chip spent time together. Bad news: they limited their sensory stimulation to watching television. They missed the chance at half time to engage in active, physical contact with each other, a leathery football, scrubby turf, and frosty air.

What’s wrong here? Have our children lost the freedom to get down and get dirty? Growing up to be tidy is commendable, but many children seem to be maturing without a strong sensitivity to touch.

The touch (or tactile) sense is essential to children’s development. Like vision and hearing, touch opens the main avenues of learning. Much of our knowledge about the importance of touch comes from the field of sensory integration (or sensory processing), pioneered by A. Jean Ayres, PhD, OTR. Her research revealed that the ability to interpret tactile information not only promotes optimum development of the young child’s nervous system, but also helps the child learn about his world.

Learning about the environment is a child’s primary occupation. His brain needs to process and organize all kinds of sensory information, just as his body needs all kinds of food to function best. His tactile sense provides information about texture, shape, density, pressure, temperature, and other attributes of the world.

Nature’s plan is simple: let the senses, working in sync, do the teaching. For children whose sensory processing develops typically, learning through messy play is pleasant and interesting. They know how to get the just-right amount to satisfy their neurological system. Some children with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), however, may seem never to get enough tactile experiences; they crave more, more, more. Others may have tactile overresponsivity (or defensiveness), causing them to avoid touching and being touched. Whether seekers or avoiders, kids with SPD need tactile activities just as much as typical kids do.

When we encourage tactile experiences, we do more than provide vital nourishment for children’s maturing brains. We do more than offer the unadulterated fun of molding mud pies. We also open the way that may become their preferred route to learning. Just as the photographer Ansel Adams took the visual route, the composer Mozart the aural, and the sculptor Rodin the tactile, so each of us chooses one favorite mode.

What if Rodin’s babysitter didn’t let him get his hands dirty because he’d soil the upholstery? What if Julia Child’s mother kept her out of the kitchen because she’d spill flour? Or Jacques Cousteau’s father told him to read instead of lingering in the bathtub? Or the pope advised Gregor Mendel to pray more and spend less time messing with sweet peas? How deprived we all would be!

Rather than deprive our children, let’s broaden their sensory input with activities that are S.A.F.E. (Sensory-motor, Appropriate, Fun and Easy). Let’s provide tactile sensations of dough, water, clay, glue, rock, mud, sap, earth, paint, feathers and fur. Children thrive when their bodies ingest and digest all kinds of sensory stimuli. They may develop to their greatest potential if they have opportunities to feel rain on their faces, leaves in their hair, goo on their fingers, and mud between their toes.

SOME S.A.F.E. TACTILE EXPERIENCES FOR PRESCHOOLERS

• Finger-painting on a tray with chocolate pudding. This open-ended, hands-on activity feels as good as it tastes. Next time, offer shaving cream and enjoy the smell and easy clean-up.

• Digging for worms. Handling worms is about as tactile as you can get.

• Going barefoot, lakeside. The differences between firm and squishy, warm and cold, dry and wet are worth investigating.

• Forming rice balls or meatballs.

• Kneading playdough or real dough. Make shapes, people, pretzels, or blobs.

• Ripping paper. Strips of newspaper are useful to line the hamster cage. Strips of construction paper or tissue paper make beautiful collages. Remember that the process, not the product, is the goal.

• Discovering treasures in a Feely Box. (Cut a hand-sized hole in a shoebox lid. Fill the box with lentils, cotton balls, packing peanuts, or sand. Add buttons, shells, uncooked macaroni, or small toys.) The idea is to thrust a hand through the hole and let the fingers do the seeing. No peeking!

• Collecting seeds, pebbles, or shells in an egg carton. Loading up the receptacles and dumping them out is great fun for a very young child. The ability to sort and classify the items comes later.

• Petting the pet. Drying a wet dog, stroking a kitten, providing a finger perch for a parakeet, or hugging a baby are tactile experiences that make a child feel good, inside and out.

(2002) Wisdom from a Preschool Teacher

Posted on Child.com, September

A mother tells me how excited she is about her toddler’s “educational” computer game. Just click the mouse and presto – one, two, three oranges bound into a bucket. Click again, and they reappear, one, two, three. Isn’t that a fabulous way to learn counting? What is my opinion, as a preschool teacher?

“How about giving him a bucket and three oranges?” I ask. “Then he can touch and hold them, smell them, toss them, and enjoy a real experience.”

“That seems so old-fashioned!” she says.

Old-fashioned is right! And often, old-fashioned is better. Times change, but children don’t. They still need the good old experiences that kids have always relished. They need to run and play outside, take risks, and try again when they stumble. And they still need thoughtful, available parents.

Want to raise a confident, competent child? The kind of kid who loves to learn and play? Who actively participates in the world around her? Who thinks independently while still considering others points of view? In 25 years of working with young children and their families, I’ve found these 10 tips most helpful for raising can-do kids.

#1 Provide concrete experiences. Children are sensory-motor learners. Sensory-motor means that sensations come in, and motor (movement) responses go out. Thus, playing with an orange engages most senses and encourages the child to try different motor responses. She can squeeze and sniff it, roll it across the floor or around in a pie pan, play catch with you, and maybe peel, section, and savor it. Many physical, hands-on activities like these nourish the brain.

You can enrich your child s play by providing meaningful sensory-motor experiences. For example, furnish footwear to play “Shoe Store.” Your child can: Sort shoes by shape, size, texture, and how they fasten(laces/Velcro/buckle). Sequence them (sneaker, pump, boot; sneaker, pump, boot). Seriate them according to size. Try them all on. Box and stack them. Be the “customer” and “salesperson.”

Hide the videos. Ban TV. Jane Healy, PhD, of Colorado, an educational psychologist and expert on brain development, advises that children sit before an electronic screen no longer than 30 minutes a day. Video time deprives children of the sensory-motor experiences that build healthy brains and bodies. A Chinese adage says: “I hear, and I forget. I see, and I remember. I do, and I understand.”

#2 Get physical with your child. “Everyone needs 12 hugs a day for optimum emotional health,” claims a wise colleague. Hugs are therapeutic – not only emotionally, but also physically. Research shows that at-risk infants who are cuddled are more likely to thrive than babies who are not. While you’re at it, roughhouse with your child – especially your girl! Baby girls arrive with the same physical requirements as boys. Every child needs to move through space.

So, get on all fours and play Horsey. Play Up and Over: hold her hands, let her scale your legs, and flip her over and down. Play Helicopter: hold her at the waist or underarms and swing her through the air.

Learning and active movement go together. For instance, the first time your child plays Horsey, she may feel unsteady. She must judge how to stay balanced, how hard to clench her knees, and how not to choke you! Subsequently, she’ll be more confident and relaxed because she has integrated countless body-brain connections. Someday, she ll generalize these lessons about balance and body position when she mounts a real pony or bicycle.

#3 Get his muscles moving. Fine, or small, muscles, which mature gradually, control the hands, fingers, toes, lips, tongue, and eyes. To encourage small muscle development, first you need to get your child’s big muscles working.

“Every child must organize large muscles before concentrating on complex small motor skills,” says Patricia Lemer, Executive Director of Developmental Delay Resources, a nonprofit organization dedicated to healthy alternatives for children with special needs. “Before sitting and writing, children require many opportunities to climb on ladders, toss balls, and paint broad strokes while standing at an easel.”

For little kids, think big: large Legos, foot-long trucks, life-size baby dolls, thick paintbrushes, chubby chalk and crayons. After preschoolers practice manipulating big toys and tools, they can graduate to smaller ones, such as Matchbox cars and watercolor brushes.

Get your child’s eyes roving. Play flashlight games, such as chasing each other’s beamed zigzags on darkened walls. Lob beach balls back and forth. Play tetherball and pingpong. Lie outside on summer nights and watch fireflies. Point out things in the distance. These visual exercises help young eyes track moving objects, change focus from far to near, and function as a team.

Get your child’s tongue wagging. Play mouth games with your baby: mimic the ways you curl, shake, and poke your tongue. Stretch your lips in great Os and wide grins. These games strengthen speaking skills.

#4 Encourage critical thinking. Wonder and hypothesize together. Why do melons float and potatoes sink? What may happen if we run out of gas? What snack will Grandma serve? Asking, “What do you think?” may elicit profound insights. Kids give thoughtful answers when we ask thoughtful questions.

Suppose your child is curious about a cartoon his schoolmates discuss. You’d prefer to read stories, but he wants to watch TV. Relent; in the long run, watching a short, mindless show is less damaging than feeling left out by classmates. Seize this opportunity to guide him into thinking critically. Critical thinkers are not complainers, but people who evaluate situations with discrimination and care.

Watch the show together. Later, ask questions: Would the hero make a nice friend? How does he treat less powerful characters? Does he have a plan, or just let stuff happen to him? When things go wrong, does he use his words to solve the problem? What helps him succeed – fancy equipment or his own wits?

Do not accept “Dunno.” Get an opinion!

#5 Let your child speak for herself. You and your daughter go to the ice cream parlor. The familiar clerk says, “Hi!” Your daughter freezes. Before you jump in with, “Say ‘hi’ to Mike,” give her time to respond. A child capable of speaking may simply need a few extra beats.

And suppose Mike inquires what flavor she wants today, and she just stands there. Don’t give the answer yourself; you may not know your child’s preference. You weren’t asked the question, anyway. Producing “language on demand” is a prerequisite for school success. A child must learn to respond to direct questions and to ask for what she wants. If you do the talking, the danger for your child is “earned helplessness.” Why should she make an effort, if you always take over? Model friendly conversation to encourage her to be responsive and considerate.

#6 Encourage good reading habits. A cartoon shows a boy holding a book. He regards his father, who is simultaneously using a laptop and watching television. The child says, “Daddy, can you read?” Take time to read. When you show an interest in books, you teach your child that reading is a lifetime pleasure. Let him catch you at it. Talk about what you are learning from the book.

A preschooler doesn’t need details about front-page news or the plots of best-sellers, but he can benefit from understanding that all kinds of challenges beset all kinds of folks. Children learn empathy from their parents. Discuss how problems may be overcome when people care about one another and work together.

#7 Champion chores. Children love and need heavy work. It activates the large muscles in the arms, legs, and torso; puts the brain in gear; and prepares them to pay attention to the surrounding world. The easier we make life for our kids, the harder their lives will be. Without sufficient motor activities, they may have low stamina, poor muscle tone, and scant experience in accomplishing simple tasks. Insufficient movement can also lead to poor sleep patterns and appetites.

Having your child help with chores is a great first step. He can rake leaves, shovel snow, dig in the garden, brush the dog, wash the car, push the stroller and vacuum cleaner, carry laundry upstairs, and haul nonbreakables (rice, plastic soda bottles, and cans) from grocery store to car and from car to kitchen.

Not enough heavy loads? Make some! Recycle those plastic bottles as Bottle Babies: fill them halfway with water, tinted with food coloring or tempura paint; tighten their caps; and hand them over. Outdoors, your child will lug them around, roll and kick them, hide them under the bushes, bury them in the sandbox, wrap them in blankets and pretend they are babies, and consider them a perfect toy.

#8 Make mealtime memorable. Sit down and share a daily meal. Dinner is best; breakfast will do. With you as a model for mealtime decorum, your child can learn self-help skills such as cutting and pouring, as well as more complex life skills such as patience, sharing, and participating in the give and take of conversation. Should conversation get stuck, ask each family member to relate one incident of the day. Or say, “Tell us something funny (confusing, scary, incredible) that happened today.” Make sure that everyone has a turn to listen and comment.

Food, like movement, is essential nutrition for growing bodies. Around the table, your child can also be nourished emotionally, so she feels a sense of belonging and learns to be mindful of the needs of others; socially, so she learns to function in a group; and cognitively, so she learns to meet challenges and plan solutions.

#9 Honor your child’s interests. Say your daughter is fond of earthworms. She rescues and carries them home in paper cups. And let’s say you hate worms. Before you say, “Yuck,” look at her face. Is she emotionally invested in these creatures? Curious and compassionate? Eager to share her thoughts with you?

This is bad? No, this is wonderful!

#10 Make fun a priority. Play helps children learn. It stretches the imagination, encourages thinking skills, strengthens motor coordination, and enhances social development. Our daily charge should be, “Have fun!” – not “Be good!” Fun, like manners, empathy, and the desire to read, begins at home. If you know and show how to have fun, chances are your child will, too. So…

  • Dress up for Hallowe’en.
  • Play make-believe games, like “I’m the kid and you’re the Mommy.”
  • Celebrate Backwards Day; eat dessert first.
  • Switch the initial sounds of words to create Spoonerisms, such as “Please heed the famster,” or, “Remember to toss your fleeth,” or “All ready for proccer sactice?” Because they are old enough to get it, preschoolers are tickled by such… nensonse.
  • Have Silly Contests. Who can crunch carrots the loudest? Blow the biggest bubbles? Invent a word to rhyme with “raccoon”? Stare into another’s eyes without laughing?
  • Make music together. Music restores order, improves communication, and is one of life’s greatest pleasures. Homemade rhythm instruments include spoons, pots and pans, oatmeal-box drums, pencil mallets, and cigar-box guitars (sturdy boxes encircled with rubber bands). Inexpensive kazoos and slide whistles can add hilarious melody. Beat a simple rhythm and invite your child to join in. Take turns following each other’s beat. Change from simple to complex, from slow to fast, from loud to soft. Making music is especially fun when you and your child actively make it happen.

Some of the most important skills your child needs at school come from lessons that begin at home. Try these 10 Can-Do Tips, and you will help get your child on the path to success.

(2001) Taking Care of Yourself When Your Child Has Special Needs

Unpublished – Written for the now-defunct clubmom.com, August 2001

Before takeoff, you buckle your seatbelt and listen to the flight attendant review emergency procedures. You hear that if the oxygen masks drop, you should adjust your own before assisting your child. Likewise, if you are on a lifelong journey as a special mom, you must care for yourself so you can effectively care for your child.

Self-care, however, requires TLC (Time, Liberty, Cash), resources often in short supply. Kathy Vestermark, mother of four, cherishes time for herself. “I gain stamina to advocate effectively for my child with multiple disabilities when I take time to do those things that ensure my self-preservation. Easier said than done!” Kathy adds, “My husband often reminds me to do something for myself. It’s hard not to give endlessly to others – especially to my son. I worry that if I relax my efforts, so will he.”

Psychologist Griffin Doyle, PhD, comments, “Parenting a unique child is a most difficult adjustment.” Coloring the parents struggle often is their guilt about not possessing sufficient emotional resources to match their internal image of an ideal, all-courageous parent. “Parents who respect, admit, and work through their guilt or other agonizing feelings truly are caring for themselves,” he adds.

Also, self-care can be a priceless model of self-esteem for the child to emulate. Balancing your needs with your child’s is the ticket. Here are suggestions from moms who achieve this balance:

1) Exercise daily. Donna Keating, whose five-year-old daughter has sensory processing disorder, says, “Usually, moms assume the task physically and emotionally of the child. It zaps every part of you. Exercise is so essential to relieve everyday stresses. I stick to my work-out schedule and rarely feel guilty about taking time out for myself.”

2) Volunteer for groups that are needier than you. Sorting clothes at Goodwill or serving soup at a shelter, you may feel less self-pitiful.

3) Take classes. Nanette Bevan, mother of three boys, one with Down syndrome and one with spinal muscular atrophy, says, “Pay for a course and go.” Nanette crafts glass and silver jewelry. Learning new techniques or working in the studio, she is in the flow. She stops worrying about her sons’ problems and returns home refueled.

4) Listen to soothing music. The Mozart Effect recordings and Nourishing the Caregiver (available through www.SensoryWorld.com) are produced specifically to relieve stress and restore order. A loftier idea is to get the piano tuned and make music.

5) Talk to someone, besides your husband. If you talk only to him, Nanette advises, you ll probably keep bonking up against each other over the same issues. A sympathetic friend or relative can be a lifeline, especially if the person shares your sense of humor. Consulting a psychotherapist is also extremely worthwhile. Donna comments, “When your child has special needs, you spend every waking moment thinking and planning to stay ahead. Moms require quantities of support that a spouse, relative, or friend can’t easily provide. On days when the light at the end of the tunnel seems nowhere in sight, I find some relief networking with moms with similar children.”

To find a support group, visit websites related to your child’s disability. Many have message boards for sharing concerns, information, and even belly laughs.

6) Seek respite care for an afternoon, evening or weekend, at home or a licensed facility.Finding respite care is challenging. It can be cost prohibitive, and providers may be scarce. Perhaps your local government can guide you to grants to help you meet the costs. Groups that provide respite care, sometimes free, include:

• Local chapters of national organizations that offer Parents Night Out, such as Easter Seals (www.easter-seals.com)
• ARCH National Respite Network (919-490-5577 or www.archrespite.org/respitelocator)
• Campus Ministries or public service groups at colleges, where students may gladly volunteer to baby sit for kids as special as yours
• Hospitals and Red Cross chapters that train providers of children with special needs

7) Nurture good babysitters. Amy Cunningham, whose son’s visual dysfunction lowers his tolerance for new people and situations, advises, “Once you find good babysitters, woo them. Treat them like honored family members – and pay them well. Do whatever it takes to ensure their return.”

8) Barter time with similar parents of similar children. If you are single, maybe you can watch your child and other kids simultaneously. A babysitting co-op may also work well. To locate one, consult neighbors, community newspapers and bulletin boards.

9) Think positively. Amy says, “I take better care of myself, my son, and everyone else I love when I not only accept what is, but also acknowledge the secret, sweet, up side that makes my life seem divinely designed.”

When you find the time to care for yourself, you will see your family’s spirits soar. Buckle up, and let’s go!

 

(2000) Music and Movement Bring Together Children of Differing Abilities

Published in Child Care Information Exchange magazine (May 2000), and in Curriculum: Art, Music, Movement, Drama – A Beginnings Workshop Book (Exchange Press, 2006)

Typically-developing children are usually adaptable. They sing and dance, play rhythm instruments, and willingly try traditional preschool experiences. Children with special needs, however, may prefer sticking to the same-old-same-old activities that make them feel successful.

Whatever the skill level of your preschoolers, a variety of sensory-motor activities in your curriculum can satisfy most children’s needs. Music and movement activities, with their flexible structure, can foster every child’s creativity and competence.

These stories illustrate how children of differing abilities play together at St. Columba’s Nursery School in Washington, DC.

1) Music and movement allow children to use their imaginations.

Quint has spinal muscular atrophy. He has little use of his lower body. As a result of extensive and intensive therapy, however, Quint’s upper body is strong. Using a wheelchair, he maneuvers expertly outdoors and inside.

He excels at singing and rhyming, at parachute games and rhythm band activities. He welcomes enacting playlets, such as “The Gingerbread Man.” When the farmers and animals run, run, as fast as they can in pursuit of the Gingerbread Man, Quint joins the chase in his wheelchair. “Watch!” he says. “I can do it myself!”

Quint is decidedly less enthusiastic about up-and-down activity songs, such as “The Noble Duke of York.” He mutters, “I hate that song,” and who could blame him?

Still, the musical activities he shuns are often the ones other children love. While inclusion is the name of the game, and sensitivity to Quint’s feelings is crucial, the other children have needs, too. Balancing the needs of all the children is all-important.

Quint’s classmates are a varied bunch. Several children have marvelous motor skills, while others are at various points along the developmental bell curve.

One day the program includes a game designed to strengthen the sensory-motor skills of body awareness, motor coordination, flexion and extension, listening, and beat awareness. We sit in a circle, legs in front.

The singer on the phonograph record instructs us to raise and lower our feet and wave them in big arcs. Most of us do our best, while Quint slumps and scowls.

Next, the singer tells us to move our arms, shoulders, and head – up, down, and all around. Quint can do this. He sits up tall and easily complies with each of these demands.

Then he says, “I have a good idea. Let’s lie on our tummies.”

Hey! Cool! We have played this game before, but never on our stomachs. Quint’s compensatory strategy sounds like fun.

We roll onto our stomachs and repeat the activity. Quint cannot raise his toes but can lift his arms, shoulders and head. His agility impresses the other children. “How do you get your arms so high?” one asks.

Pleased, Quint says, “Oh, I’m just really good at that.”

Then Giorgio asks, “Can we do it on our backs?”

Following Giorgio’s suggestion, we flip over and repeat the game, lifting our body parts into the air. We discover that when our bodies rest on the floor, resisting gravity is easier.

Then Emma wants to try the game lying on our sides. Ooh, that is hard! Charlotte suggests trying it face-to-face with a partner. That’s funny!

Instead of a five-minute warm-up activity, this game absorbs the entire half hour. The children’s creative collaboration, regardless of their differing needs, is too purposeful and fun to stop.

2) Music and movement awaken children’s brains.

Zack, lost in his own world, exhibits symptoms of autism. His play comprises lining up cars and banging together two plastic blocks. His language skills are severely delayed. When he is spoken to, his limited responses are more gestural than verbal.

He seems to enjoy coming to music with his class, but we aren’t sure. Sometimes he joins in the movement activities; other times he tunes out.

His classroom teacher remarks, “If only we could learn how to give Zack a jump start!”

One day, I’m rounding up Zack’s classmates to come to the music room. The other children are congregating in the corridor. Zack is still in his coat, gazing dreamily at his coat hook, stuck.

I ask, “Are you ready for music, Zack?”

He nods. Otherwise, he doesn’t move.

I try a different tactic. I pick him up, give him a bear hug and rock him side to side. To the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” I repeat: “Are you – ready for – music – Zack?”

Suddenly, Zack comes alive. His eyes light up. He laughs. He returns my hug and leans into the rocking motion. After I set him down, he whips off his coat, hangs it neatly on his hook, and leaps into line. “I’m ready!”

What’s happening? Is the combination of singing, deep pressure, and rocking the technique to arouse Zack?

Walking behind him and pressing firmly on his shoulders, I start the song again, making up rhymes that are inexpert, but good enough:

Are you – ready for – music – today?

Let’s get – moving – here’s the – way.

Now we’re – walking – down the – hall,

Here we – go – one and – all,

Are you – ready for – music – now?

Let’s go – in and – take a – bow.

Zack loves it and participates in the music class as never before.

Now, to get Zack’s attention, we sing while hugging and rocking him. The words needn’t make sense, rhyme, or even be there. Humming does the trick, too. The tools that rev him up are melody, deep pressure, and rhythmic motion. This approach helps him get in sync.

3) Music and movement allow children to be in control.

“No, I won’t. You can’t make me. I’m the boss of my body,” is Fiona’s mantra.

Her diagnosis of oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) is not surprising. We know that she struggles to be in control because she feels powerless. To help her learn to be the legitimate boss of her own body, we require more than a label. What can we offer this contrary, needy child?

Resistive experiences! Resistive experiences benefit everyone. Pressing different body parts against the wall, carrying heavy buckets of sand, kneading mudpies, digging, shoveling, sweeping, and raking are examples of resistive activities. Hard work is fun! And for children who resist everything, resistive experiences can be a potent prescription.

In the music room, a game planned with Fiona in mind employs resistive, stretchy latex bands, often used for exercise or physical rehabilitation. The children sit on the rug surrounding three piles of bands. Red bands are for kids who feel a little sleepy. Green bands are for kids who feel strong. Blue ones are for kids who feel r-e-a-l-l-y strong. The children consider this information, choose a band, test it, change their mind, select another, and prepare to play.

Fiona, of course, refuses. Children like her cannot be jollied along. The reason is not that they won t participate, but that they can t. That s all right; we are not in a rush here. “I’ll leave the extra bands on the rug,” I say. “When you re ready, you can choose one.”

The game is a follow-the-leader activity. While a lively instrumental rendition of “Yankee Doodle” plays, the first leader steps onto her band, holding the ends in her hands, bending and straightening her knees. The other children follow her example for 16 strong beats.

The second leader centers the band behind her back and pumps her hands forward and back. The others follow. One by one, we go around the circle, and everyone has a turn.

Meanwhile, Fiona sits against the wall, watching attentively. She sees the fun everyone is having even the teachers. She hears the participants clamor, “Let’s do it again!”

Suddenly, Fiona jumps up. “I’ll do it,” she growls, “but I won’t follow any leader!” She snatches a blue band (the most resistive) from the pile.

The music starts again.

Fiona ignores the leaders and invents her own movements. Who could object? At the moment, she is not interfering with anyone, is having a good time, and is gaining physical and motor control of her own body.

4) Music and movement strengthen children’s problem-solving and motor-planning skills.

Shep has dyspraxia, which means he has difficulty planning his motions and organizing his body to go through a sequence of unfamiliar movements. Some symptoms of his disorder are poor motor coordination, social immaturity, and emotional insecurity.

The musical game today is tapping rhythm sticks. I splay the sticks out on the rug. “Take one smooth stick and one bumpy stick,” I say.

As the other children reach for sticks, Shep hangs back. He wants to participate but doesn’t know how to begin.

I hand him a pair, saying, “Here are your sticks. Feel how this one is bumpy; this one is smooth. Now, come be my helper.” I open my arms and indicate that he can sit on the floor in front of me.

Shep whispers, “I don’t know what to do.” I whisper back, “We’ll help each other.” I adjust the sticks in his hands and place my hands over them. Working as one, we tap his sticks together, on the floor, on his knees, in the air. I guide his motions as the game continues, actually putting the sensation of motion into his muscles. Gradually, I let go. By the end of the game, Shep has scooted back to the circle. He is doing a fairly good job of watching his friends to figure out what to do.

When music time is over, and we have sung the “Good-bye Song,” and the children are lining up to return to their classroom, Shep turns back and grins. “That was fun,” he says. “That was easy!”

Zack, Quint, Fiona and Shep could very well be placed in classes for children with special needs. However, both they and their typical peers benefit from their inclusion in a mainstream preschool. Here, the emphasis is not on speaking in complete sentences, doing only what the teacher says, or doing things the “right” way. Instead, children are given opportunities to heighten their arousal level, use their imaginations, and develop motor-planning and problem-solving skills.

Thank you, music and movement!

(2000) How Does Sensory Processing Disorder Affect Learning?

Posted on SPD Foundation’s website (May)

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is not classified as a learning disability, but it can certainly hamper a child’s ability to learn. To illustrate, here are stories about two preschoolers whom I taught in my music and movement room at St. Columba’s Nursery School in Washington, DC.

Robin, 4, is over-responsive to touch sensations (she avoids them). Larry, 3-1/2, is under-responsive to movement (he craves it). Let’s look at these intelligent, healthy kids with an eye on how sensory issues are not only getting in their way now but may also interfere with learning and behavior in the future.

ROBIN

Robin has Sensory Over-Responsivity. She avoids being close to other children and shies away from adults, too. The possibility of being accidentally touched by them makes her extremely anxious. She also avoids messy play. Touching fingerpaints, mudpies, sand, playdough, glue, and bubbles makes her very uncomfortable–even threatened. Therefore, she scoots away from her preschool classmates when it’s time to sit on the rug for a story. She refuses to participate in art projects. She resists sitting at the science table. “I hate science,” she says, turning her back. “It’s yucky.” She avoids cooking and “gooking” activities in the classroom. At snack time, she becomes upset when a drop of juice spills on her skin or even on the table.

Robin likes to dance, but not if the game is Ring Around the Rosy, because she doesn’t want to hold hands in the circle. And not if the song is about whirling leaves, and the musical game is to hold a real leaf and twirl around the room with it. She likes to sing, knows all the words, has a good sense of rhythm, and enjoys chanting rhymes. But when offered rhythm instruments to accompany the song, she shoves them away. She crosses her arms and tightens her lips.

Now, rhythm instruments aren’t messy, are they? They’re not slimy or sticky or smelly. But Robin refrains from touching them, anyway. Unlike her curious classmates who are eager to explore objects in their environment, she just says “no” to picking things up and examining them. She disdains putting on dress-ups, playing with hand puppets, and drawing with crayons. Churning ice cream? Making snowballs? Picking up worms on the sidewalk? Washing doll babies? Pouring sand from one container to another? Finger painting in shaving cream? No way.

Robin is missing many concrete, hands-on experiences that are necessary for abstract learning later on. She is also missing making connections to other children. Tactile overresponsivity gets in Robin’s way, physically, socially, emotionally, and yes, cognitively, too. As she gets older, learning may become increasingly tough. If she hasn’t handled many different objects and toyed with many different textures, she may not understand concepts such as hard and soft, wet and dry, heavy and light, prickly and smooth, sticky and slippery, fragile and enduring. She may be mystified by challenges to estimate an object’s size and shape, weight, and density. She may struggle to make sense of math, science, and art. Expressing herself in words may be limited, because of her limited experiences and participation in the world around her.

For the moment, her teacher is aware of Robin’s tactile dysfunction and has found some ways to entice her into the play. For example, she invites Robin to come to the art table when only one or two children are working there, so Robin doesn’t feel crowded and anxious. She offers Robin individual finger mittens (snipped from vinyl gloves) to slip on her fingertips. She keeps a bucket of water nearby for Robin to rinse her hands immediately after she touches something objectionable. She lets Robin sit at the head of the snack table, so other children have less chance of grazing against her.

The teacher’s accommodations do help Robin for now. But what do you guess may happen when Robin goes to kindergarten and the great beyond? Will she be able to work in groups with other children, as expected? Will she be competent manipulating scissors, rulers, compasses and pencils? Will she function smoothly in the big, busy classroom?

LARRY

Larry is an impetuous daredevil. He does not appear to have much sense of how to protect himself. You might see him scrabbling up to the top rung of the jungle gym (where other kids know instinctively not to go) and leaping to the mulch below. Bam! He lands in a heap and scrambles to his feet, covered with mulch, grinning.

More, more, more.

Larry always needs more movement experiences and needs them to be more intense than other children’s. For instance, he craves rotary movement on the tire swing. Whereas twirling for a few minutes satisfies most children, Larry spins hard and fast for 20 or 30 minutes. Should his teacher invite him to play Duck-Duck-Goose or to go on a treasure hunt, he says, “No, thank you. I just want to spin.” Spinning is his favorite activity. The teacher respects his needs and lets him spin, although she worries that he is missing most of the activities that his classmates enjoy.

Off the tire swing, Larry runs everywhere, but stopping is hard. He trips and falls often. His teacher says, “Larry is like the Titanic. Throttles wide open, full steam ahead!” He frequently bumps and crashes into his schoolmates, pawing them to the ground for a bit of wrestling.

One day, The Gingerbread Man is the program du jour in my music and movement room. First, I tell the story on the felt board. During the story, the children shake jingle bells and sing, “Run, run, as fast as you can. You can’t catch me! I’m the Gingerbread Man!”

Larry is impatient: “Let’s go! Let’s go! Finish the story!” He doesn’t want to sit; he wants to run, run, as fast as he can.

His classroom teacher gently restrains him, applying the OT technique of deep pressure. She sits behind him, straddles her legs around him, squeezes his knees to his chest, and rocks him. The pressure and rhythmic motion are soothing. He closes his eyes and begins to tune in. Now he sings the Gingerbread Man’s theme song along with the other kids.

Meanwhile, I conclude the felt board story and show the children how the room is set up for the playlet. On the bare floor, all around the rug, a large circle of masking tape indicates the road. At one point on the road is a red paper stop sign. The idea is for the Gingerbread Man to run once around the rug and then halt on the stop sign. The other characters in the story will chase him, but never actually catch him.

As I point out the other props, the children watch attentively. They are so invested in the activity that they ignore Larry, who has wriggled away from his teacher’s embrace. While his classmates are learning how to enact the story, Larry places his forehead on the rug and pivots his body around his head.

Now each child gets to choose a part to enact: the Old Woman, the Cow, the Pig, the Fox, etc. Larry jumps up and clamors to be the Gingerbread Man. “I know this story,” he says eagerly. “My Mommy reads it to me all the time.”

Larry is a good listener, that I know. Even when he’s twirling or rocking, he can still pay attention to what is said or sung. But is he a good visual observer? Can he use his eyes to focus and attend? We’ll see.

The playlet begins. Larry knows the story and song… but not the significance of the red stop sign on the floor. He wants to participate… but can’t plan and carry out how he is supposed to act and what he is supposed to do. I repeat the information, and he says he understands… but he still has trouble stopping. I hold his hand and run beside him… but he still has trouble stopping. “Larry is doing it all wrong!” the Horse complains. “He’s messing us up!”

Larry is confused and unhappy. He falls in a heap on the rug. His classroom teacher sits nearby and rubs his back while the other children enact the story several times, until they’re satisfied.

Will Larry succeed in elementary school?