The educational value of toys and games podcast header

Occupational therapy and the educational value of toys and games [Podcast]

This week we are excited to welcome Kelly Wilk-Downs to The Preschool Podcast. Kelly is an Occupational Therapist and the owner of Junction of Function. She is certified in the Sensory Integration and Praxis Test and has specialized in working with Autism. Kelly is the developer of Shoe Tying Made Simple and Writing Made Simple products. She has spent most of her career working in the schools where she was responsible for staffing the schools with clinicians and she also owned her own clinic.

During her time in the classroom, she saw a need for educators to be able to pair instructions with photos. From this, she came up with her Shoe Tying Made Simple method with bicolor shoelaces to help children learn to tie their shoes. It has no bunny ears and just uses one loop. This way it works for both typically developing children and those with special learning styles.

When teaching new skills to children, it is important to break them down, task analyze them, and pair them with visuals and songs. As well, play is one of the core tenants of occupational therapy. It is a child’s job. There is great alignment in play where they learn about their bodies, senses, and how everything integrates together.

Listen to the full episode to dive deeper!

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Podcast Transcript

Kelly WILK-DOWNS:

It’s a child’s job, play. They learn through play. So, to go to work and they’re learning through play. They learn about their environment, their bodies, their senses and how it all integrates all together.

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: 

Kelly, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!

WILK-DOWNS:

Well, thank you for having me, Ron!

SPREEUWENBERG: 

We’re delighted to have with us today Kelly Wilk-Downs. She’s an occupational therapist and owner of Junction of Function. We’re going to talk to her about educational value of toys and games. Let’s start off, Kelly, learning a little bit about you and what prompted you to get into developing educational toys, books and programs.

WILK-DOWNS:

Yes, Ron, thank you. So, I’ve been an occupational therapist for about 30 years now. And I’ve always loved toys, games, dolls and things of that., And I’ve really used a lot of toys and games in my therapy sessions. So, I have an extensive background in learning disabilities, learning styles, autism, developmental delays and sensory integrative disorders. I should let the listeners know that my father was a reading and learning disability specialist and owned a school and has always worked with children. And we have collaborated over the years on many, many cases. So, that’s been very helpful, as well.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Cool. Let’s start off just with the basics: an occupational therapist. For those listeners who may not know what that is, can you tell us what an occupational therapist does and what areas of occupational therapy that you’ve practiced and what your primary practice area has been?

WILK-DOWNS:

Sure, yes, great question. Many folks don’t really realize the difference between occupational and physical therapy. That’s something that I can give a good comparison to. So, in terms of occupational therapy, if you were to divide the body in half, physical therapists may look more at gait training, things with the lower extremities. Occupational therapy does more fine motor and upper extremity types of cases. Primarily for myself, I’ve worked in the schools – a long career in the schools – sensory integration clinics and private clinics.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Cool. I understand you’ve developed this “shoe tying made simple” instructions or practice. What prompted you to develop this?

WILK-DOWNS:

Yes, basically I just saw a need. And I was working at the Chapel Hill Teach program and I had a couple of dual-PhD parents that were demanding and commanding. They wanted it on their son’s IEP [individualized education program]. So, I was using a digital camera and found that it works very, very well for the autistic population. So, I would pair my instruction – which was broken down, activity analysis, task analyzed – break it down and use a lot of pictures.

And I found that the method works beautifully. And word spread around the district and I taught a lot of children. And I had some parents say, “You really should develop a product.” So, I did. I figured out how to come up with bi-colored shoelaces – actually, on one shoestring. They’re pretty unique and they work exceptionally well. So, in a nutshell, that’s how that process evolved for me.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Cool. And you mentioned it works, and particularly well, for certain folks in the population. Can it be used for any children as well, though? Or is there a certain scope that it’s preferred for? Or what’s your thoughts there?

WILK-DOWNS:

Yes, actually, it’s good for typically-developing children and those with special learning styles. So, our course for occupational therapists that we have, it’s very graded, that step-by-step, because those types of learners might need more support. The gen-ed. [general education] population, we’ve gone into Nordstrom’s or private shoe stores and taught different groups or classes, shoe-tying camps and classes. And what you’ll find with typically-developing children is that they might pick up on the skill quite a bit faster. They have already good foundational skills. But children with special learning styles, we just break it down and present it a little bit differently. But I can almost guarantee success on both ends of the spectrum.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

And out of my own peer curiosity, and for our listeners, when I think of what I would call a “typical shoe-tying instruction” or how I would tie my shoe, how does this differ?

WILK-DOWNS:

Well, we tend to go, as occupational therapists, with a classic method of shoe tying. The  double-bunny-ear is more of an ambidextrous skill. And it’s actually harder developmentally for children. So, we teach to brain dominance. And it’s a classic method: if you’re right hand-dominant, you’re going to make the loop on the right side. If you’re a lefty, the initial loop’s going to be on the left. So, 90% of the population are right hand-dominant and only 10% are lefties. And only a very, very minimal amount are truly ambidextrous. We don’t see that very often, clinically.

So, we do teach a classic, standard method. And we have broken it down, task analyzed it. And then we pair it up with music, songs and rhymes, visuals and pictures. And it’s just really mildly fun. The kids really, really like it. And we start doing it at the preschool level, believe it or not. We have lacing sequences on our big teaching sneakers are 18 inches tall and about 8 inches wide. And we start off with even lacing up the shoe so that the kids can get all of the prepositional phrases in and know it “under, around, through,” all of the lingo that they need to understand in order to [tie] their shoes.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Oh, cool, that’s fun. And why do you think it’s important for children to learn shoe tying at a young age?

WILK-DOWNS:

Well, it’s a great independence skill. It’s a rite of passage for many, many children to learn how to tie. And we see a lot of kids [say], “Yay, I did it!” It’s something that definitely works on their fine motor skills, that coincides with writing, handwriting. And it’s something that we look at developmentally: “Can kids cut? Can they tie their shoes? Can they write their letters?” We know that they’re on a good path or trajectory if we can check off all of those boxes as an occupational therapist.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, cool. And I hear you’re also pairing up with some toy and game developers to work out sort of efficacy and value of some of those toys, which certainly resonates with me as a parent with young children. I see a lot of the toys that our children play with and sometimes wonder just about whether they’re really helping with their development or not. But I guess bringing that occupational therapy angle to it, can you tell us a little bit more about what that project’s all about and what you’re working on there?

WILK-DOWNS:

Yes, actually, there’s a company in Canada – Möbi – and they have tiles, and it’s a math product. And it’s just really, really great. I just wanted to write to the owners of the company. And I actually exhibited it at the New York City Toy Fair in the past and just a couple. It’s a small, family-run business, very lovely couple. And they were agreeable and we came up with a system, a grid system for kids that might have special needs. They have a hard time actually with alignment, visual perception. And we came up with a grid where the therapist’s teacher and parent can put the tiles in the grid so that there are a little more evenly aligned so that they’re getting some good math calculations out of it, while playing the game.

So, you have to remember, the kids with special needs might need a little bit more support. And even those that are the geriatric patients – or our geriatric population, I should say – you might like this little device that we came up with. So, it’s like a backdrop to align tiles. And then there’s another company, they produce [children’s toys] and they also go to the New York City Toy Fair. And it has a lot to do with visual perception and language. So, our pairing is that I take their toys and I write about the educational efficacy of the toys. And I include it in a blog that we do. So, I just kind of get the word out, how they can be used in the educational setting.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, it’s great to see more and more toys coming out that do have some more quality behind them for children’s development. So, I definitely can see the value there. And our listeners definitely will know that play is an important part of early-childhood education. But do you think play also plays a role in the profession of occupational therapy?

WILK-DOWNS:

Yes, Ron, definitely. It’s really one of the core tenets that was part of our programing. And in occupational therapy school, play is an occupation. And we really do a lot of research on studying about that. It’s a child’s job, play. They learn through play. So, we go to work and they’re learning through play. There’s a really great alignment. They learn about their environment, their bodies, their senses and how it all integrates all together.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah. And speaking of play, I’ll throw you a curveball question here: What was your favorite toy or game, growing up?

WILK-DOWNS:

I loved Barbies and dolls. I thought Barbies were just the bomb, I really did. I had puff-and-play furniture, I had everything Barbie imaginable. I was known as the mother hen. And I guess I’m still kind of known as that, as well. I like to care-take and Martha Stewart [instruct] with the crafts and the activities. And that’s really why I chose occupational therapy over physical therapy, as well. I’m a creative person.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Awesome. Any other toys or games you would recommend to our listeners that would have that educational value?

WILK-DOWNS:

Oh gosh, Ron, that’s a tough question because there are so many. Oh, I came across a really neat toy – I think an occupational therapist came up with it. And I think it’s called Nogginsland. And it’s a little device, it’s a phone device that that you can put on a pair of scissors or at the bottom of a pencil and you can write a social story around it. And it helps with cutting or writing. And you wrap the device around the tip of the pencil. And it kind of gives a visual indicator as to where the kids will grasp the pencil.

There’s so many neat things. OT’s [occupational therapists] are really creative folks. I’m really proud of a lot of people in our profession. The toy industry is great but it doesn’t really… a lot of toys don’t get into the educational relevance or know about development, child development. And so marrying the two areas, I think that there’s a big need. I think that OT’s can add a lot of value to the toy profession.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, it would be great to see more professionals involved in toy design, absolutely. Okay, and what about more general recommendations for professional development? So, for our listeners, any thoughts on podcasts, websites, books that could be interesting for them to check out?

WILK-DOWNS:

Yes, I would say there’s a lot of up and coming occupational therapists. We’ve just started a group with the American Occupational Therapy course creators. There’s a lot of brand new courses, up and coming folks that are writing great courses on potty training, meditation, yoga. And I would always say is the independent folks that may be starting out with just one course, there’s a lot of value in them. I know that our marketing dollar value is not as mighty as some of the bigger companies. But I think folks should really take a look at the small, independent companies because there are very creative courses out there, really good.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, absolutely, I agree. And if our audience would like to get in touch with you or learn more about your work, how can they best do that?

WILK-DOWNS:

Sure, I can answer any questions. We have a podcast that we’re going to be starting soon. And we also have giveaways on our website. You can sign up at www.JunctionOfFunction.com. We give away free information, free crafts and activities for the kids every month. And also my email address is Kelly@JunctionOfFunction.com.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Awesome, www.JunctionOfFunction.com, check it out, Kelly Wilk-Downs. Been great having you on the Preschool Podcast to learn more about occupational therapy and how we could and should be getting more OT’s involved in the toy making design and in that industry generally. Sounds like a great opportunity to get more toys and more opportunities for children to play with toys that are going to make a real difference in their learning and development. So, really appreciate you joining us today. And it’s been wonderful hearing you share some of your wisdom and some of your story!

WILK-DOWNS:

Thank you so much for having me, Ron, I really appreciate it!

Christie White

Christie is a Senior Content Marketing Specialist at HiMama. She is passionate about children's development, parenting, and supporting the child care industry. She has been working to support child care centers with their events and marketing for almost a decade. In her personal life, Christie lives in Stouffville, ON with her husband Kyle and dog Tucker. She enjoys going for walks, baking, cooking, and watching reality tv!

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