The Jester in The Jester Has Lost His Jingle reminds us, “It’s up to us to make a difference. It’s up to us to care.” I thought about that as Super Storm Sandy wrecked havoc last 29 October. Then Cynthia Clifford, a bilingual early interventionist living in the Rockaways, inspired me to figure out how Playworks could help those working with young children with multiple disabilities. Despite catastrophic personal losses, Cynthia and her colleagues were eager to get back to the children and their families.

Imagine the trauma of losing everything. Imagine yourself in that situation. Then imagine yourself as a child in that situation. Just imagining takes my breath away.

Children experiencing trauma regress, then gradually, as they feel safe, regain lost ground. For children with special needs, the need to continue receiving support services is critical. That’s why early interventionists scrambled to pull together tools of their trade~toys~and get back to “their special kids.”

We all can help their ongoing efforts. Playworks has launched a year long recovery effort, Project Carry On, and invited early interventionists and related disciplines to contact us. This includes occupational, physical, and speech therapists, vision specialists, ABA therapists, psychologists, and social workers. Having sustained ruinous damage to their sites and monumental loss of toys, supplies and books, early childhood centers throughout the Rockaways are also eligible.

Here’s how Project Carry On works. Participants create Wish Lists on our website, Donors place orders from the Wish List(s) of their choosing. Playworks waives shipping charges on eligible Wish List orders. (Shipping charges appearing at check-out will be deducted before we process payment and a receipt showing the revised charge will be emailed to each donor.)

Donors are also entered in our monthly drawing for a $30 e-certificate from Playworks. Kevin Kim, of Manhattan, and Bloggers for Health, based in Los Angeles, won the
gift certificates in December and January.

February, the last full month of winter, finds most of us bundled up against frigid temperatures, biting winds, sleet and snow, spending as little time as possible outdoors. What better month for Valentine’s Day? While we’re “cooped up” indoors, likely feeling tired of winter and “bored, with nothing to do,” a common condition among children and adolescents or overwhelmed by busyness, more common to parents, along comes Valentine’s Day with opportunities for diversion. Let’s not miss this chance to celebrate love in all its forms. Valentine’s is not just about romantic love. It’s also about reaching out and letting favorite people know they’re special to us.

Of course, we could buy a package of cards, address the envelopes and send them off. That’s one way to say, “won’t you be my Valentine.” Another is to create our own cards. This takes more time, but has its advantages. We get to express our creativity, and our one-of-a-kind creations convey the depth of our feelings.

Cards aren’t the only way to express affection. We can decorate a box or create a mini collage using snapshots or pictures and words cut from magazines. Those liking to bake can make cookies, heart-shaped, frosted with royal icing, and bearing handwritten messages, or a year round favorite, such as chocolate chip (with pecans, please). Placed in cellophane bags and tied up with ribbon, these are sure to delight. Who can say, “no” when faced with a fresh from the oven cookie and the question, “will you be my Valentine?”

The point is everyone benefits from time spent doing something fun and creative and from showing our appreciation to the special people in our lives. Valentine’s Day provides us opportunities to do both. Let’s accept the invitation, enjoy our creative pursuits and celebrate love and friendship.

Parents of children on the autism spectrum have few opportunities to enjoy an evening out. Finding someone experienced in caring for children on the spectrum is one challenge; affording such a caregiver is another. Then, of course, these parents often experience separation anxiety when they do go out. That’s a given among parents
of children with special needs.

Aware of these challenges, Karin Wiles of Blacksburg, VA, decided to offer such parents in the New River Valley a unique respite opportunity. An occupational therapy student with a passion for dance, she found a place, Grace Covenant PCA, willing to share its space and rounded up professional instructors who agreed to volunteer their services to teach the parents different styles of dance. Parents need no previous dance experience to participate: all abilities welcome.

To relieve parents of the challenge and expense of hiring caregivers, Dancing for Autism provides free childcare for all ages, all abilities. Professional dance instruction and appropriate childcare free. Who could ask for more? Yet there is more.

Coming together, parents with shared challenges and experiences get acquainted. Children with diverse abilities experience a supportive environment and nonthreatening interactions that build social skills. That’s huge. Social isolation is often an issue among parents and their children with special needs. Everyone benefits from getting to know others on similar journeys and forming a support network. Mutual aid is priceless.

Dancing for Autism debuted as an overwhelming success. Now families with children on the autism spectrum in the New River Valley of Virginia, have the joy of regular evenings out together. Playworks applauds Karin Wiles for making her vision a reality. She knows, “It’s up to us to make a difference. It’s up to us to care,” and
Dancing for Autism demonstrates her commitment to making a difference in her community.

To learn more, go to To email Karin Wiles directly, click on Contact Us.<a

                  dance3                      danc2                dance1

Holding and using a pencil, whether for artistic expression, printing, or writing cursive, requires finger strength and fine motor control, skills developed gradually over time. The process begins with learning to grip. Infants reach out and grasp a toy. Gripping allows them to hold on, manipulate, and explore.

A simple easy to grip toy is Trioli, a lightweight ring with three wooden balls threaded through an elastic band inside the wooden ring. The balls invite grasping and pulling, and drop back in place when released. Another early toy that develops motor skills is Gripper Rattle. Bright, colorful, and inviting, this rattle is easy to hold, shake, and turn over to watch and listen as beads fall through the encaged “hour-glass.”

Stringing, threading, and lacing also strengthen fingers and refine pincer grasp. Jumbo Lacing Beads and Jumbo Lacing Shapes provide early threading experiences with thick, heavy cords and large holes. Some children find the thin shapes easier to lace than thick beads. Less distance through which to push the cord may lead to success for beginning stringers.

Later Sew ‘n Sew provides more challenges than lacing beads or shapes or even a shoe and enhances eye/hand coordination as a child guides the wooden needle through holes in the block. Thinking and problem solving come into play when she runs out of cord and has to unthread the block.

Other simple tools for strengthening fingers, refining pincer grasp, and improving fine motor skills include Gator Grabber Tweezers, Jumbo Tweezers, and Fish Sticks. Gator Grabber Tweezers are small, only 4” long, and have lighter tension than Jumbo Tweezers. Both lend themselves to progressively challenging experiences. Moving pompoms from place to place is easier than picking up smaller, harder objects.

Fish Sticks offer the most challenge with an added dimension, the opportunity to learn to eat with chop sticks. Again success comes with building on progressively challenging experiences. Mandarin orange sections are easier to pick up than a grain of rice after all.

Skill building takes practice and patience, and a toy or activity that intrigues one child may not another. Multiple and varied opportunities to refine skills make the process more interesting and allow children to experience progress in different ways.

Among early childhood educators, much has been said about the inherent value of process over product. Children explore and discover through play. When we assignan outcome to a specific activity, children may learn to follow instructions but they losean opportunity to experiment and discover what happens as a result of their decisions to do this and that, but not something else.

Consider an art project. When a teacher provides a template and specific supplies and assigns an outcome, everyone does his best to produce an acceptable product. Of course, some will come closer than others. Some will be “successful” while otherscome away feeling their best efforts simply don’t measure up.  Either way, the activitylimits exploration and creative expression.

A teacher could put out hearts precut from red card stock, small precut tissue paper squares, and glue. She could show the children how to pinch the centers of the squares to make “flowers” and suggest making a Valentine by decorating the heart with flowers.  That’s one route. While everyone ends up with a product, the experience itself was more about meeting adult expectations than about discovery and learning.

Another option would be to provide card stock, tissue, and glue, step back and watch as each child explores possibilities and creates a one-of-a-kind expression of her own design.  Such opportunities encourage children to delve deeper. Experiment, and experience different outcomes, all creative expressions.

As a quilter and blanket maker, I end up with fabric scraps I can neither use in an upcoming project nor bear to send off to the landfill. Seeking a home for these cast-offs, I found a teacher of two year olds, Annette Kasabian in El Arroyo Yard at Pacific Oaks Children’s School, in Pasadena, California, who eagerly re-purposes whatever I provide.

Recently she put out a sheet of transparent Contact paper and a basket of  fleece scraps, then stepped back and invited any and all interested parties to investigate possibilities.  Some worked together to randomly arrange bits and pieces until they had exhausted their interest and wandered off to other pursuits. That’s when standing back and observing got even more interesting.

One little girl came along and began studying the collage, picking up piece after piece, turning each over, feeling both sides, then touching the paper, experiencing textural differences and apparently puzzling over the absence of visible glue on fabric or paper.  Ultimately, she peeled off all the pieces, then went off to explore something else.

The “clean slate” attracted other passersby who created yet another collage. In the end, the collage was pressed onto a window in the classroom for everyone to enjoy until another do-it-yourself collage making opportunity presents itself and a newer one replaces the older one on the window.


With temperatures dipping and plants in their winter slumber, wild birds have difficulty finding adequate food. That provides us an opportunity to make a difference for the birds and ourselves. When days are cold and skies are grey, watching birds feed from the warmth of our homes can be most enjoyable.

Internet searches provide ideas galore for ways to feed wild birds. My favorite comes from Martha Stewart. She offers a recipe for making a birdseed wreath that looks lovely hanging in a tree and provides calorie dense nourishment for our feathered friends. Making the wreath is fun activity too!birdseed-wreath-mslb7040_vert

Here is the recipe as on Martha’s site:
Tools and Materials
Saucepan or baking dish
Fine cheesecloth
Measuring cup
Fresh cranberries
6-cup Bundt pan
Wild birdseed
Dried cranberries
Roasted unsalted peanuts
Large plastic spoon
Wide ribbon

Birdseed Wreath How-To

Begin by cutting 1 pound of suet into small chunks and rendering in a saucepan (or baking dish in a 375-degree oven) until all the fat has melted.
Strain rendered suet through fine cheesecloth, allow it to harden at room temperature, and then melt and strain again. Measure out 1 1/2 cups melted suet and set aside.
Place fresh cranberries in bottom of 6-cup Bundt pan in desired pattern (we used three cranberries in every other channel).
In a large bowl, thoroughly combine 4 cups wild birdseed and 1 cup each dried cranberries and peanuts.
Add melted suet to dry ingredients and thoroughly coat using large plastic spoon or your hands.
Once completely combined, fill pan with mixture, being sure to press down firmly as you go.
Allow mixture to harden overnight in the refrigerator (or freezer).
Once hardened, remove pan from fridge and allow to sit at room temperature for 5 or 10 minutes before unmolding.
With wide ribbon, hang wreath outside when temperature is around freezing. Be sure wreath is not in direct sunlight, to avoid melting or spoiling. (Tip: Avoid using twine or rope to tie up wreath as it can pull through and break the side of the wreath.)

Out with the old, in with the new.
Whoa, can this be true?
Indeed, we’re beginning a new year,
and as Dr. Suess observed, “oh, the places [we] will go.”
Where exactly? We don’t know.

That’s true when setting out on any journey, and a new year brings untold experiences. No doubt we will face challenges, disappointments, successes, heartbreaking and heartwarming moments. The key to successfully navigating our way through the challenges and savoring the joys lies within ourselves. While we cannot control everything that happens to us, we have control over how we respond. That is not to say we will always remain “calm, cool, and collected,” only that we can muster our inner strengths and carry on.

My mother, a 92 year old outlier among people diagnosed five years ago with stage four aggressive large B cell lympohoma, always reminds us “we don’t have to look very far to see others in worse shape.” Another truth she holds dear is the imperative of living life gratefully, being ever mindful of the gifts that come her way and the people who give them. Although declining steadily and sharply now, she remains steadfast to her core beliefs, and that is a gift to herself and all who love her.

When we’re being our best, we inspire ourselves and others. When we acknowledge our challenges and work diligently to overcome obstacles, we attract attention. Others want to support us in our efforts. That lightens our load, lifts our spirits, and enriches both the giver and the receiver. We’re not alone; we’re members of a community, each
doing what we can.

A pebble tossed on a lake sends out concentric circles of energy that ripple outward. We too are like that. Our actions reverberate outward. Let’s begin our new year with a pledge to be the best that we can be and send out only positive energy as we make our way through 2013.


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