"In that moment, I understood the universal need for children to be free to play, explore and have fun."
We had the privilege of talking with and learning from Carol Peachey-Hill, Occupational Therapist and Owner of Hand Print Kids here in Guelph, ON.
Carol Peachey-Hill: I was delighted to do an interview with All Circles because I love to talk about my favourite subjects: play and written output. In my opinion, play is essential for learning and building skills, such as written output. All Circles has given me the chance to come full circle, to share why I entered the field of occupational therapy and to highlight what I am currently doing as an occupational therapist.
All Circles: Tell us a little bit about Hand Print Kids?
CPH: Hand Print Kids is private online occupational therapy for school-aged kids across Ontario. I focus on making written output (i.e., handwriting, keyboarding and using technology) easier for kids from their home.
AC: What got you interested in occupational therapy?
CPH: Before I even knew about occupational therapy, I was thoughtfully analyzing and trying to make sense of the world. When I was a child, the woods were my playground and my parents gave me and my sisters freedom to play outdoors for hours on end. The woods captured our imaginations and inspired our play, turning trees into airplanes, ships and castles. As a teenager, I developed a love for science and dreamed of becoming a marine biologist or a veterinarian because of my fascination with Jacques Cousteau and James Herriot. I studied Biology and Psychology at McMaster University and researched rainbow trout in my fourth year. I worked with large and small animal veterinarians to determine if this was my calling.
In the end, my desire for adventure after graduation won me over as I joined a team of Canadian youth to travel to Ecuador for close to a year. While living in Ecuador, I worked alongside a veterinarian and helped to start a sustainable business in my local community. Towards the end of our trip, my fellow Canadians pooled our remaining money to buy materials needed to make a playground for the children in our rural, remote community. Excitement grew as the entire community spent a weekend building a swing set, teeter-totter and climbing structure. It was one of the most memorable experiences for me. In that moment, I understood the universal need for children to be free to play, explore and have fun. I also learned the importance of family and community to support the development and well-being of children.
Upon my return to Canada, I was determined to find a career that allowed me to help children overcome barriers and do the things they naturally want to do, like play. A close friend explained to me that an occupational therapist is a health care worker who helps find ways for others to do occupations or activities that are important to them. I was excited to find a career that combined my love of science, analyzing, and helping children. Being an occupational therapist complements my curious desire to learn and problem-solve. It enables me to be creative, innovative and to think outside the box.
"Engaging in a variety of movement and sensory-rich play helps to integrate our senses. Children are typically curious and desire to move, look and listen during play which helps them gather information about their three-dimensional play space."
AC: How would you describe the importance of play?
CPH: Play is something we do throughout our lifetime but is especially important to children as it promotes their motor, social and cognitive development. Play enhances learning since enjoyment and motivation can lead to greater focus, independence, and achievement. Occupational therapists discover and follow a child’s interests through play to create optimal motivational conditions for learning and to promote a child’s playfulness. Children are more connected and willing to engage with all of their senses when they do things that interests them (Hansom, 2016).
I use a multisensory, hands-on and play-based approach in therapy since our senses work together to process information about our body and the world around us. Proprioceptive or heavy work body breaks offers resistance to our muscles and joints and tells us about our body position and how to move our body. Proprioceptive input is usually calming and organizing for the child. Our vestibular system tells us about how our body moves through space as it changes position, direction, and speed, and where our head is in space. Vestibular input can be very powerful and has the potential to be both alerting and calming. Engaging in a variety of movement and sensory-rich play helps to integrate our senses. Children are typically curious and desire to move, look and listen during play which helps them gather information about their three-dimensional play space. Furthermore, movement and active play develop gross and fine motor skills which is foundational for core occupations and activities, like handwriting.
Current research during COVID-19 reports that children have struggled with motivation, engagement and low morale (SchoolDash, 2020; School Education Gateway, 2020; Education Week, 2020; Edweek Research Center, 2020). According to a recent article in the CTV Kitchener News, being with friends, laughter and playing in the school yard are helping children cope with the stresses of COVID-19 (Lamba, 2020). Further research is showing that technology is promoting engagement, motivation, independence, competence, and interactions with peers and educators during remote learning (Impact Ed, 2020). At Hand Print Kids, I use fun, novel, and meaningful ways to interact and engage with children through Telepractice. I strive to find the “just-right challenge” to guide my choice of activities that are not too easy or difficult and can be modified virtually. Therapy sessions are interactive and playful for the child.
"Play enhances learning since enjoyment and motivation can lead to greater focus, independence, and achievement."
AC: How did you begin to focus and specialize on written output?
CPH: One of the main referrals I receive as an occupational therapist is for handwriting difficulties. Handwriting is a foundational skill for reading, spelling, note-taking, and the expression of knowledge and ideas. Kids develop a sense of competence and self-esteem when they learn to write. Difficulties in handwriting can impact the speed of learning, understanding of text, grades, academic achievement, choice of leisure activities and future occupations. Research consistently indicates that on average 25% of children experience handwriting difficulties and there is a need for early detection and remediation since children are facing increasing handwriting demands at a younger age (Asselborn et al., 2020; Bolton, 2020; Kadar et al., 2019). I started Hand Print Kids during COVID-19 to help school-aged kids improve their handwriting and written output using Telepractice.
AC: What needs to take place simultaneously for written output to occur?
CPH: Handwriting is a complex skill that integrates gross motor, fine motor, visual processing and language skills. During an occupational therapy assessment, I use clinical observations to evaluate upper body coordination, body posture, motor planning, fine motor, visual motor, oculomotor, and visual perceptual skills. I assess the legibility and speed of handwriting. I also consider the child’s language skills (i.e., phonological awareness and reading), attention, focus, and motivation to write to determine whether the child needs a referral to a speech language pathologist, psychologist, and/or optometrist. In higher grades, there are increased expectations for handwriting automaticity, fluency, speed and legibility of handwriting. As the volume and difficulty of written work increases, technology is sometimes needed to help access school curriculum and improve written output. When determining whether technology is suitable for a child, I assess keyboarding skills, ability to use voice output, and familiarity with the Read & Write Google toolbar. Read & Write Google promotes reading, expression of ideas, spelling, focus, engagement, motivation, and independence of written output (Playfoot & Clarke, 2018). Following the occupational therapy assessment, I look at the child’s strengths and challenges, as well as evidence-based research to customize individual therapy sessions. Before starting occupational therapy, I collaborate with the parent(s) to help them develop a Do it Yourself (DIY) fine motor kit that can be used during online therapy. This means the child can manipulate the same objects I use in session. I use PowerPoint slides to guide the therapy sessions. I embed opportunities for real-time gross motor warm-ups, fine motor, visual motor, visual perceptual, printing, typing and Read & Write Google instruction and practice during the sessions. I create opportunities for play through interactive games and activities. I can offer remote control to the child and parent to promote interaction during the online therapy sessions.
CPH: I want to thank All Circles for giving me the opportunity to do this interview. My inquisitive and curious nature drove me to review literature over the past three decades on the topics of handwriting, technology and play. For me, this was equivalent to a child in a candy store. One article led to another one. In the end, I felt compelled to honour all authors I read in the process of writing this interview. These authors, educators, researchers and occupational therapists have helped shape who I am today. I feel like I have come full circle during this writing process. I was able to revisit my childhood and identify how fortunate I was to have freedom to explore and play in the woods near my childhood home in Kingston, Ontario and my parents' cottage near Westport, Ontario I learned a lot during my active free play in the woods with my sisters. I credit my parents as they are naturalists and environmentalists. I am thrilled to see that my younger sister works to protect forests around the world and my older sister works as an educational assistant with grade two students.
Another full-circle moment occurred when I realized that All Circles is partnering with the Onzole River Project in Ecuador. They believe that all children, no matter where they are from, deserve the same opportunities to learn, grow, discover their inherent value, and play. This project mirrors my own experience when I lived in Ecuador in the early 1990’s. I witnessed the outpouring of a community to support the growth and development of their children through the building of a playground. It truly was amazing to see an entire community come together to build together for their children. It taught me about the universal need for children to be free to play, explore and have fun. It inspired me to enter the field of occupational therapy.
The most obvious connection with All Circles is my passion for helping kids do the things they naturally want to do, like play. I strive to provide multisensory, hands-on and play-based therapy to help children develop their written output. I believe indoor and outdoor active free play is paramount for a child’s growth and development. Children spend hours engaging in play every day. They benefit from play equipment that is simple in design, modular and has moving parts to stimulate imagination and engagement through the creation of new play spaces. Natural materials like wood and neutral colours prevent visual overstimulation and helps to avoid overwhelming the child (Hansom, 2016). All Circles believes that it is the ongoing work of a child to interact with and make sense of the world. A child interacts with the world through movement, action and play. The purpose of play is for play’s sake. All Circles has designed wooden PlayBox products that encourage open ended play, creativity and imagination.
Finally, I find it fascinating that I am writing about the benefits of play during COVID-19. Children have struggled with morale, motivation and engagement during the pandemic. Being with friends, laughing and playing in the school yard are helping children cope with the stress of COVID-19. We are realizing that our kids are learning to adapt through play and social interactions. They are learning resiliency (Lamba, 2020). I want to thank the teachers, EA’s and principals for their courage, dedication and support to all of the children across Canada who either attend school or do school remotely. We are truly blessed to have these amazing educators during the pandemic. Our children are teaching us the importance of active free play to cope with stress during COVID-19. I am more in tune with the sounds of laughter of children when they are playing outside at my local school. I have seen high school students skipping, laughing and smiling as they walk home from school with their friends. I am sensing hope and encouragement when I see families walking and exploring the woods near my house. Children and adults are showing more interest in trees and tree stumps as climbing structures. Children are creating paths to ride their bikes in the woods. I have personally re-discovered the joy of riding my bike with my husband and walking my dog along the trails within the woods. It’s my hope that we can all experience resiliency during COVID-19 and joy through active free play with those we love!
Please don't hesitate to connect with Carol with questions as she has graciously provided her contact information below:
Carol Peachey-Hill, B. Sc., B. HSc.,OT Reg. (Ont.)
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