“Oh, shiny rocks — cool!”
Roman Feneck twisted the top off of a small, glass jar when he discovered the “treasure” inside — gold and silver plastic coins, blue and gold plastic diamonds, shiny blue rocks. Already he had flattened the Play-Doh in his ocean-themed ECCO-Kit, one of the new guided sensory kits for 3- to 6-year-olds created by Roman’s mom, Josie, a Forsyth County resident, and her sister, Mackie Stenson, who lives in Jacksonville, Fla.
At the edge of the Play-Doh “ocean” Roman had positioned five popsicle sticks to create a “dock.” Now, the 6-year-old picked up the “treasure” one by one with a precise pincer grasp and pushed each into the “ocean.”
Josie Feneck was unfamiliar with guided sensory kits until she had need of them herself. When her youngest son, Lincoln, who is 4, started having sensory issues, she began taking him to get various therapies. Josie received exercises and “homework” from Lincoln’s occupational therapist, but many sounded like some of the creative activities their family already did at home.
“We would make slime and put stuff in it,” Josie said. “He loves making it, he loves playing with it, but that was just for fun with us. It was never an exercise.”
Lincoln’s occupational therapist recommended Josie hide small objects in the slime. Give Lincoln some tweezers, she was instructed, and let him dig for and pull out the objects.
There were myriad benefits from the activity for Lincoln, but in particular it helped to strengthen his fine motor grasp.
Josie saw the impact the sensory activities had on Lincoln but to pull them off required a lot from parents.
“I just really wanted to help parents,” Josie said. “You can go on Pinterest and see a lot of these activities, but do [parents] have the time to go buy glitter balls and Play-Doh and dinosaur figures at the store?”
Josie had the time, she realized, and she had the best resource for help. Her sister, Mackie, has a bachelor’s in education from the University of Georgia and later earned a master’s in education with a specialization in early reading and literacy.
Together, they conceived of the idea that became ECCO-Kits. (The name comes from the words explore, create, connect and observe.) Each kit costs $12 and includes the play materials along with inserts with suggested activities, free play prompts and reading suggestions related to the theme, all guided by the Georgia Early Learning and Developmental Standards.
“This is the antithesis to the iPad to me,” Josie said. “And not that we don’t use [iPads]. But you’ve got to have balance.”
Josie added: “We want kids to be able to touch and manipulate the themes that they’re talking about, because it sinks in in a different way. Reading is also great, iPads are also great, but this is just a different way to introduce material.”
A recent trial launch to family and friends went “better than we thought,” Josie said, and so the sisters are gearing up to push the kits out to preschools in the area and to families through social media. This summer’s selection will include kits with the themes of space, ocean life, dinosaurs, mammals, bug and insects and reptiles and amphibians. Eventually, the sisters hope to offer a subscription-based service.
Also, Josie and Mackie put a special level of market research into the kits — they were tested by Lincoln and Roman, as well as Mackie’s 4-year-old son, Benjamin.
Benjamin devised a racing activity for the space theme. Lincoln added a water play activity to the ocean kit.
“They’ve very much been inspired by our kids, tested by our kids,” Josie said, “and I’ve seen them really help Lincoln come a long way this year.”