This Week’s Guests

Developmental, Individual differences, Relationship-based (DIR) Expert Training Leader and Occupational Therapist Toni Tortora is the Clinical Director at the Rebecca School and joins us from Manhattan. Occupational Therapist Colleen Gabbert is also DIR Expert and is the O.T. Supervisor at the Rebecca School in Manhattan. DIR Expert Colette Ryan is the Coordinator for the mentoring program at the  International Council on Development and Learning (ICDL), a New York State endorsed infant mental health therapist, and an infant mental health fellow at Montclair State University in New Jersey, and is in the process of completing her PhD on parent self-efficacy at Fielding University.

This Week’s Topic

We are here today to discuss ViSPA, the Visual Spatial Planning & Assessment, which is a tool used to organize activities from the book Thinking Goes to School by Dr. Hans Furth and Dr. Harry Wachs. The ViSPA follows the Thinking Goes to School book, starting with general movement thinking activities, then it gets more specific with activities such as ocular convergence where you work on your eyes coming together to look at a board, focus on a word, read it, re-adjust your eyes, look down at your paper, and write it down.

It is designed to use as part of a clinical team that includes the family where you examine where the challenges are and identify what you can work on, including on several areas at the same time. There are different categories including General Movements, Discriminative Movements, Visual Thinking Games, Auditory Thinking Games, Hand Thinking Games, Graphical Thinking Games, Logical Thinking Games, and Social Thinking Games. Also, there is a column beside each activity to show what learning objective from the educational curriculum each activity supports.

Visual Spatial Planning and Assessment (ViSPA)

by Affect Autism

Bonus Insights

The History of the ViSPA

There’s a lot of information in the book, Thinking Goes to School, which is a narrative, but it doesn’t give you where to start and end. A team from Rebecca School met regularly for months with one of the authors, Dr. Harry Wachs, and organized these activities to come up the ViSPA. Then, during the Pandemic in 2020 when they were meeting with parents virtually, Toni says, the Rebecca School staff wanted to give parents activities to do at home.

Toni says they can say “This student needs this targeted activity to work on x, y, and z, this is where we start, and this is the trajectory of where we go.” As an Occupational Therapist, though, it’s helpful because she can show where the support is required, and now she can let them know what to do next and this tool lays it all out for you, she shares.

It was important for parents during Covid where therapy wasn’t available, yet parents wanted to work on their children’s development, Toni says. The ViSPA is user-friendly and the activities are easy to do. Also, it’s not filled with very challenging activities. They’re pre-academic activities to practice with kids working at pre-academic capacities, but also supporting them through academics.

The Purpose of the ViSPA

Colette adds that the ViSPA supports parents in feeling successful. It’s activities you can do around the house without having to purchase anything. Thinking Goes to School and the ViSPA help parents understand foundational skills and how closely different systems are working together to lead to academic successes, Coleen adds. It also gives the staff ways to say that if we work on thinking skills and movement-based activities, we’ll see development in fine motor skills, handwriting, and bridge the gap between visual motor skills and body awareness and how we’re interacting with the environment in both the home and school setting.

The activities are hands-off from the clinician’s perspective, Toni continues. The person doing the activities is the person who’s in charge and in control because that’s where the thinking is coming from. Toni can see the thinking happening through watching the child’s motor plans. Getting your finger to move towards something or gazing at something shows Toni that the individual is thinking.

The visual spatial and motor systems work together, she continues. We all know the 5 sensory systems of Touch, Vision, Sight, Hearing, and Taste. Then, we have Vestibular and Proprioception that control a lot of our movements and have to do with our reflexes and our orientation to our bodies in space. Then there’s the 8th sense of interoception, which is the sense of what your body is feeling.

When we think about all of these sensory systems working together when we get information from our environment, our brain does something with it, and what it does is what we can see: reacting, turning around to see what that noise was, or not turning around when there’s a loud sound. These sensory systems need to work together to be able to do what teachers expect students to do in school, such as following a lesson, writing something down, etc.

Toni asks us to think about our sensory systems and why they’re so important. If you can’t do one of those things, then one of your sensory systems is not integrated with the other ones, or more than one, which then leads to a delay or a diagnosis. What Thinking Goes to School does is works to integrate the sensory systems through fun activities, she explains.

How It’s Different from Other Approaches

What the ViSPA does differently from other approaches, Coleen continues, is that it looks at the child as a thinking being and someone who learns through play. In other schools, when a child can’t form their letters, they get referred to an Occupational Therapist, and maybe get worksheets to practice handwriting or a special grip to help their hand move along. This is not looking at the underlying cause for the challenge that the student is experiencing. With the ViSPA, you’re looking at the whole person, which works so nicely with DIR/Floortime practitioners because it goes hand-in-hand with our approach, Coleen shares. It’s such a good supplement to children who are in school who are still working on these skills.

Many times families think that their children need to learn tasks, such as how to hold the pencil, and we frequently have parents looking for drills and the activities aren’t integrated in with the child’s developmental capacity or interest, Colette adds. What she likes about the ViSPA is that we can make each one of these games purposeful versus sitting down and doing drills on the letter A, then not knowing how to use it. The ViSPA games are fun and give that reason purpose and you don’t realize that you just worked on your letter A. 

Coleen continues that it also allows families and teachers to get creative and bring in passions and interests so the kids are motivated and engaged and want to do the activities. The Magic Buttons activity is a fan favourite, Coleen says. Colette says that this is where the affect is going to be, and that’s what motivates us to do the hard stuff. We can use all yellow balls because we know the child loves yellow, and then it’s more emotionally meaningful. Coleen says with the dual coding of the sensory information and the emotional experience, we get a much longer lasting effect rather than a splinter skill of holding the pencil correctly for 2 minutes, for example. We get a child who is scanning in the environment and following a 2-step directive across any activity.

Sample Activity: Magic Buttons

Toni says if we look at the activity Magic Buttons, shown above, you can use anticipation and affect, and you become the toy, as Dr. Stanley Greenspan would say. One of Toni’s students really loves animals, so she uses painter’s tape and animal cards, which she tapes on the wall so the children see them straight in front of them. Toni will say, “Touch the monkey… touch the lion… touch the alligator…” (one at a time) and she makes sure there’s shared meaning of the animals that are up there. 


Then you increase the level of difficulty by saying, “Touch the monkey, then the alligator“. And when they do it, you turn into whatever they find fun. Sometimes Toni will become a monster and chases them around the gym. Sometimes she’ll fall asleep and they unlock the code of the sleeping monster. Sometimes, for her kids who need more movement, they’ll race across the room, touch something, then return. You keep adding to the level of difficulty, she explains. 

Toni continues that you can change the spaces the animals are in, you can say it in different orders, or you can say 2, 3, or 4 at a time. This really helps build that working memory, she continues, while adding in the audio and visual component, all while you’re looking for the motor plan. Even if a child just lifts one finger, you might move them closer, or you might lay them on the floor which might be easier for some kids. If the animal is on a colour, you can make it harder and talk about the colours the animals are on to make them focus on a different part of the card, Toni suggests.

I checked in with Toni about doing this with my son. What if I put Mario characters on the wall and asked him to point at them one at a time? I think he could do that. I think he could do pointing to the colours as well. I also think he could easily do a multi-step direction, but it might be a bit slower. I am thinking I could have him press his Mario LEGO ‘Power Up’ on Toad’s scanner piece! Toni says some of the staff will also use the word, “Mario” and maybe use a magic wand to touch Mario.

What are we working on?

When you hear, “Touch Mario, then Peach, then Bowser“, you have to have a motor plan to hold that auditory information in your head then move your body to touch them in the sequence. Toni’s kids love when they get it wrong because Toni makes the best noise that sounds like a buzzer. I said that my son would get it wrong on purpose just to hear that noise! She will say, “Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding!” when they get it correctly.

Another activity, “Do what I say“, is about moving things. Here, too, you can change the game to be more challenging. You can ask the child to put the Mario under the pillow and lock Bowser in the tent. Toni might say, “Uh oh…what was first? What was second?” Colette says that in order to learn, we need executive functioning skills, which we learn in our play. In the game ‘Magic Buttons‘, you’re working on working memory, but also with planning, task initiation, and other executive functioning skills.

Plugging through Challenges

I asked what would you do with a child who says, “I don’t know!” The child wants us to do it for us. Coleen will go with validation in a playful way saying, “Oh, this is so challenging right now!” then say, “Maybe it’s this…” (getting it wrong) and the child will often correct her, so it feels less like a demand she’s putting on the child and more like something they’re doing together in play. It becomes a shared experience where they’re both on the same side. She’s done a ‘Magic Buttons’ game where they do a code that turns her into a robot, for instance. If she tries something and it doesn’t work, she tries something else.

For parents and others, it may not go off without a hitch the first time you try, but give yourself permission to try and keep going until you find what works. The possibilities in the ViSPA are endless. There are so many activities to choose from and get curious about. When you ‘up’ the challenge, you have to balance it out with adding your affect, playfulness, and silliness, otherwise the challenge takes over. Let the playing takes over, Toni explains. If you are not ‘in’ it, playing, being silly, and meeting the child where they are developmentally, it won’t be easy, Toni explains.

This comes from the book The Whole Brain Child, Coleen says. As the challenge increases, our caring should as well. Colette says it’s like the zone of proximal development where we scaffold the child’s development.

Dr. Greenspan used to say to do two to three activities each day where you would integrate sensory systems with thinking.

Using the ViSPA

The VISPA tool is meant to be used in the context of Occupational or Physical Therapy, or in Floortime, having a clinician support you on where to start, and where to go. It’s so important to give our children enriching playful interactions. This will be great for parents who come to ICDL’s Parent Support meetings. These fun activities provide movement and give you an opportunity to use your own genuine affect and use your own ways to give the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ signals by holding up a sign instead of making a buzzer sound, etc., if the child prefers a visual signal versus an auditory signal, for instance.

Colette adds that this book provides parents with a framework where the hard stuff is taken care of. And when parents are able to do an activity and feel successful, they’ll do it again. It provides fun things to do together. Toni adds that it really makes a difference in the students’ progress. Coleen adds that there are activities you can combine in with your regular activities. You can work on really important thinking skills. During morning meeting, for example, when the kids check in, they have a lazy 8 so kids can move cars along the lazy 8 race track, so they’ve completed a one-minute Thinking Goes to School activitiy before school has even begun.

Thinking can be regulating at times, and it’s more an invitation to participate in an activity without pressure, rather than a demand.

Occupational Therapist, Colleen Gabbert

Who can use the ViSPA?

Colette asks if they wait at Rebecca School until a child is at a certain Functional Emotional Developmental Capacity (FEDC) before working on the activities. Toni says that they do want to make sure the students feel safe and connected (FEDC 1) so they are not forcing anyone to do any activity, and that they are having fun.

I added that our parent support group should choose an activity or two, work on them, and report back because just like going to the gym, you’re more likely to do it when you have a work-out partner to meet there for your work-out. Toni says that clinicians do a terrible job of sharing these activities with parents because you’ll get a sensory diet, for instance, and the whole day might go by and you realize you didn’t do one of the things on the list because you have to understand routines and patterns in order to implement them. 

Toni likes to say, “When you brush your teeth, do one activity“. You have to figure out when those things are going to happen. When Toni leaves the house each day, they do a Thinking Goes to School activity when everyone is putting on their shoes (i.e., touch the red shoe, then the blue shoe). If you find those 2-3 minutes throughout the day, she says, by the end of the day you’ll have done them!

Colette and I discussed ways in which we can start doing these activities in parent support group by not only choosing an activity, but brainstorming how we’ll individualize it for each of our children. Toni offered that we can have a lazy 8 up on the wall and we can say, “Trace your 8 with your fork before you sit down” at meal time, for instance. Colette brought up painter’s tape and how we could have our children trace painter’s tape walking along a hallway, for instance. 

Toni shares that Dr. Greenspan used to say that if children like something, tape it up to the wall at school so they have to use their visual attention and fine motor skills together to look at it and touch it. You can also make it fun by saying, “Hey! Who put up this picture on the wall? Did Bowser come here last night and tape that picture on the wall?” Make it fun, Coleen emphasizes! Colette concurs!

Download the ViSPA here

Thinking Goes to School: Using the ViSPA (Visual Spatial Planning & Assessment)

This assessment was developed to give educators and clinicians games and activities to improve efficiency of their eyes and vision, while integrating the sensory systems and overall movement. This assessment can be used as a tool and should be used under the supervision of an educator or clinician to build upon each child’s developmental thinking and movement capacity.


The ViSPA was created at the Rebecca School. Please reach out to Rebecca School’s Clinical Director Toni Tortora (ttortora [AT] if you have questions or need support using this tool.

This week’s PRACTICE TIP:

This week let’s commit to playing Magic Buttons!

For example: My son loves Super Mario Bros. and his LEGO Power-ups and scanners, so I will put the scanners up on the wall and have him tap the scanners, that will have a colour behind them, in the way Toni described in this week’s podcast.

A tremendous thank you to Toni, Coleen, and Colette for sharing this gift with us of the ViSPA to create these playful activity experiences with our children. I hope that you will use the activities in the ViSPA and comment below! Please consider sharing this post on Facebook or Twitter and feel free to share relevant experiences, questions, or comments in the Comments section below.

Until next time, here’s to choosing play and experiencing joy everyday!

Sign up for our updates

CLICK HERE TO SIGN UP You can be assured that we will not share your information.