Choosing toys and gifts for young children is usually a pleasurable experience. But in some families, finding appropriate gifts can be a struggle when special needs have to be taken into account. For children dealing with physical handicaps or cognitive and developmental issues, some popular toys may not be suitable. For example, a stationary activity centre, popular for babies, may be a concern for infants with poor muscle tone in their legs.
So it is important to find toys that offer opportunities for play that help these children maximize their abilities or fine tune certain functions (such as fine motor skills, balance or coordination). For example, a child with visual impairment may particularly enjoy toys with a variety of tactile and auditory stimulation while a child who has difficulty walking might enjoy a physical activity that allows him or her to remain seated.
Toys bring more than just pleasure to kids; they are critical components in one of the most important ways children learn — through play. “Play is the way children form their expectations and experiences of the world. Play is their language,” explains Lorie Walton, a certified child psychotherapist and play therapist.
“Toys help kids develop new skills in all parts of development, from learning how to organize their bodies to working through their own experiences.”
With special needs kids, constructive play takes on a new challenge because these children have to contend with certain physical, sensory, communicative or cognitive limitations.
Walton recommends selecting toys that help expand a child’s abilities across the spectrum: encouraging interaction with others, gross and fine motor skills, creative, dramatic and fantasy play and more. Playthings that can be used in many ways keep kids interested and challenged. For example, blocks can be sorted for colour and size, and then used for building a castle.
Often, a toy that is already on the market for the general public can easily be adapted for a child with special needs. A basketball hoop lowered for a child in a wheelchair is a good example, as is looking for an electronic toy with volume control to make play easier for a child with sensory integration disorders who might be alarmed by loud noises. Baby toys that promote sensory stimulation can be great for infants who need extra help developing their pincer grasp.
Websites a great resource
There are some toys developed specifically for kids with special needs, and you can search the Internet, or consult with your child’s physiotherapist or occupational therapist. Walton suggests you always begin by looking at the specific needs of a child. “Sometimes you will need to look beyond their birth age, to their cognitive or emotional stage of development, to know what would work well,” she says. “What is it you are trying to enhance with that child? That’s where you’d begin.”
A great website is www.specialneedstoys.com, which includes everything from full support swings (for kids through adults), computer games and plush toys.
The Toys R Us Catalogue for Differently Abled Children, www.toysrus.com/differentlyabled, is also very helpful. The online catalogue (also available in print form at stores) allows you to search for toys that help stimulate skill development in specific areas, whether for building on sensory awareness, visual, auditory, gross motor skills or more. The toys in this catalogue are the same ones available in the general interest catalogue, but they offer the additional information you will need for kids with special needs.
Another great place to look is www.ableplay.org. This toy ratings system and website is put together by the National Lekotek Centre, a non-profit organization dedicated to making play accessible for children with disabilities. It provides information on toys so parents, educators, and extended family members can help choose a toy that is both fun and appropriate.
AblePlay breaks down toy information into the following disability categories: physical, sensory, communicative and cognitive, offering the possibility of choosing two simultaneously. You can also search according to disability, if you prefer, with a drop down list offering a wide range of choices. There are also age ranges, product types (such as books, arts & crafts or electronic toys), product brands and names. This categorizing helps parents and educators get customized information to suit their child’s interests.
Their ratings give a quick overview of an evaluated toy, while the more comprehensive reviews give more information about the product and its use for children with special needs. One of the best features of this website and ratings system is that it makes recommendations on how different toys can be adapted or used in unconventional ways. In order to support this free site, they encourage you to order the toys directly through them.
If you are looking for a toy for a child other than your own, it’s often helpful to chat with the parents first, since they will know what will be suitable and the most fun for their child. Because the best part of choosing the right toy for a child is the big, bright smile on their face when the gift is unwrapped.
Many associations for people with special needs and impairments offer toy reviews and suggestions, which can be helpful if you are looking for specific kinds of toys. Although by no means an exhaustive list, the following is a sampling of some of these resources.
The American Association for the Blind
The Braille Bookstore
All Hands Interpreting Service
Autism Awareness Centre
OZMO (for children with autism and other special needs)
Cerebral Palsy Toys and Play Aids
A cross-selection of toys available at the larger toy stores and many independent toy stores.
Taggies plush toys
This colourful line of toys offers sensory stimulation for infants and toddlers, including tactile, auditory (musical chimes, bells or rattles inside the toys) and visual. The tags fascinate babies developing fine motor skills, and the ball shape is good for children learning to organize their grasp, hand and arm movements.
Bee Bop Band
This product offers many creative opportunities for making noise with the colourful, kid-sized, imaginative-looking instruments. Parents will be pleased by how they all pack together in a convenient drum! The different shapes offer creative ways to work on fine and gross motor skills, sound, and body awareness.
Sign Language Peg Puzzle Board
This Melissa & Doug wooden puzzle teaches the American Sign Language signs associated with all the letters of the alphabet. As with any peg puzzle board, this toy offers opportunities to work on fine motor skills as well as cognitive functions such as organization, patterns and matching.
Alex Knob Paintbrushes
These wonderful paintbrushes have easy-to-grasp handles for little hands, and will also help older kids who might have difficulty holding a conventional paintbrush. Opens up opportunities for artistic expression.