• Tips to Select Toys for Children with Special Needs

    According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 17% of children aged 3 through 17 years in the United States have one or more developmental disabilities. Play has an important role in the growth and development of children of all abilities, but it is particularly valuable for children with special needs. Through play children with special needs develop cognitive, motor, social, and communication skills in a fun and engaging way. These skills contribute to a child’s overall emotional regulation and well-being.

    Pediatric physical therapists (PTs) help families set goals and develop strategies and ideas for play that focuses on the abilities of the child and the ways families can engage in play together. Choosing the right toy is a good place to start. Pediatric PTs recommend toys that promote physical, cognitive, or social development.

     

    Choosing the Right Toy

    The following steps can help find the right toy:

    1. Identify the child's play capability and consider their individual needs and likes.
    2. Consider the skills that a toy can help expand or develop.
    3. Consider toys that encourage interaction with others.
    4. Carefully review toys for safety.

    The following tips are not all inclusive, but provide guidance on several common conditions:

    For children who have difficulty communicating as a result of autism:

    Select toys that encourage repetition of movements, have purpose, and promote activities that use both sides of the body together. Toys should not be battery operated or include lights or electronic sounds, as these toys can interfere with the child’s ability to interact with the toy and engage with others. Examples include:

    Brightly colored toys

    • Puzzles (promote fine motor skills, communication, and problem solving)
    • Blocks (all sizes and shapes for problem solving, manipulation, and squatting to floor to pick up)
    • Nesting blocks, cardboard bricks, or textured blocks
    • Wood toys

    Picture cards and story books

    • Activity cards/mats (help with cooperative plan and communication through movement)
    • Exercise cards, such as Yoga
    • Ready, Set, Move Activity Set
    • Social Stories (books that require you to act out movements while learning social expectations and communication techniques)

    Toys that encourage repetition and encourage pretend play

    • Shape sorters, peg boards, Light-Brite (assist with fine motor skills and sitting balance)
    • Higher level cards with pieces to form a shape (help develop fine motor skills, problem-solving, and communication)
    • Lego or other types of toys that require building and manipulation of objects to create things (encourage development of gross and fine motor skills and communication techniques)
    • Plastic containers filled with everyday household items, such as utensils, to imitate cooking
    • Dolls, action figures, cars
    • Aqua Sand (encourages pouring, dumping, scooping, squatting, sequencing, and choosing colors)
    • Water table, water tray, small floating bath toys
    • Art activities, such as clay and coloring
    • Trains
    • Push/pull toys and ride-on toys
    • Foam wedges and pillows for climbing and moving
    • Tunnels

    For children who have autism, but do not exhibit communication needs:

    Select toys that encourage use of both sides of the body and repetition of a purposeful activity. Examples include:

    Toys and games with pragmatics included (help with understanding non-verbal cues and social situations)

    • Social Stories™ (books that require one to act out movements while learning social expectations and communication techniques)
    • "Guess Who" books
    • Board games that ask simple questions, such as Hedbanz

    Action and movement games

    • Hullabaloo
    • Twister (encourages cooperation with others and intense motor planning and coordination skills)
    • Games that encourage running and chasing activities with a rule book to help explain the game
    • Bowling games on the lawn
    • Carpet square hopscotch games

    For children who have motor delay with crawling capability:

    Select toys that encourage fine motor practice, sitting balance, mobility, problem solving and communication, and require repetition of movement. Examples include:

    Computer assisted games (for fine motor practice)

    Bowling sets

    Musical instruments

    Toys that require repetition of movement and encourage mobility

    • Shape sorters, peg boards, Light-Brite(tm) (assist with fine motor skills and sitting balance)
    • Higher-level cards with pieces to form a shape (help develop fine motor skills, problem solving, and communication)
    • Lego® or other types of toys that require building and manipulation of objects to create things (encourage development of gross and fine motor skills and communication techniques)
    • Plastic containers filled with everyday, household items, such as utensils to imitate cooking
    • Aqua Sand (encourages pouring, dumping, scooping, squatting, sequencing, and choices of color)
    • Trains
    • Exercise balls, tunnels, and pillows to crawl over

    For children who have motor delay and standing capability:

    Select toys that encourage fine motor practice and the imitation of daily activities. Also, choose toys that require repetition of movement and encourage mobility. Examples include:

    Activities to imitate daily activities

    • Play kitchen
    • Play work bench
    • Train set on a tabletop

    Board games

    Movement games

    • Bowling sets
    • Push toys: shopping carts, stroller for dolls, cars/ride-ons
    • Containers filled with toys to encourage bending, squatting, stacking, and ball play
    • Musical toys

    Toys that require repetition of movement and encourage mobility

    • Shape sorters, peg boards, Light-Brite(tm) (assist with fine motor skills and sitting balance)
    • Higher-level cards with pieces to form a shape (help develop fine motor skills, problem solving, and communication)
    • Lego® or other types of toys that require building and manipulation of objects to create things (encourage development of gross and fine motor skills and communication techniques)
    • Plastic containers filled with everyday, household items, such as utensils to imitate cooking
    • Aqua Sand (encourages pouring, dumping, scooping, squatting, sequencing, and choices of color)
    • Trains
    • Dress up items (be mindful of zippers, snaps and buttons)

    For children who use motorized chairs for mobility:

    Select toys that encourage manipulative activities that develop arm strength. Examples include:

    Manipulative activities for those with arm strength

    • Balls
    • Peg boards
    • Arts and crafts
    • Silly Putty®, Play-Doh®, magnets
    • Erector® sets/Lego®
    • Basketball hoop
    • Bowling
    • T-ball set or similar games that involve throwing (golf, football, corn hole, bean-bag toss)
    • Adapted swing

    Manipulative activities for those who are developing arm strength

    • Musical instruments
    • Play-Doh®

    Podcast

    Mothers Ellen Seidman and Jennifer Byde Myers discuss their experiences raising children with special needs, including the role of physical therapy in their children's development, a physical therapist provides additional advice, and the panel weighs in with toy buying tips for the holidays. Listen to this Move Forward Radio episode.

    More About Pediatric Physical Therapy

    Children with cerebral palsy and those with development coordination disorder, developmental delays, and torticollis, can benefit from early intervention by a pediatric physical therapist. Learn more about these and other conditions pediatric PTs treate by visiting the Physical Therapy Health Center for Children.  

    Revised by Denise Simmons, PT, DPT, board-certified pediatric clinical specialist, member of APTA's Academy of Pediatric Physical Therapy.

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