Choosing the right toys for special needs children

December 1, 2010

Parents of children with developmental or physical disabilities are likely to ask their pediatricians for guidance regarding toy selection at the holidays.

This being the holiday season, parents spend considerable time and effort shopping for the right toys for their children. Toys encourage play, stimulate a child's imagination, and foster parent-child interaction. Playing with toys helps children to discover the world around them and to develop the physical, mental, social, emotional, and creative skills needed to mature and thrive.

Parents of most of our patients have no difficulty deciding which toys to buy. However, parents of children with developmental or physical disabilities are likely to ask their pediatricians for guidance regarding toy selection. In anticipation, we should familiarize ourselves with wonderful resources that will help parents choose the most suitable toys for our special patients.

The Toy Industry Foundation, in collaboration with the Alliance for Technology Access and the American Foundation for the Blind, involving hundreds of toy experts, has produced a directory of toys for children with a variety of special needs and interests. The 18-page catalog of toys, Let's Play, is organized by category (outdoor toys, building toys, creativity toys, musical toys, and so on).

Children with physical impairments are most likely to play with toys that have large parts and sturdy bases to prevent movement. Those with a hearing impairment might enjoy a toy that provides lights or visual feedback and has interesting textures. Blind children would benefit from toys with a variety of textures, surfaces, and sounds. Children with developmental disabilities may enjoy toys that let them act out real-world situations.

The guide suggests that parents need to determine the child's interests and skill level in preparation for purchasing toys for a special-needs child. By flipping through the catalog pages and paying attention to the toy labels, it's an easy matter for a parent to find a toy that would suit a child with a variety of disabilities.

Another outstanding resource is the 60-page Toys R Us Toy Guide for Differently-Abled Kids, which has been published annually for 20 years by Toys R Us in cooperation with the National Lekotek Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to making play accessible for children with disabilities. The toys in the guide are labeled with icons that indicate what skill or skills the toy fosters. These skill labels include auditory, gross motor, self-esteem, social, thinking, and others.

Each toy is described in detail, including a brief discussion of the benefits a child is likely to receive from playing with the toy. A useful index at the end of the guide organizes the toys into various skill-building categories. The guide also offers numerous toy-purchasing tips. It suggests that parents select toys that encourage active rather than passive play, are easy to activate, and are challenging without frustrating a child. Perhaps most important, a toy purchased for a child with a disability should make him or her feel like any other kid. Another section makes specific recommendations for facilitating safe play for children with disabilities.

One caveat: Although these guides can be useful tools to help parents choose toys wisely, I would encourage parents to seek the opinions of their child's special education teachers, who may have helpful professional insights regarding the child's interests and capabilities.