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8 Tips for Special Needs Holiday Toy Shopping

As the holiday season approaches the rush to find the perfect toys for children with special needs can sometimes be a nerve-racking mission.  How do you pick the right toy for your little girl or boy? Here are some guidelines to keep in mind.

1. Consider Unusual Interests

Many children with special needs many not enjoy typical toys and instead may be more interested in items like fans, vacuums, or even plugs and cords. Taking their interests into consideration can give us insight into what to choose. Try and consider what aspect of an unusual item holds the child’s interest. For example, if the child enjoys linear items like cords, strings and belts, we might wish to choose toys like wands, dolls that have lots of stringy hair, or pull toys that have a rope or string attached. Toys should have meaning to each individual child. Without meaning there is no assigned value to play with that toy. “Toys should allow for the suspension of reality” (Case-Smith, 2005, pg. 573), and allow the child’s imagination to take over.

2. Get Moving                                           

Toys or games that get children moving and provide sensory input are a must from birth to two years, but are equally important throughout the lifespan. The body learns through movement and sensory experiences and the body’s skill set improves with repetition and practice. Athletic games like football, basketball, baseball, soccer, hockey, gymnastics, swimming, and horseback riding are always a positive. Movement will help produce skilled and coordinated actions. Today’s electronic gaming systems are equipped with activities that allow for either imitated movement or movement in response to changing game parameters. Toys or games that require increased physical output will also help increase overall body strength.

3. Make Sense of Things

Toys should also foster sensory processing and address:
  • tactile (touch)
  • auditory (sound)
  • visual (sight)
  • vestibular (movement)
  • proprioception (input to muscles and joints).
It is very important to know what types of sensory input your child likes or dislikes.  Some sensory input can be disruptive to children and make them feel uncomfortable. Some great tactile ideas include:
  • Play-Doh
  • Putty
  • Shaving cream
  • Finger paints
  • Bubbles
  • Sand
  • Goop/gak/slime
  • Textured balls
  • Gel pull toys
Auditory Input Auditory input should provide some form of sound or music which the children have to differentiate between. Examples include games like Simon that make a variety of sounds or musical CDs that provide fun dance instructions which the children have to follow. Visual Input Visual input should provide opportunities for differentiation between color, size, and shape, as well as the opportunity to identify, scan and track objects. Vestibular Input Vestibular examples are swinging, spinning, hanging upside down, and general moving around such as walking, running, and jumping. Proprioceptive input Proprioceptive input will provide sensory information to the muscle and joints of the body.  Games that get children moving, jumping, running, rolling, catching, and kicking are just few examples for proprioceptive input.

4. Motivate Motor Skills

Toys that promote the use of the hands and fingers are essential. Fine motor skills start to develop as an infant, gradually become more distinct leading into 18 months of age, and really start to blossom by age two to three and continuing into adulthood. There are many toys available now that put the child in the driver’s seat for building or constructing an object or structure. Examples include:
  • Legos
  • Model cars and planes
  • Robotics sets
  • Electronics sets
  • Arts and crafts
  • Jewelry-making kits
  • Coloring or painting with a brush
  • Board games that require the use and manipulation of small game pieces
Whatever they might be, toys that engage the fingers and hands will enhance skills required for school work such as hand writing and art projects.

5. Learn for Life

Toys or games that provide education are a great way to get children learning without the structured classroom or home environment. Children learn constantly from birth, but age 15-18 months to 2 years is a critical age to get children learning because they think they are playing when in fact they are learning. Games or toys that promote learning should have a setup where the child has to answer questions or respond to cues in the game that require cognitive processing, such as answering with the correct animals, shapes, colors, or numbers. Games that use clocks to tell time or complete a task by certain amount of time also work well.

6. Release the Imagination

Toys should allow the child to escape to an alternate place where they can be silly. By age two children have emerging imagination skills and by age three their imagination really begins to take flight. Toys should allow a child to create, build, or design an idea or concept that has meaning to them. More importantly, toys should support their expressions, ideas, wants or needs in their daily life. Building, painting, drawing, and coloring are great ways to foster imagination and creativity. Toys that allow a child to build or design are also great. Dolls and action figures are unique as they allow the children to become someone else for that period of time.

7. Play Alone & With Others

Toys should also allow for independent play as well as combined play with other children. Initially, children play by themselves and eventually merge into parallel play and combined play. The age ranges for these types of play may vary depending on the child’s social skills, however independent play usually begins with before age two and combined play starts between two and three years of age and older. Independent play lets children feel in full control. Toys that promote combined play allow children to play in a more diversified manner and make for greater learning opportunities. Items like dolls, cars, or building blocks can be used both independently and for combined play.

8. Get Social

Toys should also help promote social behavior. Games, toys, and play activities should initiate language for communication between two or more individuals. Board games that engage the children in language such as “want to play?” “you go first,” “what do you need?” or “I will win!” are a few examples of how language can assist with social behaviors. Games that engage children in good sportsman’s conduct such as “way to go,” “great job,” or “oh, that’s okay” are a few more examples. These types of activities are great as they can help bridge the challenges with social interactions and help make communication stronger and more understandable between two or more individuals.  Jason Ferrise earned both his Bachelor of Health Science and his Masters of Occupational Therapy from Baker College. He came to the Kaufman Children’s Center from Beaumont Hospital where he was an occupational therapy aide. Jason lives in Dearborn with his wife and daughters and in his free time he enjoys sports, white water rafting, and spending time with his family.

WRITTEN ON December 23, 2013 BY:

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