Friendship Circle Logo
Pure Friendship for Individuals with Special Needs
Ahren Hoffman

For a Child with Special Needs It’s Not About the Toys!

When it comes to playtime for children with special needs (and for all children) we often forget that toys are just a tool for play. Toys and play products are secondary to play! To ensure a child benefits from play you need to start with the right dynamics. When you have that in place it will be a positive experience for all involved. Here are three crucial factors to consider when preparing your child with special needs for play.


Play happens in many different environments- living rooms, bedrooms, parties. For some children, it is a good idea to spend a little time to prepare the environment beforehand and/or provide structure for the play activity. Chaotic surroundings can overstimulate some kids and lead to negative behaviors. To keep children focused and the play experience enjoyable, here are three tips for planning the play environment:

1. Focus/Attention

Provide a space that is clear of clutter, noise and other distractions. Maybe you have a designated space in your house for playing with toys? It is easy to keep the TV on, but not everyone can filter out that background noise. Inattention and hyperactivity may already be heightened in your child so lessening distractions is really the key!

2. Organization

Organize the actual play product. Make sure the game has all of the pieces and the toy functions properly. Frustration can be triggered if the toy isn’t ready to go!

3. Rules of Play

This does not pertain to the actual rules of a given game, but “house” rules that apply to all during play time. Setting boundaries and limits provides structure during play and promotes independence for the child. These can include where and when to play (not during meals).  What is appropriate where (like throwing something inside the house), or other safety concerns.


I am sure all of us have tried at least one time to put a toy or at least a piece of IKEA furniture together without the instructions. It doesn’t always work. But! It is ok not to use the instructions that come with a board game or play with all of the pieces to a game. You can create your own rules and make it fit the child’s needs. Let’s take the game Lucky Ducks for example. For those of you who do not know the game, it is a matching game. Each player gets a cardboard lily pad that corresponds to the color on the bottom of the ducks that are quacking and circling around a pond. This game can be a little over stimulating! Here are three tips for adapting the game, Lucky Ducks:

1. Pieces

Do you really need to use all of the ducks in the Lucky Ducks game? No. Just pick two colors instead of using all of them because it will shorten the game and create a 50/50 chance of getting the right color. Add more ducks when you think your child has a longer attention span and can handle higher odds of getting the wrong colored duck.

2. Rules

Do you have to have your own lily pad? Maybe you lay out all of the lily pads and on your turn you put the duck on the matching color lily pad.

3. Sounds

Don’t turn the game on! The ducks quacking and moving around the pond can be very distracting (and also annoying!) so don’t even turn it on. Other adaptation ideas would be to only put part of a puzzle together or only put together ‘x’ amount of pieces and come back to it later. Same with longer games like Monopoly. It’s okay to finish a game or activity at another time!

Play Time

Play time. Time is the key word here. All play time does have to come to an end so helping kids understand that concept before play starts will be helpful in the end. Here are three tips for play time:

1. Timers/Clocks

Timers can be used for kids as a visual countdown system. The first timer can be a warning that it is time to start wrapping up and the second one means play time is over. A clock may be a good way to provide some independence for a child that can tell time and understands the concept of time management. At 2pm, it’s time to start cleaning up.

2. Transitions

Transitions can be a very difficult time typically developing children, but also children with special needs. The child may have been hyper-focusing on the toy they were playing with and now the activity has to be completed and it could cause a meltdown! Allow time for a break in between activities to mentally prepare, resolve the first task and prepare for the next.

3. Schedules

Who doesn't love a schedule? It is always nice to know what is happening as an adult or as a child with or without a disability. It can be as simple or as detailed as needed for the child that will be using it.  

WRITTEN ON January 29, 2014 BY:

Ahren Hoffman

Ahren Hoffman IS the manager of Industry Relations and Partnerships for the National Lekotek Center. Lekotek, is a not-for-profit and leading authority on toys and play for children with disabilities. Lekotek is dedicated to providing children of all abilities access to the benefits of play experiences. Visit for a complete listing of toys. You can also find them onFacebook