Written by Lisa Shusterman PhD, ABM practitioner for children, mother of three and most importantly Maya’s grandmother:
“Play is the way children learn and is the child’s equivalent of work” (Fred Rogers). Toys that facilitate your child’s ability to play can boost your child’s understanding of her world.
Finding toys that are appropriate for a child with CP can be challenging. Toys that may be designated as appropriate for typical children of the same chronological age are often too difficult for a child with CP. The key criteria for selecting toys should be ease of manipulation, minimal frustration, and something that attracts the child’s attention. Even more than for a typical child, finding toys and activities for your child is usually trial-and-error.
When you find things that your child can enjoy playing with independently, your can often notice that not only does the child become more knowledgeable about her environment, but she also feels more competent. This is especially important for a child who has disabilities. When your child is able to play independently, even for a few minutes at a time, it not only improves her self-confidence, but also allows you, the parent, to have a little time for yourself.
When looking for toys, I found that it is helpful to match the skills necessary for play with my child’s current abilities. Ages that are indicated as suited for any particular toy are often irrelevant. It is important for a parent to see where his child is both cognitively and physically and aim for toys that match her level. Don’t get hung up on the ages listed on the side of the toy packaging.
Selecting toys that engage your child and can teach your child about the world can sometimes be found away from the toy store and in the realm of regular household objects. For example, children can find pleasure in touching squares of material with different textures – smooth, bumpy, rough or soft. The experience can help the child perceive differences – a vital component of learning. You may have to think outside the box to find things that engage your child and give her enjoyment.
It is also critical to determine how you child learns in order to select appropriate toys. Some children learn primarily through hearing, others through touch. For some children, the primary way to learn may be through taste. By focusing on the child’s preferred style of learning, you can narrow your search for toys that capitalize on the child’s natural inclinations.
In addition to traditional toys, electronic games may offer further options for your child’s enjoyment and learning. There are many games available on the iPad that allow a child with CP to play in ways that aren’t otherwise available to her. For example, my daughter has difficulty playing with her miniature oven, but she can bake and decorate cupcakes on an iPad. Also, she has trouble playing with a real dollhouse, but she can fully engage in an iPad dollhouse game. Some iPad games allow the child to simply touch the screen to choose a black square from a white one. This can be fun for the child and, at the same time, increase her understanding of complexity in the world. Every day there are new applications and games for children that open up learning for children with CP. IPads are expensive, though, and may be outside of the budget for many families. Rest assured that non-electronic toys and materials offer rich opportunities for play as well.
Written by Mom:
Finding toys that are developmentally appropriate for Maya has always been a challenge. So many times I had to restrain myself from buying toys that I hoped she could play with but knew in my heart were too complicated or required more dexterity than she had. Somehow we ended up with a child who does not care much for toys. I took her to the toy store a couple of weeks ago to get some new cups and was shocked that she did not ask for anything! Even I found toys I wanted to play with! I guess this is a good problem to have especially for our wallet. At the same time, perhaps this behavior has something to do with the challenges she associates in figuring out how to successfully play with toys. Whatever the case may be, you inevitably will find yourself searching for ways your child can enjoy playing independently or with others. I have compiled a list of toys and websites from which you may find ideas for your child.
When searching new toys for Maya I generally look for the certain qualities. I look for large pieces (except marbles which she can now manage easily and safely), minimal noise production or noises she can easily control, durable construction since her limited fine motor skills make it harder for her to play with toys, and limited tasks associated with each toy. Also, I have noticed that she becomes disinterested or overwhelmed with toys that can do too many things or offer lots of visual and auditory stimulation at one time. The one exception to this has been pianos. She loves them. Your child’s capabilities will be unique, but perhaps there will be some crossover and you will find some ideas here. Over time we will further organize this section.
Here is a fantastic article written for Friendship Circle of Michigan called “24 Great Toys for Kids Who Don’t Play With Toys”. It resonates with our experience and that of many of our followers who have children with CP.
**NEW!! Posted 12/24/15–Check out this new app called CPtoys that helps therapists and families select toys to create individualized therapy programs for upper limb development.
Helpful Blog Posts Summarizing Gift Ideas
Top Ten Favorite Toys Children With Special Needs 2014-By Ilana Danneman who is a product developer for Fun And Function. She has worked with therapists, teachers and parents of special needs children for 20 years and has been a physical therapist herself since 1986 with experience in acute care, spinal cord injury (Shepherd Center), outpatient rehab and pediatrics. Ilana has a passion for writing and teaching kids (and adults) how to move! She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org–Presented Friendship Circle of Michigan.
Gift Guide for Children with Special Needs by Have Wheelchair Will Travel-Focused more on teens for 2014
Toys “R” Us Differently Abled Toy Guide-Updated Annually
Bikes & Trikes
If your child needs a little extra support beyond what a conventional trike typically comes equipped with, you may check with his/her therapists and doctors to see if something like one of the conventional Kettler Trikes may be appropriate. I mention this since some of them come with a seat belt and a push bar in the back (or may have an option for one). Don’t forget to consult with your child’s therapists and/or doctors about appropriate protective gear!
We recently purchased a Rifton adaptive trike (8/2012) after trying it out with our physical therapist’s office. The therapist and myself were amazed at Maya’s ability to pedal independently. It demonstrated to us how the right piece of equipment for your child and his/her specific needs can open up new opportunities for skill building and fun. I am not sure why some bikes costs thousands of dollars and others like the Rifton cost just over a thousand dollars. Our physical therapist was unable to shed light on this either. You may wish to visit our Equipment section and search the online and local equipment exchange/resale resources for adaptive trikes.
**A parent wrote us with the following information:
|I am a huge fan of Amtryke. http://www.ambucs.com/amtryke/. This is a North Carolina based company that will build the bike with a variety of modifications. They have a grant program as well to help with the cost. One can purchase directly from them. Dr. Janice Brunstrom has conducted some great research on the benefits of tricycle riding for children with CP. My 7 year old with quadriplegia rides almost daily (independently) and has been for 3 years now. Great for strength, tone, cardio, intentional movement etc.|
Where can I purchase an adaptive bike?
Adaptive Mall-we have ordered other products from this company and have been happy with their service.
Amtryke-referred to by the parent above
Adaptive Bike Charities/Programs
*Please visit our Equipment/Daily Living section for more resources and information about equipment lending closets, resale resources and more.
Every Spring Friendship Circle of Michigan has a Great Bike Giveaway for children and young adults with special needs. Residents of the 48 contiguous states and DC may participate in.
Project Mobility-a segment of Creative Mobility listed above
Red Star Riders: Caring In Motion-Southern California
**The following link is to the Toys “R” Us Differently-Abled Toy Guide which may help you strategize your toy buying for your child or for a friend’s child.
Ableplay — This website allows you to search for toys by diagnosis or physical limitation. It does not have an extensive list but it certainly offers some help. I hope over time the database will grow.
Educational Insights-This is a website I just learned about but haven’t personally used yet. Let me know what you think!
Fat Brain Toys — This retailer has everything under the sun that you won’t typically find at regular toy stores. They aim to stock well-made toys that “entertain and educate”. This is a recent find for us and I have not been disappointed. They have a fantastic search engine. If you scroll down homepage menu on the left side, you will find a “special needs” search engine.
Fun and Function-“We started Fun and Function because we couldn’t find kid-friendly sensory tools that would fit our family’s needs. So we channeled our frustration and turned it into a passion for creating the best sensory toys and tools on the planet.”
HearthSong — I have always found something I love for either Maya or other children in this catalog. They offer down to earth toys and unusual finds as well. Their database allows you to search by age. I typically search the Maya’s chronological age to see what they suggest and then I search her “physical age”. This allows me to get a sense of what might work for her cognitively and physically.
Playworks—This company was recommended by a friend whose daughter received some gifts that came from here. It was started by a mom whose son has learning disabilities. It offers a well organized and easy to follow guide for selecting toys based on areas/skills you wish to target and the prices are competitive.
Special Needs Toys — I found this website while working on this section. I have never ordered from them before but I really like the range of products they offer.
Tag Toys– Designed for all children from one to six years of age, Tag Toys aims to design products that bolster the development of sensory motor skills and thinking abilities. There products are made in the USA with water-based and non-toxic finishes.
Individual toys Maya has enjoyed along the way
The iPad — Below are some apps that have been recommended to us for special needs children:
- First words deluxe
- Word magic
- Zoo train
- Cat in the hat
- Toy cube (hard)
- 123 counting
- Wheels on the bus
- Going places
- Pocket Pond (sensory)
**You may wish to follow this blog which is run by two speech-language pathologists and offers lots of resources about Ipad apps for special needs children.
When purchasing toys be sure to consider your child’s developmental age and check on safety recalls.
Foam Puzzles — When Maya was about 3 years old we received a gift of a foam puzzle. I have never found another in stores since we got ours but it has been wonderful. The pieces have been easy to handle and are large (at least on ours). When searching online I did find a brand that seems to make quite a few. An example of one of their puzzles is linked here.
Foam Mats — Great for indoors and outside. We bought a bunch to cover our stone patio so that Maya could play outside comfortably. I have found them in different shapes and sizes and at discount stores like Marshalls. Here is a link to give you an idea of how many different options there are.
Finger Paints — These have been a life saver when Maya has wanted something to do that allowed her a sense of freedom (both with her body and with color). I have including a link to an article on organic finger paints. We did not use them but I thought it may be something some of you would be interested in reading about especially if your children are still putting his/her fingers in their mouths.
Wee Can Too Art Supplies-Edible art supplies-crayons, finger paints, sidewalk chalk and more!
Glitter Wands — Great toy that offers some entertainment with minimal dexterity required.
Baby Einstein Take Along Tunes — An easy to grab handle and simple push buttons.
Magnetic Puzzles — We have the magnetic fishing puzzle linked here but there are many on the market. Maya loved the idea of being able to go fishing.
Magnetic Wooden Blocks and Toys by Tegu!!!-These are awesome!!
Pianos — You don’t have to get one as expensive as the one we linked to. We have had this one since Maya was a year old and she still loves it. The height allowed us to use it to practice sitting (and now kneeling) and the keys are big.
Poppin’ Pals — Great for little ones. We had an older version of this and Maya loved it. She probably would still play with it if I had it out of the closet. It’s a great for rewarding the use of foundational fine motor skills.
Little People Toys — The “Little People” are a good size for children who may have difficulty grasping objects.
Large knob puzzles — These were the only puzzles pieces she could manage for a few years.
The Tangle — Still a favorite after three years.
Train on a track — Any kind will do but the simpler the better. If this task is within your child’s reach the act of putting the track together along with moving the train on the track will help your child’s fine motor and visual tracking skills.
Rhino Toys Oball — The first ball Maya could easily grasp and toss. It comes in many shapes, sizes, and colors.
Remote control cars (simple controls) — This one has been a big hit and has very simple controls. It also helps with motor planning.
Spin Art-Remember the joy of spin art? Maya has a blast with this!
Marble mazes (small parts)
Stacking Cups — Many companies make these and they are wonderful for bath time, stacking, or even banging together.
Slinky Pop-Toob-Great for improving fine motor skills
Bubbles — no spill
Ants in the Pants — A great fine motor practice game.
Vibrating Grape Teether — Believe it or not we recently discovered this teether during therapy. Yes, Maya is beyond the typical teether use years. However, when you have a special needs child you sometimes forget that they may miss developmental pieces and sensations along the way only to discover them at a later date. We believe that is what has happened here. Our daughter never liked pacifiers or teethers. I am not inclined to have her walk around with this but I am ok with her using it during therapy. She just laughs away. When the child bites on the grape it vibrates.
Maracas-We were able to find some small ones that our daughter could hold easily.
Foam — I just spotted some foam blocks similar to these at my daughter’s school. They looked wonderful and were so soft.
Wooden — these have served us well for several years now. The storage bucket with handle is great and Maya enjoys dropping her blocks in there.