When you think of “special needs toys and games,” you may envision expensive gadgets and specially designed equipment. And you can certainly find such high-priced items provided by boutique specialty companies.
The reality is that there is absolutely no need for parents of special needs children to purchase products labeled “special needs.”
Plain old Walmart, Target, or even handmade items are just as effective, and just as much fun.
What Are Special Needs Toys and Games?
The only thing that makes most special needs toys “special” is the label, and the fact that the toys are purchased for a child with some type of developmental difference. But the best toys and games for special needs children do have some elements in common:
- They are flexible enough to be used or played in a variety of ways, with or without multiple partners. Blocks or Legos are great examples of such a toy, while a badminton set is not.
- They are safe and fun for kids with sensory and/or physical or motor planning challenges. Good choices might include soap bubbles and fidget toys while a poor choice would be a loud computer-based game that requires complex interactions to play.
- They require relatively low levels of focused attention, language use, and physical coordination, such as a backyard slide or swing. The board game Monopoly would not be a good choice.
What Makes Them Therapeutic?
There are two elements that can make toys and games therapeutic for kids with sensory, social, language, cognitive, or attentional challenges. They are very simple:
- To be therapeutic, a game or toy should be enjoyed with another person who is willing and able to use the experience to help build skills.
- To support sensory challenges and provide rewards, a game or toy should be physically engaging and fun (or pleasant and calming) for the player.
In short, if you play with your child and really engage with them, and your child actively likes the game or toy you’re using, you’re providing a therapeutic experience.
Before You Buy
Before buying or making anything for your special needs child, remember that your goal is to engage your child with something he or she will enjoy. That may mean that the toy or game is “too young” or “too easy” for someone of your child’s chronological age.
Kids with special needs, by definition, develop at a different pace than their typical peers.
This means that your 10-year-old with autism may still enjoy Thomas the Tank Engine toys and have a very tough time with an “age-appropriate” video game. As a parent, you may have to swallow your pride and give your child the toy or experience he or she is ready for—even if the age on the box seems much too young.
As you look at toys, always keep in mind that “therapeutic” toys are usually just more expensive versions of ordinary toys. “Therapeutic putty” is very much the same thing as Silly Putty. Special fidget toys are almost identical to infant toys that are sold at your local Walmart. Do be careful, however, about buying toys your child could choke on or knockoffs that could be toxic.
Top 10 Toys and Games
Choose from these top 10 toys and games for children with special needs.
1. Blocks, Legos, and Similar Building Toys
Basic blocks and other building toys (there are lots of different brands at different price points) are incredibly versatile and can grow with your child. Your child might start by lining them up but can easily graduate to building structures, tunnels, roads, and more. Most importantly, these basic toys are ideal for building symbolic play skills and social collaboration—especially when you play with your child.
2. Simple, Safe Bounce Toys
Kids with sensory issues (as well as most other kids!) love to bounce. Bounce balls with handles (sometimes branded “Hippety-Hop”) are a great choice. So, too, are mini trampolines with handles. Not only are these toys fun (especially if you buy two and play together), but they can also be used as rewards for good behavior.
3. Swings and Slides
You can buy very expensive “sensory” swings, or get a good, low-cost swing at your local toy store or online. If you’re not sure your child is ready to balance properly, buy a swing that has a belt (easy to find, and usually adjustable by size). Slides can be tiny blown plastic or larger and more challenging. Tiny slides can be used indoors in winter (a nice bonus).
4. Water Toys
Anything that uses water and soap can be great fun, interactive, and engaging for a child with special needs. Try a variety of options, from Slip-n-Slides to interactive sprinklers to wind-up submarines and boats. Consider squirt toys if you’re willing to handle the mess!
5. Bubbles and Foam
Soap bubbles can be fun to pop, chase, and watch. But blowing bubbles successfully also requires good motor control as well as a certain amount of patience. There is a wide range of fun bubble-making and foam-making toys on the market; one or more is likely to be perfect for you and your child.
Puzzles are the ideal choice if your child prefers more sedentary activities. Like most of the toys described, they can grow in difficulty with your child’s abilities, and they are fun to do together. These days, it’s easy to have puzzles made with any image you choose, so why not choose a photograph or character that your child already loves?
7. “Sensory” Toys
Contrary to what marketers may tell you, a sensory toy is really any object that provides sensory feedback. That can be any toy that buzzes or beeps. It can also be putty, play dough, clay, “fidget” or “stress” balls, worry beads, and so forth. All these items are available at low cost in many retail outlets. They aren’t as interactive as the other toys described, but they really can help reduce anxiety.
8. Simple Card and Board Games
Chess may (or may not) be beyond your special needs child’s abilities, but there’s a good chance that classic kids’ games are not. If your child has the attention span and interest, try teaching some of the classics. Go Fish, Uno, War, Checkers, Connect Four, and many other games are short and simple but do require turn-taking, social interaction, and some strategic thinking.
9. Art Supplies
Large crayons, markers, and colored pencils can be a lot of fun for kids with any level of ability and skill. Coloring books are a great choice for many children, as they keep the fun within bounds and allow kids to “create” their favorite characters. Clay (as mentioned above) is both artistic and therapeutic.
10. Pop-Up Tunnels and Playhouses
Low cost and easy to store, pop-up tunnels, playhouses, and tents are wonderful toys for kids with special needs. They support gross motor development, provide a sensory escape, and promote symbolic play when used creatively (parental help may be required).