I’ve worked as the manager of the Learning Express toy store in Roseville, California for ten years now and wanted to share some of my experience with finding toys for children with special needs. Let me preface this by saying that I am not a qualified professional in child development, but I do have quite a bit of life experience. My daughter is fifteen years old and she has Autism. She was diagnosed before she was two and although she has very little language she’s been “mainstreamed” since kindergarten. The reason this was possible is due to the time we spent making every play opportunity a learning opportunity.
I used to think that the only way to buy toys for my child was online or in catalogs. I assumed that toys used for therapy were special and came from special educator catalogs. WRONG! After working at Learning Express I have come to realize that we have an entire range of toys, including “everyday products,” that can help families with special needs children bond, share, and learn all at once.
Here are a few of my top picks. FYI, these are also great suggestions for children who have other learning disabilities, and they’re great for every kid, no matter what their needs are.
Obviously there are a lot of factors that can’t be covered in this post. For example, the importance of knowing how old the child is and, more importantly, what the child is working on in terms of goals. With that kind of information, Learning Express employees can give better guidance as to what product would be most helpful. Since we can’t gather that kind of information here, we’ll start off with some great toys for teaching the basics, like the ABCs.
A great ride-on toy that allows kids to bounce and scoot around. They hold up to 400 pounds so when it comes to children with special needs this one works for all ages. When my daughter was on the Rody I would sit on the floor in front of her and it helped increase eye contact, engaged all those important core muscles, and increased her focus while we sang our ABCs or whatever goal we were working on that day.
Kids can place colorful wooden letters in their proper place to spell words on the cutout two-sided wooden boards. This allows more senses to be involved while learning to see, touch, and FEEL the letters. Saying them out loud adds another element to the experience. It helps kids with spelling and it’s a great multi-kinesthetic toy. I would even let my child use a crayon inside a few of the boards after we removed the letters so she could trace the outlines and stay inside the boundaries. Stencils can often be challenging so this was a great solution for us. Really a must-have toy!
Melissa & Doug, one of our top manufacturers at Learning Express is known for high quality wooden puzzles. A regular puzzle can be difficult, but we carry a variety, including my favorite, a Train ABC Floor puzzle that is much easier and less frustrating for the child because the pieces are put together in ABC sequence. This puzzle is a great beginner floor puzzle.
It seems so basic, but it’s essential. Lots of kids with special needs are deficient in the development of the fine motor muscles in their hands. Our OT (occupational therapist) also told us that standing to do art is so much better than sitting at a desk or table. Standing engages more muscles and the mind. We used the easel in all sorts of different ways at my house.
Using the dry erase side, I would teach my daughter to spell a word and then magically “erase” the word with a clean finger. She loved the cause and effect. And writing in dry erase is MUCH easier than crayon or pencil where you have to push when you write. The markers are smooth and easy, and the pen is thick so it’s easier to grasp.
We also spent hours painting. (Neat freaks will want to keep their easel projects in the basement or in the garage during winter weather.) My daughter must have painted a thousand sheets (on the backside of recycled paper) with simple brush strokes of color—up and down lines over and over again. Slowly, very slowly, those brush strokes began to curve and I could see the rainbow she’d been shooting for the whole time.
That’s the kind of moment we cherish when we’re teaching our kids, no matter what their needs may be.
These are just a few examples of how everyday toys can bring out the best in any child. Stay tuned—more to come in the weeks ahead!