As the holidays (quickly) approach, thoughts turn naturally to gift giving. For the parents and relatives of children with special needs, the joy of presents can be tempered by the challenge of finding the right toy.
Grandparents, aunts and uncles are often bewildered by the plethora of toys on the market and have no idea how to find a toy that matches both the chronological age and developmental ability of the child. No matter what type of developmental or physical challenges a child faces, whether it is Down Syndrome, autism, ADD/HD, a language and communication disorder, or something else entirely, therapists and educators recommend picking toys based on the skills they will help develop.
• Fine Motor
• Gross Motor
• Language & Speech
• Visual & Spatial Perception
• Social Skills & Self-Esteem
• Sensory Processing
• Oral Motor
"As a general rule," says Karen Bronstein, an occupational therapist who works in private practice and at a sensory integration clinic in Cresskill, "I tend to look for toys that have two or more developmental areas that are hit. For instance, instead of buying a car, I buy a car that has keys to open and close the garage. That way I promote the imaginary and language play that comes with car play, but also the fine motor, and perhaps color matching at the same time." (Three-Car Garage Playset, $30 at timbuktoys.com)
Kristen McCloskey, a board-certified behavioral analyst who runs social-skill groups and specializes in applied behavior techniques for children diagnosed with autism and pervasive development disorder, gets many toys and materials for her growing practice. Those include pegboards and pattern blocks, which help with receptive language, visual perception, and compliance and attending. Her favorite? "The best toy and all-around versatile teaching tool is the trampoline," she says. "It helps with sensory integration and improves focus and attention." (Jump Smart Kid Safe Trampoline, $90 at amazon.com)
The Therapeutic Nursery at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades is a program for bright preschool children with a variety of developmental challenges, including communication and learning disorders, ADD/HD, emotional and behavior problems, and high-functioning autism. While a child may enter the Therapeutic Nursery at 3 years old already reading, that same child might not know how to play. It is necessary to go back to basics. Dr. Lois Mendelsohn, director of the Therapeutic Nursery, puts it very simply: "Less is more."
The nursery has a toddler group in which Mendelsohn favors simple manipulative toys, such as big blocks, trains and imaginative play. For the preschool children, she also likes board games, where the children learn to take turns. She is enthusiastic about products from Ravensburger, Melissa and Doug, and Think Fun, among others. Toy stores, meanwhile, have begun to make shopping for a special needs child easier. In September, Learning Express Toys introducedÊSkill Builders for Children with Special Needs,Êan in-store and online resource that offers parents and caregivers toy suggestions to help children accomplish their developmental goals. According to Carly White, a marketing projects manager in Learning Express' corporate office, the company has hosted training webinars and created staff training materials for their stores, and an online "magalog (catalog/magazine hybrid) that features helpful articles, insight from parents and toy suggestions across eight therapist-approved categories." That magalog is available at learningexpress.com.
White and the team at Learning Express suggest the following three toys as standouts for this holiday season: the Wobble Deck Extreme (promotes gross motor skills, social skills, self-esteem and cognitive skills), $40; the Teaching Cash Register (fine motor skills, social skills, self-esteem and cognitive skills) $50; and the 4-in-1 Drum (sensory processing skills), $15.
Just like their typically developing peers, many older children with special needs are more interested in electronic and digital toys, such as video games or apps they can play on iPads, phones or computers. Although most teachers and therapists would still rather see children playing with manipulative toys, they agree that the ability to play video games is a necessary social skill on play dates.
"Older kids are doing really well with Wii Sports to increase attending and improve social skills when played in a group setting," McCloskey says. "Eye-hand coordination is another benefit." (Wii prices vary depending on bundle; available new from $140 at GameStop.) She observes that children with limited language and communication skills can really benefit from using an Apple iPad (Apple Store, from $400). There are many autism apps that allow children to grasp concepts and communicate certain things they would otherwise be unable to express.
Caren Waxman, a Rockleigh mother of three, whose youngest son, Jonah, age 10, is autistic, observed that Jonah, who is very verbal, has always enjoyed apps better than manipulative toys. "They allow him to learn more about the areas he is focused on, such as travel and language," she says. "Thus, Jonah chooses to use Google Translate and play Stack the States." An additional benefit to those apps and games, she feels, is that there is no losing, which can be especially tough for a child on the autism spectrum.
Just remember to consider a child's particular special needs, the chronological age, and individual strengths and limitations when choosing a toy.
"We want to encourage growth," Bronstein says, "but the toy should not be so challenging as to not be fun. Conversely, a toy with lots of buttons that produces sounds and sights for pure pleasure and sensory stimulation may be limiting a child's growth to higher levels of play. The perfect toy, if there is such a thing, is one in which a child enjoys and yet challenges them to reach their fullest potential."
She emphasizes that many toys require the direct involvement of a parent or caretaker, which can be difficult but definitely worth the effort. That advice reinforces what every parent already knows: Spending time with a child is the greatest gift of all.