Oftentimes, the toys that are best for children with special needs are the same toys that are best for typically-developing children. Just as you would for any child, you’ll want to choose toys that promote development and avoid toys that are over-stimulating (think bright lights and sounds) as well as toys that could be unsafe for a particular child’s ability level.
We don’t claim to be special needs experts, but we do know that many KidKraft toys can help the development of fine and gross motor skills, language, social skills, and other cognitive processes. These are some of our (and parents’) favorite picks to support healthy development for kids with special needs.
Language and Social Development
No, we don’t mean toys that talk. For any child, the greatest tool for language development is … you! If you’ve ever seen a child receive speech therapy from a speech-language pathologist, you’d be surprised to see how much of their session looks like play. While a lot more is going on “behind the scenes” in that therapy, your own play sessions with your child can still be incredibly powerful. Any toy that gives you opportunities to introduce new vocabulary and act out social situations as you play is a great tool for language and social development.
Dollhouses and play kitchens are both great for dramatic role-play and allow your child to practice language and social scenarios they might not otherwise encounter in their daily life. (Just be aware of small pieces that might pose a choking hazard for some kids). Baby dolls are another toy that are well known for helping kids develop empathy and social skills. For practice with specific social situations, our Let’s Pretend Pop Ups can help kids practice social behavior in settings like restaurants, grocery stores, and medical offices.
Seemingly innocuous toys can be a minefield for kids with sensory processing disorders as every child will have different triggers and different soothing sensory inputs. You’ll be the best judge of what they’ll love, what will be too stimulating, and what might help them slowly develop a tolerance for certain sensory experiences.
Simple musical toys can be a great way to introduce kids to more auditory experiences in a way that offers them total control over what noises they want to explore. For tactile and olfactory (smell) experiences, you can offer arts and crafts materials with different textures and incorporate food and other materials that offer subtle scents.
Fine Motor Skills
Developing motor skills can be especially challenging for kids with certain disabilities. One classic toy that can always help with the development of fine motor skills is good old-fashioned building blocks. Constructive play with blocks is recommended for all children but can be especially helpful for special needs kids who may still need fine motor practice but have lost interest in more “baby-ish” toys like shape sorters. As their motor skills and mental development progress, toys like blocks and building bricks still keep their interest since they can move on to creating more complex structures.
Gross Motor Skills
Gross motor skills develop through increasing strength and coordination in major muscle groups. And for kids, there’s no better way to do that than through active play! Climbing toys and outdoor playsets are excellent for promoting balance and vestibular development. Swings can help build core strength and spatial awareness, and many kids with special needs find the swinging motion very calming.
It goes without saying that if your child has physical disabilities, you’ll want to use their doctor’s guidance and your own intuition to avoid toys that are too challenging or dangerous for their ability level.
A Final Note
Of course, every child is different and will gravitate toward and benefit from different toys. This is especially true for special needs children. A musical toy that is fascinating and soothing for one child with ASD could be a sensory trigger for another child with ASD. A toy that appropriately challenges the fine motor skills of one child might be frustrating and nearly impossible for another. Ultimately, you know your child best and can use your intuition to determine if a toy is right for them!