Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Best Toys and Gifts for Special Needs Children

I remember it very distinctly. I was standing in the Toys R Us store trying to find “one” toy that I could buy Dear Son for Christmas. It wasn’t that I couldn’t afford more than one toy, it was rather that with his disabilities, there weren’t any toys that he could do himself, that we didn’t already have. I walked around for quite some time, when I got stuck in one of the aisles behind two young boys fighting over all their toys. They had an entire cart full of toys and were begging for more. Somehow, at that moment, life didn’t seem too fair. I just needed one toy, that didn’t require the use of your hands, your fingers, that didn’t require you to be able to sit, to be able to roll over or to use your voice. I needed something that didn’t flash or vibrate (since he had seizures and these could bring them on). I wanted to surprise him, to make him smile. I was, after all, Santa.Many of the toys I saw, didn’t work for one reason or another, or I had already purchased them. Most of my family, preferred to give me money, so I could select the toys. Typically, this would mean a two hour shopping trip, only to come home with a few five dollar toys, but nothing exciting or of any consequence. I should also explain that some of the challenges parents of special needs children face, is finding toys that match their “developmental” age especially when their “chronological” age is much larger. I decided to put together a list of Dear Son’s favorite toys over the years, in hopes that I might be able to assist other parents of children with severe disabilities, in finding toys for Christmas. I will also show you a picture when I can and tell you what types of things you should look for or what made this particular toy a favorite.To give you a little history, Dear Son is severely developmentally delayed (retarded), has no use of his hands or arms, is non-verbal, can not walk, can not talk, can not feed himself and is totally dependent on someone. For many years, Dear Son could not roll over. As time passed, he was able to walk on his knees and roll over. Today, he can do neither.

Wooden Rocking Chair- We purchased a wood rocker at a furniture store many years ago. We happened to find this rocker while we were looking to purchase some dining room chairs. Dear Son was getting fussy in his wheelchair so I put him in this child's maple rocker while we purchased our chairs. The rocking chair worked so well, we purchased it for Dear Son. What was great about this rocker was that it had a tall back, which supported his trunk and the back of his head. This rocker was made of maple, but was still light enough for him to scoot around the house on the carpet with it. He took his feet and scooted side to side to move it and then loved to lean forward and look out the window. I liked it because he could get around the house easily and independently. It was much better than sitting in a wheelchair all day or lying on the floor. We’d take this rocker to family outings or simply when we went somewhere, like to see fireworks on the fourth of July. It’s the only seat he was able to stay in. A regular chair didn’t work because he would fall off the chair and because he couldn’t move the chair around the room. Many physical therapists have never heard of a child using a rocker to get around in like this, but once they saw him, they agreed it worked. From a therapeutic standpoint, the rocker also helped his balance. He still uses a rocker today, only he can’t get around in it like he once did and it’s now much larger. I found some child rockers at this website. I like the one pictured here because it has a higher back. I understand that Cracker Barrel has some nice rocking chairs and I have noticed some of the best ones (and best price too) at a large antiques market in our area.When selecting a rocker, it’s important that the rocker isn’t too tall, that the child’s foot can rest flat on the floor so he/she can maneuver the chair around the room. Finally, stay away from the combination wood and wicker rockers since they are often too heavy for the kids to maneuver. The all wooden ones work best. Dear Son had one from a furniture store that was done in a maple wood with a clear finish that we loved. If your child has the use of his hands, select one that has horizontal slats on the back, uniform in nature, so they can grip the slats and pull themselves into a standing position. If they are severely disabled, this won’t matter and vertical slats would work just as well. Dear Son has enjoyed a rocker from ages three on up.Microsoft

Acti-Mates Barney-This is the original talking Barney that Microsoft made and then discontinued in 2000. Copies are still available on eBay.Why it works? Because Dear Son was non-verbal, this toy became his best friend. It could talk when he couldn’t. If you pressed Barney’s hands, he would sing and if you pressed his feet, he would talk. It didn’t require a lot of pressure to activate him. The reason it worked for Dear Son was that he could use his mouth and bite on Barney’s hands to get them to work. If Dear Son was sitting, he would take his left foot and step on Barney’s feet and he would talk. This toy was worth every penny. We have had about six of these in his life. There are so many severely disabled children who love this particular Barney, that it’s truly amazing. None of the newer type Barney’s work as well as this one. If you wanted to select a similar toy, look for a talking toy that does not require your hands or arms to operate and that could be activated by a foot, a child biting on it or by light pressure. Some of the talking toys that I have seen, require you to press on the chest of the toy or to press a disc in the hand. This is not something that a severely disabled child could do.
Bedtime Barney-This particular Barney has a star on his chest and is actually called a Bedtime Barney. When you press on the star, Barney sings several bedtime songs that help Dear Son fall asleep. Each song gets softer and softer and has lots of yawns in between. The lights get dimmer and dimmer until they fall asleep. What’s great about this Barney is that the star on Barney’s chest is large enough and made of a hard plastic so Dear Son could take his head or his chin and press on Barney’s chest to get it to work. He loves to sleep with Barney in his arms. The blue stocking cap night cap that Barney wears is very soft and Dear Son likes the feel of it against his skin. You don’t even have to be disabled for this one, since many kids love it. I have seen this Barney available in most toy stores and the retail section of Target and other discount stores however I had trouble locating it on a website.

Ball Pit-Dear Son loved a ball pit. He loved to lie in the ball pit and would often fall asleep in there. They are pretty safe and you can wash the plastic balls in the dishwasher to sanitize them. What to look for: You want one that is open on top (unless you want to chase the balls all over your family room when they kick them out) and one with a large enough door that is zippered so you can lift the child into the ball pit. I would try to stick with one around four feet by four feet so it doesn’t overwhelm your family room. I have seen some of these used outdoors however I would only recommend them for indoor use since things could crawl into it if it were outdoors.

Cat-You may wonder why a cat would make a good pet versus a dog or another animal. The reason I like a cat for Dear Son is that it is easier to take care of-as a single mother, I can't leave Dear Son unattended while I take the dog for a walk. He enjoys the cat because the cat is playful and gets into things. Dear Son can't get into things so he enjoys watching the cat do this or watching the cat "get in trouble" doing something he shouldn't. The cat provides a lot of enjoyment for Dear Son. Currently, our cat will stand on the edge of the edge of the bed and meow when he wants Dear Son to pet him. I'll bring the cat over to Dear Son, take Dear Son's hand while holding the cat with the other one, and then pet the cat. Dear Son really likes it. It's important to note that you want a cat that is playful, a lap cat and one that is good with children. We have a Munchkin cat (breed) and that is perfect for him. They are smart, great with kids and a lap cat.

Pop-up Tent-Any pop-up tent will do providing the size is right for your child. Dear Son would lie on his back in the tent, and then take his legs and kick the ceiling of the tent, practically knocking it over. It was great exercise for his abdominals and a great way to get rid of extra energy. If your child is Special Needs, see if you can get a child’s sleeping bag to put on the bottom of the tent to make it softer for them to lie on (it also helps to have it there in case they have an accident i.e. diaper leakage). You can find these at most toy stores. For an older child, GapKids makes one every spring and they also sell a child’s sleeping bag to match. I tried to find some examples of this type of tent and I see that they have a lot of them out there. There are three things you want to look for: 1) the tent should have a bottom (many of the ones I viewed did not) 2) it should be a pop-up type with no assembly required and 3) it should have a fabric door that closes off the front. While I left the fabric door open most of the time, Dear Son loved that it would fall half way closed. As an added bonus, he nearly always took a nap in his tent. It remains one of his favorite toys to this day and he still takes a nap in it.

Radio Flyer Wagon-My son loved this wagon. It was perfect for walks. What made this toy perfect was the tall sides and back of the wagon. The tall back allowed extra support for his back when sitting in the wagon. We had a wood one however the newer ones are plastic but should work just as well. Train-The best train we ever got was one from Walgreen’s. It was a battery operated small train that had a 36 inch round track that fit on the coffee table in the family room. Dear Son loved to sit on the floor and lean against the coffee table to watch and listen to the train. He loved it even more when he could take his arm and de-rail the train. This might take twenty tries and an awfully long time but he could do it. And when he did, he would laugh some big belly laughs. This toy was great from a therapeutic standpoint to encourage use of his arms. I purchased more expensive trains from Lionel but they didn’t work as well since the track was too sensitive. A tunnel is a great idea too if you can find one for the train. What to look for: Look for a train with a small track, unless you have a lot of room. I like the battery operated ones best. Make sure you can access the batteries easily. Most of these cheaper trains work best however access to the batteries are difficult due to the small screws used.

Mr. Christmas Musical Carousels-Mr. Christmas makes a great line of musical carousels. What is great about Mr. Christmas items is that they have a lot of songs, both Christmas and non-Christmas on the carousels and they have a volume control. The volume control is a big deal since many of the cheaper carousels you buy don’t have a volume control and they volume is too loud. Also, the quality of the music is great on them. When you listen to a cheaper carousel, the music quality is scratchy. Dear Son loved to listen and watch the carousel. He especially loved one with horses. I have tried other musical toys/carousels but the Mr. Christmas ones are the absolute best. Do not bother with any other brand. This year, I purchased the Mr. Christmas Symphony Surprise-Santa's Workshop. Four windows open in the house to reveal musical animated Gingerbread musicians. It plays fifty songs in four part harmony, 25 Christmas and 25 non-Christmas favorites and includes a real clock. The web site will give available stores however I was able to find this one at our local Meijer store even though the web site only gave the Grand Rapids Michigan Meijer store as one of the available locations.

Swing-An outdoor swing is essential for them. What you want is a swing with a tall back to support them. You can find them for several hundred dollars in a therapy catalog however I suspect you can now find them in a toy store or on-line much cheaper. Every child loves the tall back, not just children with disabilities. You can often see examples of this type of swing in many parks across the country. They are most often in red, have a high back and nearly every child and adult will use them, disabled or not.

Television near their bed.-One of the most surprising things that Dear Son loved was a television he had in one of the rehabilitation hospitals he frequented. This particular hospital had a small t.v. right next to his bed. He loved it. A television across the room was of less interest to him. The small size is important too-I am guessing this one was around a 13 inch screen which is just about right.

Videos- His absolute favorite movie was, “A Very Goofy Christmas”. He would laugh big belly laughs over this one movie.

Silly Six Pins-This is a bowling game where the bowling pins talk. We never used the bowling ball but instead set up the pins on our kitchen table on a placemat. I would pull Dear Son up to the table in his wheelchair, with only his lap strap fastened, and he would lean forward and use his head to knock the pins down. The bowling pins would talk to him to help encourage this action. This activity helped strengthen his trunk control and he loved it. As a reminder, the age of destruction preceeds the age of construction so developmentally, things that crash will always be a better choice than things for them to build.

IPOD-My son loves to listen to music so any of the IPODs would be an excellent choice. You do have to be careful that you watch the volume control since they can’t turn the volume up or down themselves.

Musical Mat- This is a musical mat that is about two feet wide and two feet tall that lies on the floor. When you press on the mat, it plays music. This is a great toy for an infant or toddler who is having difficulty in learning to roll over. You can practice helping them roll over and when they roll, they will be rewarded with music. Dear Son enjoyed this toy.

Musical toothbrush-Disney and several other manufacturers make a musical toothbrush that is great. I never used them for brushing teeth though. I used it to occupy Dear Son when he was getting a lab test or a shot. The song usually lasts three to five minutes or so, just long enough to keep his attention on the music and by the time the song is done, they have completed the shot without any crying. For Dear Son, he loved music and attended to things he heard vs. things he saw. The small size of the toothbrush made it great for taking along, as opposed to the size of a regular musical toy. These can also be used for tooth brushing however I tended to prefer the Oral B types for that.

Stocking Stuffers- Some great stocking stuffers include:

-Slinky-because it doesn’t take much hand control to get it to roll over.
-Bubble bath.
-Bath paints-you can squirt it on the child and write his name or “I love you” on his chest when you give them a bath. The color makes it fun.
-Other fun gifts ideas include movie gift cards, museum gift cards or in our state, we have a wonderful Arboretum with some fantastic trails. A membership card is a great gift.
-Babysitting coupons so the parents can go out to dinner is always appreciated. So often with Special Needs children, none of the family wants to babysit since they are afraid or it’s too much work. While that may be true, there is often a time when the child is sleeping, that the parents can go out for a quick dinner.

And the best gift of all-a note from Santa! When my son didn’t hit any milestones his first year, I was devasted. I had nothing to write in his baby book. I decided to write him a letter from Santa every year and include in it, the two or three things that he did accomplish. Santa would tell Dear Son how proud he was that he was able to work so hard and accomplish these things. The letter would be written on construction paper, in crayon and end the same way, “All my love, Santa”. I would roll up the letter and put it in his stocking. He loved to sit on my lap while I would read the letter.

These are my absolute best toy/gift ideas for Special Needs Children.

12/20/10-Recently, I compiled a list of toys/gifts for special needs children. Click here to see them. I will also tell you why I think a particular toy is good for these kids as well as tell you how the child will play with it and/or what to look for in a particular toy. I have included links to Amazon so you can order it and have it delivered to save you time from having to go out. I will be adding additional items throughout the year, that I think would work for these kids. Please be sure to save this link for all future gifts (both birthday, Christmas and otherwise).
*I originally published this on 12/4/06 however due to the high number of google requests for gifts for special needs children, I am reprinting it.


Poppy Q said...

Oh Dream Mom, I bet those ideas help lots of families this Christmas. Bless you for thinking of other people.

We like that you included Wiggles as the ideal gift, we think everybody should have a cat!! They do make the perfect gift, as long as they will be loved and get a good home.

Have a happy thanksgiving holiday.

Big smooches
Julie and Poppy Q

jeanie said...

What a great resource!!

I loved the Santa letters idea.

Rambling Round said...

Dream Mom, these are great ideas, and I recall walking the aisles of Toys R Us looking for similar things...only our child also could not see, so that eliminated videos, TVs, regular picture books, etc. He had to have toys that would make noise with an easy touch. There don't seem to be nearly as many electronic toys now as several years ago, but our son has enjoyed inexpensive keyboards (that he hits with his hands), ABC and phonics boards (he can somewhat use the fingers on his right hand), CDs, IPOD (the cushions that you can connect an IPOD to are nice so he can hold the music close to him since he hates headphones and earplugs) and activity boards. For toys that require his fingers to turn on, we put a glue dot on the place for his finger to press so he can quickly locate it.
The big red button switch in special needs catalogs can connect to a computer, and he can press the button with his hand and change the song on a CD. You really learn your child's music likes and dislikes when he can control the music by himself! There are even a few Switch Progression programs he can use that don't necessarily require vision. Also, he still enjoys the toddler touch-and-feel books, but we have to be there to turn the pages and help him feel the textures.
Thanks for this post.

Anonymous said...

What a great post, so helpful for other families. This is truly an example of how wonderful the blog network can be.


~Wendy~ said...

I love the cat idea - our cat is our son's best friend. He plays wit him and the cat will come and sit while he does his homework. Our son can't participate in some "typical" school activities due to his learning disabilities and health restrictions but he loves to show off the cat to friends who visit and actually has the cat involved in his gi joe wars and matchbox car road races. we couldn't have asked for a better kitten either.. like yours, she is friendly, playful, cuddly, and mischivous.. all the things needed to make us all smile & laugh - even on tough days. :)

Anonymous said...

My son is 15 months... so much of this really hit home! Thank you so so much for sharing :-)

I was standing in the Toys R Us store trying to find “one” toy that I could buy Dear Son for Christmas. It wasn’t that I couldn’t afford more than one toy, it was rather that with his disabilities, there weren’t any toys that he could do himself, that we didn’t already have. I just needed one toy, that didn’t require the use of your hands, your fingers, that didn’t require you to be able to sit, to be able to roll over or to use your voice. I needed something that didn’t flash or vibrate (since he had seizures and these could bring them on). I wanted to surprise him, to make him smile. I was, after all, Santa. Many of the toys I saw, didn’t work for one reason or another, or I had already purchased them.

Amen girl!

When my son didn’t hit any milestones his first year, I was devasted. I had nothing to write in his baby book.

Thank you for the Santa idea... it is lovely :-)

Anonymous said...

Dream Mom, you sure do understand. And that means so much, because sometimes it feels like nobody gets how hard times can get. Your ideas were great. My daughter is just 22 months now and rapidly approaching her 2nd birthday, and i remember crying in numerous stores because I had no idea what GREAT gift I could get for her on her 1st birthday that was appropriate for her at the time. you have given me helpful hints for christmas and her 2nd birthday. Thank you and Merry Christmas.

Karen K Koch said...

Hello Dream Mom, I'm an OT working with severely impaired kids in Michigan. I love your site, when it is time to buy toys for the kids we'll buy from your website.

Good luck,

Dream Mom said...

Thank you Karen. I appreciate that!

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