Future Reflections                                                                                                 Fall, 2003

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Child’s Play: Toys for Children with Disabilities

by Lynn Swanson

The following article is reprinted with permission of the author from ABILITIES, Canada’s Lifestyle Magazine for People with Disabilities, Issue 45, Winter 2000.

Editor’s Note: Although this article was written a few years ago for a Canadian audience, I believe families in the United States will be able locate many of the toy resources referenced in this piece.

Is there anything more magical than the sparkle in a child’s eyes on Christmas morning? We at ABILITIES hope to help Santa and his elves bring that excitement to youngsters with disabilities.

Shape sorter toys are always popular with little ones.
Shape sorter toys are always popular with little ones.

A good rule of thumb when selecting toys for children with disabilities is to choose ones which utilize their abilities. This advice comes from Laurie Fowles, occupational therapist at Thames Valley Children’s Centre in London, Ontario. For example, for children who are blind, toys that “cater to the other senses” are best. Ones with sound or smell are ideal.

Instead of using age as a guide, Fowles recommends considering a child’s interest and capabilities. “What their interests are is a biggie. How can we work with that to have the toy promote development, but still be fun for the child?”

Like many ten-year-olds, Jordan Smith often races home from school to play Nintendo and other computer games. But, Jordan, who has cerebral palsy, does more than have fun with electronic games. He strengthens fine motor skills in his hands and improves his manual dexterity.

Jordan and his seven-year-old brother, Connor, who also has cerebral palsy, love building with Duplo. Their mother, Mary, says Lego pieces are too small for the boys to handle.

But Duplo helps them build hand strength and is great for their imagination and for developing language skills as Jordan and Connor chat about their creations. Mary thinks “anything that promotes [development of physical capabilities], that isn’t work, is wonderful.”

Fowles says computers are a big hit with most kids and can be adapted for children with disabilities. Yet great gifts don’t have to be expensive. Fowles suggests simple bubbles “are a must-have” for children with a range of disabilities.

Marg Barlow, parent-infant therapist at Child and Parent Resource Institute in London, says that often parents, grandparents, and others selecting toys chose ones with “glitz and busy-ness” and sometimes high prices. She finds that’s frequently a mistake because it’s often “overwhelming” for youngsters. That’s when they “just shut down,” give up on the toys and instead play with boxes, bowls, and other familiar things.

“So many toys look neat, but how accessible is it to the child?” asks Barlow. She suggests trying to look at toys from the child’s perspective. If the toy has a mirror, make sure the child can see it from his or her position.

Like Fowles, Barlow thinks simple toys are sometimes the best. Barlow says people often don’t give building blocks as gifts with all the other choices in today’s market. But they’re almost always a hit with the wee ones.

In selecting items for kids with developmental disabilities, Barlow recommends considering the child’s level of function. When children are playing, Barlow says, parents may have one definition of success, while kids have another. She says with a toy like stacking rings, parents often judge a child’s achievement by rings being placed in the right order, For kids, especially those with developmental disabilities, fun and a sense of accomplishment are derived just from getting the rings on the stick.

Both Barlow and Fowles say cause-and-effect toys are great for promoting a child’s development. The child does something—like push a button—and that causes something else to happen. Barlow says Sing and Smile Pals by V-Tech is easily activated. When the child pushes animal pictures, the dog barks, the cat meows, and the duck quacks. The Sassy Sound Shape Sorter gives musical feedback. For kids who are blind, sound is a great motivator. For kids who are deaf, it may be light or other visual responses. Musical feedback is also good for children with autism.

Fowles says V-Tech toys are usually accessible for youngsters with special needs. Valarie Anderson, who is blind, purchased that line’s Little Smart Phonics A to Z for her sighted granddaughter, Amandah. (With Little Smart, children can learn the alphabet by letters, sounds, alone or in words.) A delightful surprise for Anderson was discovering the Braille alphabet next to letter keys. So, Amandah sees—and feels—how her Nanny reads. Little Smart is also a super way for youngsters who are blind to begin learning Braille early.

Pennie Jevnikar, who has two daughters with low vision, attached rattles to the girls’ ankles with Velcro when they were infants “so they would know they have feet. Sighted babies see they have feet. Blind babies don’t.” Rattle socks with animal characters on them are also widely available for babies.

Jevnikar recalls that when her daughter Sarah was younger, she could always tell when the girl had been using her Crayola smelly markers because Sarah’s nose was covered with vibrant colours. At a birthday party, Sarah received Tutti-Fruttie play putty in all the smells available from her pals.

For games, Jevnikar suggests Scenterville, which has players identify play fruits and other items by smell. She says traditional board games like Snakes and Ladders are made in tactile versions, but she had to order hers from Scotland. However, the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) offers a selection of fun products for youngsters with vision disabilities. These include Braille and tactile Bingo, large print and Braille playing cards, checkers, tic-tac-toe, Braille Monopoly and Scrabble, and a bell ball.

For a child just learning to walk at age three, Fowles says “a walker is not motivating.” But the Little Tikes shopping cart is “wonderful” as a push toy while practicing walking, especially when weighted with juice cans or sand bags.

To help you and Santa choose toys best suited to your child’s abilities, Toys-R-Us publishes an annual Toy Guide for Differently Abled Kids. Toys in it are tested for ten developmental areas, such as language, tactile, and gross motor skills.

Mark Casey, a Toys-R-Us store director, says the guide is “definitely client based… People come looking for an updated version” each year. In his London store, he finds it is used more by folks seeking toys for youngsters with developmental or learning disabilities than for physical disabilities, although the guide clearly covers all needs.

Like Fowles and Barlow, Casey stresses that toys don’t have to be fancy or costly to make kids happy. “One thing that stands out” in persevering popularity is “just plain old rubber balls.” They always provide lots of fun.

Terry Smith, Jordan’s and Connor’s father, says that Connor relishes playing with soccer balls and basketballs. He explains that when Connor throws a ball against the house and catches it, he improves his hand-eye coordination and loosens up his muscles. “It’s a form of therapy… but don’t tell him that,” Terry adds, chuckling.

Barlow recommends choosing toys that will grow with your child. She says she can think of 200 ways the Fisher Price Barn can be played with as a child grows and interests change. She also suggests joining a toy lending library instead of rushing out and spending money on toys your son or daughter may not enjoy.

If you want your child’s image reflected in their toys, some great items are available. Barbie’s friend Becky, who uses a wheelchair, was a Toys-R-Us exclusive a few years ago. She materialized as a yearbook photographer and a Paralympic athlete. Then Mattel discontinued her, even though Casey says Becky was a “humongous success.”

This year, Becky triumphantly returned as a Paralympian champion, complete with flashy racing wheelchair and gold medal around her neck.

Sign Language Teacher Barbie has one hand in the “I love you” sign. She comes with a blackboard and re-useable stickers showing various common ASL signs. Both these dolls are available from Toys-R-Us.

The classic Fisher-Price Little People School Bus has been updated to be wheelchair accessible. It includes three passengers and a driver, plus a little wheelchair for any one of the passengers. It’s available at <www.fisher-pricestore.com> or by calling, toll-free, (800) 747-8697.

For a more diverse option, check out the Multicultural Kids Ethnic Dolls Web site at <www.multiculturalkids.com>. Its “Differently Abled Equipment” (wheel chair, walker, hearing aids, guide dog, forearm crutches and leg braces) fits its line of Ethnic Dolls—you can order a specific gender and ethnicity of doll along with the equipment you want it outfitted with.

Another fabulous Web site, this one based in Winnipeg, is <www.dragonflytoys.com>. Dragonfly Toys offers 1,250 products mainly for kids with disabilities.

Dragonfly Toy’s Web site creates a child profile based on auditory, gross-motor, vision and fine-motor functions, developmental age range and language abilities. The profile is then matched to appropriate toys. When a parent signs up for a Dragonfly membership, more detailed information is entered so that the best options possible can be selected.

The Dragonfly Toys Web site is also loaded with super tips. These include how blowing bubbles can help develop self-feeding skills; swimming-pool safety for kids with spina bifida; how to make a computer mouse accessible for a child with a physical disability or who is cognitively young; and how to help youngsters with low muscle tone or strength learn to crawl on a gently slanting board with a toy as a motivator.

Dragonfly Toys also sells books, aids for daily living, and adaptive computer technology. (A print catalogue is available for people who aren’t online.) Renate Bursten, company president who has a decade of experience as a developmental play therapist, says Dragonfly’s goal is to “build a longer progression beyond toys” and be involved in the child’s “straight progression” through school and eventually into work.

Through its “Playpen” articles written by Bursten, parents and professionals, Dragonfly is helping parents of kids with disabilities connect with and learn from each other. Dragonfly also has a toll-free help line, (800) 308-2208, “where parents can come and feel comfortable and not out of the ordinary.” By facilitating those linkages and understanding their consumer better, Dragonfly aims to “take the special out of special needs.”

While pondering your toy choices, one final Web site to log on to is <www.exceptionalparent.com>. It has an excellent section on toys for kids with disabilities that includes reviews of many toys by parents and professionals.

Whatever choice of toys parents make, Fowles stresses that “play is the most important thing you can do with your child. It’s really how kids learn about their world and how to interact with other people.”

Lynne Swanson is a freelance writer living in London, Ontario.

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