Wednesday, March 26, 2014

6 birthday party activities for kids with special needs

This guest post is from the awesome Diane Quiroga, ATR-BC, founder of Art Talks LLC. A board-certified art therapist and mental health consultant, Diane is an adjunct faculty teaching art therapy at Caldwell College and serves as Secretary of the New Jersey Art Therapy Association Board. She offers individual and group sessions and consultations, and recently started running birthday parties in kids' homes. Diane is full of super-creative ideas that enable and inspire kids with special needs—and any kid.

As a kid, birthday parties were the ultimate. I could hang out with my friends on a weekend, eat goodies and open presents! I mean, come on, is there really anything better? I got to thinking: Parents (especially those with special needs children) may have limited OR redundant options when it comes to birthday parties. And we’ve got a lot of years to get through before My Super Sweet 16! So I came up with party ideas kids will always remember—and that won't break the bank. These can be adapted for various ages depending on a child's ability and developmental level.

The Superhero

Superheroes are great! They stimulate imagination and creativity, and have strengths and positive traits.  I love decorating superhero capes with children because there's nothing more exciting than getting them to put them on, check themselves out in a mirror and be their own superhero. You just stencil or stamp on designs. Feel free to get cardboard eye mask cutouts or cardboard belts, maybe even cool power shields. Have your child give themselves their own superhero name, too! 

• Find superhero capes, shields and masks at S&S Worldwide.

• Find easy-grip stamps (including letters, shapes and emotions), washable stamp pads and stencil sets like these at your local art store or at Discount School Supply

Paint My Ride

If there's something I’ve learned while working with kids, it’s that they love anything with wheels. Gather unfinished wood cars or trains, brushes AND some paint and let the good times roll. The kids will have a great time painting these items and afterward, they can try out their new vehicles on a large mural paper. This is a perfect opportunity to incorporate movement, fine motor activities, group and social interaction and sensory stimulation. Best of all, it requires having a lot of fun. You can also pick up some large plastic cars and trucks with moving wheels to roll in paint and create some tracks ON PAPER.

• Find unfinished wood cars and trains at Oriental Trading Company, Discount School Supply and S&S Worldwide.

• Find mural paper, brushes and paint at local A.C. Moore and Michaels stores.

• Some wonderful paint brush holders are available in the Abilitations line from School Specialty. You can also use a universal cuff for a thin paintbrush if you already have one, or just wrap Model Magic around a painting tool to mold to your child’s hand.

Jam Session

OK, OK: So, you might not exactly love hours upon hours of banging instruments, but your kids will! Making sounds and jamming out is a great way for your child to practice rhythm, group activities and fine motor skills, and get some sensory stimulation while making something fun. Decorate your own drums, maracas, tambourine, or rain sticks then hit "record" on your smartphone. Try playing some of the kids’ favorite songs to see what kind of new beats and drumming they can bring to their jams. Your kids will listen to a song in a whole new perspective, and they'll never listen to One Direction or BeyoncĂ© the same way again.

• Find Make Your Own drum kit sets, Decorate Your Own maracas and Make Your Own Tambourines at Discount School Supply

I love the idea of kids using their own fingerprints to decorate their jam instruments!

• Here are my favorite fingerprint art stamp pad trays; you can also find a large variety of stickers at Discount School Supply and Oriental Trading

My Self Box

Every child has their own personality and preferences. As your child ages, it's important to give them the freedom to express themselves as well as offer them choices. Having them create "self boxes" is a perfect way. Have glue on hand as well as other collage materials (beads, feathers, pom poms, fabric strips, different types of paper or tissue). Stimulate their brains with all kinds of magazine imagery—you can provide ready-cut images so all they need to do is glue or tape, or let them rip it out themselves. Kids will love the idea of being able to make something that represents their personality and use as room decor.

I like to separate ready-to-use images into People, Places and Things categories.

• Find cardboard and wooden boxes at A.C.Moore and Michael’s stores, along with School Specialty, Discount School Supply and Oriental Trading.

Dream Boards

Want to try something else with magazines? Dream Boards are a great way to talk about the future and have children pick out images that represent them and their choices. You can use a sheet of Contact Paper and avoid glue altogether! The above Dream Board is by a five-year-old-girl with special needs who wanted a puppy, Mickey, a tropical island and pizza in her future.

Kids can also draw on their Dream Boards. Finger Crayons are one of my favorite kind; they're easier to grip than skinny crayons. Or you can just stick ones on your child's fingers.                       

Picture Perfect                 

Whether it's having their own pictures taken or taking pictures of others, kids find cameras irresistible. If you have access to a digital camera, iPad, computer and a printer, you can set up a photo shoot. Provide some fun props like hats, boas, and glasses; load the photos onto your computer; and print each child's picture of choice. An instant camera, like a Polaroid, works great as well. If you want to extend the photo shoot, have the kids paint and decorate a picture frame with stickers and a variety of collage materials. Glue magnets to the backs of the frames for refrigerator-ready decor. Don’t have a printer? No biggie, they’ll have an awesome time with the photo shoot experience. Provide mirrors so the party animals can check themselves out as they pose!

* Make sure this kind of activity is OK with all partygoers’ parents. You can offer to email the pictures to their parents before you dispose of them on your camera/computer as well so they have a copy.

No-Glue Fun Foam Frames available from Achievement Products for Special Needs

• Find unfinished wooden picture frames in various shapes and sizes at your local A.C. Moore or Michael's Stores. Oriental Trading has photo frame craft kits, photo booth props and collage materials.

You can follow Diane on Facebook or on Twitter

Image of kids at party: Flickr/Alison Smith


  1. This is such a beautiful post! I have a nephew that has down syndrome and it's always difficult to find activities to do on his birthdays, so this was extremely helpful. THANK YOU!

    1. So glad you liked! Diane is full of great ideas.

  2. Um This is off topic but I thought this community would probably know the answer. Is the word "mute" as in someone who cannot speak not acceptable today I thought it was not and therefore it was very ironic my gym teacher used it repeatedly as well as saying people who are "mute" are unable to communicate at all, while teaching about "awareness".(we are in a cooperative games unit) I got mad(which is not a first for this teacher) Thanks and great post

    1. Hi, Kathryn. Yes, some people find the word offensive and the preferred term is "non-verbal."

    2. Using ASL and Dynavox are communication methods. Body language is communication and so are other sounds like yawning, screaming, or crying. Non-verbal people are able to communicate very well.

  3. Thanks for sharing some great ideas....fantastic that these can be adapted to many different ages and development levels too. I love the dream board idea the best!

    1. That was one of my favorites, too, and I'm going to do it with the kids at non-birthday times!

  4. How about a cake-decorating party? It builds a lot of skills (visual motor, fine motor, planning, patience, creativity, etc). and who doesn't love cake?

    1. Oooh, LOVE that! We've done cupcake decorating as an activity, yum and fun.


Thanks for sharing!

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