Monday, November 30, 2015

Great Toys For Kids With Special Needs: 2015 Gift Guide

This year's  roundup of great toys for kids with special needs (plus a few awesome games and craft projects) is based on recommendations from therapists, parents and that highly picky toy critic who goes by the name of Fireman Max. A mix of new and classic toys, they're good for kids' fine-motor skills and gross-motor skills, their social skills, their speech and language, their brains and their general levels of fun.

Tobbles Neo (Fat Brain Toy Co., $23.95)
The six pieces of this cheerful toy (plus a base) are weighted and nest right into each other, so they won't easily topple over for a kid struggling to pile them on. Not only do they stack, they spin, balance, wobble, tilt, wiggle and roll. (Kind of like you, when you haven't yet had your coffee.) Tobbles Neo can help with sensory exploration, fine-motor skills, coordination and visual space acuity.

Sit-to-Stand Learning Walker (VTech, $14.00)
Practicing walking isn't always very fun unless it's with a toy like this, which is 18 inches high and glides on both carpeting and on hard floors. The removal activity panel includes a whole lot of diversions—shape sorters, spinning rollers, piano keys and more to teach shapes, animals, colors and numbers. Plus a phone for ordering in lunch (er, or whatever calls your child would like to make).

Wall Coaster Super Starter Set (Wall Coaster, $19.99)
This marble run—made up of pieces placed on walls with reusable, non-marking tacky tape—can entice kids to grasp marbles, reach way up high and create all sorts of designs. It comes with 13 feet of track, coaster tubes, marbles and tack.

Make Your Own Glitter Snow Globes (Mindware, $24.95)
Kids can mold the included clay (it has 12 different colored pieces, along with two globes, glitter, a sculpting tool and glue dots) into whatever shapes they like. A grown-up bakes them in the oven, then helps assemble the globe with the no-leak system. Add glitter and, in the immortal words of Taylor Swift, shake it off.

Zingo! Word Builder (Think Fun, $19.75)
This game's cards consist of three-letter words with missing letters; kids can slide the "Zinger" to release tiles and try to complete words. It's an enjoyable way to work on spelling, vocabulary, reading and fine-motor skills.

See-Me Sensory Balls (Edushape, $11.65 for four)
These are great for kids who need a textured surface to grasp a ball, or who like sensory stimulation. Also great: the Oball, which has 28 holes for grasping.

Strider No-Pedal Balance Bike ($89.99, Strider)
Kids as young as 18 months can use these lightweight bikes, which are popular with physical therapists. There are no pedals, just movement propelled by a child with his feet on the ground. The bikes work on range of motion, flexibility, balance, strength and endurance. (Props to the company for its Strider Rider Fund, which benefits individuals with special needs.)

Farmers Market Color Sorting Set (Learning Resources, $26.89)
Five different colored baskets, each with five sturdy fruit or veggies of the same color, help develop color recognition, grouping, sorting skills and early math. It's also a soothing activity for kids who enjoy repetition. Comes with an Activity Guide and stickers for labeling the colors.

Snap Circuits Jr. SC-100 Electronics Discovery Kit (Elenco, $17.84)
Both my kids are fascinated with these electronic sets, and have used them to build everything from a flying saucer to a DIY doorbell (instructions are included)—it really motivates Max to isolate and use his fingers and his pincer grasp. Says Lynn L. "Walter has a hard time using his left hand effectively and his right hand isn't 100 percent, but he loves these things!"

Kerplunk Game (Mattel, $15)
First, kids have to insert sticks through holes in the tube. Then they pour marbles down the top. And then, they have to remove the sticks one by one, making sure not to let any marbles drop. It encourages kids to use their pincer grasps, coordination and focus.

Portable Table Air Hockey (Five Below, $5)
Max is a master of table air hockey—and he's pretty ruthless with his opponents, usually his occupational therapist. You can play on any table and it's great for hand-eye coordination, aim and giving kids the thrill of competition. There's a similar set here (Strictly 4U, $15.97) if you don't have a local Five Below.

My Pal Violet & My Pal Scout (Leapfrog, $17.99 & $17.08)
Meet your kid's new BFF. Connect the pup to a computer or smartphone and you can personalize her/him your child's name, favorite songs, colors and foods—which Scout and Violet will ask them about. The canines also help teach first words, numbers, routines and feelings; activities encourage kids to sing along and develop early language skills. They store up to five daytime tunes and five nighttime ones from a selection of more than 30 downloadable tunes.

Melissa & Doug Customizable Deluxe Pounding Bench (Things Remembered, $17)
Ideal for practicing hand-eye coordination, grasping and learning colors, with your child's name engraved on the front of the bench. Parent bonus: The pegs are non-removable so you won't go bonkers looking for them. Perasonalized stacking trainblocks cart and toy mailbox also available.

Pinball Painter Splatter Paint Kit (Alex, $19.97)
It's a mini pinball machine! It's a paint kit! It's both! Kids coat the included three balls with paint, then pull back levers to shoot them off and create designs on a piece of paper. It motivates kids to use their fingers and make like a Pinball Picasso.

B. Stackadoos (B. Toys, $25.32)
You may know these chunky, soft, easy-to-connect pieces as as Bristle Blocks. They can help with fine-motor coordination and gross motor skills (as a child zooms around his creations), along with names of colors and shape sorting. Contains 68 pieces and a booklet with building ideas.

Sweet Shoppe Swirl and Scoop Ice Cream Playset (Play-Doh, $11.69)
Play-Doh is a staple in most occupational therapists'  bag of tricks, and this set is super-cute—what kid isn't motivated by ice-cream? The special kind of Play-Doh is softer than the usual, so it's easier to handle. Kids can press the lever to swirl ice-cream into the cone, and pat pieces into molds to make toppings.

Relax Therapy (Tangle, $6.21)
This fidget (hel-lo, stocking stuffer) is a go-to for kids with anxiety, OCD and sensory issues.

Gazillion Bubbles Hurricane Machine (Funrise, $14.99)
"It's good for kids of all abilities, but especially sensory seekers!" says Melissa. M. "We gave it to my ASD/ADHD son for his birthday and it really enhances dance parties. Buy extra bubbles while you are at it because they go fast!"

Number Lovin' Oven (LeapFrog, $19.99)
Pretend play at its tastiest: Kids can "bake" with the 16 pieces (including two cupcakes, four slices of pizza, a sunny side up egg, a loaf of bread, two plates, a baking sheet, a frying pan and spatula). Set the temperature and the oven talks; press the red button and it makes egg frying noises. There are songs that help teach counting, a temperature dial and a countdown after something is put in to bake. Parents will appreciate the three volume settings: low, high and best of all, OFF.

Magic 8 Ball ($7.79, Mattel)
Turns out this childhood favorite is great occupational therapy. Max loves shaking it up with two hands (TWO HANDS!) for answers. As it turns out, it's also great speech therapy because he also likes talking to it, informing the ball about his upcoming birthday party and vacations. Hey, if it gets him talking.... Will your kid like it? Signs point to "yes."

Playskool Poppin' Park Elefun Busy Ball Popper ($19.99, Hasbro)  
Yep, it's super-cute, but it also helps with hand-eye coordination, fine-motor skills and gross-motor skills. (The company's Toybox Tools, created in cooperation with The Autism Project, has videos and printable visual supports to help kids max out playtime with toys.)

Mini Trampoline (Little Tikes, $41.99)
Made for indoor use, at three feet wide it won't take up too much space. As kids grasp the handlebar, you can help them practice balance and movement. Kids with anxiety tend to find it soothing. You may be tempted to try it but, sorry, the weight limit is 55 pounds.

Musical Hand Bells (Schylling, $29.08)
Bells will be ringing all year round because these inspire kids to grasp, shake and make sounds. Each has a different note, ranging from Middle C to High C.

Hungry Hungry Hippos ($12.99, Hasbro)
Another childhood classic. "It's been great for my five-year-old daughter with autism, ADHD and dyspraxia," says Kacie B. "It is good for motor planning and participating in an activity with others that doesn't necessarily require turn taking."

Fish-A-Ree ($22.77, Mindware)
Each bobber has different colored fish hidden beneath it. Kids draw numbered cards, then try to find two fish whose lengths add up to that number. Works on grasping? Check. Memory? Check. Measurements? Check. A good time? Check!

K's Kids Pull-Back Vehicle Set (Melissa & Doug, $22.51)
These sturdy soft vehicles, including a school bus, fire truck, police car and family car, are great for any child who loves things that goooooo. Kids just have to grasp and pull back the cars a bit for them to zoom off, no batteries required. The cars work on fine motor, gross motor and logic skills, along with hand-eye coordination.

Funky Groovy Tie Dye Kit ($9.13, Jacquard)
This kit has everything (including red, blue and yellow dye, applicator bottles and rubber gloves) to make up to five t-shirts. Kids psyched to get their fingers working: groovy!

Rainfall Rattle (Discovery Toys, $18.99)
This rattle, a longtime Max fave, works on eye tracking, dexterity, coordination and cause and effect. Parents cleaning up the playroom at night might find it very mesmerizing, too.

Blink Card Game (Mattel, $7.28)
This card game spurs kids to use their hands and brains—win-win! The point is to get rid of the cards you're holding by matching them with the ones in the discard pile by number, shape or color of objects.

A personalized photo book 

Even better than a toy: A custom book about your child—hands down, my kids' favorite gift every single year. (The above one is from Shutterfly.) I put them together with photos of the kids from the past year and fun captions. Over the years, Max's books have encouraged him to read, turn pages and realize how great his life is—and his mom, too, of course. He he.

Recommended sites with toys and games for kids with special needs  

If you're looking for toys specifically geared toward kids with disabilities, including accessible and adapted ones, check out these sites, which generally aren't rip-offs like some of them can be:

Ability Station
Beyond Play
eSpecial Needs
Fat Brain Toys' Special Needs Resource Center
Fun and Function
Playability Toys
Therapy Shoppe

Other great sites for toys and games

The following sites have a great range of unique, creative toys:

CP Toys
For Small Hands
Lakeshore Learning
Marbles The Brain Store
Museum Tour Toys
Toys To Grow On
Young Explorers

And if you'd like to check out previous Love That Max gift guides...

Great toys for kids with special needs 2014
Great toys for kids with special needs 2013
Great toys for kids with special needs 2012
Great toys for kids with special needs 2011
Great toys for kids with special needs 2010


  1. Blink was recommended by my vision therapist years ago, to work on quick recognition. I had Kerplunk and Hungry Hungry Hippos as a kid too. Only warning about Kerplunk- as a kid with some sensory issues and anxiety I found the loud noise when the marbles fell to be quite disturbing for a while.

  2. I like playing Operation--and intentionally hitting the sides just to hear the buzzer.

    1. I loved that game as a kid! One of Max's OTs has played that with him. I'll put in next year's guide, good idea, Anna.

  3. Hi Ellen -- I am going to link to this on BLOOM. One question. A single mom wanted to know where she can buy accessible toys that are inexpensive -- the specialty ones tend to be very expensive. What is your general recommendation?

    1. Great question. I don't know of any dedicated accessible toys that are inexpensive, but there are several that are not rip-offs. I added to post above, I thought it would be helpful for other parents to see.

  4. I love this list; it always gives me ideas, and not just for the people in my life with various special needs (even if that is most of us). One thing, though: Strider Bikes definitely DO have wheels! What they don't have--as evidenced by both your description and the accompanying picture--is pedals. Thanks as always for the list, Awesome Ellen and Product Tester Fireman Max! :-)

    1. Ya know, I was wondering what mistakes I'd make here, given that I'm not operating on a full brain these days (aka mom-of-newborn mushbrain). Here's a doozie! HELLO, IT HAS WHEELS! I meant "pedals." Thank you!

  5. That sit to stand walker is awesome. My 14 month old is just starting to learn to sit, so that would be a perfect gift for her!


  6. I often tinker with toys to make them work better or repair them, for games like kerplunk you can modify the base of the unit with a soft foam or cork, or even dried beans or rice to create a surface with a more forgiving impact that won't produce the staccato rap-rap-rattle of marbles on plastic. You'll still hear the sound of the marbles striking one another but it isn't quite so bad. Hope this helps.


Thanks for sharing!

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