Monday, November 29, 2010

Best toys for kids with special needs: holiday gift edition

As we all know—because we're objective that way—we're the best experts when it comes to our kids. So who better to recommend great toys? Thanks for all of the suggestions! This list is not the ultimate guide, but it's a good roundup of toys that help kids with special needs. I'm not including recommended ages because what works for your child's developmental stage works. I'm not including a lot of stuff from companies that make toys for kids with special needs because I think they can be rip-offs, and standard-issue toys can be similarly helpful. I'm not including prices because they vary. Happy shopping!

Playhut Magic Ball Zone: Max used to have a blast hanging out in here. He'd practice crawling around, try to grasp the balls and generally, er, have a ball.

Rody Inflatable Hopping Horse: "Great for balance and strengthening muscles," says Kerry, mom to two boys with cerebral palsy.

Stomp Launcher: Also helpful for balancing; we wore this one down over the summer. Comes with two rockets. Good luck finding them in your backyard.

Step 2 Up & Down Roller Coaster: This was Max's addiction for several years, and though he's outgrown it anytime we're at someone's house and they have it, he gets extremely excited. It really helped with trunk control and balance; eventually, he was able to coast on it all by himself. Good for indoors and outdoors. Not cheap ($102), but it's indestructible. Be warned: If you have two kids, they will do battle over it. Also, they will be very unhappy if you insist on taking turns, too.

Baby's First Wind Chimes by Tiny Love: Hang from a baby activity mat to encourage (and strengthen) leg control and eye-foot/eye-hand coordination.

Fisher-Price Smart Cycle Racer Physical Learning Arcade System: "This is a stationary bike that you hook up to your TV and there are lots of games with well-known characters," says Kiera Beth, Reichen's mom. "Since it is stable, it's been a great place for Little Dude to learn to pedal and use both legs in tandem to make it move. Plus he has to steer it for some of the games, which means he needs to incorporate his hands, also."

Fisher-Price Laugh and Learn Fun With Friends Musical Table: So, this is wonderful for fine- motor skills and cognitive development, but it was instrumental in helping Max pull to stand, so I'm including it in this category. Every corner has its own interactive area with lights and sounds that encourage movement and exploration. Teaches letters, numbers, counting, first words, color, shapes, opposites and animals. You can put it on the floor or prop it up on its legs.

Educube Toddler Chair: Not a toy, but really awesome. Max had one as a toddler, recommended to us by his physical therapist. It gave him excellent support, and it didn't matter that it didn't come in purple because he wasn't yet obsessed. When your kids get older, you can turn over the chair for better height. Can also be used as a desk, or a stepstool when you are too lazy to go down to the basement and get yours (but do not sue me if you fall off it, it's not my fault you are lazy, too).

Toysmith Battat Sound Puzzle Box: Max loved this when he was little for the same reason Mikey, a child with Down Syndrome, does: "It's the only shape sorter interesting enough to grab his attention!" says his mom, Alice. "The pieces make a good noise when they go down and you can use them as little instruments to blow through—good for teaching him to use his mouth and breathe."
Aquadoodle Classic Mat: Any of the versions of this mat will encourage drawing. You just fill the pen with water and draw. Or don't—as Alice says, "You can use wet hands, feet, brushes, sponges. And if your child gets bored after three seconds, you don't have a room full of paints to clear up!"

Snap 'n Style Doll: "Elena wanted dolls she could dress, but it's difficult for an adult to get clothes on a Barbie, let alone a five-year-old with 'okay' fine motor skills," says Amy. "We love the Snap 'n Style dolls—they have clothes that snap on the front of the doll, and are easily interchangeable, very easy for a young child to do." Note, the parts are a choking hazard for kids under three. Also, I am not sure Donatella Versace would approve of the outfits.

Alex Toys Catch 'N Stick Monster Mitts: One of the first toys Max and Sabrina could play with together. OK, for like maybe three minutes, but still. Max sometimes needs help pulling the ball off the Velcro.

Gertie Ball: Recommended by Max's occupational therapist, and many others. Easy to catch and hold onto. Available in other colors.

Pathfinder by Anatex: Just guide the beads along a route; your child can do it freeplay, or follow the patterns on the cards. Works on logical thinking, eye-hand coordination and visual tracking. Bonus: no sounds!

Melissa & Doug Cutting Food Box: Comes with eight pieces of wooden food, a wooden knife and a cutting board. Handy for practicing slicing, holding and introducing ideas of part and whole. Will not teach your child to make dinner for you, alas.

Fisher-Price GeoTrax Geo Air High Flyin' Airport: "This is Makenzie's all-time favorite toy, she got it last year for Christmas," says Pam. "Her speech therapist programmed it into her talker and she can make it go and stop all by herself with her switch. She still plays with it a year later!" Here's an amazing video of Makenzie playing with it; Max watched it a bunch of times in a row.

Bright Starts Hop Along Carrier Toy Bar: "One of the first things that landed us in EI was Ryan didn't bat, reach or grab toys," says Marie Clare. "This toy really helped that along as it took the littlest amount of pressure to make something happen, and it didn't take a great amount of aim either. It also really helped him understand cause and effect."

Fisher-Price Sesame Street Singing Pop-Up Pals: "This was great for Max because it encouraged him to use his fingers and it made him giggle a lot," says Dave (aka Max's Dad).

Crayola Beginnings Color Me A Song: "If you color (or even touch) the screen, music plays, and it speeds up as the coloring and touching goes faster," says Jenny, mom to twins Penny and Cici (who has severe brain injury and seizures) and Max. "What a find!"
Manhatan Toy Whoozit: This cutie helped Max grasp and explore when he typically had no interest in doing so. It has rattles, squeakers, crinkly play and lots of different textures. I often give it as a new-baby gift.

Tiny Love Musical Stack & Ball Game: A Max favorite for several years. Drop one of the balls in at the top and it will trigger lights and sounds, then emerge below. Kids can also stack the rings, assuming they do not get lost in the black hole known as your playroom.

Early Years Pound 'n Play: Good for practicing movement and hand-eye coordination. Whacking noise somewhat irksome but hey, it's for a good cause.

Flarp: This glop bills itself as "Noise Putty." It makes a fart-like sound when you play with it, guaranteed to amuse kids and husbands alike. All I know is, it got Max to get past his sensory issues and hold some. Good stocking stuffer. Note, it will stick to your carpet. Again, don't sue me.

Enabling Devices Compact Activity Center: "This is probably Cici's favorite toy, she got it last year for Christmas," says Jenny. I bought this for Max when he was two and I was willing to spend any kind of money to engage him; he liked it lots, too. At $107.95, though, it's pricey.

Tomy Gearation: Another two thumbs-up from Max (or, rather, two fists up as he's not yet isolating his thumbs or, come to think of it, rotating his wrists up so skip that). He loves to put together the gears and watch 'em go; the big switches are easy to control. Nice and mesmerizing for sleep-deprived parents.
Gund Lance Lion: "Mikey still chews everything, so a fluffy cuddly toy is out of the question," says Alice. "We found these Gund ones, which are made of corduroy and felt. When Mikey's arrived, we loved it so much and it was such good quality we've ordered other characters for the rest of our children. That's what they're getting for Christmas! Mikey will have the lion!"
I-Play Little Roadster: Max has a low-tech version of this (basically, a wheel we ripped off some old toy car). This one's cool—turn the wheel to steer the car on screen. Sounds include engine starting, brakes, horn, ambulance, and so on. Thankfully, they left out the part where Daddy curses out other drivers.

V.Reader Animated E-Book System: Recommended by several parents, it's on our holiday list for Max. We tried the LeapFrog TAG system last year, Max wasn't that interested; this animated toy for encouraging reading skills and improving vocabulary might better grab his attention. One challenge: The keyboard isn't very touch-sensitive. Another challenge: Sabrina's gonna want one, too.
Jigglers: Vibrating thingies. We used to have the elephant one and the gator one; Max liked to hold them (yay) and put them in his mouth (double yay).

Signing Time! DVDs "We watch one a day. My son has a huge vocabulary of signs, even though he doesn't yet speak," says Anne, mom to a two-year-old with Down Syndrome. "He is now teaching his EI therapists new signs. I am sure it helps his mental development, and helps reduce frustration. For example, at around Halloween, he was able to sign 'pumpkin' to tell us he wanted the Jack o' Lantern lit. Rachel, the woman in the videos, has two daughters with special powers. She totally gets it."

Magic Mic: We got ours in the dollar store; it echoes sounds, making whatever's spoken sound louder (no batteries required). We've had one for years but it's bulky to hold—the center is two and a half inches wide—and Max only learned to grasp it recently, with two hands. The other day, he walked around the house babbling into it for a good half hour. Now if we could only teach him to sing Springsteen.
Toobaloo: Alice had just ordered this, but hadn't yet tried it. At five bucks, it's worth a shot. Basically, your child holds it to his hear (or you hold it for him), and it amplifies the sounds of what he's saying. Might be helpful for encouraging babbling/conversation. Available in several colors. Purple one: en route to our home.
Sansa Shaker: Not a toy, but a great gadget. "This player is nice because it's small and has a speaker built in and a card you can fill with music," says Jenny. "You can also put audio kid books on there and because Cici can't see and I'm not always available to read to her, she can listen to books and language/voices without me. And it's small, so I can hook it inside her stroller or on her wheelchair and she can listen. At night, I rest it in her bed. Cici likes opera and other vocalists, so we have a bunch of that on there. I have a friend with a special needs kiddo who takes opera music everywhere with them because it calms him down, like for hospital stays and doctor/lab draws."


LeapFrog Hug & Learn Baby Tad Plush: An interactive toy that teaches shapes, colors, activities and songs, and also plays classical music at bedtime. One review plucked from Amazon: "I am a speech-language pathologist and provide Early Intervention services for families and children (birth to three). I first saw this toy in a family's home and was amazed when I observed the child's interaction with the toy. She smiled, vocalized and danced while holding it. Very much fun and I will recommend Tad to other families I work with."
Leapfrog Alphabet Pal: Press any of the legs to hear letter names, sounds, colors or tunes. And, for your child's amusement, it has a silly giggle and a comical walk. Extremely durable. Says Kerry, "This is the toy that refused to DIE, until I broke down and chucked him in the garbage."

Make 'N' Break: You get 10 wooden blocks, a ticking timer and a card showing you what to build in that time. "I like games that require my guys to create and execute a plan," says Jean, mom to Jack (a 7-year-old with autism), Sam and Quinn. "Jack adores the game. It is challenging, but doable. We played with my mother and he legitimately beat her, which was cool. But even when no one else wants to play, he will build the structures on the cards by himself. For a kid who is so into order and logic, the clean lines please him, I think."

Fisher-Price Laugh & Learn Learning Puppy: This pup has two interactive modes, learning and games. The first teaches kids the alphabet, body parts and colors. The second has a color song, a counting song and a song that teaches body parts.

The Picnic Game: Kids have to spin to fill up their picnic plate. Encourages use of hands, communication and decision-making ("Which ___ do you want?") and observation ("What do you still need?") and takes about 10 minutes to play—good for short attention spans. Comes with a picnic blanket, but no ants.


My Car: This is Max's first favorite book. The illustrations are bright and simple, and so is the wording. All of Byron Barton's books are awesome, especially for kids fascinated by moving vehicles.

Tibby Tried It: An inspiring story about a little bird who has a crooked wing and can't fly—but finds other ways to become a hero and save an endangered baby bird. "The book does talk about other birds making fun of Tibby for his crooked wing," says Lisa, a mom to Evan (an eight-year-old with cerebral palsy and other special powers). "We first read it to Evan before he hit the age where other kids tease. It made him worry about something he had not yet realized could be a problem. But on the other hand, the book is a great jumping-off point for talking about physical differences, how to cope with them, and how others may react."

DK Readers: Big Machines (Level 1: Beginning to Read): We've been reading a lot of books in this series. The text is simple, and more important, Max is totally into the subject (read, anything involving wheels). It's a good launching pad for discussion; I'll ask him yes and no questions, then encourage him to articulate words. I also point out some of the simple sight words he's been working on, like "the" and "go" and "hydraulic combustion engine" (OK, not that).

Snappy Little Farmyard: We had a bunch of books from this series. Max liked to touch the pop-ups and, on occasion, tear them. Which made me psyched because he was at least using his hands. Sad, but true.

Go Away, Big Green Monster! A long-time favorite at our house. As your child turns the pages (and this book really encouraged Max to do that), he can "build" a monster—each pages adds a nose, then hair, and so on. And then your child gets to take the monster apart. Take that, monster!

That's Not My Dinosaur...: All of Usborne's "That's Not My..." series are great—simple words and illustrations, with textures to feel. I did have an identity crisis once when I first read That's Not My Dolly to Sabrina and got to the part where it said, "That's not my dolly—her hair is too frizzy!" I was all, and WHAT is wrong with frizzy hair? Ahem.

The Little Book of Discovery Bottles: "Homemade toys are great; I like some of the ideas from this book," says Alice. "Mikey has always really enjoyed the shaking water bottles filled with stars. Many books in this series are fabulous for play ideas."

Simple First Words: Let's Talk "My daughter, Elizabeth, is 19 months old," says Maria. "She is visually impaired and has cerebral palsy. This is a book she really likes. It has pages with single, bright pictures on it. I can help her to press the buttons to make it talk. She likes to hear that voice on there! I haven't had much luck finding single picture books with bright colors that aren't we really like this one. Also, we wrap toys in red or gold paper to illuminate them for her. Plus she really likes that crackly crunchy noise!"  

And if you'd like to check out gift guides from other years....

Great toys for kids with special needs 2015
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


  1. Awesome list! The first hand experience with the toys is very beneficial. Thanks.

  2. Fantastic list! My 4mo old daughter has Down syndrome - this is a great list of toys!

  3. We LOVE Make 'n Break. My 9 y.o. son (autism spectrum) has enjoyed this game for years. Highly recommended.

  4. That Snap n Style doll reminds me of Dolly Pops, which I had as a kid growing up in the '80s. The doll was smaller than the Snap n Style, but she also had clothing that snapped onto the front of the doll.

    Kudos on including Signing Time, which I'm a huge fan of. I love using it myself, and I'm a single 31-year-old woman. ;)

  5. Have you seen First Toddle® Baby Gym? This is a developmental system for children from as young as 3 months to 3-4 years of age. Helps with gross motor skills and kids love it.

  6. I'm tickled to see some of Isaiah's favorite things on the list! He loves the FP Learning Puppy so much--he owns TWO. Also, the cube chair is awesome. Our former PT lent it to us for a trial. We fell in love with it and *surprise*--the PT gifted it to us when we moved earlier this year!

    This list have given me some great ideas. Thanks!

  7. I think we might go for the Rody this year. Maybe the gears too :)

    Also FYI, Signing Time is having a sale right now. No code needed. I'm a Signing Time instructor, so if anyone wants products I'm happy to offer big discounts as well.

  8. I adore Rachel Coleman. Met her at the buddy walk in Sept. She is the SWEETEST. Also, I totally learned my colors from her buddy walk performance. And I got outsigned by a two year old who has a deaf father.

    As for toys, if anyone has an iphone or ipad, the app iZoo is awesome. I had it on my phone for my campers with autism. The kids can press a picture of an animal (that is also labled with the word) and it makes that noise. My campers ADORED it. Although, if your children are really good mimics like one of my campers is, be ready to hear a lot of whale/bee/tiger noises.

    Another oddly favored toy at camp? Hula hoops. We used those for so many things. They liked to sit in them (and then they were far enough away that they weren't able to tackle each other), they liked to toss them (motor) too. I think they have weighted ones.

  9. Best list EVER!

    I adored the video of Pam's daughter playing with the Fisher Price Geo-Trax airplane set....that smile is worth a thousand beautiful words!

  10. THANK YOU!! I have a hard time knowing what toys are worth getting sometimes! This is definitely going to help me make a Christmas list for the grandparents!

  11. This is a great list... and I am pleasantly surprised to see so many familiar toys on the list!

  12. What a great list! I just bought three of your recommendations for my son for Christmas. My son has Mecp2 Duplication Syndrome and sounds like he shares some of the same challenges as your son. Please check out the website for families if you are interested
    I'm glad I found your blog!

  13. quick question about the ball pit(we bought a cheap blow up one and HATED it) - is it big enough that an adult could sit in in it with a small child?

    Fabulous list, fabulous idea - I'm making my (our) wish list for the grandparents now!

  14. Great list!!! Great ideas here!

    On the "high end" side, has anyone tried that XBOX kinect thing? What I find appealing about it is that there is no "controller" for weak little hands to try and (fail to) seems like a more "level playing field" toy.

    I won't be buying one anytime soon, I was just curious for future reference!

    I'm with Molly on hula hoops, they're a hit around here too.

  15. Thanks for putting this together.
    Love the ballpit. We have had ours for 9 years and it is still in good shape and a hit when it comes our. Folds up wonderfully. Just a warning about the gears. I love it, but my daughter has sensory/sound issues and the noise it made really annoyed her. Ended up selling on ebay. Great is there are no noise issues, but I did want to mention it.

  16. Oh this is amazing! Colour me a song... can't wait to get that!

    I've always really struggled when people ask us what to get for birthdays and Christmas, so great to have some genuinely brilliant ideas rather than just ask for another DVD!!! Xxxx

  17. Ellen, this guide is awesome! My sister is a pediatric OT and created a list along these lines, albeit shorter, for the parents of the kids she works with. I blogged about it today:

  18. I am so thrilled this is helpful to some of you! Anonymous, not sure what gears you are talking about with the ball pit—this is just a tent with plastic balls, basically. Momttorney, it would be pretty hard for an adult and child to be in there; just looked up the dimensions, this is 28" x 28", 40 inches deep. I remember bending in through the flaps to help Max.

    Molly, glad to hear about the iZoo app! Sounds great.

    Kara, thanks for sharing your sister's list, off to check it out now.

  19. Check out Hyperdash too! (Not the animal scramble version tho--although it looks like fun it doesn't hold up well!)Lots of different ways to use it--sitting, in an obstacle course etc. It gets non-stop use at our facility!

  20. Another GREAT toy for balance/coordination is the Strider Bike. Our Kelsey isn't coordinated enough to pedal and she has the WORST balance EVER!! But, after about 2 weeks worth of practice, she is able to coast with NO FEET on her balance bike.

    She's 7, so we ordered the extra tall seat post. Since we got it for Christmas last year, she and her brothers had fun "riding" it in the kitchen.

    We also like Plasma cars too. No pedaling required!

  21. nice list i remeber the chairs from my childhood days the i pad has other fun aps too

  22. These are really great, thank you so much... that Tibby Tried has me in a puddle over here! I am buying one for each of the children in our family that we buy gifts for!

  23. This is a great list. I will be sure to mention it on the Let Kids Play blog today.

    For more ideas for toys, check out I am a highlighting a different toy everyday until Christmas. This week is sensory toys and we are giving away a scanimation book.

    Next week is games

  24. Great ideas! For older kids with special needs, check out a Talking Photo Album. These double as a talking journal and communication aid. Great for grandparents too.
    Available at

  25. Thanks for such great suggestions!
    Some other ideas:

    Monkey balance board by Alex
    Good ol' silly putty
    Monster feet stilts

  26. Ellen- I know Max is about the same age as Elijah and Milo...when they were babies there were a bunch of Sesame Street toys that were can't find them today! Like that Sesame Street pop-up toy...excellent cause-and-effect...but remember they were all in garbage cans in 2002?
    There was one SS toy that was about 10"x8", was yellow and had about 30 tiny buttons that had sound effects. It was amazing for Elijah, the sounds were great motivators for the coordination it took to push these teeny buttons. (I think it was fireman-related)

    Thank you for an amazing article... I'm cyber-shopping today!


  27. Great list Ellen - we have a number of those toys but I have 4 kids and thought I had very toy on the plant so I'm not surprised. Still bring them on Santa there is always room for more. Need to keep those little ones entertained. My girl is no verbal but is did a great job to tell me that she didn't not want any silly bands she good at shaking her head no now. Buy Baby Alive Feeding doll has to find it's way to my hous.

  28. Thanks for the great list! I just ordered several items. And we already own the complete collection of Signing Time DVDs - we LOVE Signing Time and Rachel.

  29. I’ve meant to post about something like this on my webpage and you gave me an idea. Cheers.

  30. Thanks for the suggestions! I may just get the MakenBreak--I try to do block-building with models with T but run out of ideas for the models. And I'd been thinking of those catching mitts for a while, and it's nice to know your 2 enjoy playing it together!

  31. OMG great list!!! My daughter has CP and we have alot of these. I love that you have FLARP on this list. I never thought about using that with her!!! Brilliant. The Baby Signing Time DVDs are definitely her crack. LOL. Great list. Thank you so much!!!

  32. Thanks so much! Got some great ideas for Christmas presents :)

  33. This was wonderful!

    Santa will be bringing Sammie B the ball pit and roller coaster :o) and I sent a list of other wish list items (the Melissa and Doug vehicle cubes, the shape sorter) to her grandparents :o)

    One thing I'd love to hear from you Ellen (and others!) . . . is about buying the same toys your kiddos use with therapists. We've been sort of crazy about running out and buying the toys that Sam loves with her therapist (like the velcro fruit!) but then, when we go to therapy, there's nothing novel there for her to be all that excited about. So, our PT has actually said, "STOP buying everything . . . she has to have some novel toys here that she's excited about!" So, how do we strike that balance? I guess we buy the things that promote skills to work on at home, but not the things that they just love and provide good distractions during the hard stuff at therapy?

    Ellen have you encountered this issue at all?

  34. Kerry: Yes, we had the Sesame Street pop-up with all of them in garbage cans. I loved that one, too!

    Momttorney: We've gotten Max a few things therapists have had, and he was still OK in therapy. But I think it is a matter of balance--not getting every single thing the therapist has, so the woman still has stuff in her bag of tricks!

    I have to add one thing on here. I was just working on an article in which a child shrink said that YOU are your child's best toy. It's true. I can totally understand the impulse to want to buy a kajillion things in the hopes they might help; Max had soooo much stuff when he was little little. He still has lots, but I don't go as overboard. There's something to be said about streamlining, so your kid doesn't get overwhelmed, and about just good old-fashioned playtime with tickling and tossing and rough-housing and all that good stuff. Not every game has to be "good" for our kids.

  35. Momttorney and Ellen,

    I agree it is definitely a balance. I know with my daughter Lillie I ran out and bought everything. If it was an older toy, I would find it and buy it on eBay. If it was a newer toy I bought it that day. It is a balance. You get so caught up with trying to help your child, that anything that stimulates them and gets them going and excited does the same for you. Have you tried to bring in one or two of Sammie's favorite toys from home and introduce them into her therapy session? I know with Lillie we incorporated her Hokey Pokey Elmo and it was a godsend both at home and at therapy. But I have calmed down with buying her anything from therapy unless our therapist specifically tells us to do so.

  36. My favorite in the "that's not my..." series is the monkey one. Although the best is actually "This is my Duck". It has a button you press to make the duck quack on every page. One of our favorite nooks ever.

  37. HI there this list looks like be a few years old. I was wondering if you have any new suggestions- I am looking for gifts for a boy who is 9 years old and who has special needs. He loves Thomas the Train,Elmo, Fireman Sam and all loud toys. Might you have any ideas that might be beneficial for him (AND FUN!).

    Thanks much!!

  38. Anon- I suggest you check out the latest one. Here's the link-

    There are a TON of recommended toys.

  39. Such a nice blog and i appreciate your all efforts about the sensory toys it's really good work. well done.
    sensory toys

  40. It traveled nearly 400 miles to central Florida.


Thanks for sharing!

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