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Special Needs Toys: Tips for Parents

How to Pick Toys for Kids With Down Syndrome

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Updated January 03, 2009

With the overwhelming number of toys available these days, it can be hard to choose which ones will be best for your child. While buying toys for special needs children, it is important to keep some simple points in mind to ensure a happy kid.

Make Your List

Before starting to look at all the toys out there, sit down and evaluate the challenges that your child is currently facing. Is he having gross motor issues, sensory integration problems or language problems? You don’t have to list everything, but think about the big issues that you are facing and try to identify areas that you think particular toys might be helpful. Bring this list with you when you head to the store or online, and use it when choosing toys. Toy stores can be overwhelming and having a set of guidelines can really help narrow down your choices. Some websites can help guide you in what type of toy to look at for your child’s issue. For example, the Fat Brain Toysite list toys by developmental goals and has sections for gross motor problems and fine motor problems and a list of top picks. Toys R Us has developed a toy guide for differently-abled kids and lists their toy picks by skills. They also have a list of tips for buying toys that is worth checking out.

Consult the Experts

If you belong to a local support group or an online forum, try to start a discussion with other parents about what toys worked for their kids. Most parents will readily be able to tell you what toys worked well and what were complete wastes of money. You might also want to ask your child’s teachers or therapists for some suggestions as to what toys they think that your child may like. However, remember that just because they have a favorite toy at school, it doesn’t mean that toy will automatically be a hit at home.

The Importance of the On/Off Switch

In general, buying a toy that appeals to multiple senses is a good thing. A toy that feels nice, make some noise and catches your eye, will generally be a winner. However, if your child has sensory issues (and for your own sanity), make sure that the toy comes with a volume button and/or an on and off switch. Also, make sure that the on and off switch doesn’t totally disable the toy. For example, a Nintendo DS can still be played with the volume all the way down. You don’t want to buy a toy that you can’t use because it is simply too loud or annoying.

Problems and Solutions

Hypotonia is one of the universal issues facing children with Down syndrome. For infants with hypotonia, tummy time is important, and playmats are an ideal way to encourage this activity. When choosing a playmat, look for one that can be used for tummy time and back time. Also, pick one with bright colors and multiple textures so that it appeals to the senses.

Expense and Size

The largest, most expensive toys are not always the best (contrary to what advertisers tell you). Remember that balance is everything. Keep to your budget and make sure that the toy will fit into your space. It might look like the perfect toy. But if it is too big for your space, you will likely be cursing yourself (and it) by the end of the holidays. For gross motor issues, climbing, stacking and moving toys are always a good choice. But if you don’t have the room to set the toy up correctly, it might not meet your needs. As an alternative to buying a toy, consider joining a baby gym. Also, stay within your budget and you won’t have as much buyer’s remorse if the toy isn’t an immediate hit. It is easy to get into the cycle of thinking that the more money you spend on an issue, the more likely you are to find a solution. Beware of this mindset, and remember that time is a better healer than money.

Think Outside the Box - Alternative Uses

While some toys have obvious functions -- a bike, a ball -- the functions of other toys are not as obvious. A sand table is generally used to build sand structures, but one parent whose child had find motor problems, used it to successfully teach her child to trace letters. The bigger work area and the opposition of the sand, made it easier for her daughter to learn her letters. So this sand table served two functions: It helped with fine motor issues and provided sensory feedback. When looking at toys, be creative in thinking if there are alternative ways of playing with them that might help your child address a specific problem.

Sometimes a Toy is Just a Toy

Not everything has to be challenging or a learning lesson. One great joy of childhood is just playing. Don’t reject a toy just because it doesn’t provide a challenge or meet a learning need. Capitalize on your child’s interest by coming up with your own games for that particular toy.

Consult the Experts

If you belong to a local support group or an online forum, try to start a discussion with other parents about what toys worked for their kids. Most parents will readily be able to tell you what toys worked well and what were complete wastes of money. You might also want to ask your child’s teachers or therapists for some suggestions as to what toys they think that your child may like. However, remember that just because they have a favorite toy at school, it doesn’t mean that toy will automatically be a hit at home.

Don’t Despair - Hide It and Try Again

Sometimes despite all your planning and calculating, a toy is just not a hit at the holidays. Remember the toy that is a dud during the holidays might just be a hit six months later. If your choice just isn’t generating any interest and you can’t return it, discreetly remove it from the play area and stash it for the next rainy day.
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