Choosing toys for children can be very difficult as we all know. We long for the gift to be a source of pleasure but realize how easy it is to miss the mark. The recipients level of maturity both physically and intellectually, interests and safety have always to be borne in mind, even more so when the recipient has special needs.

The festive season is a time of year when large numbers of people will be looking for gifts for children who may have special needs. Parents will recognize which toys are suitable without much difficulty but there may be many relatives and friends who would appreciate a few guidelines.

We need to acknowledge the important role of play in a child's life. Years ago my now grown up children were playing in our garden in Nigeria. A woman passing-by, stopped and watched them for a moment then turned to me and said "Play is children's work". Clearly she was a person of great insight and understanding.

Play allows young children to learn and mature on physical, emotional, mental and social levels. Toys can improve problem solving skills or encourage play at a higher level. Some toys encourage movement and exploration such as climbing and riding toys. These physical activities develop strong muscles for walking, running and sport.

Other toys such as rattles, hand puppets and musical toys will encourage the development of fine motor and hand skills and increase freedom of movement. Games and role playing encourage children to play together and through these activities they learn about co-operation and sharing. Two very important skills necessary for building friendships.

Yet other toys help to increase awareness of people, places and things. Dolls, stuffed animals, puppets, vehicles and dolls houses have a role to play here. The last two are very good ways to introduce the child with special needs to various aspects of every day life and the jobs that people do at home and at work.

When choosing a toy for a child with special needs the following factors must be carefully considered:

Is it safe for that child's intellectual age, well constructed and durable?

Is it appealing and interesting to the child

Is it right for the child's physical capabilities?

Is it suited to the child's mental and social development? The toy should not

Be fragile or breakable . Have any toxic materials

Have sharp edges or points.

Be so small that it can get stuck in windpipe, ears or nostrils. Remember that some children with special needs explore objects by "mouthing" them.

Have small detachable parts.

Have any parts that could pinch fingers, toes or get entangled in hair . Have been put together with exposed straight pins, sham wires or nails.

Have electrical parts, unless it is to be closely supervised by an adult.

These are all crucial considerations when making a choice.

Toys fall into numerous categories for example:


Push and Pull toys

Ride-On toys

Outdoor and Gym Equipment

Sports Equipment


Construction toys


Pattern Making toys

Dressing, Lacing and Stringing Toys

Sand and Water Play toys.



Stuffed toys


Role Play Materials

Play Scenes

Transportation toys

Projectile toys e.g toy guns, bows and arrows


Musical Instruments

Art and Craft Materials

Audio-Visual Equipment



Specific Skill Development toys


It can be very difficult choosing toys and other presents for children with Sensory Processing Disorders such as autism, ADD, ADHD and Asperger's Syndrome. They tend to be "under-responsive" to sensation. They need intense experiences of touch, texture, smell, sound, pressure, speed and balance.Children with Sensory Processing Disorders love sound effects, repeatedly pushing buttons to hear the sound effects again and again. They may become overexcited and unable to wind down.

Puppets help the children to discover the meaning of words and pictures. Speak through an eye-catching puppet and watch as communication, eye contact and emotion emerge.Children with autism need a great deal of help to progress from stereotyped repetitive play to that which originates and evolves from their own imagination. Pretend play often develops as they imitate others who show them how to play.


Beanbag Chairs, Barrels

Balance Beams, Tunnels, Tents, Ladders

Rocker Boards, Sit-n-Spin, Rocking Horse

Tactile Flash Cards, Chewable Toys, Textured Books Foam Blocks, Puzzles

Silly Putty, Playdough, Brushes

Musical Instruments

Pencil Grips, Vibrating Pens

Heavy Stuffed Animals

Body Sox, weighted Blankets, Lap Pads

Therapy Balls, Balls with Texture, Bean Bags to toss

Wings, Slide, Trampoline, Hammock. Scooters, Sand Box

Aromatherapy Diffuser, Lava Lamp, Massagers


Overhead Gym

Word, Sound and Music-Makers

Toys with realistic sounds and figures

Toys that move when touched

Mirrored toys

Toys with high contrast colors, patterns or lights

Toys that magnify

Textured Surfaces which feel different

Toys with different areas, e.g dials, buttons, knobs


Combine auditory feedback with visual, touch and movement sensations

Toys with high-pitched or low base sounds

Toys with a volume control

Toys that are visually interesting and/or offer different sound feedback

Toy parts that visually direct a child to the ways they can be used

Toys with realistic actions figures and sounds.


Toys with knobs, levers, buttons, switches and holes for exploring and manipulating

Toys that encourage exploration of visual details and textures

Toys that respond to manipulation with visual and or sound feedback

Toys that require little pressure or accuracy to manipulate or activate.

Toys with multiple access areas that result in different things happening.

Toys do not necessarily have to be bought from companies which specialize in special needs requirements. Many similar items can be bought cheaper from high street stores. Ordinary toys can be adapted with a little ingenuity. As one wise mother wrote "The best gifts are of the heart, which means a gift of time. Record your voice or a familiar voice reading a favorite book" But whatever present you give, give it with love!

Author's Bio: 

Dzagbe Cudjoe is a Dance Movement Therapist and ethnologist with wide experience of Dance in Africa and Europe. As an ethnologist her main field of research was into West African traditional religion. As a Dance Movement Therapist her area of specialization is working with children who have challenging behaviour or severe physical and intellectual Special Needs. Dzagbe is now working on helping the parents of such children to appreciate the healing effects of dance. She is the author of the e-manual "Dance to Health - Help Your Special Needs Child Through Inspirational Dance."available at For more Information visit Dance to Health