If your child has a developmental delay like autism, sensory processing disorder, or cerebral palsy, certain skills may be a challenge for her. She may have cognitive impairments, struggle with her fine and gross motor skills, be delayed with her speech, and/or have difficulty socializing with her peers, and working on these skills can cause her to feel anxious, upset, or even angry. This can be extremely frustrating to parents and teachers, but with a little creativity and a lot of patience, it is possible to teach even the most reluctant child new skills. There are heaps of therapy toys available for purchase that are designed to develop specific skills in a fun and positive way, allowing children the opportunity to practice things they find challenging without even realizing it.
We’re sharing 19 of our favorite therapist-approved toys below, but before we get to that, let’s take a deeper look into occupational and play therapy, and how they can help your child master important life skills in a non-threatening way.
What is Occupational Therapy?
Whether an individual is suffering from the effects of an injury or illness, or was born with developmental delays like autism, sensory processing disorder, or cerebral palsy, the main purpose of occupational therapy is to help them develop the skills needed to live an independent and productive life. Through the use of various occupational therapy activities and games, and carefully selected therapy toys, OT can improve a patient’s sensory, motor, and cognitive skills, which in turn improves their quality of life and boosts their self-esteem
What I love most about occupational therapy is that it’s fun. By assessing a child’s challenges and using relevant occupational therapy toys and activities that address their needs, occupational therapists are brilliant at finding ways to get kids to practice the things they find difficult with minimal upset.
What’s even better is that there are tons of occupational therapy toys and activities you can do to support your child at home and at school, which provide meaningful ways for you to connect and have fun with your child while simultaneously helping her overcome her challenges.
What is Play Therapy?
Play therapy is a type of counselling geared toward children. As the name suggests, it uses play to communicate with kids to help prevent and resolve psychosocial issues and challenges. It helps them with socialization skills, personal growth, emotional development, and trauma resolution. Play therapy can also be used to diagnose or determine the cause of any disturbed behavior. By utilizing therapy toys and activities for children, therapists, teachers, and parents can help them work through any issues of anxiety or trauma they may be facing.
Perfect for kids aged 3 – 11, play therapy works by allowing children sessions of ‘free play’ or ‘unstructured play’ whereby they often expose vulnerabilities and anxieties as they go. A play therapist will observe the child playing with various therapy toys and note any recurring themes that may stem from trauma or anxiety. They can then guide the child in therapeutic activities to help them deal with whatever issues they may be facing. They may also utilize a more directive approach to play therapy to help children relearn or change troubling behaviors through the language of symbolic play.
Play therapy goals are all about helping kids to become aware of their feelings and to express them in positive ways. It can help them to manage their anger, improve their self-control, and work on increasing empowerment. It can also help them manage fear, anxiety, and depression, as well as enhance their problem-solving skills.
Best Therapy Toys for Special Needs Kids
If you’re looking for therapist-approved toys that target the development of one or many skills, we’ve rounded up 19 of our favorite autism toys, sensory toys, play therapy toys, and occupational therapy toys below. We’ve outlined which skill(s) each of the therapy toys is designed to help with, and why we recommend them. Some of these toys can be enjoyed as a family, offering you simple ways to connect and engage with your child, while others are designed to be enjoyed independently.
Therapy Toys that Develop Gross Motor Skills
Gross motor skills refer to our ability to control the larger muscles of our body needed to perform everyday skills like standing, walking, running, and sitting upright. Gross motor skills are also required for some hand-eye coordination skills, like throwing, catching, and kicking a ball.
Learning Resources Crocodile Hop Floor Game
This is a super fun game that tackles a lot of different skills at one go. From color, shape, and number recognition, to problem solving and gross motor skills, this game will help your child blow off some steam while also practicing her skills in a fun and positive way.
ALEX Toys Active Play Monkey Balance Board
If your child struggles with balance and coordination, this is a fun therapy toy to try. You can use it outside or inside, making it a great way for kids to blow off some steam on bad weather days, and it can withstand up to 200 lbs, so you can take turns showing off your balancing skills as a family. Once your child masters how to balance on the board, find other ways to incorporate this into her play to help further improve her gross motor skills. For example, you may have her balance on the board while playing a game of catch.
Kidoozie Foam Pogo Jumper
Pogo jumpers are another way to encourage active play in young kids, and they have the added benefit of developing hand-eye coordination and dexterity while also strengthening core muscles. I love this pogo jumper in particular as it can be used indoors, allowing kids to get some energy out on days it’s too cold or wet to go outside.
Melissa and Doug Turtle Target Action Game
If your child struggles with hand-eye coordination, this bean-bag inspired therapy toy offers a great way to practice her throwing skills. Start small with a little free-throw practice, and then move the ‘turtle’ farther away and ask your child to throw to specific targets.
Sport Beats Paddle Ball Game
Practice tossing, catching, and bouncing with your child with this super fun trampoline paddle ball therapy toy! This is a great gross motor activity the whole family will enjoy, and it doubles as a fabulous way to improve a child’s hand-eye coordination.
Therapy Toys that Develop Gross Motor Skills
When teachers and therapists talk about a child’s fine motor skills, they are usually referring to their ability to control the small movements in their hands and fingers, but fine motor skills are also essential in helping children make small movements with other parts of their body, like their feet, toes, lips, and tongue. When a child can’t control the small movements in their hands and fingers, they will not only have difficulty in a school environment, but they will also struggle with basic life skills like getting dressed and feeding themselves.
Learning Resources Helping Hands Fine Motor Toolset
This toolset provides lots of fun ways to help young kids develop the muscles in their fingers and hands needed to develop proper handwriting skills. Setup different sensory stations so they can practice tweezing, scooping, squeezing, and squirting different objects and liquids!
Yoovi Learn to Dress Boards
Teach your child how to zip zippers, button buttons, snap snaps, lace and tie shoes, etc. with these simple, small, and portable practice boards.
Melissa and Doug Wooden Alphabet Lacing Cards
I love therapy toys that offer opportunities to work on multiple skills at once, and this set by Melissa and Doug does exactly that. While working on your child’s fine motor and hand-eye coordination skills, you can also engage with her and teach her letter recognition and work on her vocabulary skills, making this toy an all around win!
Playdoh offers a great way to develop and strengthen the muscles needed for writing while simultaneously developing a child’s scissor cutting skills. The Playdoh Crazy Cuts Set is a fun one to start with as kids will get excited about mixing different colors of playdoh together to create different hairstyles, and they can use a pair of playdoh scissors to cut and style to their heart’s content.
If you’re looking for therapy toys that encourage fine motor development in older kids, Aquabeads is a good option. Kids work with small tweezers to pick up small beads and make various creations, providing endless hours of fun they can enjoy with siblings, friends, or parents, or even on their own.
Therapy Toys that Develop Language and Communication Skills
If you’re looking for therapist-approved toys to help develop your child’s language and communication skills, ‘pretend play’ toys are a great option as they allow you to engage with your child naturally. As you are playing, you can tell your child the name of different objects and ask her to repeat them back to you, ask questions about the toys, role play, etc. These toys also provide ways for kids to practice their fine motor skills and learn how to play with their peers.
Fisher-Price Chatter Telephone
Pretend telephones are a great way to engage a child in back-and-forth communication, and kids who are reluctant to participate in therapeutic play and/or who have difficulty expressing their feelings often perform better when a prop is introduced into the setting. Speaking into a telephone rather than face-to-face can help remove barriers and make a child feel more comfortable.
Whether you opt for a basic baby doll, a classic Cabbage Patch Kid, or splurge on an American Girl doll, playing with dolls can teach kids so many things! From learning (and repeating back) the different parts of our bodies, to teaching WH question (What color are her eyes? When should she eat lunch? Why is she crying?), to teaching important life skills (dressing/undressing, feeding, bathing, etc.), dolls offer a great form of pretend play that targets so many different skills.
Another great way to get kids practicing their communication and language skills is through a pretend kitchen (or, if you don’t have room in your home for a whole kitchen playset, a collection of pretend food will also work). Practice saying the names of the different food items together, make a pretend meal and engage in a little ‘dinnertime conversation’, and ask where certain items should be stored to get your little one talking.
Learning Resources Conversation Cubes
With 36 conversation starters to choose from, these Conversation Cubes offer a fun way for older kids to practice starting and maintaining conversations with others. You can practice at home, or set-up conversation groups within a classroom setting, allowing children the opportunity to practice how to initiate a conversation, and how to listen when others are speaking.
All About You Thumball
Whether you’re practicing social skills at home, or hosting a social group for your child, the All About You ball offers a great way to break the ice, teach kids appropriate social conversation starters, and get them talking.
Therapy Toys that Develop Cognitive Skills
If your child struggles to focus in the classroom, has difficulty grasping certain concepts, and has trouble with executive functioning, working memory, and/or self-control, there are lots of great therapy toys you can use to develop her skills and help her filter, focus, prioritize, and control her impulses. Here are some of our favorites!
Osmo Genius Kit
While I’m not really one to recommend electronic therapy toys, the Osmo system has really captured my heart. It teaches so many important concepts, like letters and numbers, in a fun and creative way, and if you’re looking for visual motor activities that teach problem solving skills, the Tangram game is one of my absolute favorites!
While the more traditional form of Simon Says, where kids are actively following gross motor movements (‘Simon says stand on one leg’, ‘Simon says do 3 jumping jacks’, ‘Simon says hop like a bunny’, etc.) is preferred, the electronic version of Simon says is also a beneficial therapy toy if you’re looking for something your child can do independently as it requires kids to follow directions and pay attention to sequencing.
This game is equal parts hilarious and educational, and can be enjoyed in the classroom or as a family. Players take turns drawing number cards and must remember the growing sequence of numbers until a player pulls a ‘distraction card’. This person must then answer a silly question before reciting the sequence of numbers in the exact order they were drawn. It’s so much fun and a great therapy toy to help kids with challenges develop their cognitive skills in a non-threatening way.
Geared towards older kids, Blurt! Is a fun game the whole family can participate in, but it’s also a great way to teach kids self-control. The premise behind the game is simple – one person reads a definition, and the person to blurt out the corresponding word first wins – and when you organize the game such that only 2 people are playing against one another at a time, it forces the rest of the family to exercise self-control as they refrain from yelling out the answer.
Garry L. Landreth once said, ‘Toys are children’s words and play is their language’, and while I certainly prefer the notion of encouraging our kids to get outside and use their imaginations as much as possible, therapy toys play an integral role in helping children with developmental delays like autism, sensory processing disorder, and cerebral palsy overcome their challenges.
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