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A child jumps from hoop to hoop as classmates, teacher looks on.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 17% of children aged 3 through 17 years in the United States have one or more developmental disabilities. Play has an important role in the growth and development of children of all abilities, but it is particularly valuable for children with special needs. Through play children with special needs develop cognitive, motor, social, and communication skills in a fun and engaging way. These skills contribute to a child's overall emotional regulation and well-being.

Pediatric physical therapists help families set goals and develop strategies and ideas for play that focuses on the abilities of the child and the ways families can engage in play together. Choosing the right toy is a good place to start. Pediatric physical therapists recommend toys that promote physical, cognitive, or social development.

Choosing the Right Toy

The following steps can help find the right toy:

  1. Identify the child's play capability and consider their individual needs and likes.
  2. Consider the skills that a toy can help expand or develop.
  3. Consider toys that encourage interaction with others.
  4. Carefully review toys for safety.

The following tips are not all inclusive, but provide guidance on several common conditions.

For Children With Autism (Who Have Trouble Communicating)

Select toys that encourage repetition of movements, have purpose, and promote activities that use both sides of the body together. Toys should not be battery operated or include lights or electronic sounds, as these toys can interfere with the child's ability to interact with the toy and engage with others. Examples include:

Brightly Colored Toys

  • Puzzles (promote fine motor skills, communication, and problem solving)
  • Blocks (all sizes and shapes for problem solving, manipulation, and squatting to floor to pick up)
  • Nesting blocks, cardboard bricks, or textured blocks
  • Wood toys

Picture Cards and Story Books

  • Activity cards/mats (help with cooperative plan and communication through movement)
  • Exercise cards, such as Yoga
  • Ready, Set, Move Activity Set
  • Social Stories (books that require you to act out movements while learning social expectations and communication techniques)

Toys That Encourage Repetition and Pretend Play

  • Shape sorters, peg boards, Light-Brite (assist with fine motor skills and sitting balance)
  • Higher-level cards with pieces to form a shape (help develop fine motor skills, problem-solving, and communication)
  • Lego or other types of toys that require building and manipulation of objects to create things (encourage development of gross and fine motor skills and communication techniques)
  • Plastic containers filled with everyday household items, such as utensils, to imitate cooking
  • Dolls, action figures, cars
  • Aqua Sand (encourages pouring, dumping, scooping, squatting, sequencing, and choosing colors)
  • Water table, water tray, small floating bath toys
  • Art activities, such as clay and coloring
  • Trains
  • Push/pull toys and ride-on toys
  • Foam wedges and pillows for climbing and moving
  • Tunnels

For Children With Autism (Who Do Not Exhibit Communication Needs)

Select toys that encourage use of both sides of the body and repetition of purposeful activity. Examples include:

Toys and games with pragmatics included (help with understanding non-verbal cues and social situations)

  • Social Stories™ (books that require one to act out movements while learning social expectations and communication techniques)
  • "Guess Who" books
  • Board games that ask simple questions, such as Hedbanz

Action and movement games

  • Hullabaloo
  • Twister (encourages cooperation with others and intense motor planning and coordination skills)
  • Games that encourage running and chasing activities with a rule book to help explain the game
  • Bowling games on the lawn
  • Carpet square hopscotch games

For Children With Motor Delays (Trouble Crawling)

Select toys that encourage fine motor practice, sitting balance, mobility, problem solving and communication, and require repetition of movement. Examples include:

  • Computer-assisted games (for fine motor practice)
  • Bowling sets
  • Musical instruments
  • Toys that require repetition of movement and encourage mobility
  • Shape sorters, peg boards, Light-Brite(tm) (assist with fine motor skills and sitting balance)
  • Higher-level cards with pieces to form a shape (help develop fine motor skills, problem solving, and communication)
  • Lego® or other types of toys that require building and manipulation of objects to create things (encourage development of gross and fine motor skills and communication techniques)
  • Plastic containers filled with everyday, household items, such as utensils to imitate cooking
  • Aqua Sand (encourages pouring, dumping, scooping, squatting, sequencing, and choices of color)
  • Trains
  • Exercise balls, tunnels, and pillows to crawl over

For Children With Motor Delays (Trouble Standing)

Select toys that encourage fine motor practice and the imitation of daily activities. Also, choose toys that require repetition of movement and encourage mobility. Examples include:

Activities to imitate daily activities

  • Play kitchen
  • Play workbench
  • Train set on a tabletop

Board games

Movement games

  • Bowling sets
  • Push toys: shopping carts, stroller for dolls, cars/ride-ons
  • Containers filled with toys to encourage bending, squatting, stacking, and ball play
  • Musical toys

Toys that require repetition of movement and encourage mobility

  • Shape sorters, peg boards, Light-Brite(tm) (assist with fine motor skills and sitting balance)
  • Higher-level cards with pieces to form a shape (help develop fine motor skills, problem solving, and communication)
  • Lego® or other types of toys that require building and manipulation of objects to create things (encourage development of gross and fine motor skills and communication techniques)
  • Plastic containers filled with everyday, household items, such as utensils to imitate cooking
  • Aqua Sand (encourages pouring, dumping, scooping, squatting, sequencing, and choices of color)
  • Trains
  • Dress up items (be mindful of zippers, snaps and buttons)

For Children Who Use Motorized Chairs for Mobility

Select toys that encourage manipulative activities that develop arm strength. Examples include:

Manipulative activities for those with arm strength

  • Balls
  • Peg boards
  • Arts and crafts
  • Silly Putty®, Play-Doh®, magnets
  • Erector® sets/Lego®
  • Basketball hoop
  • Bowling
  • T-ball set or similar games that involve throwing (golf, football, corn hole, bean-bag toss)
  • Adapted swing

Manipulative activities for those who are developing arm strength

  • Musical instruments
  • Play-Doh®

Additional Resources

  • Podcast: Mothers Ellen Seidman and Jennifer Byde Myers discuss raising children with special needs, including the role of physical therapy in their children's development and a physical therapist provides additional advice. Listen to this Move Forward Radio episode.

More About Pediatric Physical Therapy

Children with autism, cerebral palsy, and those with development coordination disorder, developmental delays, and torticollis, can benefit from early intervention by a pediatric physical therapist. Learn more about these and other conditions that pediatric physical therapists treat by visiting the Physical Therapy Health Center for Children.  

Physical therapists are movement experts who improve quality of life through hands-on care, patient education, and prescribed movement. You can contact a physical therapist directly for an evaluation. To locate a physical therapist in your area, visit Find a PT.

Find a PT Near You!

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