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Choosing Inclusive Holiday and Birthday Gifts For Kids with Disabilities

December 09, 2022

Disabled little boy standing in walker smiling and happily looking at camera with bright blue sky and clouds in the background window

Giving a gift to a child who is differently abled is an opportunity to enrich their lives. But everyday skills that come easily to other children may be difficult, stressful, uncomfortable or impossible for kids with a disability. The goal is to give them a gift that not only builds skills but is also fun and exciting without being overwhelming.

We asked our expert therapists at Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Network for ideas on buying gifts for children with disabilities:

Toys that build strength and motor skills

“The floor is lava!” is a common childhood game. You and your siblings may have spent hours playing it when you were little. For kids with special needs, this simple game helps to build balance, agility, and motor planning in a fun way, says Brittany Dierwechter, DPT, and American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS) Certified Pediatric Specialist. You can use objects from around your home or purchase big pillows, cushions and similar items for climbing on and crawling across to escape the “lava.”

Other ideas include:

  • Crawl-through tunnels to build core muscles and teach crawling skills.
  • Small tricycles or stand-up bikes (Y-bikes) to build coordination, leg strength and motor planning for bike riding skills.
  • A yoga ball for seated activities and push/pull activities.

Calming, Low-Stimulus Toys

The holidays or a birthday party can be a time of excitement and joy, but they can also be overstimulating for your little one. Don’t think about the bells and whistles, says Denise Roncolato, COTA/L, a certified occupational therapy assistant. The best toy is one your child can get excited about without being overwhelmed. Here are some toys that can be calming and low stimulus.

Easel, Water Wow coloring boards, or a drawing tablet.

Coloring or drawing is a great way to work on fine-motor skills and writing utensil use. This is especially important for pre-schoolers. Painting or drawing on paper supported by an easel can also help with upper body strengthening, proper wrist positioning, and overall motor coordination. Coloring helps to develop your child’s visual, motor and perceptual skills, and is a way to express themselves.

Dough toys, putty or sand.

Sensory play can support fine and gross-motor development, problem solving skills, social interaction and creativity. Toys like these help with fine-motor precision, hand strength, pretend play, tactile exploration and bilateral coordination skills. 

Puzzles

Puzzles are great for any age. They help develop a child’s visual processing skills and fine-motor skills when picking up the pieces. Working with puzzles also helps improve attention span, memory, language and problem solving.

Playing with construction toys help develop hand strength, bilateral coordination and crossing midline.

Building Core Words Through Play

“Core words” are those we use most frequently throughout our day. These toys help to build that vocabulary, according to Bailey Reitenauer, CF-SLP, and Deanna Mattioli, MS, CCC-SLP, speech-language pathologists.

Musical instruments

Playing a musical instrument is great for early language development to model words, sounds, actions, and core words such as “boom,” “hit,” “bang,” “shake,” “tap,” “go,” “stop,” “quiet” and “loud.” Kids can also work on early imitation of motor movements like shaking and hitting as well as engage in social communication, such as joint attention, turn-taking, collaborative play and verbal or nonverbal responses to communication. When combined with singing, instruments can be a great way to model verbal language and encourage young children to participate. Older kids can use musical instruments as a fun way to improve their memory, impulse control, attention, concentration and coordination.

Blocks, balls and bubbles (The 3 Bs)

The 3 Bs are great for developing motor movements and verbal communication. You can target words like “go,” “stop,” “fast,” “slow,” “up,” “down,” “throw,” “bang,” “crash,” “catch,” “pop,” “blow,” “big,” “small” and “fall down,” as well as spatial concepts (in, on, under, etc.), shapes and colors. Blocks, balls and bubbles can also target motor movements like stacking and knocking down, throwing, rolling, blowing and popping. They’re also great for developing joint attention skills, turn-taking and many different play schemes.

Cars, trucks, trains, airplanes and other things that move

Toys that move introduce more core words, actions, and sounds. These include “vroom vroom,” “beep beep,” “choo choo,” “honk honk,” “stop,” “go,” “fast,” “slow,” “up,” “down” and “push.”

General Development Gift Ideas

Toy kitchens and toy cooking sets

Kids love to pretend to cook. Play food and kitchen sets are fantastic toys for developing their ability to:

  • Label objects
  • Pretend play
  • Follow directions
  • Memory recall (taking someone’s order)
  • Describing how food looks, smells and tastes
  • Modeling core action words such as “eat,” “drink,” “want,” “give,” “open,” “close,” “stir,” “mix,” “cook,” “flip” and “turn.”

Toy cooking sets also provide models for certain vocabulary concepts like “that is hot” or “that is cold”.  You can work on collaborative play by making the food with your child or pretend play by taking turns placing orders and being the “customer” in a pretend restaurant.

Toy animals

Animal figurines are perfect for building identifying and labeling skills. You can provide language models for animal names and have some fun making silly animal noises.

Imitation of animal noises is one of the major stepping stones to imitation of more meaningful words, so feel free to be silly when playing with animal figurines. You can even add songs like “Old MacDonald” and have your child fill in the blank with their desired animal and animal sound.

Playing with these toys can also encourage your child to act out certain scenarios with lots of action words (running, jumping, hopping, swimming, sleeping, eating) as well as learn spatial concepts (next to, in, on top, under). Animal toys are also great for working on identifying characteristics, such as “This animal lives in the ocean, has sharp teeth and large fins,” or “This animal lives on a farm, is the color pink and loves to roll in mud.”

Toys that help kids learn body parts (dolls, action figures)

One of the major reasons we encourage playing with toys with body parts is because of the vast opportunities for language learning. One toy that is highly recommended is a baby doll. You can work with your child to model and recreate so many real-life experiences, like feeding the baby (“Put the food in the baby’s mouth. Oh, now it’s in the baby’s belly.”), dressing the baby (“Put the shirt over the baby’s head” and “Put the baby’s arms in.”) and washing the baby (“Wash the baby’s legs/ears/nose/arms/feet.”) You can also incorporate song play into this as well for additional exposure to body parts (e.g., “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes”).

Learn more about Good Shepherd’s outpatient pediatric rehabilitation services, including physician services, physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, feeding therapy and aquatic therapy.