Purchasing toys and games for a child with special needs does not have to be more complicated than buying a toy for a typically developing child.
Cost, safety, educational value, age-appropriateness, and of course, the child's interests, are all factors that don't change.
Look for toys that help build skills that meet therapeutic goals and those that balance a child's developmental age with her/his chronological age.
Avoid toys that needlessly put a child in a win or lose situation.
"It is possible to find many good toy options for children with special needs in any toy store," says Elisa Mintz Delia of the Kennedy Krieger Institute, an institution devoted to improving the lives of children and adolescents with disorders of the brain, spinal cord and musculoskeletal system.
Delia said many reasonably priced toys found at a variety of stores will engage and entertain children with special needs, as well as serve as learning and skill-building tools.
The Kennedy Krieger Institute and Parents' Choice Foundation, one of the nation's oldest and most respected authorities on children's media and toys, have been working together since 2007 to test and review toys and games for children with special needs.
A multi-disciplinary team of licensed occupational, physical, speech and recreational therapists offers the following gift suggestions for children of all abilities.
Curious George Discovery Beach Game
(Promotes visual and visual motor skills, thinking skills and socialization)
In this seek-and-find board game, players draw a card with an animal or object listed on it and search the board (actually a box), which has five hidden treasure locations, to find that object. A game spinner keeps things interesting - if it lands on a wave, players have to shake the box, which moves the treasures.
(Encourages thinking skills, socialization and communication)
This simple family game can be played by up to 10 people. Players wear a plastic headband with a card depicting an object or animal on it and take turns asking other players yes or no questions that will help them to guess what is on their card.
(Fosters thinking skills, socialization and communication)
This game involves 75 double-sided picture cards and 300 caption cards. Each player draws seven caption cards, and a judge draws a photo card. Players then choose and lay down the caption card that they feel best matches the photo. The judge chooses the funniest caption and that player earns points.
Bop It Bounce
(Helps build gross motor skills and sensory motor skills)
This electronic game with audio instructions guides players through six activities. Players bounce a ball on a hand-held cone, and the activities test their ability to control how the ball bounces, their speed or their endurance.
U- Build Connect Four
(Develops thinking skills, fine motor skills, visual skills and visual motor skills)
A game that takes the original Connect Four concept and adds a bit of Plinko. It is a board game constructed from interlocking pieces that allows children to assemble the playing area. Players drop checkers down chutes and position a bumper to deflect their checker pieces into the correct column, trying to arrange four checkers of the same color in a row.
(Supports visual, fine motor and visual motor skills)
This set of interlocking bits and blocks is a new and fun take on the classic version, and includes patterned pieces, pieces with faces and others with three legs and rotating connections. Children can build elaborate play scenarios and complex new worlds -- all of their own vision.
"Whether you're shopping for a holiday, birthday or other occasion, remember that play is how children learn," says Claire Green, president of Parents' Choice Foundation. "Toys that have long term play value, have long term learning value."