I don’t know about you, but shopping around the holidays feels more like an Olympic sport than a leisure activity. It involves deftness, speed, stamina and focus (seriously, have you tried to find a parking spot?). If you’re buying a gift for a child with special needs you may need to put some extra thought into your present to make sure it’s one they will love and play with (at least for a few minutes after opening). Here are some tips to make your shopping expedition easier:
Simpler is better
Children with special needs often have challenges—whether they are physical or sensory—and toys that may appeal to kids of the same age may be overwhelming to a child with special needs. Dr. Anita Jethwa is a developmental paediatrician at Children’s Treatment Network, an organization that provides clinical services and rehabilitation support to children with multiple special needs. “Simple toys can be fun for any child. A toy doesn’t have to have to have lots of ‘stuff’ on it. Think about blocks. You can build with them (fine motor), sort them or count them (cognitive) and make noise with them.” Single button toys, coloured stacking cups and rings, blocks, big wooden puzzles, and books are often easier for kids to use.
Though we may look at the age guidelines on the box first, it is better to consider how the toy works. Is it logical and straightforward? Will the child you’re buying for be able to play with it independently? If you answered yes, then you’re ready to head to the checkout. Some toys may have multiple uses and benefits. My daughter with cerebral palsy has a metal Melissa & Doug shopping cart. We use it for therapy, to help her learn to take steps as well as for imaginative play.
Encourage imaginative play
Pretend play is an important part of child development. It actually helps children learn about the world, helps to build speech, social skills and often has fine and gross motor benefits. Puppets, dolls, action figures and Mr. Potato Head are all great toys to encourage creative, imaginary play.
Many people worry that gift cards are impersonal. The truth is that a well-thought out gift card can be much more meaningful than other items. Gift cards for iTunes, toy or book stores will allow parents to go out and purchase toys that their child can play with and enjoy.
Parenting a child with special needs comes with many extra expenses. Private therapy costs add up so consider contributing to a therapy fund and give a little token gift to the child (bubbles, crayons, pull toys, etc. are all great and inexpensive). Many parents also have a Registered Disability Savings Plan (RDSP) for their child. You can often give a cash gift and ask the parents to direct it to their child’s RDSP. “We can always top up her account for her future,” shares Martha, mom to an 11 year-old with cerebral palsy.
Art, music and books
Art activities like drawing and painting are great to help children develop fine motor skills, provide a wonderful sensory experience and are even considered important activities that help kids learn how to print as they get older.
Like all kids, most children with special needs enjoy music. You can consider giving them simple musical instruments: think drums, maracas, and tambourines. Or, for children that may be sensitive to certain sounds, consider giving them a CD of music or soundscapes they enjoy. “Books are great for language and cognitive development. They are also great way to spend one on one time with family and friends,” shares Dr. Jethwa.
The gift of time or an experience
All children love to have your undivided attention and share experiences with you. Think about taking them to a movie (they have special sensory-friendly viewings in some theatres), the library, a playgroup, music classes, the zoo or even a local sensory or snoozelen room (Google it—they are GREAT). You’ll also be giving parents a much-needed break. Many kids with special needs require specific strategies or equipment to enable outings like these. Taking the extra time to learn calming strategies, how to work a feeding tube or operate a wheelchair can mean the world to a child and their family. It means you’ve fully embraced the world they live in and all the extras that come with it—and that means more than any gift you can wrap and put under a tree.
Read more: Being part of the special needs community>
Talk to the child
Have a conversation with the child about their interests. It can be an uncomplicated conversation as most kids who are non-verbal will have developed or will find a way to express themselves. You can also put your powers of observation to good use—pay attention to what makes the child smile. If there is still confusion about what they child is trying to convey, ask the parents. We know what our kids like and need and would be happy to share. Dr. Jethwa shares that having current knowledge about the latest toys and games can help. “It doesn’t mean you have to buy everything, but it will help your child socially if they can talk about or own a cool toy!” Sometimes toys can just be toys, the same way all kids, including those with special needs are simply kids, first.
Happy shopping and good luck!
Follow along as Anchel Krishna shares her experiences as mother to Syona, an extraordinary toddler with cerebral palsy. Read all of Anchel’s Special-needs parenting posts and follow her on Twitter @AnchelK.