If you’ve been around here for a little while you will know that our little boy Jack (6.5 yrs) was born with Cerebral Palsy and Autism.
Jack started intensive early intervention therapy when he was two-years old. He now has a string of therapists – physiotherapist, occupational therapist, speech pathologist, orthotist, psychologist – who are working together with us to help him strengthen, develop and manage some of the challenges that come with having CP and Autism.
When Jack first started physical therapy, his physiotherapist would lay him on a table, belly down, and stretch and bend his tight muscles in all directions. Jack would scream and plead for me to make it stop. I didn’t know what to do – was this what therapy would be like? – I knew that he needed this intervention but I couldn’t bear watching him in pain and distress.
I sought out another therapist. This therapist – who has now been seeing Jack regularly for over 4 years – came to our house and within the first ten minutes, I knew I had made the right decision.
Jack and Carly spent the entire hour playing; I sat off to the side in complete awe, watching as Carly did all the same movements that Jack’s original therapist did but this time, completely through play. If there was ever a moment when I was sure of the profound benefits of play, this was it.
Since then, through every therapist session, with all his therapists, I sit and watch; taking mental notes of the different toys they use and the ways in which they are helping Jack through play.
Here are 10 (ok, 15 really, I couldn’t stop at 10) awesome toys which Jack has used throughout his therapy. They are all super fun. I’ve added links to where you can buy in Australia as well as to Amazon if you are overseas. Talk with you therapists, you might be able to get some of these toys through funding, like we have.
Kinetic sand: (here on Amazon) Both Jack’s OT and psychologist use kinetic sand during their therapy sessions. It’s incredible stuff. Fantastic for working those fine-motor skills as well developing shoulder strength through larger arm movements. It’s also incredibly calming and offers a lot of sensory input.
Marble Sounding Tree: This marble tree is not only stunning and beautifully made, it sounds amazing. As the marbles travel down the tree, each branch gives off a different tone; it’s beautifully melodic. Jack uses it for fine-motor practice (developing his pincer grip to pick up the marbles as well as controlling his core strength, shoulder muscles and hand movements to place the marble at the top of the tree). The marble tree is also wonderful for visual tracking; keeping track of the marble as it travels down the tree. They are so great that I am giving one to my niece – who is hearing-impaired – for Christmas.
Magnetic Wooden Blocks: These blocks offer extra support when stacking. The magnets are strong enough to hold a tower together so if the child has a little less control over their movements, the blocks won’t crash down as easily.
Pedal Roller: Now this is a really cool bike. We ordered one through funding and Jack’s physiotherapist liked it so much that she ordered some for her clinic. The bike moves when the child pushes down on the platform. The child needs to really engage their leg muscles to get the bike moving – great physiotherapy!! Jack has one leg which is considerably weaker than the other. This bike encourages him to engage both legs equally to get it moving. It also has large, stable handles for the child to lean on and support themselves. It’s GREAT!
Bounce Balls with Handles: Do you remember having one of these as a kid? Gym balls are fantastic for physical therapy and great fun to bounce around on too. All those little muscles are getting a great workout with each jump and the child is also improving their balance and stability as they work to stay on the ball.
Trampoline: Ok, now this one is a bit of a bigger investment, but the therapy benefits are incredible. When we first got our trampoline, Jack’s first therapy goal was to be able to just stand up. 4 years later and he can now run, jump and do flips on the trampoline. Plus, trampolines are crazy fun. We’ll throw a ball to each other while on the trampoline; balance, co-ordination, strength building – now that’s some serious therapy right there! And, if a trampoline wasn’t already awesome enough, Jack can get a whole lot of sensory input from bouncing off the netting, bouncing around on his bum and all that glorious input shooting up through his legs with each jump. I LOVE our trampoline!
Sensory Materials: For a time there, Jack saw an Art Therapist. She was incredible. She helped Jack work through some of his anxieties, helped him to release built-up tension and desensitised him to some of the sensory avoidance issues he was having. She worked mainly with sculpting mediums but also a lot of fingerpaint. She used playdough, modelling clay, clay, as well as kinetic sand. They would talk together about things that were going on and together they would sculpt and create; making Jack’s anxieties visible and talking through them. Sculpting is incredibly relaxing. Still now when we are working with clay or something similar, I can see Jack’s mind slow down, I can see him become a little calmer.
Percussion Instruments: Percussion instruments are just great for therapy. Wonderful for children with hearing impairments and engaging for children with a range of different disabilities. For us, Jack’s physiotherapist uses different instruments to work on improving his muscle strength. He might need to kick a bell on a string or stamp on a tambourine. She might ask him to throw a soft ball at a tambourine which she has hanging from a hoop (like target practice) or chime a triangle while sitting on a gym ball. It’s all great stuff. Plus, using musical instruments regularly is helping to desensitise Jack to sudden noises.
Wooden Interlocking Blocks: (here in the US) These wonderful blocks are used by both Jack’s OT and physiotherapist. We also have a set at home for play. Like the magnetic blocks, the wooden dowels in these blocks offer extra support when stacked together. Jack’s physiotherapist will have him sit in a squat (frog-like) position while stacking blocks or sit, balanced on a small gym ball to work on his core strength and shoulder strength (holding his arm up and out) to stack the blocks.
Stomp Rocket: This was, I think, the first toy we bought specifically for therapy. And as it turns out, it’s heaps of fun! The child has to stand on one leg (which is still quite tricky for Jack) and use the other leg to stamp on an air-pad. The air then travels through a short tube and launches a rocket into the air. The harder you stamp, the higher the rocket goes! See, told you it was fun. And, this one is another really inexpensive buy. I think I picked ours up from a toy store for under $20
Wikki Stix: We’ve only just started using these but they have been incredibly engaging and great for helping to refine Jack’s fine-motor skills. Wikki Stix have a wax coating on the outside which allows the child to bend and shape them into whatever form they like. They are also really relaxing (and quite satisfying to Jack, it would seem) to squish them all together. The great thing about Wikki Stix though is that you can just pull them apart, straighten them out and they are ready to be played with again.
Skwish: We bought a Skwish as a stress-relieving toy for Jack. The beads move back and forth along the wooden dowels but you can also squash the toy down and it will spring back again. It’s like a stress-ball for kids.
Fidget Toys: And talking about stress balls, Fidget toys are INCREDIBLE! There are so many different kinds available. Squash them, chew them, suck on them, stretch them, roll them around in your hands, tie them in knots, all kinds of wonderful sensory relief with these little guys.
Secret Hideaway: Now, sometimes the busyness of the world can get a little too much and we all need a little quiet space to escape. Children with Autism, in particular, I think, need a space where they retreat to when they feel like they are becoming overwhelmed. We had a play tent for a little while but I am wanting to upgrade to a swing chair. I really like the look of this one from IKEA. I think the closeness of the fabric pressing on his body would be very soothing for Jack.
And lastly, but definitely not least, a rocker. Great for physical therapy – engaging all those lovely muscles as well as developing balance and stability – and great for sensory input as the child’s body moves around, pushing off the sides or down through their hands and feet.
We’ve had a few over the years. At the moment we have a lovely wooden Waldorf-inspired rocker which I had made for us, but the Bilibo and Teeter Popper are also great. Here’s a few other ones you can check out: Whally Balance Board | Rocking Bowl | Seesaw | Maze Balancing Board | Handheld Rotation Board
So there’s my list of 10 – which actually became 15 – really awesome toys for children with special needs. I know children’s needs vary enormously, but these 15 toys have been genuinely beneficial in helping Jack achieve his therapy goals through play.
Do you have any other one toys that you have found great for therapy? As Jack progresses with his therapy, I am always on the lookout for things which will help him to get the therapy he needs through play.
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