The benefits of sensory toys for children with special needs are becoming more and more recognised. So, to discover why this is, and some of the best toys for the job, read on…
There are 13.9 million disabled people in the UK, 8 percent of which are children. Some children develop disabilities after birth, such as autism, ADHD, speech disorders and hearing impairment. Others can be present themselves during or soon after birth, such as blindness, Down’s syndrome, and cerebral palsy caused by medical negligence.
A child with disabilities will often have physical impairments, cognitive or psychiatric issues, developmental delays and learning difficulties. This can make looking after a child with special needs a daunting prospect and, as a parent, it can be worrying and stressful as you aim to do your very best for them.
Research has found that sensory toys, that stimulate a child’s senses through sight, sound, touch and smell, are particularly good at helping children with special needs. Using cerebral palsy as an example throughout, we’ll be taking you through some of the many reasons why sensory toys can help your impaired child. Then, to discover some of the best toys for the job, you came to the right place…
Cerebral Palsy: What is it and What Are the Symptoms?
Cerebral palsy is neurological disorder that is triggered by a non-progressive brain injury, and usually occurs during birth or soon after birth. The symptoms can vary in severity, but can include:
- Developmental delays, e.g. crawling, walking
- Loss of muscle control
- Muscle weakness
- Lack of coordination
- Learning disabilities
- Hearing impairment
- Vision impairment
- Problems with communicating and speaking
- Swallowing difficulties
- Difficulty falling asleep and/or staying asleep
Medical Treatments for Cerebral Palsy
Depending on the severity of the symptoms, there are a variety of treatments available for people with cerebral palsy including:
- Speech and language therapy
- Surgery to treat movement or growth problems
- Medicines for pain, muscle stiffness, inflammation and other issues
- Occupational therapy to help children cope with everyday activities
Why Can Sensory Toys Help a Child with Cerebral Palsy?
Although, as we’ve seen, there are plenty of medical treatments to help ease the symptoms of children with special needs, these aren’t the only options. In fact, it may be as simple as purchasing certain games and toys.
Sensory toys are not just for fun but are designed in a way to help stimulate a child’s senses through touch, sight, sound and smell. There are a vast number of sensory toys available on the market, and it can be tough trying to pick the right ones that suit your child’s abilities, interests, and styles of play. So, a useful guide for things to look out for when you’re shopping for sensory toys may include:
- Good colour and tone contrast
- Bold lettering
- Toys which encourage eye movement
- Toys which encourage hand-eye coordination and fine motor control using small movements of the fingers
- Toys with interesting textures and tactile variety
- Scented toys
- Switches which click when switched on or off
- Toys which encourage cognitive processes e.g. “when I press here, this happens”
- Toys which make a sound through touch
- Toys which encourage physical movement, this can include running, jumping, stretching or reaching.
If you’re still not sure where to start, CEREBRA, the charity who help families with children with brain conditions, have a toy library where you can borrow toys to see which ones suit your child.
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Top 14 Sensory Toys for a Child with Cerebral Palsy
We’ve done some research into the top sensory toys for children with special needs. These should help them to develop social skills, improve hand-eye coordination, increase their strength, improve their communication skills but, most importantly, have fun!
- Mirror Pebbles
Mirror pebbles are smooth, metallic discs that come in different sizes. They are cool and smooth to the touch, as well as reflective. Children can lay paths, put them in size order, stack them and even play with reflections in different surfaces or with lights.
These are good for use in imaginative play and inspiring creative language. Since they are lightweight, they are ideal for children who have muscle weakness.
- Rainbow Wrist Bells
Rainbow wrist bells are a set of eight bells with a Velcro strap to attach to the wrist, each one a different colour for a different note within an octave. They are great for helping children get involved with musical activities, by creating rhythms and patterns and even relieving stress.
These are perfect for children who are unable to grip and have reduced hand-eye coordination. The bells are a great for encouraging interactive play and can improve social and communication skills.
- Sensory Glitter Storm
A sensory glitter storm is a clear cylinder filled with liquid and glitter that, when turned upside down, will move around the cylinder in different patterns, a little like a snow globe. It’s a great toy for encouraging quiet focus and inspiring curiosity.
- Sensory Projector
Sensory projectors throw light and shapes across a room, perfect for children who are severely disabled with very little mobility. There are many available on the market, with different features. Prices vary considerably, so it’s best to shop around for the right one.
These are great for creating a calming atmosphere for quiet focus, which can be combined with or without music. They encourage eye-movement in children as well as relieving stress.
- Sensory Floor Tiles
Sensory floor tiles can either contain coloured gels, lights or both. The idea is that children can experiment with placing their hands and feet on the tiles and watching the patterns created by the gel or light. Aswell as encouraging children to move across them, they also help stimulate cognitive understanding and recognition abilities.
NogginRings are a set of rings attached to a cord that move independently of each other. Not only are they brightly coloured to catch the eye and encourage visual tracking, they are perfect to improve muscle coordination and hand-eye coordination. They also help to improve muscle strength, as children have to stretch and reach to grab the rings.
These are mostly marketed to younger babies, but could certainly be used with older children who suffer with muscle problems.
A Dimpl is a small tactile toy that has brightly coloured pillows of silicone embedded in it, which can be pushed in and out over and over again. This toy is very small and lightweight so it is easy to fit in small hands and is great for children with poor muscle strength and grip.
When pushed in, the pillows make a satisfying ‘pop’ sound, so it is stimulating in both a tactile and auditory way. This is also great for developing fine motor skills.
A Bilibo is a shell-shaped toy that children sit in to help them improve balance and basic motor skills. The bright colours and shape are instantly attractive to children, and can be used in a variety of play settings, letting them run away with the imagination. There is no weight limit on this toy, so it can be used by toddlers as young as two, and up to seven years old.
- Fidget Cube/Spinner
Toys, like a fidget cube or fidget spinner, are great for calming nerves and reducing stress. The fidget cube has a variety of different buttons, switches and gliders to help keep hands busy and focus the mind. Similarly, the fidget spinner helps to focus the mind and engage the eye as it spins.
Both toys are cheap and pocket-sized, so they’re easy to take with you on the go. Not only are they great for stress-relief, but they keep hands active and improve muscle strength and develop fine motor skills along the way.
- Slime or Putty
Another tactile toy for busy hands is sensory slime, putty or dough. They come in a variety of colours, can be glittery, glow in the dark or even scented.
Children can spend time stretching, squishing and bouncing the slime or putty on different surfaces, all the while improving their muscle strength and fine motor skills and relieving stress. The putty is great for bringing out their creative side, as they can make any shape they desire.
- Fibre Optic Lighting
Fibre optic lighting is a perfect addition to any sensory room. It can come in many forms, such as a lamp or in cabling, and can help promote a peaceful and calm environment, helping to relieve stress.
Fibre optic lighting is completely safe for all ages as it has no electrical output. The soft fibres on a fibre optic lamp add an extra level to sensory play by improving hand-eye coordination. They are also fairly durable, so you don’t have to worry when little hands reach out to grab the fibres.
- Mozart Magic Cube
The Mozart Magic Cube is a cube with buttons that, when pushed, play music and lights which flash with the tempo. The cube is brightly coloured and the buttons are large, so are instantly attractive and easy to see for children with vision impairment.
The idea is that buttons can be pushed individually for one sound, or several at once to create different compositions, encouraging creativity. The cube is great for strengthening hand-eye coordination, understanding cause-effect relationships and reasoning.
- Support Swing
A support swing is great for strengthening balance and gross motor skills in children with milder cerebral palsy symptoms. Support swings can come with footrests, headrests and adjustable harnesses so that your child is safe at all times. Some also come with reduced side-to-side motion and twisting to make the swing feel more secure. You should always check with your child’s physiotherapist if a swing is right for them before investing.
A rainmaker is a simple yet effective toy for those children who need extra input to enhance auditory sensory needs. Not only can they produce a gentle rain sound which is relaxing, turning the rainmaker can help develop fine motor skills and stimulate the cause-effect relationships.
There are a variety of rainmakers on the market, some of which are clear and have coloured beads inside for that extra visual element. Otherwise, rainmakers can actually be made at home using an old plastic bottle and rice for a free sensory experience.
Choosing the Right Sensory Toys
These toys are just a small sample of what’s available to buy. It can certainly be tricky to decide which sensory toys are best for your child, so monitoring their abilities and playing can help you to narrow down the choice.
As we’ve seen, a lot of sensory toys can be made at home using things you find around the house. Just make sure that they are safe for your child to use. Ultimately, though, your child’s GP, physiotherapist or occupational therapist can also help guide you to the right toys that are safe for them and will help them to develop in areas they need it the most.
Have you found the best sensory toy for your child, and want to share it with other readers? Perhaps we’ve missed out your child’s favourite toy from out list, and wish to add your thoughts? We’d love to hear your experiences in the comments below!