As an early intervention therapist/behavioral specialist who primarily works with young children and as a mother to a young autistic daughter, I am always looking for the best learning tools to utilize during my therapy sessions as well as at home.
The below is a very detailed list of my all-time favorite things (with pics and my personal descriptions) that I use during my therapy sessions and at home with Autumn. Lots of overlapping between developmental, PT, OT and Speech here. 30 items to be exact with some honorable mentions. Just too much to narrow down to a smaller number.
As always, supervision is highly suggested and required for pretty much all of the items mentioned below (use common sense as well).
In addition, please feel free to share this information with your family relatives and friends this holiday season who may be asking you what to get for your little butterfly. Most of the items mentioned are for younger children, but I'm sure older kids can use them as well!
Lastly, the tools/toys/items mentioned below are my personal favorites, this doesn't mean that you or your little will enjoy them or that you have to go out and buy and use them how I do. My descriptions and opinions of each item listed are derived from my personal opinions and from my experiences. Thus, just because it worked for my child or some of my work kids, doesn't mean it will work for yours. Parents, remember you are the expert on your child and know what he/she will like.
Any questions or concerns regarding any of the below "favorites" should be followed up with your child's teachers/therapist team for recommendations/second opinions as well (weighted blanket, chewy tubes for example). I am not an expert on these items mentioned nor am I claiming to be one either.
In no particular order, here's the list of My Favorite Things:
1. Puzzles (Melissa and Doug): I'm a huge "puzzle person" and all of my families know me as being the puzzle queen. Not only are learning puzzles fun, they can increase overall cognition, communication, and fine motor skills. Melissa and Doug puzzles are my favorite!!
2. Dot paint- funny thing is, I haven't used this with my families, but Autumn loves them!! They're good for providing input as well as being creative. Plus it's fun and easy cleanup. Most are washable as well.
3. Chewy tubes- For our little seekers who enjoy biting down onto straws and who may bite in general...this one is a MUST have, but as always, it should be used under direct supervision. Autumn has her chews readily accessible and they've helped with providing sensory input as well.
4. Parachute- Remember how much fun the large parachutes were in gym class?? Now imagine a smaller one that can be used at home. Most kids LOVE this one, but for some, it can be a bit overwhelming and may take time to warm up to. A favorite activity is having the child lay inside the parachute and with two adults, we lift them, rock and sing to them nursery rhymes leaving off the ends of the words. Helps with vestibular input as well.
5. Bubbles- Kids LOVE bubbles!! They are so much fun and help work on isolating the index/pointing finger to get them to pop as well as the mouth muscles to help them blow. My favorite kind are the ones from Gymboree (pictured below).
6. Books! Specifically board books for the littles- flip and see ones (Karen Katz), Eric Carle and Pete the Cat series are some of my favorites. Again, as a therapist I am known for my puzzles and my books because a.- it requires them to sit and listen, b.-children love to look at the pictures and there's so much interaction involved. c.- both expressive and receptive language can evolve from reading...my list goes on.
7. Sensory balls- so much fun to explore these. They can also be used as figits depending on the size of the ball.
8. Small trampoline with handles/trampoline- talk about getting the energy out and providing vestibular input! Always one of my favorites. Autumn loves hers!
9. Hot Wheels and Trains- Not only are they so much fun to play with, they help with establishing those first syllables and sounds! Add a track to this, even better. I use cars often as reinforcers with my kiddos. They love them! Autumn loves them too!
10. Weighted blanket/vest/body sock- This is one thing that I haven't invested in just yet with Autumn, but plan on doing so soon in order to help calm her as she's my little seeker who loves deep pressure. She already wears the weighted vest at school and she's used the body sock plenty of times during OT. For parents interested in these items, please make sure you work closely with your OT in making the right decision for your child. There's so many different weights and variations. OT direction/recommendations highly suggested before purchasing!
11. Play dough- Imaginary Play, sensory input, fine motor skills, cognition...you name it, play dough can provide. This one item can be hit or miss. Autumn never liked play dough when she was younger, but now enjoys it. Also, always monitor play dough usage because some kids like to eat it while exploring, plus it can be messy.
12. Play tent- This is one of my personal favorites. It helps with a child's body awareness and can be a very calming, safe play for a child to play/go into. I love reading to Autumn in her play tents.
13. Legos- What kid doesn't like Legos?! They are the perfect toy to keep kids preoccupied for hours, using their imagination, fine motor skills and cognition building works of art. However, Autumn tends to be a bit possessive of her Legos, thus, they become a "no touch zone". Also, some Lego pieces can be choking hazards. Monitor usage while playing.
14. Play food, specifically food to cut- This is another personal favorite of mine. I use the play food often during imaginative play in order to build social skills while pretending to "cook" and "share" the food we "make" together. The cutting foods help with fine/gross motor skills and of course with communication and cognition. My favorite is the Melissa and Doug set pictured below.
15. Animal figurines (little people sets for the younger ones).- One of Autumn's favorite things is taking out her animals and play pretending with them (or lining them up). I often use animals during my sessions in order to support speech by making those animal sounds and singing songs (Old McDonald come to mind?).
16. Child easel- It only took us 10 months to finally build Autumn's but she LOVES it! She uses the chalk side more in order to practice writing her name as it's easier for her to do so while standing up. Hence, fine motor skills are at work, along with cognition and imagination. If using the side to paint/color, make sure an adult is around to supervise. I'm sure the last thing anyone wants is paint on the walls.
17. Tea set/picnic set- Similar to the imaginative foods to cut, this is one of my other favorites! Turn-taking, sharing, manners, socialization, imagination, communication, self-help/adaptive play...the list goes on. If tea sets come with small parts, please monitor usage. We finally have allowed Autumn to use the spoons that were included in one of her sets because they were a choking hazard for children under 3.
18. Tunnel- Similar to the play tent, the tunnel can also be a safe haven for children to explore. I use it with some of my kids while setting up an obstacle course that works on following directions, joint attention and focus, as well as providing sensory input.
19. Kinetic sand- Sensory play at its finest and it doesn't make a huge mess everywhere (easy to clean).
20. Flash cards- large picture flash cards preferrably. I use flash cards with my kids to assess their receptive (pointing to the card) as well as expressive language. Autumn loves her cards. Not only did they assist with her association with objects/people/things/actions, her expressive/receptive language and volcabulary started to expand. Plus, she started to learn how to read words by using them as well.
21. Play house toys (vacuum, broom, kitchen set, etc.)- One of the key elements in helping to build a child's social/emotional as well as self-help/adaptive skills, is for them to be given some responsibility and independence at a young age. Whether that's providing choices and having them do simple chores, kids LOVE to help and feel included. Play household items such as toy vacuums and brooms and kitchen sets are great for allowing a child to model the adult/parent during chores and teaches them so many wonderful things about helping others. These activities also expand on imaginary play. Pictured below are just a few examples of wide-array of play house toys.
22. Blocks/stacking cups/shape sorters- As a Developmental Therapist, one of my key areas that I work on with my littles is cognition. These simple toys are the stepping stones to cognitive development and what will be a requirement for kindergarten: knowing their colors, how to count to 10, big to small/small to big, shapes, in/out and up/down prepositions, hide and seek activities, hand coordination, focus, etc., the list goes on...Here are some of my favorites pictured below.
23. Mr. Potato Head- Yes, this one toy gets his own number! Using a simple Mr. potato head works on so many different areas of development with young children: body part identification, fine motor skills, proprioceptive input (pushing and pulling the parts in/out of Mr. Potato Head), imaginary play, etc. It's also one of my favorite tools to use when working on body part identification with my kiddos and with Autumn when she was younger.
24. Signing time- If there's one educational tool that I firmly believe increases overall communication, it's this! I may be a bit bias here, but I know Autumn's speech improved dramatically because of watching Signing Time frequently. It's fun, interactive, educational, and "Miss Rachel" (that's what she's known as in our household) singing and signing makes it easy for anyone to learn how to use sign language. Plus, Autumn not only can say these words, she signs and signs appropriately. She will most likely stick to learning sign language as she grows older. For those reluctant to buy, see if your local library has any of the first season of Signing Time there. Disc 2-12 are my favorites, specifically 2,3,4,5,6. Also, check out on YouTube as well.
25. Water table (outside play for the warmer months)- This is for the warmer months and for outside play. Playing with water is always fun. Kids will learn how to "fill up" and "empty" the water from the cups. Plus, this is a simple activity that may help some kids afraid of being splashed become desensitized to water. As always, Adult supervision required during play.
26. Bean bag chair/bean bags- This is something I'm personally looking to add to our list for Autumn this year. She is a sensory seeker who is always looking for input. I imagine that being able to jump an sit in a bean bag chair will help soothe her a bit as well as having bean bags to play obstacle games at home that will provide her with input.
27. Push and pull apart toys- Another sensory area that works on providing proprioceptive input with joints/muscles that also involves joint attention. I don't have these yet, but they've always been a toy that I want to buy for my work families. Another one on my list this year.
28. Pretend sew and string beads kit- Here's one of my favorite tools that work on fine motor skills and cognition. It's not as simple as it seems and may take lots of time and patience for the littles to learn how to do the activities, but once they do, they love this. I'll be honest, these activities were probably one of Autumn's least favorites to try when she was younger because she would become easily agitated and upset whenever she didn't get the string in right, but once she got the hang of it, she learned to love it!
29. Baby Dolls- Along the lines of "household pretend play", baby dolls also tap into a child's area of social/emotional development. Plus, for other children who may have younger siblings in the future, playing with baby dolls can teach them how to be "gentle", among other things, to help prepare for a sibling arrival. The list goes on.
30. Triangle-shaped washable crayons/jumbo crayons for the little ones- These are my two all-time favorite coloring tools that help with that pencil grasp! They are fabulous and can be found pretty much anywhere. Make sure they are washable!!
So that's my list of my favorite things as not only a therapist, but as a mommy to a special-needs child.
However, I will add some honorably mentions that I didn't include in my list:
(These are probably already owned in many households and their benefits are known for all children, which is why I didn't want to focus on these too much).
I hope that my list gives some ideas and suggestions for many this holiday season. Happy Shopping!