Tips for Parents on Special Needs Toys

Child playing with blocks
How can you choose a toy for a child with Down syndrome or other special needs? Try out these steps. Michael H./DigitalVision/Getty Images

With the overwhelming number of toys available, it can be hard to choose which ones will be best for your child, particularly if they have Down syndrome. Where do you begin? What kind of toys are good, and what toys may instead by frustrating for the child?

Making Toy Buying for a Child With Down Syndrome Fun 

When buying toys for special needs children, it is important to keep some simple points in mind to ensure a happy kid.

Let's go through some simple steps to take away the frustration and make it fun to find the best toys for a child with Down syndrome. After all, the word toy should be placed in the same sentence as joy, not anguish!

Make Your Toy List by Looking at Your Child's Needs

Before beginning a search for toys, sit down and evaluate the challenges that your child is currently facing. Is he having gross motor issues, sensory integration or language problems? You don’t have to list everything but think about the big issues that you are facing and try to identify areas where you think particular toys might be helpful.

Bring this list with you when you head to the store or begin shopping online and use it when choosing toys. Toy stores can be overwhelming and have a set of guidelines can really help narrow down your choices.

Resources for Choosing "Differently-Abled" Toys

Some websites can help guide you in what type of toy to look at for your child’s issue.

For example, the Fat Brain Toysite list toys by developmental goals and has sections for gross motor skills and fine motor problems and a list of top picks for each that has been put together using feedback from parents. It even lists specific toys that parents of children with Down syndrome have found to be exceptional.

Toys R Us has developed a toy guide for kids with different abilities ("Toys for Differently-Abled Kids") and lists their top toy picks by skills. They also have a list of tips for buying toys that you may find helpful as well.

Consult the Experts

If you belong to a local support group or an online forum, start a discussion with other parents about what toys worked for their kids. Most parents are willing to tell you which toys worked well and which were a complete waste of money.

You might also want to ask your child’s teachers or therapists for some suggestions of toys that they think your child may like. However, remember that just because they have a favorite toy at school, it doesn’t mean that toy will automatically be a hit at home.

The Importance of the On/Off Switch

In general, buying a toy that appeals to multiple senses is a good thing. A toy that feels nice, makes some noise and catches your eye will generally be a winner. However, if your child has sensory issues (and for your own sanity), make sure that the toy comes with a volume button and/or an on and off switch.

Also, make sure that the on and off switch does not completely disable the toy. For example, a Nintendo DS can still be played with when the volume is all the way down.

You don’t want to buy a toy that your child cannot use simply because it is too loud or annoying.

Problems and Solutions

Hypotonia is one of the universal issues facing children with Down syndrome. For infants with hypotonia, tummy time is important and playmats are an ideal way to encourage this activity.

When choosing a playmat, look for one that can be used for tummy time and back time. Also, pick one with bright colors and multiple textures so that it appeals to the senses.

Similarly, choose toys for any child with Down syndrome that focuses on their specific needs. Use the toy as an aid to help you work with them on any problems they may face.

Here is an example of five tummy time toys designed for any child with or without Down syndrome, but keep in mind that there are many out there, and only you know which would be best for your child.

Expense and Size

Contrary to what advertisers tell you, the largest or most expensive toys are not always the best. Remember that balance is everything.

Keep to your budget and make sure that the toy will fit into your space. It might look like the perfect toy, but if it is too big for the playroom, you may be cursing yourself (and it) by the end of the holidays.

For gross motor issues, climbing, stacking and moving toys are always a good choice. However, if you don’t have the room to set the toy up correctly, it might not meet your needs.

As an alternative to buying a toy, consider joining a baby gym.

Staying within your budget will also help you avoid buyer’s remorse if the toy isn’t an immediate hit. It is easy to get into the cycle of thinking that the more money you spend on an issue, the more likely you are to find a solution. Beware of this mindset and remember that time is a better healer than money.

Think Outside the Box 

While some toys have obvious functions—a bike, a ball—the functions of other toys are not as obvious.

A sand table is generally used to build sand structures, but one parent whose child had fine motor problems used it to successfully teach her child to trace letters. The bigger work area and the opposition of the sand made it easier for her daughter to learn her letters. So this sand table served two functions: It helped with fine motor issues and provided sensory feedback.

When looking at toys, be creative and ask yourself if there are alternative ways of playing with them that might help your child address a specific problem.

Sometimes a Toy Is Just a Toy

One great joy of childhood is simply playing and not everything has to be challenging or used to learn a lesson. 

Don’t reject a toy just because it doesn’t provide a challenge or meet a learning need. In fact, the test of time can mean a lot with a particular toy. Toys that serve little purpose or are merely a "fad" tend to disappear, and those that remain often do so for a reason. Capitalize on your child’s interest by coming up with your own games for that particular toy.

Don’t Despair If a Toy Doesn't Work the First Time

Sometimes, despite all your planning and calculating, a toy is just not a hit at the holidays. Remember that the toy that is a dud during the holidays might just be a hit six months later.

If your choice just isn’t generating any interest and you can’t return it, discreetly remove it from the play area and stash it for the next rainy day.


Berg, P., Becker, T., Martian, A., Primrose, K., and J. Wingen. Motor Control Outcomes Following Nintendo Wii Use by a Child with Down Syndrome. Pediatric Physical Therapy. 2012. 24(1):78-84.