While working as a pediatric occupational therapist, I would always get the same question around this time of year: “What should I get my kid for Christmas?” The parents wanted suggestions for fun toys that would help their child make progress toward their goals. There are so many toys out there that shopping can be pretty overwhelming, especially if you are trying to figure out which toys would be beneficial! I’ve searched for other gift guides, but typically find they are too general. My goal is to help families find quality gifts that can serve a purpose in their child’s development. (These are only suggestions. Please follow the advice of your occupational therapist to help determine what is appropriate for your child. Also, you know your child- please choose gifts that will be used safely- i.e., no small pieces for a child who puts toys in their mouth.) I have separated these guides by needs, not diagnosis or age, because each kid is so different that age and diagnosis only tells us a little bit.
I partnered with Tools 4 Teaching, a local store in Evansville, to come up with a series of gift guides that target specific needs. This project really spoke to the owner, Julie, because she has asked the same question to occupational therapists regarding her children! As a mom of children with special needs and a former educator, she has a passion for helping families find what they need to help their children overcome learning obstacles and have fun. Julie has offered to give 20% off in-store purchases to anyone who mentions this blog or shows the coupon at the bottom of the post!
Some kids seems to always be on the move. Always running, jumping, spinning, touching, even smelling or chewing. Chances are, you know a sensory-seeking child. This behavior may be part of a broader diagnosis, or it could stand alone. Either way, the child has sensory needs that need to be met.
1.) Non-toy gifts:
Memberships to the local zoo or children’s museum.
Passes to a trampoline park or indoor gym.
Gift cards to a fast food restaurant that has a play area.
These options give the child chances to MOVE! They can get greater proprioceptive input from the equipment in the trampoline park or indoor gym than from sitting on the couch. The zoo and children’s museum have opportunities for multi-sensory experiences!
2.) Small items:
These are “quiet” items that can possibly be used in the car or at school to help fulfill the sensory needs the child is craving. Small items that provide some sort of resistance against movement give a toy more “bang for your buck.” I’m not a huge fan of fidget spinners because I feel like they don’t provide enough resistance
Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty. This stuff is seriously cool! Julie showed me one that glows when you use a special writing tool on it!
Hoodie Chews. These are a way to direct a child’s need to mouth and chew items into a less destructive, less noticeable behavior. It could save shirt collars and shirt cuffs from being destroyed! These are available in the Tools 4 Teaching store, but the provided link gave a really good description.
Chewlry. There are more and more options available every time I search for wearable chewing items. The different designs can help a child meet their oral sensory needs without standing out from their peers. Batman. Phone-cord style necklaces. Lego brick. Star Necklace. Plain bracelet.
3.) Gross motor:
These are suggestions that will help your kid MOVE! Sensory seekers tend to crave a lot of vestibular and proprioceptive input. To put it VERY simply, vestibular input is what you get when your head moves (think: spinning, rolling, crawling, jumping, anything that makes the fluid in your inner ear move), and proprioceptive input is what you get when your body/joints are compressed (think: deep hugs, jumping, crawling, crashing, etc.).
(Also available in the T4T store). This is a great toy for kids to be able to get the movement they crave while staying indoors. It rocks back and forth and the suction cups on the bottom will give them “bubble wrap” type of feelings when used on a smooth floor.
Available through Amazon or through the T4T website. This game is suitable for the 3+ crowd since it has a small ball that could be swallowed. You can smash, kick, jump, or smack the launcher pod to send the little ball soaring toward the bucket! I could see a lot of kids not using the rule cards and just seeing how many ways they can launch the ball toward a blank wall!
Farm Hoppers (Little Version and Big Version!)
If you click the picture above, it takes you to a trampoline that is rated for adult use. You can find trampolines with safety bars for toddlers at Wal-Mart, Toys R Us, or Target.
These can encourage kids to really get their cars moving! Crawling around to make the cars travel on the mat is great vestibular, proprioceptive, and visual work!
4.) Something to help balance all the input
Sensory seekers crave input, but it doesn’t all have to be running, jumping, and crashing. These children also need things to help them “center” before becoming overstimulated. It’s a fine balance sometimes. Items that provide compression or weight are great. The chewable jewelry mentioned earlier would also fit in this category.
These weighted animals are an alternative to the weighted vests that are commonly recommended. Some children will prefer to have a toy versus a vest. (T4T has some available in her store!)
The most common recommendation I have seen is that a weighted blanket should be 10% of a person’s weight, plus a pound or two. Please consult with your child’s therapist before purchasing. If you or a family member is crafty, you could make one in your child’s favorite fabric! Use poly beads so it is washable, or if you use rice, make a washable cover for the blanket.
Soothing lights projector
Some children will calm by going to a dark room with soothing lights and sounds playing. This may be too exciting for some children, so buy at your discretion. Other alternatives that provide a similar result are: plastic snowglobes, lava lamps, liquid motion toys, or white noise machines. Some children enjoy textures (think: soft stuffed animals, books with textured pages, corduroy fabric, etc.).
Pea Pod Chair (or a bean bag chair)
This can be used to provide deep, calming input to a child.
5.) Oral Input
This is definitely an area where I would consult with a family before purchasing.
Instruments: Harmonicas, whistles, slide flutes. . . Yes, the noise can get annoying, but the breath support required to play these instruments helps fulfill sensory needs in a different way than all of the physical activity suggestions. A silent suggestion could be pinwheels- much less noise, plus they provide some visual input while they spin!
High-intensity foods: Chewy jerky, sour candy, Pop-Rocks, spicy chips, crunchy snacks. Any food or candy that gives a little “extra” something to the mouth.
6.) Tactile Play
These are a few suggestions for items that will give different types of tactile input (think: textures, water, sticky, slimy, etc.).
Kitchen Sink Toy
This is great for the child who wants to have water running, but it’s easy on the water bill!
It’s squishy and a little sticky!
It’s like kinetic sand, but even better! You can mold it and it will hold its shape, but it also flows like kinetic sand. It cleans up easily and doesn’t leave a smell on your hands.
I hope these suggestions can give you some ideas for what to give a sensory seeker that you know and love! It is by no means an exhaustive list, but it may help you think of something great for a great kid. Do you have a sensory seeker in your life? Do you have any gift suggestions to add to my list?
401 S Green River Rd, Evansville, IN 47715
Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, so many of the links used in this post are my affiliate links. The price is no different for you, but I would earn a small commission on your purchase. If you find the items I have listed at a local toy store, by all means, support your local store!