When you have a child with special needs, it’s not always easy to find toys and activities that are engaging, accessible and age-appropriate. We’re excited to share these toys and activities that were reviewed by experts in San Diego’s special needs community—local parents (with children of varying ages) and therapists (physical, ABA, occupational and speech therapists). We brought these people together to do the work for you and share their recommendations.
Whether you’re shopping for your own family or have a friend or relative with special needs, you’ll find products that encourage problem-solving, fine motor skills, stress relief, sensory engagement, creativity and more.
Playskool Little Wonders Pop-A-Tune
This colorful piano entertains with its exciting popping action. Press a key and watch a ball pop up like magic. Experience the joy of making music while learning color recognition and cause and effect. The more you press the keys, the more the colorful balls pop up and bounce. “Our favorite toy! Everyone loved this!”
Create & Play Magnetic Monsters
Children will love creating one-of-a-kind monsters as they mix & match magnetic heads, arms, torsos and more—in endless combinations. Plus, since all 20 parts turn a full 360 degrees, the monsters are a cinch to pose. “Super easy to connect the pieces, kids can create their own monsters.”
Pull ‘N Pops
Series of sensory keychain toys for fidgeters of all ages. “Great for fine motor skills.”
Magformers Spin Plus Set
Fidget spinners increase concentration, focus and active listening and provide a calming technique that helps release stress and anxiety. Build your own fidget spinner, engaging motor skills and encouraging problem-solving abilities. Fidget spinner toys allow children with special needs to direct and channel energy, build working memory and improve tactile awareness. “Create your own fidget toy, great for imaginary play.”
Glo Friends Wigglebug
Kids can work to understand their emotions and energy levels with this huggable friend. With Wigglebug’s motion-sensing technology, it will respond to how kids play with it.
Snuggleluvs are specifically designed to provide comfort and ease anxiety. With their added weight, extra softness and optimal cuddling size, Snuggleluvs are a stress-relieving companion for all ages. “Super soft plush that can sit up and a great weight and size for kids to hold and cuddle.”
VTech Turn & Learn Ferris Wheel
Explore animals, numbers and objects while listening to playful sounds and four sing-along songs. When kids press the friendly yellow lion, black and white zebra and blue elephant buttons they’ll hear the animals introduce themselves, numbers and objects using their own unique voices. “Engaging sounds, great for eye tracking.”
Pop Fidget Ball Popper
The fidget poppers pack can enhance your kid’s perception, expand their perception range and provide a solid foundation for intellectual development. Figit toys can meet the curiosity of children while developing children’s intelligence, exercise children’s logical thinking and hands-on ability. “Soft, squishy, lights up.”
How Are You Feeling? Shaped Ring Flash Cards
Introduce emotions to children in an engaging and interactive way. These flash cards are a great tool to teach emotional literacy, self-awareness and empathy. “Well made, double-sided flash cards with 10 emotions.”
Filled with two separate layers of colored, non-toxic gel that is vacuum-sealed so drawings stay in place. Draw with fingers or with the stylus to blend the colors together and create one-of-a-kind artistic creations. The squishy nature of JellyBoards create an amazing sensory touch experience, similar to finger-painting but without the mess. Now you can fidget and create art at the same time. “Portable, easy to draw on, great for creativity.”
Candy Bouncy Balls
Each 4-inch ball comes with two bright colors and delicious candy flavored scents. “Nice size, texture and we love the scent.”
LeapFrog 100 Things That Go
Hear 100+ words about modes of transportation from dog sleds and dump trucks to skates and school buses. Six double-sided, touch-sensitive pages feature vocabulary in English and Spanish. Simply flip the language switch to hear words, phrases and descriptions in either language.
An assortment of three neon-colored donuts with nine different frosting styles, all with that classic NeeDoh squish. Easily pop and swap these delectable donut decorations and make your own groovy masterpiece. “We love that each donut has multiple textures.”
NeeDoh Gummy Bear
Just pull, squeeze or smush this tactile treat and the sweet squish will soothe your soul. Wacky style eyes and a cute bowtie make these giant gummies come to life. A fidget toy that satisfies and soothes; NeeDoh is appropriate for anxious tendencies and helps promote focus, attention and centering. “Fun products for stress relief.”
LeapFrog Tappin’ Colors 2-in-1 Xylophone
Bring learning to musical exploration with four interactive ways to play. Help kids build confidence as they follow the lights to learn how to play eight well-known tunes. Hear first words about numbers and colors, or play notes to hear xylophone, glockenspiel and strings sounds. “Lights up, great for fine motor skills.”
Playfoam Naturals Shape & Learn Letters & Numbers
This all-natural, non-toxic creativity set offers fun you can feel, rooted in nature for a totally tactile experience that’s both stimulating and sustainable. Simply squeeze and squish the Playfoam Naturals to match the letters, numbers and shapes shown on the reusable nature-themed practice cards or squash Playfoam Naturals into your own custom creations, building fine motor skills and creativity as you play. Never dries out, reducing waste and ensuring that the play and learning never ends. “Tactile, keeps its shape once formed, doesn’t dries out.”
Bababoo and Friends Whale Wilma Stacking Toy
The plug and stack game offers a multitude of educational advantages. Stacking involves solving a puzzle and assigning colors and shapes. Initial knowledge about the ocean is also imparted. The darker the blue of the water, the deeper the sea. “Grooves and bendable pole make it easier to stack.”
Magnatab Free Draw
Using the magnetic stylus, children pull the beads up to the surface to draw pictures, letters, numbers and shapes. The beads are magically “erased” when pushed down by the tip of a finger or the swipe of the side of the stylus. The tablet features easy storage for the magnetic stylus, which clicks securely into place. Great for use at home or in the classroom. “Great for on the go, fun to create art and write.”
Magformers Jungle Play Set
Click! Connect! Create! Prepare for your jungle adventure by building vehicles. “Everything easily clicks together and the wheels are an added bonus.”
VTech Smart Chart Medical Kit
Kids can care for their family, friends, dolls and stuffed animals with this portable kit. Dress up like a doctor and grab your interactive healthcare tablet. Explore medical instruments, the human body and common ailments using the touch points on the tablet. Walk through multiple patient scenarios and find the right tools to check your patient’s symptoms, then see how to help them feel better. “Nice way to prepare kids for appointments and become familiar with items used at the doctor.”
MathLink Cubes Kindergarten Math Activity Set: Dino Time!
Helps kids build counting, sorting and other essential kindergarten math skills through fun dino-themed games and activities. Kids can also explore their imaginations through hands-on, open-ended play. “Good for learning, easy to manipulate.”
Express My Feelings Journal
Encourages children to engage with their feelings and make a personal connection with how they feel. This child-friendly journal introduces 20 common feelings that range from comfortable to uncomfortable and cover everything in-between. Children use this journal to learn to identify their feelings, select from three actions they might take when feeling this way and reflect on what makes them feel the way they do. “Great for an older child to express their emotions and thoughts.”
Unlock It! Number Match
These corresponding keys and locks give children hands-on practice with number recognition, matching and counting from 1 to 20—while building motor skills. Children simply match the number on a key to the number word or stars on a lock. If the numbers match, the key will turn—and the lock will open for instant reinforcement. “Fine motor skills and sorting.”
Zoo Fishin’ Fox
Complete with three different size floating fish and a weighted hook for easier fishing, this cute fox fishing pole even makes a “reel” cranking sound for an extra splash of bathtime fun.
Little Big Playroom Ball Pit
Create hours of fun and entertainment providing a safe and highly effective space for children to develop motor and sensory skills based on science. Fits up to 3 kids. “Sturdy sensory toy, great size.”
To see parent and therapist-approved everyday products for individuals with special needs, visit specialneedsresourcefoundationofsandiego.com/useful-products
WHERE WE SHOP
Known for their teacher and related services discounts, we guarantee you that many of the toys in your OT, PT, or SLP’s stash come from Lakeshore. They carry a fantastic collection of music toys and often have discounted packs of 5 or 12 for classroom settings. Before the rest of the world caught on to the importance of diverse colors of dolls and STEAM teaching products, Lakeshore had a wide variety of culturally significant toys and science projects. Large print books, toys that help teach about money handling, social skills toys, book-related teaching aids and large-quantity, high-quality craft supplies are in abundance. Our favorite section is near the register, where they typically have a variety of fidgets, stocking stuffers and THE best selection of pencil grips for supporting handwriting skills. Located in Hazard Center Shopping Center in Mission Valley or online.
This online resource features really great alternatives for teaching hard-to grasp ideas like fractions and storyline intent. They also carry a variety of sensory products and social emotional skills builders. Perhaps our favorite section is the one devoted to a multi-sensory approach to literacy. Parent resources teach parents how to use their toys to teach tough subjects like math in a fun, effective and often tactile way. The company is available online to tackle an individualized approach to learning and is therefore well suited to supporting home learners.
This online store is one-stop-shop for sensory needs. If your child struggles to stay seated and maintain attention, if they have trouble regulating their emotions, or if they crave sensory stimuli, there is a product on this website for them. More than a toy store, they specialize in seating, sleeping and calming solutions to some of our biggest home challenges as well as fun and empowering awareness gear to support diversity and inclusion.
At first glance, the Lottie dolls seem like your average make believe play dolls, and this is why they are important. The diversity displayed by the dolls is subtle and just what we need right now. All the dolls are inspired by real kids. The full Finn doll playset is our favorite, as Finn loves astronauts and has Autism. He communicates with a PECS-style system of cards, has glasses that help him with glare, has noise canceling headphones that help with loud sounds and is the proud owner of a therapy dog. His friend Rosie Boo has Down Syndrome which is hinted at by her odd socks (a movement within the Down Syndrome community) and ankle supports for walking. Mia is a Black photographer for the school newspaper with a cochlear implant. Lottie dolls are made to the exact proportions of the children they represent, so you won’t find body image issues here.
If you really want to understand the popularity of this sensory toy brand, we suggest you head to TikTok and watch the thousands of videos posted by neurodiverse fidget enthusiasts. Most will talk about the benefits of their beautiful, fun, hand-sized, sensory squeezie balls and noodles, but we also love their volleyball-sized, neon fabric balls which are perfect for hugging and can be used on a long flight as an airline pillow. We discovered, quite by accident, that they glow under black light in our school sensory room, which only added to our enjoyment. Nobody gets kneading like Nee Doh.
We love this king of the sensory putty industry for its variety and beauty, but the website also offers a unique array of science experiments and crafts based on their product. Our fascination began with the space putties and then blossomed with the magnetic putties, with which we could easily lose an hour hypnotized by the putty reacting to magnets and moving on its own. The addition of scents opened up a whole new world, and if you ever owned scented markers as a kid, you will truly understand the draw of this product. Made in the USA and created by a certified science geek, this is one of THE best stocking stuffers on the market.
Inspired by Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences, this toy group takes a multi-sensory approach to play and learning. We love the organization of this website, as parents can search by age and child’s play needs. Our favorite toys include a realistic baby doll with Down Syndrome, providing feelings of positive identity and creating a diverse playroom, a mirror with tabs to name feelings, the translucent Conexion toy that teaches spatial awareness, dimension and surface area in a visual and tangible way, and their wide array of sensory and emotional intelligence tools and toys.
PAST FAVORITES AND CLASSIC TOYS
Lottie Doll Finn & Friends Loyal Companion–INCLUSION
Finn is a doll inspired by a little boy with a passion for all things space-related, who just happens to have Autism. Representation of diversity in the toy-box matters, and this toy depicts a neurodiverse tween who uses noise-canceling headphones, communicates through PECS-type visual cards and uses a therapy dog. This toy was a favorite among all our reviewers and the website has a lot of great content to support cooperative play. Finn’s friend dolls include child activists and kids of color. His friend Rosie Boo has Down Syndrome which is hinted at by her odd socks (a movement within the Down Syndrome community) and ankle supports for walking. Mia is a black photographer for the school newspaper with a cochlear implant.
Sense & Grow Memory Matching Game–VISUAL IMPAIRMENT
Shuffle and match the 26 pairs of textured cards for hours of interactive play and motor skills development. Essentially a memory matching game, this set has the added bonus of having rough, ridged, slick or sandy textures, so kids don’t just have to rely on sight memory. Great for kids who are blind or are vision impaired.
Fidget Marble Maze–HAND STRENGTH/PROBLEM SOLVING
This fun, portable, occupational therapy tool is a great fidget for doctor office visits and quiet playtime at school. The student pushes a small marble through an enclosed, quilted, fabric maze. Besides being fun, it helps build fine motor skills. Fidget Marble Maze also provides a sense of accomplishment, allowing for confidence as a warm-up before higher-skilled tasks. Our teacher and therapy reviewers said, “It’s a great, soft fidget toy that won’t hurt others if thrown.” Mom reviewers love that it could be easily tossed in the washer.
A great toy for building children’s gross motor skills, balance and coordination. The rainbow-colored pieces with textured surfaces allow children to safely balance and gain confidence while the rubbery bottom edges prevent slipping and are perfect for obstacle courses and field day play. Each stump and log is made of injection molded, durable plastic with non-slip top surfaces and bases. Our therapist reviewer’s thoughts: “I like the different sizes and colors. They have great traction which makes them very stable. They don’t flip or move.”
Wishbone Bike RE2 3in1-BALANCE
All-in-one learn to walk and ride system. Lightweight, stable and fun to use, this bike and the packaging is from post-consumer recycled bottles and carpet. Begin with the security of three wheels then transform into a balance bike with the included conversion. Lasts longer, lighter weight and lower carbon than steel. One parent reviewer says, “Sturdy bike, all recycled products, easy to put together, durable.” Mom Emily says, “This is AWESOME for kids that have the trunk strength to hold themselves up. I had a little sticker shock at first, but after I used the bike and I read the company’s mission, my reaction was, ‘take my money!’ This is a great bike and the type of sustainability I am searching for in today’s products.”
Classic Nee Doh-SENSORY
Nee Doh is the Groovy Glob. Feeling stressed out? You knead Nee Doh. Give it a squeeze or a smush for a calming experience. “Good price for a teacher. Not sticky, great texture.
Kinetic Sand Sandisfactory Set-SENSORY
With over 10 different tools and molds, and two pounds of Kinetic Sand, there are so many ways to create. Kinetic Sand flows through your hands and never dries out. With red, blue, yellow, and rare black Kinetic Sand, you can mix them together to create new colors or add marble designs to your creations. Use the clear tools like squisher and cutter to watch your designs transform right before your eyes. Teacher Alicia can’t get enough of Kinetic Sand. “My students love it.”
Crazy Aaron’s Rainbow Thinking Putty: Rainbow-SENSORY
With every twist, pull and stretch, uncover a sparkling band of colors in your very hands. Made in the USA from nontoxic silicone and never dries out. Stretch it, bounce it, pop it, tear it and sculpt it. Whether you are camo crazed, monster maniacs, rainbow enthusiasts or fairyland followers, you are sure to be mesmerized. Thinking Putty is manufactured with the help of exceptional individuals with disabilities.
Our Occupational Therapist reviewer said, “All their putty is great! This one has a little texture and some kids might enjoy that added element.”
Nee Doh Dohzee-SENSORY
Unlike the Nee Doh Groovy Glob, this neon, volleyball-sized pillow is filled with Styrofoam beads that make it super soft and squishy to hold and won’t hurt when thrown. Our reviewer said, “It works great as a pillow to use on long flights with kids. We also found out, quite by accident, that the orange and yellow neon glows under the blacklight of our sensory room, which kids love.”
Land of Dough from Crazy Aaron’s: Santa Play Dough–SENSORY, SUSTAINABILITY
From plant-based colors and compostable glitters to paper packaging, Land of Dough strives to minimize the environmental impact of their product. All of their Luxe Dough Cups feature multi-layered designs for amazing play value. Land of Dough is made in the USA, in a wind-powered facility using reclaimed landfill gas as a heat source. Each batch is carefully handcrafted with the finest natural ingredients and the signature wood play tools are sourced using sustainable forestry practices. Our reviewers said, “Not only is this toy the great sensory experience we have come to expect from Crazy Aaron’s, it’s also made with all the eco-friendly qualities we love. Plus, it’s a beautiful stocking stuffer!”
It is fun to toss into the air, easy to catch and extremely addictive and an awesome stress reliever. It has a soft touch, is fun to hold and hard to put down. It is ideal for occupational therapy, special needs and more. Safe to throw, easy to catch, and just plain fun to play. Available in an array of popular colors. “Great toy. Love these.”
Noodlies are brightly colored in five fluorescent tones and offer a unique sensory play experience that creates loads of endless fun. Toss them around with friends or squeeze a handful when you want to mellow out. Our reviewer said, “Fun to knot and untangle. Great stretch.”
Dr. Calmer’s Relaxing Sand-TACTILE, SENSORY
Made with actual riverbed sand, this product gives an incredible tactile experience for stress relief and focus. Gently stretch, knead, and roll it in your hands. It is scent-free, doesn’t create a mess, and never dries out. Our reviewers said, “Better than most, good texture, stays together.”
ColorMix Sensory Tubes–ZEN/CALM
Children practice managing their emotions with this set that offers a relaxing experience as you shake it to mix the colors and then watch as they slowly separate again. These securely sealed and easy-to-grip jumbo tubes help children focus on being in the moment in a meditative manner. New square-end caps allow the tubes to be used vertically and horizontally, preventing them from rolling away. Although our reviewers wished they were weighted to prevent them from falling, most agreed they are great for wheelchair tray viewing and to teach rudimentary science skills.
Soccer Guys-KIDS WHO LIKE TO CATEGORIZE
With no set rules or directions, children will play by using their imaginations. These small plastic soccer players can be used anywhere by one or more players. The feedback we hear from families of kids with special needs is that these toys give their child a different type of way to participate in a sport that they may not be able to physically participate in. As for the size of the figures, they are just perfect for little hands to maneuver. Includes 22 Guys, felt field, referee, ball and goals. “Some kids with Autism love to line toys up and categorize them. These toys are exceptional for that and have a great bin for travel and storage.”
Marbotic Lowercase Smart Letters-ACC LEARNING
Developed by an engineer working as a tutor, inspiring an idea to mesh high-quality toys with high-quality learning apps to make reading an engaging experience. These wooden play pieces are charming and durable. Used in tandem with a tablet, the alphabet shapes interact with easily downloadable apps to make learning fun, motivating and exciting. Children quickly learn how to play independently while actively learning. Our therapy reviewers said, “This is very interactive and works on visual, fine motor skills, sequencing and bilateral upper body movement. Great tool to improve spelling and early literacy.”
Dolce Primo Anteater- SENSORY
Our favorite new baby toy! Your child can explore the sensory elements of the soft fabrics, flaps, tabs and rattling beads while learning hand-eye coordination skills. Dolce stands for Develop, Observe, Learn, Create, Educate. This toy engages the all the senses while your child is developing neural pathways during the most important time in their development. Says Grandma Tam, “My grandson won’t sleep without it. It’s soft and fits the shape of his body making it perfect for cuddling.” Reviewer Emily says, “This is my favorite new shower gift because my nephew enjoyed it so much and the price point is very fair.”
Blockaroo Windmill-PROBLEM SOLVING
These soft foam magnetic blocks click together like magic, rotate 360-degrees, and always attract to each other, creating a multi-sensory experience. Explore shapes, colors, and frustration-free stacking with soft foam blocks that are safe, easy to handle, and connect like magic. “Amazing toy! Blocks move in so many different ways and produce a satisfying clicking sound. Endless combinations and the magnets make it easy to connect pieces,” says Natalie.
Diversity Etni Multiplay Doll-INCLUSION
Great way for young children to acquire skills and personal autonomy. Child will learn to dress and undress him/herself through playing with the dolls. Great for SEL (social emotional learning) and role play.
Baby Doll Down Syndrome-INCLUSION
This doll helps to raise kids’ awareness of diversity and inclusion, promoting values of equality, integration and acceptance.
Sensory Fidget Toy Kit
The eight toys in this kit provide cues to help children deal with big emotions, calm their minds and bodies, reduce anxiety and stress, and practice quiet focus. Each hands-on fidget toy offers a unique experience, allows for independent play, and helps children become resilient learners who respond positively to any challenge. “A nice assortment of fidget products to help students with focus, stress and self-soothing,” says Emma.
UNO Braille Edition-VISUAL IMPAIRMENT
Designed in partnership with the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), UNO Braille features braille on the corner of each playing card to indicate the card’s color, number or action. It is easy for everybody – both sighted and blind and low vision players – to play together. “Inclusive game for kids with visual impairments. Allows kids with vision impairment to play cards with their peers,” says Richard.
Set of natural rubber sensory balls made of soft material, they are easy to grip and suitable for handling and biting. Their different colors and textures enhance sensory stimulation-both tactile and visual, contributing to the development of children’s motor skills. “Six different textures and colors. Great for visual and tactile senses, as well as fine motor skills,” says Janet.
Find the Number Activity Center-NUMERIC. UNDERSTANDING/HAND STRENGTH
Children just grab an activity card and identify which numbers they need to find…then use the tweezers to search through the tray and pull out each one—matching up numbers or counting objects to 10 as they go.
See My Feelings Mirror-EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE/SELF AWARENESS
$11.99 each; www.Hand2Mind.com
Help children learn to label and identify their emotions with this mirror. Make learning and understanding feelings fun with four guided starter activities, easy-to-identify emojis, and six different snap-in-place emotion slides. Mirror is made from shatterproof glass to ensure safety. “Perfect for imitation and self-expression and I love the diversity in the six faces,” says Laura.
Barbie Fashionista with Wheelchair Assortment and Barbie Fashionista with Prosthetic Leg-INCLUSION
In collaboration with the UCLA Mattel Children’s hospital, the wheelchair is modeled after a real, rigid frame wheelchair. The doll included has an articulated made-to-move body to easily fit in the wheelchair. The wheelchair accessory accommodates all body types offered within the Made-to-Move product line (tall, curvy and original). A ramp accessory is included for seamless play with Barbie Estate items. Barbie Fashionista with Prosthetic Leg has a limb difference and wears a prosthetic leg – kids can easily take it on and off to add a unique element to storytelling. “Helps with the conversation on how we are all alike and different,” says Sally.
American Girl’s 2020 Girl of the Year: Joss Kendrick-INCLUSION
Joss Kendrick is a fierce athlete born with hearing loss and a passion for surfing and competitive cheer. Whether she’s on her surfboard or in the gym, Joss shows girls the importance of trying new things, pushing past stereotypes, and being a good team player. She arrives wearing a swimsuit, hoodie, and shorts, plus a removable hearing aid in her right ear