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When you’re raising a child with a disability or a complex medical condition, you need to adopt a new mindset when it comes to fostering their development and finding the right tools to support it. In 2018, my daughter was diagnosed with a rare genetic deletion that causes a range of developmental delays. Over and over again, doctors would ask me if she had reached this or that milestone. Each time, I answered flatly: no. I struggled to square her “failure” on these tests with the strong, happy baby I held in my arms.
Then I found a blog written by the mother of a child with epilepsy. The author’s motto of “taking life one inchstone at a time” made so much sense. A switch flipped. The trajectory for my daughter is still forward—it simply happens at a different pace, and in smaller steps.
“We don’t use milestones,” said Marybeth Finch, MSPT, a physical therapist and infant development specialist at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland, California, who coordinates a developmental program for babies and toddlers with intellectual and physical disabilities and their caregivers. “We’re trained to use toys as tools—that’s what separates us from a typical playgroup,” she explained. “We break child development down into many steps, small pieces of big milestones.”
When it comes to assembling your own toy toolbox, what should be in it? My daughter is now 3½, and after dozens of appointments with specialists; hundreds of hours in physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech and language therapy; and years of trial and error, I’m sharing some of our favorite toys, games, and gear. Some of the recommendations are from Wirecutter’s guides to the best gifts for kids, some are from the bags of therapists, and others are toys I’ve discovered on my own that engage and delight my daughter (and, often, my 8-year-old typically developing son).
Specialists often group infant and child development into different “domains,” such as gross motor skills, fine motor skills, cognition, communication, self-help, and emotional range. The toys and gear in this guide cover many of these areas. But the most important thing, Finch reminded me, is to consider each individual child’s personality. “They’re children first. You can show up with the best laid plan, but the first rule of the toy is they need to love it.”
A perfectly textured, lightweight rattle
Many wooden or plastic “baby” rattles are too heavy for some babies and children to hold. Weighing in at a quarter of an ounce, this brightly colored, woven maraca is pure magic. An occupational therapist introduced it to my 8-month-old daughter by rubbing the slight ridges across her palm; the maraca was the first object she held on her own. The single bell inside gives just the right amount of auditory and tactile feedback. And its primary-color palette is bold enough to spark intrigue from across the floor.
The toy in every occupational therapist’s bag
When my daughter was 9 months old, she loved this ferris wheel spinner—a “therapy kid” favorite—right away. Even a gentle pat of the animal-shaped levers results in a vigorous and satisfying whirl. The animals are big enough to press with a palm, which is an important—and hard-to-find—feature in toys for children who are working on their finger control and pincer grasp. A single switch controls both power and volume, and the spinner comes equipped with a suction-cup base, so you can attach it securely to a table or the floor. As I write this, the catchy tune is playing in my head. You may find yourself singing it in your sleep.
Musical toys for developing finger control
Most toy piano keys are too narrow for children who are working on their fine motor skills, especially kids who are still transitioning from manipulating objects with their palms or a “pad” of multiple fingers to using a single pointer finger. And if a child deems a toy too intimidating or frustrating, they may give up on it altogether. My daughter had little interest in toys with buttons or keys until I discovered this Baby Einstein piano. It has four wide, square buttons, with raised numbers for added grippiness. With each press, she’s rewarded with a single tone or deluxe étude and light show. For a less-tricked-out version, or for children with photosensitivity, try the classic Little Tikes Tap-A-Tune. For a more-portable musical toy with the same wide keys to target, my daughter loves this Fisher-Price Buggie. But be warned, the Dora-like voice might lodge itself deep in your psyche.
Playskool’s Busy Poppin’ Pals, a favorite from Wirecutter’s guide to the best gifts for 1-year-olds, has been around since 1980. Today’s version is made from thick, durable plastic, includes a carrying handle, and has been updated with a color palette of bright pastels. Its button, knob, and levers suit a range of fine motor skills—from grasping with the palm to multi-finger or pointer-finger manipulation—so this toy delights kids in a range of ages and abilities. The tension and sound effects designed into the controls are, I’ll venture to say, perfect. With every push, twist, or flick, a corresponding cuddly animal pops up with a crisp snap. Pushing them back down is equally satisfying, cuing a sense of finality and accomplishment. And even for this pandemic-weary parent, the animal figures are irresistibly cute.
Flashcards you can throw in the wash
With the guidance of my daughter’s speech and language therapist, I’ve been using flashcards to establish the building blocks for communication. When I hold one up, I wait for my daughter’s non-verbal cues—eye contact, a smile, a hand wave—and then I speak the letter or word on the card. Aside from establishing this kind of shared attention, flashcards motivate my daughter to sit up straight and build her trunk strength. These soft alphabet cards are recommended in Wirecutter’s guide to the best gifts for 1-year-olds, and I own a similar set. Both include a carrying case with drawstring closure, and, better yet, they’re machine-washable. Long after my daughter gnawed the corners off the typical cardstock versions, our set of soft, washable alphabet cards remains in near-perfect condition. They’re thick and lightweight, too, which means she can pick them up on her own.
A fun and supportive wiggle seat
I first spotted a stack of Bilibos in my son’s kindergarten classroom. They were available for children with ADHD—or for any 5-year-old feeling extra-wiggly—to help them focus during circle time on the floor. My daughter started occupational therapy when she was 8 months old and recovering from surgery. The first several sessions were challenging for her, so the therapist made sure to begin with an activity she enjoyed. The therapist placed the Bilibo on the floor, and, as my daughter reclined in it, gave it a few gentle twirls. The Bilibo became her favorite warmup, hands down. Made of rigid plastic, the concave seat cupped her body so she could relax and revel in the sensation of weightlessness. She still loves an occasional twirl and (more commonly these days) when her older brother wears it on his head for endless rounds of peek-a-boo. The Bilibo also comes in a mini size, which can be used as a water toy, a sand shovel, or a cap for a favorite stuffed animal.
A soothing and sturdy melodic wobble toy
The clerk at a local children’s boutique recommended this adorable penguin wobbler for its gentle, windchime-like melody, which pleases babies and caregivers alike. The wood base has enough heft that the penguin can wobble in place (it won’t roll away on a hard surface), yet it responds to even the lightest tap. Once my daughter had developed the coordination and strength to bat at it, on several occasions she successfully launched it from her highchair tray onto the hardwood floor below. After more than three years of use—and in spite of some (kid-safe) paint she’s gnawed off its nose—the penguin remains in excellent, jingle-ready shape.
You may think you don’t need this cordless, rechargeable bubble machine, which can supply hours of bubbles on the go. You could get away with a cheaper, battery-powered bubble machine—unless there’s a global pandemic, and an impromptu dance party in the street lures neighbors out of their houses to revel in a long-forgotten feeling called joy. Kids are off their devices, momentarily, delighting in the music and bubbles, lots and lots of bubbles … and you can sit back without worrying about dead batteries and disappointed kids. As for bubble solution, I’ve blown a lot of bubbles in my life, and I don’t mess around with a watery mix. I insist on this premium bubble blend, which produces thicker, more-iridescent orbs. A wonderful thing about bubbles is that they are so accessible: Kids can enjoy them with their eyes, hands, or whole bodies, from just about any position. My daughter tracks them with her eyes and reaches up, left, and right to pop them with her hand.
Dolls for all kinds of kids
My daughter loved to play with the toy dolls available at the public libraries in our neighborhood. When libraries shuttered during the pandemic, I decided to invest in a few dolls of our own. I opted for this Miniland doll, which has natural (not exaggerated) Asian features; with a bob and blunt bangs, the doll even resembles my daughter. I recently learned about the full range of Miniland dolls created to foster kindness and acceptance in children. The collection includes infant and toddler dolls with a range of skin colors and features, and dolls with glasses and with a hearing aid. I’ve used this doll with facial features common in children with Down syndrome as a tool in conversations about gender differences and chromosomal anomalies with my 8-year-old son.
There’s a physiological reason why kids love swings. The rocking motion stimulates the vestibular and proprioceptive senses, which help kids’ brains understand their bodies’ physical relationship to space. Harkla’s Sensory Swing has the added benefit of providing a cocoon-like embrace. It’s made of sturdy, stretchy fabric that’s opaque enough to filter out surroundings while being sheer enough to bathe the skin in a soothing wash of colored light. Though many fabric swings are less expensive, the Harkla swing accommodates up to 200 pounds, so a child can swing with an adult or with another child. And it includes the hardware you’ll need to securely install one in your home. We’ve also tried this pod swing from Harkla, but we found the canvas to be a bit stiff, and in the end my kids preferred the comfort of the stretchier fabric. Cocoon swings are a niche product marketed to the autism community, but who among us wouldn’t love to chill out in a swinging hug? The more I research items for children with “special” needs, the more convinced I become about the universality of the human condition.
Marybeth Finch, MSPT, physical therapist and infant development specialist, UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland
About your guide
Julie Kim is based in Brooklyn, New York. Her essays about raising a disabled child in an ableist world have appeared in The Atlantic, A Cup of Jo, and The Cut. Long ago, she earned a master’s degree in design, a grueling and expensive career misstep that she’s thrilled to finally put to good use reviewing inclusive products for Wirecutter.
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