The best gifts for children with special needs, according to a behavior expert

These ten toys are effective in both therapy for children with special needs and at home for children of all abilities.
by AJ Rodrigue /  / Updated  / Source: TODAY

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“On your mark … Get set … Go!"

I cheer in delight and crash the toy car into the paper blocks. Today, the child I am working with learned to respond to fill-in-the-blank statements and improve his language skills using simple toys and lots of energy.

As a behavior analyst, my daily life consists of treating children with autism spectrum disorders and then coming home and implementing similar practices with my own children. I use the same toys in the same way. Why? Because all kids like to have fun while they are learning. The challenge lies in finding developmentally appropriate toys and creating opportunities for learning and play.

An even bigger challenge? Finding non-electronic toys that will also yield great benefits for early learners. Toys are only as fun as we make them, so bringing them to life adds to the learning experience. Here are our top 10 toys that are effective in both therapy and at home for children of all abilities.

1. Melissa & Doug On the Go Water Wow, $10, Amazon

TODAY editors, writers and experts take care to recommend items we really like and hope you’ll enjoy! Just so you know, TODAY does have affiliate relationships. So, while every product is independently selected, if you buy something through our links, we may get a small share of the revenue.

Also available for $5 at Target.

Age Range: 3+

Skill: Fine Motor and Visual Perception

Pro Tip: Label each item they paint to increase expressive language.

2. Melissa & Doug Wooden Latch Board, $21 (usually $25), Amazon

Also available for $21 at Target.

Age Range: 3+

Skill: Fine Motor, Receptive Language, Math

Pro Tip: Have the learner touch each animal inside the door to practice counting.

3. Playskool Mr. Potato Head, $11, Amazon

Similar available at for $7 at Walmart.

Age Range: 2+

Skill: Fine Motor, Expressive and Receptive Language

Pro Tip: Have the learner find their body part before putting it on the toy.

4. Melissa & Doug Band-in-a-Box Clap! Clang! Tap!, 10-Piece Musical Instrument Set, $20 (usually $25), Amazon

Also available for $20 at Walmart.

Age Range: 3+

Skill: Expressive Language and Play

Pro Tip: Sing the child's favorite song while shaking the instruments, then pause briefly for them to fill in the lyric.

5. Melissa & Doug Extra-Thick Cardboard Building Blocks, $21 (usually $25), Amazon

Also available for $22 at Target.

Age Range: 2+

Skill: Play, Motor and Social

Pro Tip: Challenge your learner to take turns with a peer building a tower together.

6. "Let's Play" by Herve Tullet, $10 (usually $16), Amazon

Also available for $4 at Barnesandnoble.

Age Range: 3+

Skill: Following instructions, Attending skills, Fine motor, Play

Pro Tip: Use silly voices as you read to bring the book to life

7. Latex Balloons Bulk 8 Color Party Balloons, $10 (usually $20), Amazon

Also available for $6 at Target.

Age Range: 2+ (with close supervision)

Skills: Play, Cooperation, Expressive Language, Motor, Oral motor

Pro Tip: Start blowing up a balloon then stop and ask the learner to tell you to blow more. Continue several times. This will provide motivation to use language.

8. Liberty Imports 120 Piece Deluxe Pretend Play Food, $20 (usually $30), Amazon

Also available for $23 at Walmart.

Age Range: 2+

Skill: Play, Imitation, Sequencing, Expressive and Receptive language

Pro Tip: Work on imitation by pretending to take big bites of food then provide verbal praise when the learner copies you.

9. Melissa & Doug Farm Wooden Chunky Puzzle, $10, Amazon

Also available for $10 at Bed, Bath and Beyond.

Age Range: 2+

Skill: Fine motor, Visual spatial, Language

Pro Tip: Puzzles can be boring so boost the fun making the animal sound when the learner puts the missing piece in the puzzle.

10. GoFit Core Ab Ball (Medicine ball), $16, Amazon

Also available for $17 at Hayneedle.

Age Range: All

Skill: Gross motor

Pro Tip: Using a larger ball can help teach large motor movements like kicking, throwing, rolling or tossing. Set up some cones and have the learner roll the big ball down the lane to play an adapted version of bowling.

AJ Rodrigue is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) with two energetic kiddos and two angels above. She founded The Behavior Momma, a platform that helps parents connect with their kids using simple, behavioral-science strategies. AJ believes that behavior analysis is a life-changing methodology that can help anyone with anything.

Looking for more suggestions? Check out the gift guide for babies, 1-year olds, 2-year-olds, 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds. Or try Good Housekeeping’s 2017 ‘Best Toy Award’ winners.

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