12 toys and games for neurodivergent children
Kids love to play. Children find fun in the simplest things — and while playing, they’re learning. They learn language, emotions, letters, numbers, dexterity, balance, and innumerable other life lessons. All children have different needs, wants, strengths and weaknesses, and may need to focus on a specific skill. Here we’ve put together a list of 13 toys and games that will bring fun and learning to all children, with a focus on special needs and neurodivergent children —those children who are developing outside of what is considered a “normal trajectory” for neurotypical children.
When supporting neurodivergent children, such as autistic children or those with Down syndrome, it is important to identify their strengths while also providing them skills to improve or desensitize them to weaknesses. Play is a great way to accomplish this. If your child finds a toy engaging, that’s the first step toward building them up!
Fidget toys have gone in and out of favor with all kids over the past few years. Not only are they a fun way to keep your hands busy, but they offer an escape for special needs and neurodivergent children. Fidgets also provide a variety of textures, sounds, and puzzles to increase concentration and build dexterity. These sensory twists, for instance, have a strong texture and an open-ended play goal.
If you’re not sure what type of fidget would suit your child best, you can find a multi-pack of fidget toys to try out different movements, textures, and sounds. It’s an inexpensive way to find out what is most engaging for your child.
Sensory mats provide different input to the body. Sensory mats may include stepping stones or floor tiles of varying texture, a busy mat with multiple textures and sensations, or simply a colorful play mat to engage younger children. While they help to build balance and spatial awareness, they also pose little risk for falls and injury.
Mirrors can be very engaging for neurodivergent children. They offer a chance to study their own expression and emotions, and to simply make funny faces and engage with themselves. A shatter-proof mirror provides a safer alternative to a regular mirror and still provides a fun, engaging way to play!
Wiggle stools and balance toys
Wiggle stools have long been used in classrooms to allow younger and special needs or neurodivergent children, such as those with ADHD or autism, a way to get energy out while remaining seated and lessening disruption. They also help to build core strength and balance. Wiggle stools are fun, as well, keeping bodies moving and brains focused.
For younger kids who are not yet in a school setting or prefer a more active balance toy, the Bilibo provides open-ended fun for all kids. It starts as a seat, but if you turn it over, it’s a dome to climb on — your child can even get creative and turn it into a hat or a pretend turtle! While promoting balance and core strength, these toys also promote creativity and imagination.
Making crafts helps your child with autism, Down syndrome, and other special needs build fine motor skills while also giving them a sense of accomplishment. Crafts can be fun and easy to keep fresh if you focus on seasons, gifts, or upcoming holidays. Picking a texture, sound, or color your child is drawn to can help to engage them and keep their attention, as well!
Chewable toys & jewelry
Children often find comfort in chewing on or sucking on toys. From tiny babies given pacifiers for soothing to autistic kids still seeking sensory stimulation, providing your child with a chewable outlet is a great way to help them cope with daily life. Depending on your child’s age and needs, a chewable stuffed animal or teething toy might be most appropriate. For older kids who are in school or spend their days away from home, you can find jewelry or fidget-type items that are safe for putting into the mouth and can be worn as jewelry or accessories.
Body socks are a great way to help children with sensory issues feel comfortable. They provide consistent pressure over the entire body. This pressure helps the child feel secure while also helping to build body/spatial awareness.
Another way to provide play is with a peapod or fort-type toy. These toys create an enclosed space for your child while often providing full body pressure. This can be soothing to the child while also simply being a fun place to play.
Sensitivity to sound is often a concern for neurodivergent and special needs children. They may want to block out unpleasant noises or focus on sounds they find pleasurable. Musical toys are a great way for children to control their environmental sounds and play at the same time. Musical eggs provide the opportunity for your child to enjoy the colors, sounds, and smooth shapes in a calming way. But for those who enjoy making sounds — and loud sounds at that — a xylophone toy may be a great option.
Engaging, detailed projects
Children often find an area of focus and want to learn all about it. This can change by age and development, but for some neurodivergent children — such as those with autism — it’s not a transient interest. To help build on these interests, consider an engaging and long-term project to focus on it. A train set, for example, allows a child to learn all about trains while also growing fine motor skills through building tracks, creating cities, and even maintaining the trains. Puzzles related to their favorite topic or special interest can be good options, too!
Explore taste and texture
If your neurodivergent child really loves to spend time in the kitchen, you may want to build a solid repertoire of simple recipes that vary in taste, smell, and texture. Bringing kids into the kitchen can be helpful in getting them to try new tastes and experiment more with food. After all, it’s hard to resist something you helped make!
Fine motor skills using crayons & colored pencils
Coloring and using pencils and crayons may not come naturally to children with autism, Down syndrome, or other special needs, but there are simple ways to show your child the fun of creativity while growing their fine motor skills. If your child loves to hunt for surprises, a simple scratch-off book can be a fun way to get them into actually digging into the project. From there, you can move on to more elaborate coloring pages and even full coloring books!
Scent has a larger impact on mood, stress level, and peace than many people understand. A fidget toy or sensory toy that has a relaxing smell, or one with a particularly pleasant smell for your child can help to calm them and help them build tolerance and acceptance of new smells.
Toys and activities for neurodivergent and special needs children are much the same as those for neurotypical children. If the toy engages your child, enriches them, and helps to build tolerance or soothe them, consider it a win!
By Katie Tejada