Buzz Lightyear, Tickle Me Elmo, Barbie or the Hot Wheels collection?
That was the question a lot of parents were wondering over the holiday season. But for some parents, these questions are more difficult.
Parents of children with disabilities must not only decide what type of
toy their child would like; they must also decide if the toys are appropriate for their child’s disability. For example, buying a child a fire truck with flashing lights when they have a history of seizures wouldn’t be appropriate.
To help lighten the load for parents of disabled children, the company Lekotek was born.
Lekotek, according to Business and Development Manager Ellen Metrick, “is a network of toy-lending libraries for children with disabilities and their families.”
Lekotek, Swedish for “play library,” was started in Sweden in the 1960s and was brought to the United States in the 1980s to serve a need: to give children with disabilities an opportunity to have toys and to play.
The company has continued to grow, and there are currently 22 centers all across the nation.
“Lekotek has direct service staff that has backgrounds in special education, child life and even physical therapy to find certain toys to accommodate a child’s specific abilities,” she says.
Within time, AblePlay was created.
Ableplay is a toy rating system and website that provides comprehensive information on toys for children with special needs.
According to Lekotek Business Development Director Raiko Mendoza, AblePlay “was created so parents, special educators, therapists and others can make the best decisions when purchasing products for children in their lives with disabilities.”
Mendonza suggests that parents utilize AblePlay, especially because toys are always changing.
Metrick says that AblePlay evaluates the products and provides a rating of 1 to 5 in each of four major disability categories: cognitive, communicative, physical and sensory. Once the rating is complete, AblePlay reports their findings on their website, allowing families to see features of a certain toy and to see how safe it is for their child.
When understanding if a toy is acceptable to a child with disabilities, Mendoza says there are four factors to keep in mind: multi-sensory appeal, method of activation, places the toy will be used and its “opportunities for success.”
Multi-sensory appeal is important because this is where AblePlay or a parent must decide if the toy responds with lights, sounds, or movement to engage the child. The rating includes notes on whether the toy offers contrasting colors, scents or other sensory aspects.
Deborah Campbell, a 41-year-old waitress and single mother, says that sometimes having a child with special needs is “very overwhelming, but is never boring.”
According to Campbell, Zach likes to have things a certain way and is not always easy to calm down.
“Certain noises and lights set him off, “ she says. “He does not like sirens, car alarms, flashing lights or helicopter sounds.”
Especially in Campbell’s case, it could be extremely important that she evaluate toys for Zach based on the method of activation.
The method of activation, according to Mendoza, allows one to see if the toy will provide a challenge without frustration and what the force required is to activate it. Lastly, this step will also allow one to see the number and complexity of steps required for activation.
The third factor is to know the places the toy will be used. Families must understand “if the toy will be easy to store or see if the toy can be used in a variety of positions, such as side-lying or on a wheelchair tray,” says Mendoza.
The last but most important factor is to see the “opportunities for success” for each toy. Parents must be able to understand if the toy will allow the play to be open-ended with no definite rights or wrong,s or if it is adaptable to the child’s individual style, ability and pace.
While toys are expensive, Metrick says that AblePlay can still help families who aren’t able to afford such toys.
“For the families that cannot afford the products, we try to get them in contact with one of our centers,” says Metrick.
According to Metrick, “Toy-lending libraries work much the same as book libraries,” she says. “There is a membership fee for families to participate, but then they are able to borrow toys on a library-loan basis.”
“AblePlay has a terrific vision,” says HOPELights founder Dawn Grosvenor.
HOPELights is a website and magazine “created to reach out to all children and families that face the unique challenges presented by special needs,” says Grosvenor.
“I have spent thousands of dollars over the years ‘experimenting,’ trying to get her adapted to the various sensory issues she has,” she says. “I look at toys to see if they make noises or are animated.”
Because there are so many things to consider when choosing a toy, Grosvenor says the best advice would be to “leave learning out of it and focus on the joy.”
At the end of the day, it is important to understand that toys are still toys.
As Grosvenor explains, as important as it is to evaluate toys to make sure it is safe and appropriate for your children, it is also just as important to keep in mind that toys are meant for fun.
“This is hard for newly diagnosed families, as they are on a mission to buy everything possible that will ‘save’ or ‘change’ their child,” she says. “It is a revelation and personal epiphany that happens along the way of hope and when you learn to accept all that is.”