Therapeutic Toys

By Brittany Gartner

As a therapist, I always get asked what kinds of toys parents should buy for their kids that have therapeutic benefits! The great news is that you can find toys that are perfect for practicing gross motor skills where you already shop for toys! Target, Walmart, and other local department stores have a great variety of toys that can be used for specific motor tasks. There are some things you want to pay attention to and things you want to avoid when purchasing toys for your kids who are working on motor skills or have gross motor challenges. Whether your child has a birthday coming up or just want to buy them something special, this list will help you find the perfect toys to get. They are so fun; your child won’t even know that they are doing therapeutic activities!

Ride on toys are great for kids who aren’t yet walking to explore their environment and independent mobility. These are even great for kids who CAN walk to improve their leg strength and coordination and prepare them for riding a bicycle later!

When choosing a ride on toy, here are some things to look for:

  • Make sure the toy is low to the ground so that your child’s feet can rest completely on the ground. This gives them the best chance to push the toy forward and backward, using their balance, strength and coordination!
  • Check to make sure the seat is wide enough that your child can safely sit on it. If your child has trouble sitting up by himself, opt for a ride on toy that has a higher back for extra support.

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Plasma Cars are great for older kids that have good sitting balance. Plasma cars encourage your child to use his core strength for balance, and his upper body strength to propel the car forward while his feet rest on the car. This toy also promotes great motor planning, which is your child’s ability to plan out his actions before he does it.

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Bolsters are great to use for positioning in bed, on the floor, in front of toys or activities, and more!  If your child is working on head control, he can lie on his tummy with the bolster under his chest to give him a little extra support. Place a musical toy or colorful book in front of your child to encourage him to lift his head up. You can find many different patterns, shapes, and sizes!

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Floor scooters are great for kids to use to explore different ways of mobility. Your child can sit on these and scoot around with his legs, lie on his tummy and push himself with his hands, or put his knees on the floor and crawl with the scooter. There are certain kinds that link onto other scooters to make a fun “train”. Whether you buy only one scooter, or you buy two and link them together, this is a great way for your child to use motor planning skills, strength, balance and coordination. It is also a great chance for your child to use his imagination and perceptual skills.

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Alphabet floor blocks are great for kids to use as visual targets for jumping and foot placement. They are also great for matching, letter recognition and naming, and fine motor skills to put the letters together.   Help your child spell his name or pick out his favorite letters, snap them together and then take turns shouting out which letter to jump to or put your foot on next!

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Small Scooters are great to help kids improve their balance and coordination. It helps your child work on standing on one leg, while pushing forward with the other leg.

When choosing a scooter, here are some things to look for:

  • Look for a scooter that has a wide platform for the feet. Ideally, you want your child to be able to place both feet on the scooter. When he first starts learning how to use this new toy, he will probably want to put both feet on and have YOU push him.
  • Look for scooters that have THREE wheels (two in front and one in the back). This makes the scooter much more stable. You want the scooter to be able to stand up on its own, so that your child can just focus on his own feet, instead of also holding up the scooter.

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Mini Trampolines  (WITH handlebar) are great for kids working on jumping skills. These child-sized trampolines are great because the mat is much more flexible and your child will get more “bang for his buck”, which means that he can jump with less effort, but still get the great reward of movement. The handle is important for safety and to help with balance as he learns to jump on the trampoline! If your child’s jumping skills are more advanced, you can have him hold on to the handle and practice jumping with just ONE foot to prepare for the skill of hopping!

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Small Exercise Balls are great for SO many different activities: sitting for balance, bouncing for sensory input, lying on tummy for weight bearing on arms, and MORE! You can get these in many different shapes and sizes. A smaller ball would allow your child to sit with his feet on the floor and play alone. A larger ball can be used for a fun parent-child interaction/bonding activity. Larger balls are even great for kids with lower head control to experience movement through space! Place your child on his back or tummy over the large ball and move the ball back/forth and side to side. A peanut shaped ball would allow your child to straddle the ball with one leg on each side to work on balance and fun movement. These come in a variety of sizes and fun colors!

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Plastic shopping carts are great for kids who are learning to walk (for support) or kids with sensory needs (you can put heavy things in the cart and let them push it to get some special sensory input). You can play fun games with your child by giving him a household item to go find and place in the cart! For kids with lower muscle tone or other physical challenges, shopping carts are usually better than traditional “walkers” because they are heavier and your child can control the speed more easily.

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River Stones (or other stepping stone toys) are great for practicing balance, stepping patterns, and coordination! You can play lots of really fun games with these or let you child use his imagination, while challenging his balance! Take turns calling out different colors with your child to help him with color recognition as well.

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Dr. Suess “I Can Do That” game is a fun game for the whole family that gives your child fun gross motor activities to do (crawling, jumping, skipping, running), but he will never know he is learning and growing because the game is so much fun!

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Boppy pillows can be used for a variety of different gross motor skills, including: tummy time, working on head control, or learning to sit. For tummy time and head control, lay your child on his tummy with the pillow under the chest to promote upright head posture. For sitting activities, you can put the boppy pillow behind your child around his waist for a little extra support. If your child is in the very early stages of sitting, you can put it around his waist in FRONT and the pillow will give the child something to put his arms on for support. This will help him hold his head up.

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Sometimes our friends at the toy companies make things that seem fun and convenient, but can actually be more harmful than good to our children who have muscle imbalances or need extra help with their gross motor skills. Below is a list of toys that you should avoid, or at least talk with your child’s therapist before using:

Johnny Jump Ups look so fun and they can be great for occupying your child while you cook dinner or throw a load of laundry in the dryer. But, unfortunately, they can be really harmful to some children—especially children with low muscle tone, hip dysplasia or other muscle/joint imbalances. The seat of the jumper puts your child’s legs in a very awkward and unnatural positon that can put strain on his hip joints. Children with low or impaired muscle tone do not have the joint integrity to hold the hips in place when put in this position for a long period of time.

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Walkers can also be really convenient and allow your child to have some early mobility before they are able to walk or crawl on their own. Unfortunately, these walkers have some drawbacks as well. The seat on the walkers also place your child’s hips in a very poor position, and for children with low muscle tone, this can compromise the integrity of his joints and muscles. These walkers can also discourage children from wanting to learn to crawl. When they have been “standing up” and interacting with the world from a tall, standing position, it is very hard for them to transition back to the floor into a crawling position for mobility. Talk with your child’s therapist about these and see what his/her recommendation would be. If you have one of these and don’t want it to go to waste, use them AFTER your child has learned to crawl, and only in short increments of time!

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Bumbo Seats are GREAT for feeding chairs and when you need to keep them safe while washing the dishes. However, if your child has low muscle tone or poor head control, these seats are not very safe or helpful. If your child has trouble holding his head up against gravity or has poor trunk strength, you should avoid these bumbo seats for extended periods of time. Poor positioning in a chair like this can put strain on your child’s neck and back, stretch out muscles that are already weak, and it can put their pelvis is a poor position, making it difficult to sit up. Talk with your child’s therapist about these seats and see what his/her recommendation is for your child.

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