The number of children being diagnosed with some form of additional needs seems to be increasing, and along with it, the number of parents seeking relevant toys and learning aids. Samantha Loveday finds out how the toy industry is addressing the needs of this group of parents and children

Focus on special educational needs toys

Writing in the July issue of ToyNews as part of our Parent Network, Tina Bailey (or The Mother Geek as she’s known online) highlighted the lack of information available in the UK from toy retailers and manufacturers for parents of additional needs children.

“It’s clear that an opportunity exists over here for mainstream retailers – and manufacturers – to address this market more clearly,” Bailey wrote.

“While most product listings will show age suitability, very few address children with additional needs.”
This is a growing area as the number of diagnoses increases on a yearly basis. But some toy companies are responding to the requests from parents of children with special educational needs (SEN).

“There’s no accepted definition of what falls into special needs, but they can largely be split (although there’s significant overlap) into physical (mobility, sight, hearing, etc), cognitive (dyslexia, Down’s Syndrome, global development delay) and behavioural/social (ADD/ADHD, autism/ Asperger’s),” explains The Good Toy Guide’s Dr Amanda Gummer.

“How children differ in their play patterns depends on the diagnosis. Children with ADHD often aren’t able to stick to rules of games, but they tend to enjoy physical games.

“Children on the autistic spectrum may struggle with team games or activities and these children also tend to prefer predictability and routine, so games with surprises and illogical consequences may not appeal.”

Another member of our Parent Network and special needs parent – Jeannette Cripps (Autism Mumma online) – wrote in our April issue about how her two children, who both have autism, don’t play in the conventional sense.

“You learn to only buy those toys or gadgets that you know your child will gain some benefit from,” she told us.


So what is out there for parents looking for SEN toys?

Play to Z and Coiledspring Games are two companies which feel strongly about providing for the sector.
“When I’m designing a resource for a child with SEN I think about the child as a child first, then consider their needs,” Sue Gascoyne from Play to Z explains to ToyNews.

“Obviously the end product needs to meet their needs, but it’s also essential for me that it does not end up looking sterile and clinical looking, like lots of SEN resources.”

“They should be able to have bright, funky and fun resources which other children might also want. The open-endedness of our resources is great not only for encouraging exploration and play, but also it means that they do not restrict play to particular ages.”

Rachael Wyatt, marketing manager at Coiledspring Games, also raises the subject of games which don’t need adapting – meaning there isn’t a special edition; the only adaptation is the way you play the games.

“If we look at a handful of developmental areas such as speech and language, memory and numbers, then it’s possible to adapt games that are designed to encourage those areas – often referred to as crossover toys,” says Wyatt.

“Even if a game doesn’t seem to have any SEN slant, developmental areas such as focus and attention and social play will be encouraged by almost any game.

“You’re asking your players to sit and concentrate, understand rules and learn the social aspects of playing games – taking turns and playing with others.”


Another area of frustration for parents is the higher price tag of some toys in the SEN market.

“At Play to Z we’re very conscious of the high price that can be automatically attached to SEN resources,” says Gascoyne.

“We try to keep our prices keen without compromising on their quality and play value.

“What’s equally critical is finding a resource that is quality made, so that it lasts, and getting the right resource which appeals to their child in the first place.

“We can’t be 100 per cent certain that a resource will work for a particular child, but our knowledge of children’s play and SEN means that we have a good chance of being able to offer a winning solution.”


So what should the toy industry be doing to grow this sector?

“The parents I know who have children with SEN are some of the most resourceful I’ve met, but the industry could do more to help by providing more alternative ways to play,” says Coiledspring’s Wyatt.

“Listen to your customers. The Creativity Hub did this brilliantly when parents and carers were asking for a larger version of Rory’s Story Cubes.

“Some people have limited mobility and some lack the fine motor skills needed to pick up the 9mm cubes. They listened to what their customers were saying and developed Rory’s Story Cubes: Max, 30mm cubes that are easier to pick up and also great for group work, encouraging social play.”

Dr Gummer adds: “I’d like to see more good toys on the market designed to promote inclusive play and be accessible for children with additional needs. I’d also like to see more help for parents from toy manufacturers about the benefits of particular toys for children with SEN.”


Dyspraxia Foundation advisors played a key role in developing the ‘Movement Curriculum’ on which all spells are based in Tree Fu Tom.

Spells incorporate movements typically used by occupational therapists and physiotherapists to help children with movement/coordination disorders such as dyspraxia.

They are designed to help all children – regardless of whether they have any movement challenges – to learn, practice and perfect the key skills crucial for movement development.

This includes balance, shoulder and pelvic stability, bilateral integration, spatial awareness, fine motor control, trunk rotation, proprioception (body awareness) and midline crossing.

Magic is an essential to Tree Fu Tom, and children are encouraged to participate in the movement-based spells to affect the end of episodes.

Dyspraxia Foundation movement specialists Sally Payne and Dr Lynda Foulder-Hughes worked closely with the series choreographer, Nick Kellington, to develop unique spell movement sequences.

Payne and Foulder-Hughes provided feedback on video recordings of the draft spell sequences, suggesting improvements to ensure that they present just the right challenge for children from three to seven years, including those with dyspraxia.

They then joined Kellington at a local school where small groups of children were filmed doing the spell movement sequences to check they were achievable and engaging, and find the right pace Tom should do the movements so that children could follow.

Payne adds: “Awareness of dyspraxia remains low comapred to other common developmental disorders. Tree Fu Tom offers a unique opportunity to raise the profile of this much missed and misunderstood condition.”

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