Play is a language all children speak, and cooperative play with developmentally appropriate toys helps siblings and friends to see the strengths and sameness in one another.

“Regardless of ability or physical limitations, all children want to play,” says Claire Green, president of the Parents’ Choice Foundation, a nonprofit evaluator of children’s media and toys. “But parents may be overwhelmed when they learn their child has specific cognitive, motor, social and/or emotional needs.”

While certain toys are often classified as appropriate for a particular disability diagnosis, “recommending toys and games in a one-size-fits-all list is rarely the best way to match a toy to a child,” says Green. “For example, hundreds of thousands of children have been diagnosed with cerebral palsy, and each of those children has differing degrees of ability and different challenges to overcome.”

To minimize the confusion that may arise when parents and other loved ones search for toys, from board games to yo-yos, that satisfy a child’s specific needs, a new national resource was created for uniform testing, certification and labeling of toys and games for children of all abilities. The Ability Index, a joint initiative of the Parents’ Choice Foundation and the Kennedy Krieger Institute that is supported by the Toy Industry Association, emphasizes what children can achieve rather than focusing on the limitations that may come with a particular disability.

“Licensed therapists and skilled special educators are the ones best suited to identify the skills each child needs to build,” says Elisa Mintz Delia, an administrator at Kennedy Krieger Institute, an internationally recognized medical institution dedicated to improving the lives of children and adolescents with developmental and physical disabilities. “The Ability Index is a comprehensive and trusted resource that helps families and caregivers select readily available, reasonably priced toys that will help build skills each child needs to develop to his or her potential.”

“Building skills suggested by your child’s therapist or special educator need not be a chore or a burden,” adds Mintz Delia. Depending on which abilities a child needs to strengthen, the following are some suggestions for toys and games that can be both therapeutically beneficial and fun. Look for the areas you want to develop in your children for ideas for activities and playthings that enhance those areas.

Gross Motor Skills

Baseball, basketball, tennis, ping-pong, T-ball, soccer, jump rope, bike riding, swimming, children’s yoga, target tossing games, Red Light/Green Light, hopscotch, backyard obstacle courses, and climbing on a jungle gym, a rock wall or a tree.

Sensory Motor Skills

Tag, Hide and Seek, Musical Chairs, Freeze Dance, Simon Says, Mother May I?, obstacle courses and scavenger hunts.

Fine Motor Skills

Building blocks, interlocking construction toys, card games, dressing dolls, playing musical instruments, cooking and arts and crafts, such as finger painting, cutting shapes with scissors, beading, stamping, scrapbooking, doing origami and using play dough and clay.

Socialization Skills

Board games, card games and puppets.

Sensory Processing Skills

Seek and find games, tent play, bubble blowing, clay sculpting, sand play, making mud pies, listening to music, swinging on a swing set, playing tug of war and using sidewalk chalk.

Visual Motor Skills

Miniature golf, coloring books, painting by number, a book of mazes, lacing toys and crafts, games to play in the car, including I Spy and the license plate game, to keep eyes and brains working together.

Communication Skills

Storytelling, reading books aloud, charades and imaginative play with costumes.

Thinking Skills

Color and shape sorting toys and games, word finds, crosswords puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, board games, reading and memory, strategy and math games.

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