Category Archives: kids toys

Pink Toys, Boy Toys, Imagination Toys: Should We Push Our Kids to Play Differently?

The viral video of an adorable girl named Riley venting about how “the girls all get the pink princess stuff” has garnered a lot of attention, and inspired a thoughtful Op-Ed piece in the New York Times by writer Peggy Orenstein called “Should the World of Toys Be Gender Free?”

I’m old enough to remember when this controversy began in the late 1960s, when unisex toys and clothes were the hottest thing, and feminists were baffled by why, after reading “Stories for Free Children” from Ms. magazine to young boys and girls, they were still seeing boys gravitate toward trucks and guns and girls gravitate toward dolls. I finally got clued into what that was all about years later when I observed my own son, who was diagnosed with sensory processing disorder and multiple developmental delays at age 2, playing with toys. His speech-language pathologist and occupational therapist explained to me that imagination play, and collaborative play (“You be the cop and I’ll be the robber”) requires a certain amount of language skills, which requires the neural networks in the brain to be at a particular level of development. They told me it made sense that my son, who had verbal apraxia and a significant receptive/express speech delay, was only engaging in cause-and-effect play (“I drop the marble down the chute and it makes a cool noise!”) and parallel play (“I push my Thomas the Tank Engine train and that boy across the table will push his.”) I would not see a leap forward in imaginative play until he took a leap forward in language skills. I kid you not, the week that I noticed he was now stringing sentences together in a way that made sense rather than jumping from one thought to the next was the week I saw him animate the toy cars he loved to line up. “I’m a blue car,” one told the other. “Well, that’s okay. I’m a red truck.” Wow! Never before had I seen such clear evidence that my SLP and OT had an excellent grasp of development.  I also came to understand why my son, who spent a lot of time in his dad’s antique toys and collectibles store, had always preferred to push the button on the Buzz Lightyear doll rather than animate him, and loved to push the 1960s pink girls’ carpet sweeper as much as he loved to vacuum at home. Cause-and-effect play was his preference, and Thomas the Tank Engine was a major force in pushing him toward more imaginative play–which involved cooperative play with other kids who shared the public Thomas tables at FAO Schwartz and Toys R Us. I began to learn more and more about play and language, and discovered a marvelous book by a child psychologist, Lawrence Cohen, about using play to stretch developmental skills called Playful Parenting. It taught me how to get down on the floor with my son and engage in play with him, asking questions as the blue car or the red truck and suggesting activities, which expanded his language skills: “WHY do we want to drive over to the couch?” “BECAUSE we can park underneath it. It’s going to rain. We don’t want to get wet!”

So do we let our boys or girls stick with their favorite toys because those toys match with their their natural preferences, whether it’s because they are kids who think in pictures, kids with language processing difficulties, kids who are verbally gifted and highly empathetic but not skilled at visual/spatial tasks, or just kids who have typical language wiring for their gender? We know girls develop more whole brain connections, necessary for language development, earlier than boys do and continue to hold that advantage throughout life, but nature shouldn’t dictate our kids’ experiences. So how much do we push the child who wants to do puzzles alone to play with others and to try out toys that take him out of his comfort zone?

I think when we take our anxiety out of the mix, and push our kids to try something new using the just right challenge (not so much pushing that they resist aggressively, not so little that they make no progress in stretching themselves), they benefit, regardless of what the activity is. When we constantly send the message that “your type of play is inferior,” whether it’s play they do alone or pink princess/Barbie play, we make them question their worth. Being a bit lopsided in your play and your preferences isn’t such a bad thing, but we also want our kids to have the benefit of a variety of experiences and friendships. As Orenstein points out, there is some evidence that boys with sisters do better at relationships down the road than boys without sisters do, and girls with older brothers tend to be better at visual/spatial tasks than other girls are (although apparently my brother’s love for all things Tinker Toy and Lincoln Log had little effect on my brain…) Maybe girly Legos in pink and purple, with kits for building a spa or a cafe for the Lego figures to hang out in, isn’t such a terrible thing if it gets some girls out of their comfort zone a bit and learning some building and visual/spatial skills–and working with boys and girls who love the visual/spatial aspect of Legos. Maybe it’s not so bad if the girl or boy who loves to construct Star Wars vehicles out of Lego shows the kid with the pink and purple set how to modify that cafe to be more interesting. I still recall my brother’s GI Joe and my Barbie, Francie, and Skipper getting dressed to go swimming in the pool on the side of our home, which my brother figured out would be less muddy if we lined it with Saran Wrap. Yes, he had to put up with my girlfriend fussing over GI Joe’s outfit before the gang got into the Desert Jeep and got carried outside, but my Barbies’ hair was a lot less filthy thanks to my brother’s engineering skills.

Are there any toys or games that you’ve found bring different kids with different skills together? Please share!



Filed under kids toys, language processing disorders, sensory smart toys and equipment, Uncategorized

Sensory Smart Toys Shopping Ideas

Shopping for sensory smart toys and equipment for a child with sensory processing issues? Here are some ideas I included in the December 2010 edition of the Sensory Smart News.

Sensory Smart Tip: Choose Toys That Are Fun

and Support Development

The number of toys and products marketed to parents and therapists who work with children who have sensory processing disorder and/or autism has exploded since the book Raising a Sensory Smart Child first was published in 2005. In the book, Lindsey Biel, OTR/L, and Nancy Peske recommend 50 favorite toys for kids (included below) and it continues to be an excellent guide for finding toys children both enjoy and use to address sensory issues and developmental skills. If you’re looking for or purchasing gifts for a child with sensory issues these days, here’s some key advice:

You don’t have to spend a lot of money. In fact, some of the best toys and products you can purchase are small and inexpensive. Every small child should have a Play-Doh Fun Factory, for example, which sells for under $10. Bubbles with bubble wands, modeling clay or Silly Putty, Wikki Sticks (wax-covered yarn for crafts), puzzles, handheld games such as Simon, and classic games such as Candyland or Kerplunk are excellent inexpensive toys that promote everything from tactile exploration to fine motor and visual memory skills.  

Buy the classics, and consider classic original versions. There’s a reason certain toys are perennial sellers: Their play value can’t be beat. You may find some of these toys in excellent condition on sites such as eBay and Craig’s List, or even at second-hand stores. Interestingly enough, sometimes the older versions are actually better for our kids because they tend to be sturdier and come without all the annoying chips for sounds and lights that are so distracting. Don’t underestimate how much kids will love Legos and Duplos building blocks, wagons, hand puppets, and so on. Thomas the Tank Engine toys are great for helping children move from cause-and-effect, parallel (independent) play to imaginative, cooperative play.


Buy toys that get kids moving.
 Ask your child’s sensory smart occupational therapist and/or physical therapist what type of movement toys she feels would be appropriate for your child, and ask her if she can work with him on using toys that involve coordination and gross motor skills. You may need to start slowly, such as with a three-wheeled scooter instead of a two-wheeled one, or a very small bike with training wheels rather than a bike that the bike store salesperson says is the correct size for your child (and be sure your child uses a properly fitted helmet).  A Sit-n-Spin can be a good choice for learning motor planning skills while getting vestibular input, but a Dizzy Disc for preschoolers or a Dizzy Disc Jr. for older kids an provide that input to a child with poorer motor planning skills. Sleds and mini trampolines (which are safer than full-sized ones) are great options too.

Have a ball. Balls can be incredibly helpful for developing a multitude of skills and now many modified balls are available, including ones that are easier to catch or throw or which provide sensory input via a textured surface (Gertie balls, koosh balls) or sounds created by movement (such as the Wiggly Giggly ball). Exercise balls are great for kids to sit on for input and for rolling over them to provide deep pressure: Your OT can show you many ways to use them. Why not keep balls in the yard, in your car, and even your purse so that they’re available for your child to get movement or sensory input at any time?

Be cautious about “active” video games.
 Although some of the newer games, particularly Xbox360 with Kinect which requires that the child use her body as the controller, encourage movement, don’t assume that your child will use them to get the aerobic exercise he needs. Wii Fit offers options that provide very little if any aerobic activity (although the quieter games on Wii Fit can be excellent for balance training which many of our kids need help with). I also has game options that will actually help you child work up a sweat, but observe your child to be sure she’s actually using videogames in a very active way. Then too, if your child has her heart set on Super Smash Brothers or another inactive video game, have her jump on a mini-trampoline while playing to give her exercise as well as build her hand-eye coordination.

Choose developmentally appropriate toys.
 One of the challenges of having a child with sensory issues is accepting that our kids may be far behind their peers in being able to play appropriately with particular toys. Offer your child choices that are in the “just right” challenge zone, which build their skills without being overwhelmingly difficult for them to use. If you’re giving a toy as a gift, think about choosing something that he will actually enjoy. Go ahead and buy the therapy toys he will resist at first, but if you feel he might get immediately frustrated by them, think about having your OT introduce them as part of therapy.

Buy books. If your child resists reading, try picture books and visual dictionaries, optical challenge books such as Where’s Waldo?, nonfiction coffee table books on trains, dinosaurs, and the like, pop-up books, scratch-and-sniff books, and so on. If you’re thinking about buying an eReader, note that some children with visual processing issues or vision issues find them much easier to read from than ordinary books due to the adjustable type size, low contrast, and auditory option (available on many books). You can even “gift” an electronic book to a child’s Kindle now and many are very low priced (although selection can be limited). Also consider audio books and mp3 downloads.

While you’re shopping, please consider buying some toys for Toys for Tots or other charities, and for your child’s school OT or PT (they may have a wish list or you could give them a gift card for a therapy catalogue or store such as The Learning Center).

Finally, remember that what kids want even more than toys is our attention. Playing a simple board game with your child or teaching her how to catch a ball may create one of her fondest childhood memories.

Check it out!

Be sure to check out Lindsey and Nancy’s Fifty Favorite Toysl ist in Raising a Sensory Smart Child. Also,you can shop for toys and equipment by developmental skill or sensory channel at:


NEW WEBSITE AND BLOG: Get new and up-to-date information and support for parents of children and teens with sensory processing disorder at and sign up for the newsletter and blog.

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Filed under affordable sensory items, kids toys, Practical tips for sensory issues, Raising a Sensory Smart Child, sensory processing disorder, sensory smart toys and equipment, Uncategorized, Used sensory items

Selecting Toys for Children with Sensory Processing Disorder

Shopping for toys or products for a sensory child in your life to help carry out a sensory diet? Here are some of my personal recommendations this year:

Raising a Sensory Smart Child. Buy it for your child’s teacher, therapist, grandparent, nanny, aide, whoever! It’s now available for Nook and Kindle, too.

The Kindle, a dedicated eReader available at For my son who has visual processing issues, this device was THE key to getting him to read. No wriggling black letters on white pages. I wish the Harry Potter series and other faves were on Kindle but there is an excellent selection of kids’ and y.a. books on and most cost well under $10. For my over-40 eyes, the adjustable typeface is heaven. He loves the auditory function (you can set it to read the book to you) and the instant dictionary (place the cursor next to an unfamiliar word and immediately see a dictionary definition). I’ve not tried the Nook–I’m not sure how it compares to Kindle.

Wikki Stix. What a brilliant idea—sticky wax covered yarn that serves as a building toy. I hated the sharp edges of pipe cleaners as a kid. Forget that. Go Wikki. You can get them at Sensory

Vibrating toothbrushes with characters on them. The perfect accompaniment to holiday candy! Santa often leaves a Sponge Bob vibrating toothbrush and a fresh new tube of toothpaste in my son’s stocking. Many sensory kids love vibration, and you can even hold the vibrating handle near other parts of the face to desensitize them to tactile input your child finds distressing (such as to the lips before putting lip balm on).

T-shirts from Teres Kids. My son loves his “dress up” t-shirt with a tie. I’ve tried these out on some other sensory kids and they loved the feel of them too.

Dizzy Disc Jr.  entertains a child and provides helpful sensory input (vestibular in this case) for years, and is totally portable and easy to store. There is a preschool version and a version for older kids.

Santa has a big sleigh and I heard a rumor he might be delivering a “Crash Pad” to our house. This is a bean bag chair that provides “wider coverage” for kids and adults seeking proprioceptive input. For smaller kids there is The Pea Pod available through (you really have to navigate through their site but it’s worth checking out).

If you want to shop by developmental skill or sensory channel, see my Sensory Smarts Shop. If you click through and purchase anything that’s sold by, by the way, I do get a very small monetary reward that helps me to pay the costs of my site, blog, and newsletter. In fact, if you do purchase from Amazon after clicking through to it from my site, or this blog, I will get a little money back which helps defray my costs so I can keep offering more information for you!

NEW WEBSITE AND BLOG! If you liked this article, PLEASE come join me at the new and sign up for my NEW newsletter and blog. Thanks!

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Filed under affordable sensory items, celebrations parties and holidays, kids toys, Nancy Peske, Practical tips for sensory issues, sensory processing disorder, sensory seeking head, Uncategorized, Used sensory items

Rummage Sale Season and Sensory Kids

Sign up for the Sensory Smart News and learn why rummage sales offer more than just bargains for sensory kids!

Some of my greatest “finds” were at rummage sales (or eBay):

* the Radio Flyer sled at the church rummage sale that only need a little repair work, which has lasted five sledding seasons so far

*The Chop Suey game I remembered from childhood: you use chopsticks (or you can buy ZooStix and use those) to fish out oddly shaped plastic pieces from a moving bowl. Great fine motor game!

The vintage Chop Suey game, great for practicing fine motor skills

* An old-fashioned Lite Brite that is challenging but not impossible for a child who needs work on fine motor skills

* Super soft Hanna Andersson all-cotton long johns/pjs for ten cents (retails for $29!)

* Snowpants, snow boots, and rain gear that don’t get enough seasonal use to justify paying full price–and which my son balked at back in his preschool days. When you pay $1 for snowpants he won’t wear, it’s not quite so frustrating!

* A Godzilla game and a Shark Attack game, each for a quarter, that he got countless hours of imagination play out of since they came with no instructions but several cool pieces

* Unused, unopened Tom’s All-Natural Silly Strawberry toothpaste for a quarter at an estate sale where the owners had stocked up

* Collections of Captain Underpants books

What have been your best sensory smart, rummage sale bargains?

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Filed under affordable sensory items, kids toys, sensory processing disorder, Uncategorized, Used sensory items

iPad, the “ultimate kids’ toy?” I think not…

A piece in a New York Times blog explains why the new $499 iPad is the “ultimate kids’ toy.”
Of course, a $499 pricetag cancels out the possibility that it could be the “ultimate kids’ toy” because bless our kids, in their creativity, quest for novelty, and exuberance, they end up dropping, drawing on, bashing, and losing their toys. I have fond memories of wrapping Barbie’s friend Allan in tape, tying string around his neck, and lowering him from our upper porch into the bushes. But let’s just pretend that your child is unnaturally respectful of a pricey piece of electronic equipment.

Yes, the iPad applications would be visually stimulating, a feast for a visual sensory seeker, and the size of the screen is much more kid friendly than an iPhone’s. But how much close-up visual input should our kids have? The blogger says it’d be great for long car trips. I remember those as a kid, and loved the opportunity to look far into the distance, to daydream about fairies and brownies who lived in the trees and bushes that made up the rich, green landscape of Wisconsin. I remember playing the alphabet game, singing camp songs or singing along to the pop songs on AM radio, and having large blocks of time to dream and imagine and to process all the ideas being thrown at me. When my son was 5 and we moved from New York to Milwaukee, he was stuck sitting in the middle of the front seat of a Budget rent-a-truck. He had only a Simon handheld game and auto bingo card as his toys and was happy as can be.

The other day, he and his buddies asked my husband to take him to the lakefront. There, they ran through the cold sand to the blocks of ice at the shore and had a blast breaking off chunks, sliding around, skipping stones, and shouting towards the horizon.
I feel certain that the ultimate kids’ toy doesn’t have batteries, and it sure doesn’t cost $499!

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