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A Publication about Visual Impairments and Deafblindness for Families and Professionals

By: Holly Cooper, Ph.D. deafblind educational specialist,
Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired Outreach

Abstract: A discussion of toys appropriated for children who are in the early childhood years and have visual impairment, deafblindness, and additional disabilities

Keywords: toys for visually impaired children, toys for deafblind children

People often me ask what to get as a gift for Christmas or birthday or other special occasion for a child who has a visual impairment. Every child is unique and has their own interests, preferences, and abilities so any advice must be considered with the in light of what the particular child would like. Having said that, ideas are always good, and we who work in schools get a first-hand look at what makes our students excited and happy.

Infants

Infants who are visually impaired may be premature or medically fragile, and so may have had as much experience or interest in reaching out and exploring the world at the same age as other babies. Sometimes friends and family members give them visually cute soft plush toys because they are soft and safe. For little ones with vision this is fine, but babies who are blind may not like such toys. An occupational therapist once told me that it’s the indistinct tactile boundaries of such toys that is aversive to them. For a tactile explorer, reaching for and knowing where the object is when it’s furry and soft is confusing. Having soft things around is fine, but look for variety. 

Another issue for infants and kids of all ages is plastic toys. Plastics are good, they’re generally safe, sturdy, brightly colored, and easy to clean. But being surrounded by items which are virtually all plastic doesn’t provide the developing mind with enough variety. Lilli Nielson in her Active Learning literature tells us to look for items of different sizes, weights, and types of materials. Having more than one item of a kind is also good. So look for safe, sturdy items made of metal, wood, and cloth. As babies gain more fine motor skills, look for items with internal movement, parts that twist, bend or spin. Most people know to look for toys that make noise, but also look for noise producing toys which are not electronic, to provide different experiences and fine motor challenges.

photo of toy rattles

Photo of wooden rattles and teething toys that encourage exploration

 

Because our babies with visual impairment may have spent much time in the hospital and may be at risk of health problems at home, they may have spent a lot of time on their backs. So look for blankets and baby items that they can lay on to have “tummy time” where they practice pushing up against gravity and reach for toys and interact with people. These pushing up movements are the first steps to sitting independently and later to walking.

  • Wooden toys
  • Plastic links to keep dropped toys nearby.
  • Wind up or battery operated musical toys
  • Cloth books, board books
  • Safe everyday objects
photo of a sheep an mouse
Photo of a fabric book for babies made with textures and shapes of animals.

Toddlers

Typical children reach the age and have the motor coordination to begin to walk around 12 months of age. Our students with visual impairment may reach this stage later due to medical issues, additional disabilities or delays due to the unique effects of blindness on the developmental milestones of early childhood. As youngsters begin to move about more independently, gross motor play dominates their time and their fine motor and communication skills may plateau for a while. Toddlers with cortical visual impairment may make rapid gains in their visual processing skills as they move about more and gain more experience interacting with objects in space. To encourage functional gross motor skills such as crawling, cruising and walking, avoid prolonged use of devices such as baby “walkers” or standing play stations. Also avoid over use of equipment that confines them to a space such as the “Johnny Jump Up” or “Sit ‘n’ Spin.” These devices may keep a young child safely contained, and safety is important, but experienced vision professionals have had many experiences trying to break self-stimulatory habits such as jumping and spinning that young children with blindness may have. So look for items such as riding toys that the young child can self-propel, and toy grocery carts or lawn mowers which give youngsters some support in standing and a “bumper” to provide good experiences to build on for cane use.

photo of a toy lawnmower
Photo of a lawn mower push toy which has balls that rattle as it rolls
  • Push toys
  • Riding toys
  • Nesting/stacking cups or blocks
  • Safe small blocks
  • Duplo blocks
  • Balls: koosh balls, nerf balls
  • Large cars and trucks
  • Buckets, shovels, scoops for playing in a sandbox, water table, or outside in the garden
  • Toddler books

Ages 3 to 5

Around the third birthday, children usually begin to focus somewhat less on gross motor play and settle down with longer attention spans and more imaginative play. More significant gender differences are evident at this age, with many boys interested in vehicles and things that move, and many girls interested in imaginary play, dressing up, playing family roles, and socializing.
Move away from the push button light and music show toys, instead provide:

  • Blocks and Legos
  • Smaller cars and trucks
  • Fire trucks
  • Trains or cars on a track
photo of wooden trains
Photo of a wooden train that a child can push on the track

 

  • Dolls (for both boys and girls)
  • Play dishes and tea sets: made of tin, plastic, or ceramic if you dare
  • Metal pots and pans
  • Real food on a temporary basis: apples, pears, carrots, potatoes, onions,
  • Crackers, cookies
  • Wearable accessories such as purses, tote bags, coin purses, hats, jewelry, cell phones, make up mirrors, combs, belts, scarves
  • Baby dolls and child dolls
  • Play characters and props such as Play Mobile sets, doll houses with small dolls
  • Recorded music and musical instruments
  • Books
photo of clothes on a rod
Photo of child-sized dress-up clothes with hats, bags, and accessories

 

The early years of childhood are a time of great learning. Babies and toddlers and older children with additional disabilities are in the sensory-motor stage of learning. Choose toys which encourage sensory-motor exploration and play. For children who have advanced to the next stage learning, concrete operations, choose toys which give opportunities for social interaction, expressive language, imaginary play and learning about society and culture. Most of all, allow plenty of unstructured free time for play. One of my greatest concerns about family life as it is now is how little free, unstructured time children have. Unstructured time allows children to daydream, imagine, fiddle and be bored. Boredom pushes us all to be inventive, creative, and curious.

Thanks to Terra Toys of Austin for tolerating me while I stalked around taking photos of their many wonderful toys.

Edited from an article originally published in Texas SenseAbilities, Fall 2012