Creative development in young children with special needs

Selecting toys wisely

Children’s creative development is a mirror reflecting what they have experienced, seen and heard. We need to continuously extend our skills, knowledge and understanding if we are to add a sparkle of glitter, a touch of magic to the lives of children.


This article has been written to help those who are caring for a child with special needs but the concept apply to all children.


Creative development in young children with special needs


We should not aim to entertain children with special needs but to stimulate them and help them to realise a little more of their potential – all under the guise of enjoying themselves.  We should aim to add a touch of magic to their lives.


This stimulation it is hoped will lead to better communication skills, more co-operation and the satisfaction, even delight, that the children we work with are happy and achieving according to their abilities.


There are many fields of special need; each group encountering different learning and developmental problems. We must not overlook the feelings of the handicapped child. Quite early in their childhood they may have realised that they are not the same as their playmates. They learn that they are not expected to do the same things as other children and that they are excluded from certain activities. They may fight their handicap and become angry and resentful. They may also lose faith in their parents when they can’t correct their disability. They may withdraw from all activities because they can’t do some of them. All children deserve every possible opportunity to enjoy enriching experiences.


Each child is an individual with particular needs to satisfy and it is up to us to do our best to meet those needs. It has been well established that the pre-school years 0 – 6 are a critical period of development. A child’s use of materials and equipment and the way in which that child reacts to peers and adults are significant factors which influence learning. If a child is deprived of early stimulation, an interesting, challenging environment and the opportunity to play then that child is seriously disadvantaged.  Play is important.


Both physical and mental growth is stimulated by play. Child’s play suggests something very easy, a bit of fun and probably without much value. Don’t be deceived!  Play is one of a child’s earliest means of learning; it is not always easy but it is vitally important.


A lovely example which combines a stimulating and challenging environment and play is given in A Handbook on Early Intervention. Sandi Plummer tells of Thomas, a four year old lad who had little movement in his legs. He was able to pull himself along with his arms or move along on a small scooter board. One day a child care worker set up indoors a small climbing frame with a slide. A group of children were busy going up the ladder and sliding down the slide. Often these children were carrying balls, pillows, dolls and other soft toys up to the top and sliding them down before they slid down after their object. Thomas decided to participate in the sliding game. He grabbed a ball and pushed himself to the slide. He waited his turn and then started up the ladder trying to hold the ball and climb up the ladder. This task proved impossible and while the other children waited patiently it was obvious that success was a long way off.  Several children asked if they could help but Thomas refused each time. Then Ben came up with an idea; he asked Thomas if he could carry the ball to the top thus allowing Thomas the use of both arms to pull himself up. Both boys smiled. Ben took the ball to the top and waited as Thomas pulled and pulled and eventually reached the top. The ball was pushed down the side and a few seconds later Thomas followed. After a 4 minute climb the slide was over in seconds. Thomas was thrilled.  He pushed himself along gathered up his ball and asked for Ben’s help and together they waited in line to go down the slide again.


Selecting toys wisely


A child is naturally curious and the curiosity should be utilised as yet another learning experience. Exploratory play by young children with different materials and objects can greatly enhance the problem solving skills of 3 – 6 year old children. Imagination can give a youngster a great deal of pleasure. Often a child will leave an expensive toy to play with something from the kitchen. A cardboard box is one of the best toys to come out of a supermarket! It can be a boat, a car, a train,  a …


Toys should be attractive, have multi purposes if possible and be of sound construction. Wooden toys are exceptionally good value, particularly if painted brightly and there are also quality toys in durable plastic. When purchasing toys one must consider who the toys are for and the conditions under which they will be used.


Watch these points when purchasing toys for a child care centre, toy library or for home.


          Ride-on toys: must be stable on a moderate slope. Watch older metal bikes as they may rust and  

         become unstable.

          Balancing Boards: can fingers be caught underneath them?

Puzzles: be aware of visual concept e.g. large knobs covering part of the picture. Look for bright colours. Children are very aware of the feel of things so try and look at puzzles through the eyes of a child not as an adult.

Cardboard Games: have a short life. They may be reinforced with contact or laminated to prolong their life, however the cost of labour and materials needs to be considered.

Musical Toys: shouldn’t be noisier than a phone bell ringing.

Washable Toys: do those finger puppets really wash well?

Stacking Toys: be careful of the centre pole if it is left lying around.

Fluid Toys: such as floating duck in a ball. Be aware of the possible danger if breakage occurs. Some overseas toys contain unknown fluid.

True to life toys: are desirable such as telephones, life-like pictures in books, a watering can or kitchen utensils. Some children cannot cope with unrealistic toys or stylized pictures.

Bath Toys: must be able to be dried thoroughly for hygiene.


It is most important to choose toys for children not for yourself. Toys should have pleasing colours and a good finish so that the child will be attracted to them.  Do be aware of the regulations relating to toys with small pieces. If a part of a toy or game is small enough to fit into a film canister it is small enough to be swallowed. Such toys must be labeled by law as ‘unsuitable for children under three years’.  Is it wise to offer such toys to a child in your care?


Dr Sandra Bochner, from the Special Education Centre at Macquarie University, Sydney, was involved in research on language intervention with young children who were developmentally delayed and who had trouble learning to talk. She defined play as ‘…any activity engaged in by children that is voluntary, enjoyable and in which the progress or activity is more important than the product. There can be no failure during play only a redefinition of goals.


Once children are able to play with a variety of toys and objects sounds can be introduced into their games to assist with language development. These sounds are often called performatives. Examples would be the b-r-r-r of a car, the m-m-m when you eat a cake, oops as you knock the bocks over accidentally, the quack of a duck and so on. The next stage is to match the sound with the name, b-r-r-r car, quack duck. Language development is often the hidden curriculum at Play Therapy Groups. Songs with actions can help children learn the parts of the body, “two little eyes, one little nose …” and songs that teach the concept of soft and loud, high and low all help with language development.


Before beginning to talk a child needs to realise that they can communicate with others. Communication means sharing an experience or message. So the first stage of talking is looking then watching and sharing.  This could often be with a toy.  Turn taking and learning to both initiate and respond are important early skills in communication and language development. So too is appropriate play.  The car, b-r-r-r, that is pushed along an imaginary road; the tea cup and saucer morning tea; the doll put to sleep in a little cot; the saucepan and a wooden spoon to stir and, of course, the toy telephone. What a lot of experiences; what a lot of ideas; where are the words to use to share them? For some they come naturally but for others there is much need for help and lots of patience.


Child’s play is vitally important.  It is how our children learn.


My next article will deal with Music and Imagination.