Best soft toys for children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND)
Play is one of the most important ways we can help all children to grow, learn, develop and thrive in the world by exploring, experimenting and trying new things.
Through play, children can gain confidence, develop their physical skills as well as learn how to socialise and communicate. Play has this potential for all children and is just as rewarding, if not more so, for children who may have Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND).
That doesn’t mean it needs to be complicated and involve lots of expensive toys, in fact, it is often just about giving children the space and freedom to play whichever way they want.
Some of the most simple soft toys and activities such as teddies, dolls, sensory sand and soft blocks can help children with SEND to develop key skills and give them the confidence to thrive in the world.
Teddies and Dolls
Plush characters, teddies and dolls provide comfort and emotional security for children, which is vital for their development as it helps them to develop healthy attachments and a sense of identity.
They also provide a safe space for children to learn about the world around them through sensory stimulation as they provide a soft and familiar texture and smell. This is because often they will have been in a child’s life and cuddled and slept with since they were younger, or even a baby. As a result, children may have an emotional attachment to the toy which brings them comfort and confidence.
Children thrive on routines too and associating their soft toy or doll with positive feelings can make them a valuable part of a daily routine which encourages them to self-soothe, allowing them to decompress and get a good night’s sleep.
The soft feel of teddies makes them huggable and when they feature friendly shapes and faces, they allow children to transfer feelings onto them and make an emotional connection. This can also encourage social skills, particularly useful for helping children with SEND to try out different forms of communication and speech as they touch, hold or hug the toy.
Similarly, dolls such as Baby Annabell allow children to develop communication and nurturing skills as they copy and act out familiar behaviours they have seen in the home. The very fact that cuddly toys and dolls don’t answer back also makes them great listeners – children are often able to work through and find their own solutions simply by saying them out loud, which helps them to develop key emotional skills including empathy and resilience.
Soft sensory toys
Children also have a lovely natural sense of curiosity which means even when they are sitting still, they are constantly learning about the world around them. Therefore, toys that provide new sounds, textures and movements such as Roly Poly Toys from Galt which make a jingle bell sound as they rock back and forth, allow children to discover and process new information.
As these toys are soft and tactile, it makes them ideal for children exploring with hands and mouth, which stimulates the connections in their brain. By understanding that in order to create a sound, they need to knock or move the toy, they are also learning cause and effect logic.
It’s important to remember that soft toys aren’t just limited to dolls and teddies, interactive toys and activities with soft features can be just as beneficial in providing a safe activity for children with SEND to explore.
For children with cognitive disabilities such as dyslexia, autism or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) who may have difficulties processing new information or feelings, play activities which allow them to express themselves freely and creatively can help to support their brain development in understanding new social, emotional and logical concepts.
Soft blocks for example, are colourful and engaging with friendly pictures and safe for throwing and stacking. As they stack the blocks (and knock them over again!), children are experimenting with the positioning of their body and objects in space. This develops their understanding of the world around them and helps to improve dexterity, hand-eye coordination and logical thinking skills.
Other soft and sensory activities such as Super Sand provide children with lots of opportunities for creative and tactile play. As the play sand is easily sculpt-able, it means little ones can develop the coordination and control of the muscles in their fingers and hands.
The freedom to express themselves creatively is great for children’s language and communication skills too, particularly for those who may have limited speech as it allows them to engage with and express what is happening and what they can feel.
Interactive toys like Spike the Fine Motor Hedgehog also engage children’s natural curiosity with chunky, colourful pegs. They are easy to grab for small hands and help to develop hand-eye coordination while teaching children key cognitive skills such as colour recognition, counting and sorting. Playing with the toy also provides a great way to encourage children to focus their attention on following simple instructions.
Additionally, other accessible and sensory stimulating toys include the range based on the CBeebies star Mr Tumble. His programme ‘Something Special’ uses the sign language Makaton to help all children (including those with SEND) to communicate better with each other and the world around them.
The Learning Pad features the familiar voice and songs of Mr Tumble, and his fun questions encourage children to listen, pay attention and respond in turn. Featuring a touch-sensitive screen, they make exploration fun and easy to follow.
Play is one of the most important parts of childhood for all children, helping them to develop a fantastic range of skills that will enable them to grow into healthy, happy adults.
Creative play with soft and interactive toys can be particularly beneficial for children with SEND as they provide a comforting base from which to explore new experiences.
This allows children to make the most of opportunities to engage their curiosity and develop their social and emotional skills.