Special Needs

Resources for parents of children with special needs. Learning Express Toys provides not only the toys that are essential to special needs children for developing specific skills, but also useful information to parents of special needs children. Read about educational and developmental toys for children with special needs as well as adaptive play methods for children with autism.
  • Thinking Inside the Box: Rice as a Sensory Play Learning Tool [Activities]

    Rice as a Sensory Play Learning Tool

    Working towards imaginative play with our kids who have special needs requires us parents and caretakers to be a little more creative when it comes to playtime. We are always looking for new ways to coax them into joining us, and remain hopeful that they are learning new skills along the way.

    Kids with Autism can be very obsessive and ritualistic. When my daughter Kiki was a toddler, she had two primary obsessions: Disney's 101 Dalmatians & Barney. For the other children in her early intervention classroom it was Thomas the Train, wheels, doors, or computers.

    Growing up, the idea of getting Kiki on the floor with me to play with an ABC puzzle was a hopeless dream. I couldn't even get her to settle down on my lap for a book. Instead I had to wrangle her in, and sometimes play all by my lonesome just to model what fun could look like!

    When it came to learning, there was NO way she would sit with me and do a wooden puzzle, color pictures, or flashcards. She was on the go 24/7 and permanently set to "full speed ahead". In order to help her grow and develop, I had to tap into her "likes" (i.e. her other preferred activities) and HIDE learning into every experience.

    A Box of Rice: An Easy Sensory Play Tool!

    Kiki craved sensory experiences. She loved the water and watching things fall. She would grab handfuls of leaves and sit there letting them fall out of her hand again and again—watching them fall from every angle, studying as if she were a motion analyst. Her Occupational Therapist suggested we make a rice box for sensory play. Literally, a box filled with rice.

    rice in child's hands

    I bought a huge Rubbermaid tub (the kind that can slide under a bed) and filled it half way full with rice. We would have Kiki sit in the box (with her Dalmatians of course!) then pick up the rice and watch it fall. We would add tools to the box so that she could grasp, hold, and squeeze various handles to promote fine motor skills and pour the rice onto her arm or toes.  As she grasped at measuring cups and wooden spoons, we benefited from an increase in eye contact—almost as if she was saying "thank you."

    Learning ABCs and More through Sensory Play ABCs and rice

    Flash-forward two years. Kiki is almost five years old and we need to work on our school readiness. We need to learn counting, ABCs, sorting, matching, and sequencing... but she would not color, write, or sit still long enough to work on these things. I wanted her to learn and recognize her ABCs, not just to be able to sing the song. I knew that she was a visual/sensory kiddo who needed as many senses engaged in order to process, learn, and most importantly WANT to participate.

    I took our wooden alphabet puzzle and hid just the first few letters of the alphabet deep into the rice. She saw me bury it. Little Miss Aloof was watching me carefully, and she heard me squeal with excitement when I recovered the letter A from the dangerous depths of rice! Even though she always seemed to be tuned out and ignoring me, she would listen and watch from the corner of her eye.

    Ultimately, she accepted the challenge and recovered letter A from the rice. When she retrieved the letter I said "A" and placed it into the tray where it belonged. I then took all the letters out and started to bury more and more letters, using language like, "Oh no! Where's letter B?" I like to refer to this exercise as thinking INSIDE the box, inside the box of rice that is!

    More Skill-Building Rice Box Activities

    Other examples of learning that can be done inside the box of rice are:

    1. Fine motor activities. With Wooden Lacing Beads or any stacking puzzles, bury the pieces in the rice and, as you retrieve them, recite the color or shape before placing on the lacing string/stick. Helpful OT hint: Stringing beads onto lace can be very challenging for our kiddos with low tone or limited mobility in their hands. Our OT suggested that we string the wooden beads (or spools) onto a wooden chopstick or pencil to help build the fine motor muscles necessary to ultimately lace on a string. We don't want our kids to get too frustrated or we lose the opportunity.

    2. Shape recognition. Work on shape recognition by hiding different wooden shape puzzle pieces in the rice box.

    PlayFoam and ABCs

    3. Mummify That Toy! One of our favorite games and another sensory play opportunity was called Mummify that Toy! Take one of your child's cherished favorites and cover it 100% completely in dough. I love Playfoam, as it doesn't make a mess and leaves no damage behind. Roll it into a size so that your child cannot even recognize what lies below that dough! Use colorful language as you start to pick and dig out the item, "Uh oh, where's my Thomas the Train?" Make it into a song, "Oh where oh where can my Thomas Train Be, oh where oh where can he be?" As you start to reveal and uncover the toy, follow it up with more language,"Here it is!" or "I found your Thomas Train!" Have your child cover the toy up and start the process over again for great social, language, and fine motor fun!

    When working to develop your child’s skill set, don’t be afraid to get silly, be creative, and remember that sometimes we gotta just think INSIDE the box! The ultimate goal is to make the playtime fun, and hope that our kids are learning new skills along the way. And don't forget to check out the Learning Express Skill Building Toy Guide for Children with Special Needs.

    Thanks for reading!

    Colleen Hendon, Learning Express Toys Manager

    Roseville, CA


  • Colleen’s Top Toys for Kids with Autism #LIUB

    Colleen and KikiI’ve worked as the manager of the Learning Express Toys in Roseville, CA for 15 years now and wanted to share some of my experiences of finding toys for children with special needs. Let me preface this by saying that while I am not a qualified professional in child development, I do have quite a bit of life experience. My daughter Kiki is 20 years old, and has autism. She was diagnosed at 20-months-old. Although she had very little language ability, she has been “mainstreamed” with the other children in her class since kindergarten. This was possible as a result of the time we dedicated to turning every play opportunity into a learning opportunity.

    Years ago, I believed the only way to buy toys for my child was online or in catalogs because I assumed that toys used for therapy were different and only available through special educator channels. Oh, was I wrong! While working at Learning Express Toys, I have found that we have an entire range of items, including “everyday products,” that can help families with special needs children bond, share, and learn all while working on their individual goals.

    I believe that there are many parents, like me, who need help finding the perfect toy for their child’s specific needs. After all, there are so many factors that affect how a child with special needs will interact with a toy, such as age, disability, and the skills and goals that the child is working to achieve. All of this information allows our Toy Experts to identify products that would be the right fit for your child's needs/interests. Additionally, our stores offer many hands-on opportunities for customers to try out our products and discover their play value.

    Here are just a few of the many great products we carry that can be used as tools for learning and development. Keep in mind that the toys listed below are great suggestions for all children, no matter what their needs may be.

    Polka Dot Hopper>Polka Dot HopperThis colorful ride-on toy allows kids to bounce and scoot around with ease. The Hopper is made of a durable material and has a sturdy handle for kids to grip while bouncing safely around the house or yard. When my daughter was on the Hopper, I would sit on the floor in front of her, and it helped increase eye contact, engaged all of those important core muscles, and improved her focus while we sang our ABCs and worked on specific goals. We would also turn the Hopper so that the handle was facing out to the side and use it as a therapy ball, laying Kiki over the ball on her stomach or back during activities. Today Kiki sits on the Hopper while working on the computer and catching up on Facebook. This is still a must-have item in our daily routine and key to Kiki's outstanding posture!

    See & Spell See and SpellKids can place colorful wooden letters in their proper spot to spell words on the two-sided wooden boards. This toy engages multiple senses as children learn to see, touch, and feel the letters. Saying the words out loud also adds an auditory element to the experience. See & Spell not only helps with spelling, it is also a great multi-kinesthetic toy. I would often let Kiki use a crayon inside a few of the boards after we removed the letters so she could trace the outlines inside the boundaries. Stencils can be challenging so this was the perfect solution for us and is, in my opinion, an essential toy!

    Floor Puzzles Alphabet Train Floor PuzzleMelissa & Doug, one of our top manufacturers at Learning Express Toys, is known for high quality wooden puzzles. A regular puzzle can be difficult for children with special needs, but my favorite, the Alphabet Train Floor puzzle, is much easier for the child because the animal pieces are arranged alphabetically and phonetically. This and many other floor puzzles also offer a great social and language opportunity for you and your child as you work together during tummy time.

    Wooden Floor Easel and Accessories It seems so basic, but the Wooden Floor Easel is a crucial item at my house. Many children with special needs are deficient in the development of fine motor muscles in their hands, which can be improved through art. Our OT (occupational therapist) also told us that standing to create art is Wooden Floor Easelmuch better than sitting at a desk or table because standing engages more muscles, as well as the mind.

    We used the easel in many different ways at my house. With the dry erase side, I would teach my daughter to spell a word and then magically erase the word with a clean finger. She loved the cause and effect. And, writing with a thick, easy-to-grasp dry erase marker was much less frustrating than using a crayon or pencil that she would have to push down in order to write.

    We also spent countless hours painting. Neat freaks will want to keep their easel projects in the basement or garage during winter weather. My daughter must have painted a thousand sheets of recycled paper using simple brush strokes of color. I can still picture her hand moving up and down over and over again. It was when those brush strokes slowly began to curve that I could see the rainbow she’d been shooting for the whole time.

    Autism is the fastest growing developmental disorder in the US and presents challenges across a lifetime. Families that have a child with autism face costs of over $60,000 annually. Autism Speaks funds research into the causes, prevention, treatments, and a cure for autism. The organization raises public awareness about autism and its effects on individuals, families, and society. In support of Autism Speaks’ mission, Learning Express Toys, with more than 120 store locations across the US, is partnering with the organization in 2015-2016.

    LE Toys is offering various ways for shoppers to donate to this life-changing organization starting this month during Autism Awareness. Throughout April, customers will have the opportunity to add their names to Puzzle Piece cards in exchange for a donation. Stop by your neighborhood Learning Express Toys and donate today!

    Thanks for reading. Please leave a comment below and share some of your favorite activities and products for special needs children.


  • Autism Speaks and Learning Express Toys Announce Partnership

    Learning Express Toys, the nation’s leading franchisor of specialty toy stores, announces a yearlong partnership with Autism Speaks. As a proud supporter of Autism Speaks’ mission, Learning Express Toys, with more than 120 locations across the country, will offer various ways for shoppers to donate to this life-changing organization.

    During the month of April—Autism Awareness month—in exchange for a $2 or more donation, shoppers will be asked to add their names to Puzzle Piece cards to show their commitment to Autism Speaks. Throughout the year, LE Toys also will be holding sensory shopping fundraisers and Play Day Fundraisers to benefit the nonprofit dedicated to supporting people with Autism. Continue reading

  • How to WinFluence a Team and Identify Emotions

    Greetings, Learning Expressions Readers!

    This week I am delighted to let you know that Colleen Hendon, manager of our Roseville stores, is guest blogging for us. Colleen’s daughter Kiki was diagnosed with Autism at 20 months of age. She works every day to help Kiki improve her skills, while also spreading awareness about autism and offering her knowledge to customers in Roseville and around the country.


    Dear Readers,

    I was raised on Dale Carnegie’s, How to Win Friends and Influence People and How to Stop Worrying and Start Living. Our father was in sales and these books in the early part of his career really helped shape the exceptional communicator and successful business owner he became. When our oldest brothers would be bickering or arguing, Dad would have them Sit it Out on their 20 minute time out while reading a chapter or two of Carnegie’s books. He frequently quoted Carnegie’s Mantras, “Do not criticize, condemn or complain”, “What’s the worst possible thing that can happen?” and my favorite “Win people to your way of thinking”. Those magical words still inspire me today in so many areas of my life, both personally and professionally. They shaped who I grew to be, and more importantly they helped me learn to work with people. Case in point: allowing the professionals in our child’s educational environment to know that we needed them. In doing so, I won them to our way of thinking and they wanted to be a part of our team because we identified that we needed them, respected their education background and the support they could provide. I have learned so much from the teachers, Speech Therapists, Occupational Therapists and Behaviorists that have worked with our daughter and still do. I continue to tell them how much I appreciate them. I share with them what we are working on at home so that they know we have common, shared goals from our IEP and that I do not just assume the school is solely responsible. We work together. We are part of a team.

    So, as we celebrate April as Autism Awareness Month…I have been posting everyday on my Facebook page a thank you Kiki Hendonor shout out to the many people who we were able to win to our way of thinking— professionals and peers that have been on our team throughout the years. I have been thanking OTs, SLPS, Family Members, Typical Peers, Para Professionals, so many who have joined our team and helped our Kiki succeed all these years. As we celebrated her 18th birthday this year, it just seemed like such a milestone. She is now a junior in High School, thriving and doing so well on HER goals. She will not receive a high school diploma like all her peers, we understand that. But she will walk with those peers next year across that stage and accept her certificate of completion. And that is enough. That will be such an accomplishment, for our little girl that reminded me so much of Helen Keller at a young age: trapped in a silent world, unable to share her emotions. But not anymore—she is no longer silent, isolated, or alone. She is quite capable of expressing and sharing how she feels, and more than less she shares the sweetest, kindest feelings of appreciation, love, and care. She will receive her certificate of completion with hundreds of students who will be graduating and going off into the world, knowing a girl named Kiki. She had Autism, she was different, but not any less than them. She influences people. Is there someone special that has helped you, your kiddo or family along the way? I am saying thank you, will you? Words cost nothing but reap so many rewards.

    So with that said, I want to be very very clear here. Many people think that our daughter is high functioning autism because her behaviors are in check. Working on behaviors was our number one priority early on. When she would get into such a fuss that she would projectile vomit, hit, scream and rip her lips apart I knew that this kiddo needed to learn how to express her emotions. I knew instinctively that it was my job to help her let us all know what was causing her stress, anxiety, or pain. When our daughter was initially diagnosed with autism she was 20 months and about a 42.5 on the CARS scale. Not Aspergers, not Sensory Processing Disorder….Autism. As her tantrums and frustrations grew from ages 2 to 5 years old I saw our future and fearfully thought, “Oh my goodness. This rage, this frustration is going to lead to violence. I do not want our daughter to hurt us.” I knew that we had to work on emotions and on identifying her wants, needs, and emotions.

    Here are a few of the early steps we took to help our daughter identify her emotions:

    • We got a hold of an emotions poster/placemat with simple faces that showed about 12-15 emotions. With this we helped teach Kiki that there is more than just happy and sad: there is bored, angry, frustrated, lonely, scared, afraid, etc…
    • The Moody Bear Puzzle. We used this puzzle ALL THE TIME. When we would be watching her favorite Disney moody bear puzzle pieces with different faces and clothingMovie (101 Dalmations) and Pongo and Pertie were sad because Cruella Devil had stolen their puppies, I would pull up momma and poppa bears sad face and show Kiki how sad Pongo and Pertie felt. With this tool, I was teaching her to label and identify their emotions in hopes of her being able to transfer that recognition into her own. And guess what? It worked. It took time, many times, time after time of labeling emotions in many arenas and situations. And we always reinforced the emotion with the appropriate ASL sign for the emotion. And one day, I really don’t remember when, I remember Kiki telling me, “Kiki sad!” or when she was angry with me she would tell me that I was, “A Mean Cruelly DeVil.” Many parents would not appreciate that label, but unlike many I celebrated the fact that our daughter was learning to identify the emotions of others and then transferring them to express her own frustrations.
    • We also used to sing the “If You’re Happy and You Know It” song and add our own verses. If you're sad and you know it cry boo hoo, if you’re angry and you know it stomp your feet, if you’re scared and you know it scream eek eek, if you’re bored and you know it say ho hum, etc. We sang this song with animation and visual cues/cards that we drew up to match the emotion.
    • One toy I wish I’d had in my toy arsenal when Kiki was a kid is the Roll and Play Game. Children are encouraged to identify colors, numbers, body parts, actions and animal sounds. To learn more check out our toy review here.
    • For older kids that have language skills Melissa and Doug’s Family Dinner Game in a Box, Rory’s Story Cubes, or tell tale game cardsTell Tale are great conversation starters/models for our children with social/language goals.

    Give yourself a break this month too. See a movie with a girlfriend, go on a date with your mate and DON’T talk about the kids, celebrate the you that lifts the child, loves the child. Celebrate all that is Awesome In the child you know who may have Autism. As Temple Grandin’s Mother said, “Different, not Less.”

    - Colleen


  • Skill Builders for Children with Special Needs

    Dear Learning Expressions Readers,

    Learning Express Toys Skill Builders: For Children with Special Needs logo

    It is with pride (and the excitement of a giddy kid on the first day of school) that we announce our Skill Builders for Children with Special Needs initiative! Skill Builders offers parents, professionals, friends, and caregivers toy suggestions to help children accomplish their developmental goals. The idea for the initiative was born less out of creativity and more out of necessity. Learning Express Toys owners asked for guidance on how to advise customers looking for toys to build a particular skill, and we were shocked to learn that, according to the CDC, 1 in 6 children has a physical or intellectual developmental need.

    We spent over a year researching and developing the best way to assist customers who are shopping for children with special needs. We worked with occupational therapists, play therapists, special needs educators, Learning Express Toys storeowners who have kids with special needs, and many others who’ve helped us make sure our recommendations would be valuable to shoppers.

    We chose to focus on skills to build rather than on disabilities. What are your child’s strengths? In what areas is your child working to improve? We created the following eight skill building categories with the help of special needs experts…

    • Fine motor
    • Gross Motor
    • Language and Speech
    • Cognitive
    • Visual and Spatial Perception
    • Social Skills and Self-Esteem
    • Sensory Processing
    • Oral Motor

    We could explain each of these categories here, but we really want you to read about them in our new online publication, the Skill Building Toy Guide for Children with Special Needs. The Toy Guide is a “magalog” (a magazine/catalog hybrid), that features 70 skill building toys. The magalog also features articles on a variety of special needs topics such as choosing a skill building toy and establishing a routine for your child. The Toy Guide is also packed with insight from parents, tips from kids with special needs, and plenty of information on how each included product helps build one or more skills.

    The beauty of our skill building products is that they are inclusive play toys, or toys that can be enjoyed by children with and without special needs. This enables busy moms to find all of their holiday presents in one place, while kid of all developmental levels can feel included when playing with the same toy as their peers.

    You can pick up the products featured in the Toy Guide at most Learning Express Toys locations. And the next time you’re in your local Learning Express store, you can appreciate the sights and sensations of each toy and see whether or not the product will work for the children in your life.

    We’ve also developed training materials for Learning Express storeowners and staff members that cover the skill building categories. We created a training guide, webinars, and training videos with sample customer interactions. We’d like to start right away with getting our skill building toys into kids’ hands, so we’re going to give away some fabulous skill building toys to two lucky winners!

    To enter, all you need to do is comment on this blog post with a thought about our Skill Builders initiative. We’ll choose two winners randomly who will each receive:

    A Sort & Snap Color Match by Melissa & Doug and five Playfoam Pods!

    Three Sort & Snap Color Match puzzlesSort & Snap Color Match- They’ll learn and laugh as they sort and snap! This wooden activity  board  features ten double-sided picture cards and plenty of colored snap caps. Kids place like-colored snap caps into the holes to match the colored cards. Reverse the card and little ones can create their own color combos on the black and white pictures! Children will improve their visual and spatial perception skills by noticing how the pieces relate to the whole image. Kids will also strengthen their fine motor skills as they grip the pieces and snap them onto the base.

    Ages 2+

    A display box of multicolored Playfoam

    Playfoam- Build, shape, squish, and squeeze Playfoam! This play substance never dries out and doesn't stick to surfaces. Playfoam provides  kids with a strong tactile experience. The pliable foam encourages sensory processing skills because as kids mold and squish the Playfoam in their hands, they are experiencing various sensations that help them gain a better understanding of their body in relationship to space. This tactile experience can enhance focus, and the bright colors encourage visual discernment. As kids build and mold with Playfoam, they increase finger strength and manipulation and improve their fine motor skills.

    Ages 3 +.

    The winners will be announced on Friday, September 7. In the meantime, you can visit a participating Learning Express Toys to pick up a free Playfoam pod!

    Thanks for reading!

    carly signature