Last month it was Boo’s second birthday. It was also Easter, of course. We’re also in the middle of our anniversary season – the 11 long weeks that span Boo’s actual birthday (a day of mixed emotions for us), the anniversary of the day he came home, followed by the anniversary of the day he was supposed to be delivered by c-section to avoid the complications we had with his sister, and finally the anniversary of the day he should have been born. Anniversaries are tough in premmie land, but there is also a lot to celebrate. And one of the nicest things is seeing Boo receiving and playing with lots of new gifts that help us ring the changes in the daily grind of repetitive therapies.
But it’s also hard. Don’t get me wrong or think I’m ungrateful. I’m not. But I have to admit that all the texts and calls I got from people asking me what they should buy Boo for his birthday or as a small Easter gift (he’s not wild about chocolate) weighed me down.
My to-do list was especially long then. It was another thing I didn’t have time to sort out for other people. Some people even asked me to buty presents for Boo on their behalf … But what really bothered me was that all of this was just another small but significant demonstration of how people don’t know what to do or think about Boo.
He is a little boy. Oh, but he has cerebral palsy. Goodness. What on earth can you buy a child like him?
Of course, some people (many people) asked me these questions because they know the high costs of looking after a child with additional needs. They know that budgets are tight and we prioritise carefully. They wanted to help us buy things that he really needed or that would help him. And of course it’s just common sense, isn’t it, to make sure what you are buying a child with additional needs is suitable for them, in Boo’s case that they can actually access it?
But it still made me a little sad. So do the people who say (and really, they have said this to me): ‘I’ve sent money because I wouldn’t know what to buy him’. Now obviously, money can be a fabulous gift to a child and family with additional needs, especially if they’re saving for an expensive toy or piece of equipment. But to send money because ‘we don’t know what to buy your child’ (this has been said to me too) as if my little boy is an alien who has just crash landed into our garden after journeying through several galaxies is hurtful.
So I thought I’d share some thoughts on buying gifts for children like Boo and give some some examples of the things that have gone down a storm here. I’ve seen lists like this myself on Amazon and such like. And they can be really helpful. I hope this might be, too.
But first let me say this: a child with cerebral palsy or any additional physical or cognitive disability is first and foremost a child. Boo loves to play. If you asked him what toys he wanted for his birthday his answer would be his favourite new word: ‘more’. Now that’s partly because he’s speech delayed and he only has a a handful of words. But it’s also because he’s a kid. He wants things, lots of of things, lots of brightly coloured, noisy and (for Mummy’s sake) robust things that make the never-ending cycle of therapy feel fresh and new. Frankly as his number one therapist, so do I!
All this means that some of the best presents Boo has ever received are those where people have just taken a punt and treated him like a kid rather than a kid with CP. A friend of mine sent him a Melissa and Doug wooden train for Christmas. And he just loves it. OK, so he can’t attach the carriages to the engine. OK, so he mainly ends up throwing it around the room when trying to get the cow out of the trailer, but he loves it. He doesn’t know he doesn’t play with it conventionally. He just plays. And every toy, pretty much, has therapy potential. Taking things out of the carriages and putting them in is fine motor therapy. Sounds (choo-choo and moo) and words (train etc) tick the SALT box. We can learn through just about any kind of play.
If you have a friend whose child has additional needs, why not take a punt? Or if you’d rather buy something the child might really need or want, why not say to the parents, ‘I just wondered if there’s anything particular X wants for their birthday, but I’m happy to pick something myself and have lots of ideas’. My best friend always says this. She says it because she knows sometimes it takes me a week to reply to a text message. She says it because sometimes it’s all a bit much and I can’t add another thing on the to-do list. And she says it because she is always lovely.
But there are toys out there that are particularly great for kids with additional needs and here are the eight gift ideas or types of gift ideas that I would recommend for a non-toddling toddler with cerebral palsy or simply issues with high or low muscle tone and gross and fine motor delay . It’s not an exhaustive list by a long way. No: these are just a few things that have made the most impact in our life. In all of these, play and fun are the goal, but all have therapeutic benefits.
1. Musical instruments
We’re a very loud household and sometimes tuneful with it. Musical instruments are Boo’s favourite toys and are the easiest way to get him to do any physio (reaching, grabbing, rolling and most recently stepping, which Boo does to get to his crocodile xylophone which we put on the sofa for him to play with while in a supported standing position).
I wrote a guest post about learning through music for the lovely Edspire a while ago, so you can read more about some of the other ways we use Boo’s instruments therapeutically there. But let me tell you, if Boo gets a present that rattles, dings or chings before he opens it, you know you are on to a winner. And the possibilities are endless and can be very inexpensive. From a couple of handbells (less than £5) to a drum or xylophone, I don’t think any of the things in the pic above cost above £15. They are much loved by us all. But not necessarily by our neighbours.
Books are hugely important to our whole family and Boo loves a good story. Especially great are sound books where you have pictures in the text telling you to press a button at a particular moment. (Flap books are also good, but Boo struggles to manipulate them with his compromised fine motor skills.)
Sound books not only animate the story but they aid cognition as they encourage children to anticipate the sound. Some are also just hilarious. If you haven’t read the sound book version of Aliens Love Underpants, let me tell you, you haven’t lived. We also love What the Ladybird Heard (I do a mean Lanky Len impression, I tell you) and Room on a Broom.
3. Lights and lava
If you are lucky enough to have a sensory room somewhere near you, I won’t have to tell you how great lights and lava toys can be for kids like Boo.
Three of the best unsolicited presents Boo has ever got fall into this category. First there was the lava lamp (from one of my godmothers) and then a bubble tube with plastic fishes (from my other godmother). The lava lamp completely captivates Boo and calms him. We use it at night sometimes when he won’t settle to get him to stop crying while his legs are spasming. The bubble lamp has the opposite effect. It gees him up (although I know other kids find them calming) but he is also kind of hypnotized by it and will sit longer, straighter and better while watching it than while doing anything else.
The last of these three wonderful gifts was a light projector pillow pet. I’m sure that Boo has no idea who the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are, but he loves watching the colours change and fade in and out on his when we settle him at night. Best. Presents. Ever.
Boo loves puzzles, sometimes called form boards, where you pull out (usually wooden) pieces from a template. He struggles a bit with them because of the difficulty he has using his arms and reliably opening and closing his hands, so big handled ones are best for him. You can buy puzzle and formboards with large handles from various SEN companies but they can be terrifically expensive. There are plenty of high street brands who do these without the special needs label (like Big Jigs) and they cost much less. And don’t be afraid of puzzles being a little too hard. The only toy I can rely on Boo playing with independently without fuss for half an hour is a board with different door locks on by Melissa and Doug. He can’t work all of the latches, but loves playing with them, especially when I open all the doors for him and he has to close them.
Not much to say here, except what I said earlier. Boo is a little boy who just happens to have CP. And like most kids his age he likes teddies and dolls. He cuddles them and plays with their hair (he has a hair thing and it means he stops playing with mine for a bit). We also use them in role play. Feed the teddy, make dolly some dinner, that kind of thing.
You can roll, kick or throw them. They come in all sizes, colours and textures, from smooth to rough and bumpy. You can get latticed ones (great for little fingers that can’t reliably open to hold on to). Some light up. Some, Boo’s favourites (do you see the pattern here?) are noisy.
And some are so big you can sit and roll on them. Like this one, which currently resides under my work desk where my feet should go…
What’s not to love?
This has to be the cheapest gift ever. Tubs of bubbles cost pennies but can produce the biggest smiles. Boo can’t blow, although we are trying to teach him. But he should put bubble popping in his CV. We have tried all sorts of bubbles. He loves the enormous ones you can get with those outsized wands and we recently discovered set hard bubbles which land on Boo’s Bee seat tray and he spends ages trying to pop them. But if you can spend a little more (say £10-£15) I can’t recommend a bubble machine enough. Boo stares at his, squeals and yells ‘more’ at least once a day until I dutifully turn it on for him. We have one that we can plug in or put batteries in for the garden. I think I will have to pack it when we go on holiday.
8. Talking Toys
We use talking apps on the phone in Boo’s speech therapy. You know the sort of thing. You talk to a strange creature who repeats things back to you in a high-pitched voice. Boo likes them but is always trying to grab the phone off me and look in my camera roll to see pictures of him and his sister (which like bubble popping should be listed as one of his hobbies on his CV). But then Gina came into our life.
Sissyboo bought her for Boo’s second birthday. She was determined to buy him a giraffe on account of them being his favourite animal. (Her evidence is his love of the Giraffes Can’t Dance book.) While looking online for a cuddly giraffe (because Mummy left it to the last minute), we found Gina, a cuddly toy who started life as an app.
You press her foot/hand and she listens. And then she repeats what you say. The minute Boo sees her, he frantically repeats ‘hiya’ until Gina responds. She sits in on most of our SALT at home these days repeating what we have to say.
And speech therapy has never been so much fun. I’m pretty sure Boo thinks he is teaching Gina phonics rather than me teaching him but who cares.
This isn’t a SEN toy. As such it doesn’t cost the earth. In fact, it was pretty cheap. But it is one of the most therapeutically beneficial toys we have for Boo. Cause and effect cognition? Check. Speech development? Check.
But you know what? Most of all, it is a toy, a cute, funny and entertaining toy that allows Boo to be a kid and play. What better gift could you give any child?
I’d love to hear your ideas for top presents for children with additional needs. Please do leave a comment with your suggestions.