Getting “Beyond the Box” With AblePlay

Article Contributed by gratefulweb | Published on Monday, March 6, 2006

For professionals serving children with special needs, toys are your tools of your trade.  Much like a carpenter whose heart beats rapidly in a hardware store, therapists get that same feeling when they hear the click, ding and buzz of the toys as they enter a toy store.  A survey of therapist and other professionals serving children with special needs taken by the National Lekotek Center, a nonprofit dedicated to using toys and play as a way to fully include children into family and community life, found that 99% of therapy professionals felt toys were critically important or important to their work everyday with children with special needs.

With thousands of toys on store shelves, it can be overwhelming and difficult to identify those products that would be best for your client base.  To compound the challenge, new toys enter the market place with lightening speed.  We often turn on the TV or flip through the pages of a magazine to learn about the newest "hot" items.  So often, however, the best items for our kids are those that aren't promoted on TV or in ads.

So how exactly is a busy professional suppose to find the best products for children with special needs?   Many shop their local toys stores, including the big box retailers, and discount and stores stores.  Others peruse the internet, but both can be time consuming.   Over flowing caseloads, charting notes, counseling parents, consulting with other therapists, and dealing with insurance are just a few of the tasks that leave little time for doing what many want to do most.   Find the next great and fun item that will help their clients meet their goals and enjoy themselves while they work toward them.

This November, a new web-based resource was launched with the express purpose of providing professionals who serve children with special needs and their parents with the information they need to make the best toy choices.  The AblePlay Rating System, which can be found at, provides a snapshot of the toy's appropriateness for children with special needs by giving a star rating (1 the lowest to 5 the highest) in four disability categories – physical, communicative, sensory and cognitive.  It also provides an entire website with information on AblePlay™ rated toys.

The heart of the AblePlay™ Rating System are the comprehensive AblePlay™ Toy Reviews.  These reviews detail the "hows and whys" of each product, specifically for children with disabilities, and consists of details on product features, skill benefits, and creative play ideas, and includes a product photo and  link to an online retail site.

One of the great elements of the site is it is sorting features.  Individuals can search the toys by disability category, toy type (product category), age range, manufacturer, or product name.   With additional toys being added to the site regularly, individuals will always find new products to search.

It is clear that many therapists spend quite a bit of time assisting parents on making home-basesd play experiences rewarding and successful.  In a recent survey of therapy professionals, nearly 25% said that parents ask them daily for toy recommendations.   An additional 55% said they are asked at least weekly or monthly.  Each AblePlay™ Product review is designed to be printer friendly so it can be handed off to parents.  There is also a section on "Tips for Using AblePlay" which offers additional helpful ways to use the information.

With the hope of making the AblePlay website a dynamic and increasingly meaningful resource, a bulletin board for professionals called "Share Your Smarts" will soon provide a forum for therapists to share ideas, resources and tips on toy use.  Parents will also be able to communicate suggestions through the "Parents Helping Parents" bulletin board.   These features are accessible by joining the AblePlayers Club which is free and will also provide topical information toys and play for children with special needs.

AblePlay was conceived to assist parents and the professionals who work with them to sort through the thousands of items in the marketplace and get "beyond the box".    Without being able to play with a toy before you buy it, just looking at the packaging may hold few clues as to its appropriateness for children with special needs.   With time and money in short supply, making just the right match will be made much easier with AblePlay.

The AblePlay concept was created by the National Lekotek Center.  Since 1980, the National Lekotek Center provides play-based direct services, support and information to thousands of children with special needs and their families in resource and play centers in nine states.  For more information on AblePlay contact Diana Nielander at 773-276-5164 or [email protected].  Or check out