This page is all about the benefits of switch adapted play and how selecting the right toy can help with cognitive skill development.

Here’s a good question to start with: which are the best toys for children with disabilities or other special needs?

At Excitim we try to identify toys that can be switch adapted or made switch accessible to help children get more control over how they play and through play teach them important cognitive skills.

Each year we visit the major toy exhibitions and look for toys that are:

Tolo Train Set - bright, colourful, visible, tactile and cleanable
Tolo Train Set – bright, colourful, visible, tactile and cleanable

Bright and colourful: they may be red, green, blue or yellow or all combinations of many different colours. Partially sighted children may find high contrast colours especially helpful to recognise different features such as on / off buttons.

Visible: kids with special needs often have additional sensory deficits and may not be able to see small items. Size may help these children to distinguish how to turn it on and how it works.

Tactile: sensory feedback through touching the toy may be the only way a child has to make out important features. Selecting toys that use different fabrics, roughness or moulded-in textures may be helpful for a child with limited vision to understand what to do.

Cleanable: some toys may be used by children who like to chew them or drool. Fabrics and surfaces that can be wiped clean are better and help keep the toy hygienic.

Provide sensory feedback to the learner: fans are used to create air flow, bubbles especially if scented with a few drops of aromatic oil, lights, sounds, vibrations etc.

Those we select are featured on the Special-Needs-Toys website under two broad categories:

  • Switch adapted battery powered toys
  • Sensory toys that rely on touch, feel, colour and texture to provide sensory feedback to a child.

The biggest category is those we have switch adapted to work with the big button switches parents and professionals will be familiar with.

Battery powered toys

Imagine the scenario where an individual is unable to pick-up the toy or play with it, for whatever reason, in the way toy manufacturer originally intended. Sadly too many toy manufacturers representatives I meet can’t seem to grasp this concept. To make it obvious I ask them to tell me how they would turn it on if they had no hands. Unfortunately the answer is not always very comforting.

Our challenge is to overcome those ‘nice’ design features incorporated by the manufacture in a way that lets kids with disabilities or other special needs still have fun with it.

Thomas the Tank Engine switch adapted toy
Thomas the Tank Engine switch adapted toy

At Excitim we specialise in switch adapted play. Typically we modify toys by adding connections to them so that one or more of the toys functions can be made accessible to a switch user.

What is interesting is that when a child starts to play with switch adapted toys that child also starts on a path to developing transferrable switch skills. Those same skills are essential for school work in the classroom, computer access, interacting on social media, living more independent lifestyles and lots more.

Starting out with switch adapted play is a stepping stone to other things. Let’s take a closer look – we’ll keep the technical stuff to the absolute minimum. Please stick with us.

What sort of switches?

Wired and wireless are both common and available in lots of different types, sizes, colours etc. Take a look at Tony Jones’ description of switches and how to use them on his TalkSense website:

I’m not going to get into what’s the best switch otherwise this blog page would easily be 10 times longer.

Preferably a toy should be controllable wirelessly – without a physical wired connection between the switch and the toy – especially if the toy includes movement that would be restricted by a physical connection. Too much wire just gets in the way.

Think about switch adapted play with the Tractor and Trailer. It has a radio transmitter built into a switch-box and a radio receiver in the tractor. Pressing the switch sends a radio signal to the tractor telling it to start-up. The toy starts and drives forward 3 metres (as well as making sound and light effects). A wired switch connection would just get in the way and prevent the tractor working as well as it does.

Example of a wired switch used in switch adapted play with modified toys
Example of a wired switch used in switch adapted play with modified toys

Wired switches have a big advantage over wireless switches – they cost less and the connecting socket is generally easier to incorporate into a toy.

There are lots of different shapes, sizes, colours and types of switches out there. Enough to suit most users individual needs. Most have a cable length of around 1m long that ends in a 3.5mm plug like the one pictured here.

And, in reality, work very well with static toys mounted on, say, a table top or tray. The Freddie Fish bubble machine is a great example of this.

Switch adapted play teaches awareness

Speech development through switch adapted play - Click to go to the video on Excitim's YouTube channel.
Speech development through switch adapted play. Click to go to the video on Excitim’s YouTube channel.

Sorting out the right switch is usually straight forward. The ‘play value’ of the toy is more subtle but if chosen well can help develop a child’s awareness of what going on. In other words there can be a learning experience as well.

What we need is a toy that works when the switch is pressed and stops when the child releases the switch. But, then continues from the point at which it stopped when the switch is pressed again. Switch adapted toys that work in this way are the best.

This sounds very simple but today’s trend is toward more complex toys that don’t always support this simple requirement.

Desirable features

What’s desirable, nice to have or just un-necessary? That’s not so easy to generalise but here are some thoughts we believe toys should have:

Some form of movement: one may stay on the spot while moving its body (bubble machine) while another might drive along on a desk top (train set). Remote controlled toys can be adapted with four switches or sensors (Dream-Racer) to drive it forwards, backwards left and right.

A purpose/function apart from fun and play: for example, the toy may teach spatial knowledge (Penguin Racer or Castle Chase) or develop cause and effect, or expand sensory awareness or otherwise raise cognition in some specified manner.

Be varied: so that a child will not become bored with it. (although they may inevitably out-grow it) Boredom may prevent the child from grasping a specific educational aspect.

Therefore we should be looking for a range of toys that are both fun and educational. By educational, we mean as a by-product of their use we can claim that some other skill is being developed.

Such skills would include:

  • switch awareness: by definition, all switchable toys will do this but those that are momentary – work only when the switch is pressed – are the best.
  • cause and effect skills: the child learns that by accessing the switch the toy is activated. The Child then comes to understand that it is his/her actions that are effecting/controlling another object, person or thing.

Cognitive awareness

By selecting the right toys the child will begin to increase their cognitive awareness. Lots of toy features can support this including:

  • Shape: the child can interact with the toy and, in so doing, builds an increased awareness of shape. If this is something that a teacher can observe – for example putting shapes through correct holes – then the child demonstrates a learnt skill that can be recorded.
  • Colour: not just colourful toys but actually increased awareness of colour in some specific way. Perhaps the child learns to interact with one coloured part to perform one function and another to perform a second. Of course, we can address this through switch use itself by utilising different colour switches. Thus toys that have a second control function can be useful. That does not diminish the value of the one switch toy however.

    Castle Chase switch adapted toy. Features colour, sound, lights and movement.
    Castle Chase switch adapted toy. Features colour, sound, lights and movement.
  • Sound: toys that produce a variety of sounds that can be controlled by the learner. For some learners sounds may help the learner locate the toy in space. Think about switch adapted play with music and adapted or accessible musical instruments in developing cognitive awareness.
  • Light: for those with visual acuity problems light is important. It might mean the difference between being attracted to and awareness of the toy and showing no interest and or awareness.
  • Tactility: This can also be achieved through the switch itself by sticking different sensory surfaces onto the switch. However, if the toy is designed to be interactive and the child can hold/touch/feel it then different tactile surfaces may be important.
  • Spatial awareness and control: in both two and three dimensions. Often we neglect the up and down aspect. Thus, a fire engine that can travel backwards and forwards, left and right, and also raise and lower its ladder covers all aspects. Each aspect requires a separate control from a distinct switch such that the parent or teacher may restrict the action to make the task simpler. Progressing at a later stage to learning all of the possibilities with the same toy.

Other cognitive skills

Therefore we are not just looking at a toy as a thing of fun, although that is a really an important aspect, but we also have to consider secondary functions:

  • Emergent literacy skills
  • Emergent numeracy skills
  • Scanning skills. Although this is not normally a part of the toy because it tends to be a feature of more advance switch control systems.
  • Social skills: the child has to cooperate with another child to have fun with the toy.

Encouraging switch adapted play

Hopefully you have stayed with me through this rather long blog post and you can agree that there’s lots to be gained from encouraging switch adapted play with modified toys. Hopefully also, these comments will help you to select the best toy for your child and their continuing development.

If your child is a switch user then we hope you’ll find a switch adapted toy on the Special-Needs-Toys website. If not give us a call or email us; we may be able to help.

Or perhaps your child is just starting to learn about switches; in that case introducing toys early on may be beneficial.

Most likely you’ve have a question or two. If that’s the case feel free to get in touch. We are very friendly and approachable people.

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