For families of children with disabilities there are many challenges in life, but when Newlife Foundation heard they were struggling to access specialist toys so they could enjoy the simple pleasure of playing together, we responded by extending our services to help.

Specialist therapeutic toys designed to help the development of children with disabilities are often harder to source, definitely more expensive to buy and there is no guarantee your child will respond to them, which can seem like an insurmountable barrier for many families and carers – who often resort to buying high street toys aimed at much younger children to encourage their development.

In response to this need, Newlife launched their own Play Therapy Pod service in 2010, providing specialist therapeutic toys to families on loan for 12 weeks. The charity now has a suite of more than 330 pods aimed at children in different age categories and with different developmental needs, such as auditory, visual, tactile and developing understanding of cause and effect.

On a practical level we know that by giving children with disabilities or terminal illness the chance to try out a variety of toys they wouldn’t otherwise have access to, families can discover just what type of toy engages their child. If a toy attracts their attention and gains a response, families can then be sure it’s something they can consider buying themselves. This way they save themselves the unnecessary expense of trial and error as they search for the right toy their child can find fun and pleasure in, as well as encourage them to achieve developmental milestones.

At Newlife we firmly believe in the power of play – and its ability to help overcome many barriers to fulfilling future potential. Since the launch of the first Play Therapy Pod we have provided over 2000 loans to families, and we are reminded each and every day just what an impact the toys which fill these pods can have. We speak to families, receive emails, letters, pictures and videos telling us how just the right toy can spark joy, wonder and even a response which can ultimately make a big difference.

Bright colours, the lure of a tinkling bell or an electronic beep, the difference between rough and smooth, lights that flash as a reward; these are all things which can engage a child, helping them to make a developmental leap, which may then lead to another. Newlife staff are often told of children who play for the first time with their family, of curiosity in response to a sound, increased attention span, a hand holding a toy for the first time, of cause and effect learned, or that first, faltering, much anticipated step. Parents tell us of children whose confidence has increased due to small victories and skills mastered, progress which may previously have seemed out of reach.

It’s also clear to see that as well as benefitting children’s development, there is a vital emotional aspect to playing. Families describe scenes where common ground has been found with a brother or sister through engaging with specialist toys, where a child with communication difficulties has been able to share a giggle and a smile with a parent or grandparent as they spend quality time together, creating meaningful memories which are cherished for years to come. It is in these small moments that barriers are broken, bonds are forged and relationships are strengthened.

Because of time spent playing with the right kind of specialist toys families also report developing a greater understanding of their child’s abilities and needs. Through play they are better able to focus on what their child can do and help their child achieve its own potential. 

At Newlife we also see specialist sensory toys having another role – helping to conquer fear in stressful situations. A much loved favourite can provide comfort and distraction when a child is in pain, as well as give them an escape to immerse themselves in when they are having treatment or need help to keep calm when they are overwhelmed and distressed by the world around them. 

With so much evidence to support the opportunities specialist toys can provide and the impact play can have on all aspects of a child’s life, at Newlife we know that every child deserves to play – and we will continue to help every child achieve that.

Newlife Foundation for Disabled Children is a national charity which makes a real difference to children with disabilities or terminal illness and their families, Newlife provides support and equipment grants, as well as emergency loans when a child’s safety is at risk or life expectancy is shortened. Specialist toys are also loaned which can change lives in many ways.