Shopping for toys during the holiday season always takes a bit of resourcefulness. You need to learn what’s new, what’s out, what’s flying off the shelves - and then carefully consider whether your purchase will add to your child’s entertainment stockpile. But if you have a child with special needs, especially one who is struggling with depression, finding the right toy can feel even more daunting.
Though there are many different kinds of games and toys, here are 8 categories that I teach parents to consider thinking about when holiday shopping. These themes help with healing and are also super fun too.
- Seek out toys that teach about feelings. Though most children find it a challenge to label feelings, depressed children struggle even more in identifying and expressing them. Toys like Eggspressions, Kimochis and Moody Monsters Memory Game invite depressed kids to see the subtle differences between and among emotions. They also teach how actual expressions look on others’ faces as well as their own. Playing with these toys will help your child learn how mad is different than irritated. How sad is different than lonely. Once children learn these subtle differences, they can better label what they’re feeling and talk about it.
- Get artsy. Research shows that the expressive arts, like drawing, painting and creating music not only lift mood, they help children express and manage feeling states. Old-school toys that encourage artistic expression like crayons, paints, clay are great items. So is getting your child a musical instrument. And don’t forget the new-school digital ways of getting art and music into your child’s life with downloadable apps and computer software like Toca Band, MoMA Artlab, Garage Band or iDraw, for example.
- Choose problem solving toys: Depression can cause distractibility, lower reasoning and interrupt flow of thinking – parts of the brain area called “executive functioning.” Toys and games that challenge your child to find solutions, tap judgment or use logic will help sharpen these important cognitive skills. Classic games like Chess, Othello, Battleship and Trimonos are terrific board games. Digital ones like Star Wars Pit Droids, Angry Birds, and Bubble Ball are fun and educational too.
- Pick games that build resiliency: Games that teach depressed children how to be resilientunder pressure can improve self-esteem and reduce hopelessness. Consider classic toys like Jenga, Don’t Break the Ice, Don’t Spill the Beans, Topple, Kerplunk, Crocodile Dentist, Flinchand Hot Potato. Shop for educational and gaming apps for your child that likes tech-y things over old-school games by searching online at stores like Amazon or Toys-R-Us.
- Toys that relax: Toys and games that incorporate color and lights increase feel-good endorphins and are instant mood lifters. Classic toys like Lite Brite, Melissa and Doug’s Light Box, Rain Tubes, Sand Windows, Water Volcanoes, Sand Play and Lava Lamps are home run toys. Even a simple jar of bubbles can teach children how to deep breathe, offering a space for fun and relaxation skill building. Night Lights like Cloud B Tranquil Turtle, Rainbow Bulbs or Uncle Milton’s Shooting Stars are soothing as are Aromatherapy Stuffed Animals like Sonoma Lavender Bear or Cozy Plush Microwavable Animals.
- Don’t forget the cape: Any toys or games that encourage pretend play are wonderful ways to encourage imagination for emotional and physical release. Research shows that pretend play reduces anxiety and depression, reduces pain, improves coping and regulates feelings states. Be it Disney princesses or Marvel Avengers, girly dolls or action figures, playing house or walking on the moon, pretend play is great, healing fun.
- Go for silly over serious: Laughter is great medicine, and scientific studies show that having silly experiences raises the feel-good hormones dopamine and serotonin. Some of my favorites are Duck Duck Bruce, Pass the Pigs, Slamwich, Gooey Louie, and What’s in Ned’s Head. And never underestimate the giggle power of miniature hats and stick on mustaches. They rank top of the list for children I work with.
- Games that spark storytelling: Getting depressed children to talk about their struggles isn’t always easy. But the built-in rules of certain games allow children to safely share. For your depressed child games like Tell Tale, MadLibs, SketchIt, Ravensburger’s Tell-A Story Games, IlluStory’s Make Your Own Story and Rory’s Story Cubes can be a springboard for emotional expression.
These special categories of toys and games give depressed children a healthy way of distancing themselves from sadness.
When you sit and play with your depressed child, your time and attention helps with their healing.
Remember, for children, toys are their words and play is their conversation.