A Library of Free Toys Just for Children with Disabilities?

The costs of toys can add up, especially if children with disabilities -- such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD) -- need them for therapy. For many parents, finding beneficial products can be confusing, time-consuming, and expensive. But a new program called Capable Kids and Families allows parents to bypass the hassle, by selecting the best of the best, and allowing special needs families to borrow them for free.

Wednesday April 21st - 5:30pm

capable kids and families toy lending library Courtesy of Capable Kids and Families, St. Louis

It sounds like something from a child’s fantasy -- talking frogs, skipping dogs, noisy drums, puzzles, and trampolines in a large library made up of only toys that can be borrowed at no cost to parents of children with disabilities. But in reality, 50 families living in St. Louis, Missouri are currently enrolled in a program called Capable Kids and Families (CKF) that allows them to do just that -- use educational and therapeutic toys, such as these, for free.

The St. Louis Arc, a nonprofit agency that supports people with developmental delays -- such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD) and learning disabilities -- launched the program in December 2009 to help parents check out educational and therapeutic toys and equipment that may otherwise be too costly for them. With enough state funding to support 50 local families, there are already 15 families waiting to join the program.

The goal of the program is to “strengthen and empower families,” said Julia Schaffner, the coordinator for CKF. She explained that many parents feel overwhelmed when searching for toys to help their developmentally-delayed children because of the wide selection and financial burden -- some of these tools can cost hundreds of dollars -- compounded by the fact that since every child learns and develops differently, they also may prefer and benefit from different toys.

This was the situation one parent, Nicole Vehige, found herself in with her son Nathan, who was born three-months premature and was diagnosed with moderately severe hearing loss, before she joined Capable Kids and Families. “Nathan endured several health issues that set him back more than we anticipated and led to even more complications... they [CKF] have been able to provide the much-needed equipment and therapeutic toys to allow our son to continue to make progress with all of his therapies.”

There are more than 1,700 toys and equipment in the Capable Kids and Family catalogue -- some specialized, some that you could find at Toys “R” Us, all meant to help children develop motor skills, or learn oral, visual, auditory, and language development. Every month a family specialist from the program visits each member’s home to see how the toys are working. They provide suggestions for parents and help them decide when to swap toys to help children move forward in their therapy. But the toys and equipment can be kept indefinitely until they are no longer useful for the children’s development.

Vehige borrowed a specially designed chair -- called the Tumble Forms Corner Chair -- for her son Nathan, who cannot sit yet without support and assistance because of his premature birth. The chair provides Nathan with the extra support he needs while training his muscles and strength.

In addition, Nathan is working with two “cause and effect” toys -- the Mini Dome and the Mozart Magic Cube -- that teach children that actions have results. All of these toys can be purchasable elsewhere but they are expensive; the chair alone costs hundreds of dollars.

“It’s a lifesaver that we are able to borrow these toys and not have to purchase each of them. If we acquired every toy or piece of equipment that a therapist or doctor suggested, we would have to take out a loan,” Vehige said.

ADDitude’s parenting blogger Kay Marner, whose daughter has ADD/ADHD, said “I would love to have that kind of program available [where I live]…Being able to try many different products and rotate them regularly would be great.”

While the St. Louis Arc is not the only organization to create a toy lending library -- similar toy libraries exist nationwide -- they are one of the few that specializes on helping children with developmental disabilities catch up to their peers. Some other toy-lending libraries focused on helping children with special needs include those operated by Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tennessee; the Children's Council of San Francisco in California; Assistive Technology of Ohio in Columbus, Ohio and the USA Toy Library Association in Evanston, Illinois.

Capable Kids and Families was originally developed in 1991 by the Community Partnership in Rola, Missouri but was brought to Greater St. Louis area through a collaboration with the St. Louis Arc. The St. Louis Arc is planning to expand the geographical reach and increase the number of families eligible for the program as soon as more funding is secured.

To be eligible for the program, children need to be younger than seven years old with a delay in their physical, speech, sensory, or intellectual development (ie. learning disorder or ADD/ADHD) and they must be living in St. Louis. To learn more, visit their website.

Have you stumbled upon a great resource for parents of special needs children? Share your parenting finds in a comment below.

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