Playtime is Serious Business

Kathy Bates

"Play is the highest form of research." – Albert Einstein


Vintage Spin Art Machine with box and paints

When I was young, my favorite activity during this time of year was to carefully go through each page of the toy section in the Sears Wish Book catalog. I would circle the toys I most wanted for Christmas. My favorite toy was the Spin Art machine. The artist would add drops of brightly colored paint to a piece of card stock as it spun around very fast on a small turntable. The result was a beautiful masterpiece of abstract art, which rivaled any painting that Jackson Pollock ever created. Albert Einstein was right—my research paid off, and I had hours of fun with that toy.

Mayra Mendez, PhD, LMFT, a licensed psychotherapist and program coordinator at the Child & Family Development Center at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA, says, “Play is important because it provides a primary foundation for learning, exploring, problem-solving, and building an understanding of the world and your role within it.” Through play, children also learn to communicate with each other and to compromise. Independent play or play without the interference of other adults or children encourages the development of self-confidence, creativity, and imagination. In addition, the skills we learn through play carry over into adulthood. For many children with disabilities, however, play is not as simple as it may seem. Toys and games that are not accessible can make play awfully hard work.

We all know that the holiday season is one of the most popular times of year to buy toys. I started to wonder about the role of assistive technology in making toys easier and more fun to play with for children with disabilities. 

I recently spoke with Chelsea Saam, assistive technology coordinator for the Institute on Disability’s (IOD) Assistive Technology in New Hampshire (ATinNH) project. ATinNH is an online lending library, and any New Hampshire resident can become a member to access it. The program also offers assistive technology training, education, and outreach, as well as loans, demonstrations, and recycled equipment. Chelsea is trained in speech and language pathology and joined the IOD in 2022.

“My favorite part of this job is learning about all the different types of assistive technology,” says Chelsea. "It's amazing and fun. All loans are for 45 days, and they are all free. Sometimes people will try out similar items and compare them. That way, they will get what they really need.”

If someone is interested in buying the equipment that they have borrowed, they will be provided with a URL where they can purchase it. Another option is to check out the Refurbished Equipment Marketplace in Concord, NH, which sells gently used equipment at very reasonable prices.

I told Chelsea that I was very interested in adapted toys. Switch adapted toys have larger buttons that are easier to push for children with limited use of their hands.


A switch adapted toy featuring a koala bear holding a palm tree with colored numbers on it.

“You can purchase switch adapted toys, which are sold on many websites, including Amazon. The toys will already be set up, and all you will need to do is attach the switch that you’d like to use. There are a variety of different sizes, shapes, and types of switches, so you might want to try out a few switches and explore which one works best for the child. If people are interested in trying out different switches, we have a variety of these available through our free loan program."

Assistive technology is defined as any piece of equipment, product, or system that makes daily living easier for a person with a disability. Assistive technology doesn’t have to be high tech. Therese Willkomm, PhD, director of ATinNH, is known as the “MacGyver of Assistive Technology” because she can create assistive technology devices in minutes. She often uses recycled election signs. You know what they say: "One woman’s trash is another woman’s treasure." Some of the toys she’s created are adapted light sabers that are perfect for a little Luke Skywalker, busy boards with spinners, and my favorite—a dice launcher. Maybe the dice launcher would give me the edge I need to finally win at Yahtzee.

From where I sit . . .


Vintage cover of Sears Christmas 1975 Wish Book showing kids a girl and two boys playing with their Christmas toys.

The holidays are all about connecting with each other. Whether it is with friends and family that you see all the time, or people that you see once a year, play is always part of that connection. So go ahead and race the remote control car or play a game. Play should never be difficult; it should always be fun. Assistive technology is important because it allows people with disabilities to do things they couldn’t do before. Imagine racing your switch adapted, remote control car around the house for the very first time. You’re having fun, and you feel like a kid on Christmas morning.

Happy Holidays!