For a child with sensory processing disorder, not all toys are the same. That’s why local health professionals are recommending a few of their favorite things for families this holiday season.

“We address a variety of skills,” said Molly Connor-Hall, an occupational therapist for Valley Health in Winchester, who works with children who have sensory processing disorder.

She said the best gifts for children are ones that help them build their skills while having fun.

Children with sensory processing disorder might need work adapting their fine motor skills or gross motor skills, being more attentive or regulating emotions.

“That’s one of the reasons why play is so important,” Connor-Hall said, “because it can address all of those things.”

Toys can help children with daily occupations like social skills, bathing, brushing their teeth, sleeping, building skills for learning and engaging with family around the community.

She suggested building blocks like Legos and Magna-Tiles, puzzles, marble mazes, and construction toys like K’nex and Squigz.

Toys like these help children be creative, solve problems, plan ahead, work on matching and color identification and improve their strength, sensory processing and motor skills. They also provide opportunities for kids to be more sociable with friends and family who play with them.

Elizabeth Mutter, a speech therapist in Winchester, suggested any toys or games that challenge kids to talk.

“My suggestion is working with pretend play kits,” she said, such as vet and doctor kits. “You can work on a ton of vocabulary words.”

Toys like these encourage labeling, identifying, matching, counting, comparing and answering questions.

“They’re still learning through play,” she said. “Speech overlaps with a lot of those things.”

Having sensory processing disorder can mean a lot of things, Connor-Hall said.

“Basically, the body is having trouble processing sensory input,” she said.

In addition to the five main senses of sight, touch, smell, hearing and taste, she said the body has two more senses in the vestibular system (awareness of body balance and movement) and proprioceptive system (having a sense of body position, such as how one’s limbs feel.)

These toys are great for all kids, she said but someone with sensory processing disorder could benefit from them, too.

Sensory activities can be as simple as being outside, said Kate Von Schuch, a pediatric physical therapist at Shenandoah Memorial Hospital in Woodstock.

Working with children, she said, “I tend to do some of the bigger movement activities.”

In her sessions, she’s taken children outdoors to go on “bear hunts” and climb along uneven ground that helps them improve their balance and imagination.

Outside play, she said, is “something really simple” that people might not immediately think of as a beneficial learning tool for children.

“You’re taking in not only what you’re seeing and hearing and moving around, but a combination of the three,” she said.

For indoor activities, she uses balance beams, mats, stackable blocks, therapy balls and inflatable rocking rody riders.

Some children need to expend a lot of energy before they’re able to focus on quieter activities, becoming essential to their learning process, she said.

“Big movements can make a big difference,” she said.

On Friday, Shenandoah Memorial Hospital will host its second Sensory-Friendly Visit with Santa event from 1-4:30 p.m. at the Valley Health Wellness & Fitness Center, 1195 Hisey Ave., Woodstock. The free event for children with sensory processing disorder will offer games and activities with a chance to meet Santa in a quiet, low-stress environment away from the hustle and bustle of busy malls and shopping centers.

“We’ve kind of taken all those extra things and gotten rid of them,” said Von Schuch, who started a low-key Santa visit at the hospital last year.

Parents can sign up children to attend during a 15-minute time slot to avoid waiting in line to see Santa, said Jennifer Dickson, an occupational therapist at Shenandoah.

“We had 12 kids last year and this year so far we’re up to 16,” she said. However, there’s still room for more.

Activities include crafts and a rice table where children can search for different items.

“We’re having therapy dogs there just for a little extra support,” Dickson said.

A “secret Santa” photo option allows parents to get a picture with Santa without their little ones seeing him standing nearby.

That way, a shy child can sit for a photo, Von Schuch said but “Santa can still be in the picture.”

To sign up for a time slot, call Jennifer Dickson at 540-459-1377.

Contact Josette Keelor at