Most parents understand returning home tired after work and feeling transformed simply by hearing their children’s laughter.

It’s a simple experience – but one filled with emotion. Unfortunately, there are families where a child’s laughter is rarely heard. In more complicated situations, parents might not even remember when they last played with their children.

Play has a significant role in a child’s development. Children acquire many skills through games, such as relating with other people, learning about themselves and developing other abilities that often determine their personality as adults.

Children with disabilities, however, are often not attracted to traditional toys, or use them in a way that adults consider to be incorrect. For example, children with disabilities might take a toy car and knock it on a table to hear the sound it makes. Parents or caregivers often try to ‘correct’ this behaviour, or take the toys away from the child completely. As a result, the child often loses interest or doesn’t like playing with others.

Giorgi Demetrashvili teaches children with disabilities to craft toys from inexpensive household items. | © UNICEF/NYHQ2014-1871/Khizanishvili Levan Chargeishvili, 9, uses a handmade book that promotes tactile and visual learning. Nika Tsirekidze, 18, plays with a homemade, liquid-filled hourglass that promotes visual stimulation and develops hand-eye coordination. Tekle Kikacheishvili, 16, makes homemade dough from flour, salt, water and paint. Involving children in the toy-making process allows educators to customize the toys based on the child's individual needs and interests.
Giorgi Demetrashvili teaches children with disabilities to craft toys from inexpensive household items. | © UNICEF/NYHQ2014-1871/Khizanishvili

To make toys and games more interesting for children, ideally, each toy should be adjusted to the individual interests and needs of the child. This is a challenge in Georgia, where toys are considered a luxury by many families.

At First Step Georgia, we work with children with disabilities to craft toys from inexpensive household items. Involving the children in this process makes it more attractive and interesting for them, and it gives us a chance to make toys that are based on the individual needs of the children.

For example, we make soft cubes from colored cleaning cloths. The cubes are then filled with small Styrofoam balls. Making this toy develops hand-eye coordination, hearing and visual skills. A specially designed ball – made from the same cleaning cloths – helps with tactile and visual perception, and our homemade dough – made from flour, salt, water and paint – stimulates motor skills, coordination and sensory perception. The toys are not only fun to play with, but they are also fun to make.

Making homemade toys is not a new idea, but we looked at it from a different perspective. Every child has individual interests and for children with disabilities, identifying these interests can open a pathway to organizing corresponding activities that support their development.

One child I worked with liked to watch water flowing from a tap. For that child, we made a toy from hand soap, colored paint and two bottles, fixed together to form an hourglass. At first, the parents were nervous that the child would simply watch the water flowing endlessly and tried to forbid him from using the toy. Instead, we encouraged them to allow it, and to add different colors, use bigger bottles and add other items that could flow through the hourglass.

Not only did the child enjoy it, but it established a relationship of trust between the parents and the child, and the sounds of laughter soon followed.