"Special needs" is a blanket term that describes children who need extra help, due to learning, emotional, behavioral or physical problems. Many of these children, especially those diagnosed with disorders that relate to the brain, such as autism and ADHD, can have difficulties processing sensory input -- the things we see, smell, touch, hear and taste. Activities that allow them to use their sense of touch to explore the world around them are often very helpful.
A collection of clear plastic bottles and a hot glue gun can help you create a world of swirling, sparkling discovery for your special little guy or gal. Fill the bottle with tap water for quick whorls, or with corn syrup for slower drifts. Let your child help you choose glitter, sequins, sand, food coloring and many other items that encourage your child to observe, recognize and recall information. Small plastic or foam letters, seashells and wooden beads are popular among preschool children. Choose a mix of items that float or sink, add them to your bottle of liquid, hot glue the top on and help your child shake, spin and turn the bottles, observing the different effects of each.
Sensory tables create a safe place for otherwise messy activities that involve tactile materials such as sand, water, rice or seeds. Warm water, baby shampoo, a washcloth and a plastic doll can be added to a sensory table for a baby bath that will teach your child to use gentle hands with others and reinforce personal hygiene skills. A few inches of craft sand, some pretty seashells and a pail and shovel create an exciting scavenger hunt that encourages the exercise of fine motor muscles. Rice, a few measuring cups and a mixing bowl can introduce measuring with standard units, and the rice can have a cool, calming effect on the child.
Children can use art trays to contain activities with art supplies such as clay, play dough or paint. Smashing and rolling play dough helps children with special needs develop fine motor skills. It can also have a calming effect on the children and encourages artistic expression. Shaving cream or whipped cream can be molded into shapes or smoothed out for preschoolers to practice etching letters and pictures. A plastic baggy filled with dollops of different colored paint makes for an activity with a satisfying squish, allowing children to explore what happens when they mix colors together as they smush the baggy with their fingers.
There are countless activities involving paper that can help children with special needs explore and express themselves in different ways. Tearing colored tissue paper and fashioning it into flowers makes for a beautiful bouquet for mom, and allows the children to use small muscles in their hands and discuss the sound the paper makes as it rips. Or, put on your child's favorite song, grab a roll of toilet paper and toss it around the room until it has completely unrolled. Keep dancing as you tear and throw the paper, observing how the air currents catch the paper and affect how it moves. A special "bleeding" tissue paper can be cut or torn and placed on white paper and dribbled with water from eyedroppers, paintbrushes or sponges. The color will move from the tissue paper to the white paper, creating interesting art beneath.