Monday, July 9, 2012

Review and Giveaway: ThinkFun's New Special Needs Section: Play with Special Agendas

These are most of the ThinkFun games we bought before Toys are Tools was launched. Rush Hour Traffic Jam Jr. and Zingo are with other families now.    Hoppers and TipOver are at school. 

WHAT: ThinkFun's New Special Needs Section
DOES: Allows you to easily to find a game that offers the skills/features you seek (Speech and Language, Numbers, Memory, etc.)
INVEST: Only your time
TOOLS: Family Fix-its, I Can Take Care of Myself
EXPERT OPINION:  Susan Schwartz, MAEd, Director, Learning and Diagnostics CenterChild Mind Institute
PICK-Your-Own-Prize Giveaway: Details Below

When you talk about skills the way it's done at here at Toys are Tools, it is natural to think that we are all about special needs.  However, I like to think that this is a space where we can talk about special toys, games, and gadgets that meet special goals.  For me, identifying the skills featured in a toy is an important part of the mission because the more we know what it does for us, the more we are going to like it, use it, and as a result, be helped by it.

Love that you can click onto it from the homepage.  They are serious about this page.  They want it to be used!

By the way, when I say "special needs," I am not just talking about "challenges."  In fact, I think some of the most "able" kids will really require these "special toys" because highly-intelligent children have their own unique "special need."  If anything, these children have the least patience for toys that do not challenge the mind.

Have a Special Agenda?

Here is some good news for those parents and actually all parents who want to know more about what's so educational about their educational toy.  ThinkFun, one of my favorite toy companies, just put up a special needs section but to me, they might as well call it a "Special Needs and Special Talents" or "Special Agendas" section because they chart all their games by the skills that will be practiced when playing it.   It's a great resource.

How easy is this to use? 

Three more reasons why it's great:
  1. It is extremely simple. You don't have to be in the teaching or psychology biz to understand it.
  2. With a little bit of help, your child can use it too.
  3. If you already have a ThinkFun game you love, look at their chart and see if another game has similar skills checked off.   That could be the predictor of another hit at home.

How Adaptive are ThinkFun Games and Directions?

I also had a chance to pick the brain of veteran learning specialist, Susan Schwartz, MAEd, Director of the Child Mind Institute's Learning and Diagnostics Center.   Susan saw the chart and thought it was a good idea that toy companies were thinking about the fact that games build various skills and abilities.  She also wondered whether game pieces or instructions in the games were adaptive in any way  - for example easy to grasp pieces for children who would benefit from larger game pieces or pictures included in directions so children can manage following directions without reading.

Understanding directions without reading?  Oh yes, this is one of the reasons why I love ThinkFun!  There are video directions for many of their games!  Some have QR Codes that you can scan with your smartphone and you can play it just before starting.   And I know that some of our favorite games like Snack Attack and Zingo 1,2,3 have double-sided "game boards" (one board per person) which means that a person could play with an easier game board in the same game as a person who is playing with a harder game board. (See picture below)  Thank you Susan for this great question!  

Number 2 LOVES this game!  And we definitely mixed it up with harder or easier sides when playing.  That way, it was challenging and fun for everyone and most importantly we were together.

To be sure, not all special needs are created equal and so there are some children living with challenges that will find it hard to play with any or most of the games here as it is originally intended to be played.  But I think this attempt can still serve many many people. I will certainly be using it to see which toys I want for the Toys are Tools' Squadron of Testers next.  I may even model my upcoming "Find A Toy" section in the same fashion as this chart!  So what should I do to see how effective this chart can be?  I thought I'd ask Number 1 Son to use it.  He is aware of his skills and his needed areas of improvement.

Kids Can Use the Chart Too? Why Not?

I asked him if he knew what "Special Needs" meant and he said that he thought it meant "extra help if you need it."   I love those words!   Then, I covered the column listing the names of the games (because he knows a lot of them) and told him to look at only the skills columns.  I then told him to find a game that had a skill in which he might want to practice more but to make sure that the game also had features that he found easy or fun.  (Because it's supposed to be fun!)  He picked one pretty quickly and we both laughed out loud when we uncovered the name.

It was a game that we already have, one that is still in our Busy Box: the Fifteen Puzzle

Don't let him get distracted by the graphics.   Cover it up and let him choose by the skills he wants to improve and the talents he already has.

In fact, with the names still covered, he kept picking games that we already had including Cartoon It!, Rush Hour Traffic Jam, Snack Attack, and Brick by Brick.  (We actually do not have Brick by Brick but this is a game that he had asked me for a long time ago- wow!)  Isn't that just crazy?  I wonder what this says about both of us.

You Decide What is Fun

I think what is most important about this chart is that you can see it all in one view.  All the games are there.  None are chosen for you. You do the choosing.    It's all there in one happy chart and while you are thinking about skills, the goal is to make sure that it's fun because it's supposed to be play.  "Just the simple act of opening a box and talking with a play partner requires fine motor control, focus, and language development - that is the whole point of play," said Susan.  "Any kind of play whether toys, games, puzzles, dolls, dress up - all of a child's skills and abilities are engaged when a child is busy and playing."

After he saw the chart, he decided to finish Pathwords Jr. so he can buy Pathwords. I know it will be hard for him.  (its for 12+ years of age and he's only 8)  However, he refuses to pay attention to the age recommendations.  I often do too.  ThinkFun, please make a Pathwords-Intermediate!

Susan always has a wonderful way of reminding me of what's really important.  After looking at this chart, my son was having a lot of fun just thinking about playing and trying new things.  Then, my son asked me to buy him Pathwords (not the Jr. version, which we reviewed).  I told him that I could but only if he finished the Junior version.  And even though he had 10 more puzzles to go before finishing all of them, he made up his mind and announced that he would get it done.  The time passed by quickly even though he was there in that one spot for much of the morning and then he finished!  He was so happy with himself.   I gave him a gift card and let him buy it by himself online (while I sat next to him). *

There is something very special about ThinkFun's puzzles.  Number 6, who did not often play with puzzles at home, got Pathwords Jr. for her birthday and after finishing it, her parents bought her Pathwords-Original.  I am told by her mom that Number 6 can occasionally be found avoiding her homework or chores and sneaking off to a corner to play Pathwords.

Number 6 wasn't all that into puzzles until she started playing with Pathwords Jr.! Her mom would also like a Pathwords Intermediate.  Like Number 1, Number 6 is eight years old too.

Number 6 does not have any particular special need but I asked her mom to look at the chart.  She did and said it felt like it gave a nice overview and it also made her wonder about how these skills are worked through the game.  If that is naturally the next question after folks see this chart then they are in luck!  That's why Toys are Tools is here! We dig deeper for parents who want to know more!

The bottomline: this new Special Needs section is special because anyone can use it to do special things.  ThinkFun, thank you!  This section is so respectful.  Instead of sending a message of:  

Here are the things we have that you should be able to do.

you sent a different message:

Here is everything we have, come see what might be great for you.

Amaze can be a great stand-alone puzzle and also a great Busy Box item for older elementary kids.  Number 1 Son was playing this before we headed out to the mall where there was not one single toy store!  What happened to all the toy stores?  This is a problem!


ThinkFun is giving away one game of the winner's choiceAny one game on their website,, can be yours if you are declared the winner!!!!   Just follow the instructions on the Rafflecopter widget.  The winning prize can only be shipped to the U.S.  Ends 7/28/12  12:01 AM

a Rafflecopter giveaway

*My friend M.M. gave me this suggestion of giving him a gift card because I love when he can go up to the counter and buy something especially if he earned it on a star chart.  However, since there is nothing awesome to buy in our neighborhood, he gets a gift card to an online store that has "the good stuff."

In case you are wondering.....  There has been absolutely no payment involved for the writing of this review.  Almost every item shown here was purchased by me or given to me by a friend way before Toys are Tools became Toys are Tools!  A couple of items discussed or displayed were submitted to Toys are Tools for review. (Pathwords Jr. and Snack Attack)  Reviews are never promised.


  1. Great review! I need to check out their website.

  2. Can't wait to try some of these games!

  3. Thank you for taking the time to review - we are all reading every word here and ThinkFun - its how we learn what we can do better - what is working and what is not - for everyone who is a ThinkFun fan thank you for allowing us to touch your lives - we love what we bring to the world and your words warm our hearts Andrea at ThinkFun

  4. Could it be that Andrea Barthello, Co-Founder of ThinkFun left this comment here at Toys are Tools! OMG! Wow! What a big surprise! I think this section is awesome and I am sure others will too! Hope other companies follow suit. Special Needs is not one-size-fits-all and ThinkFun's Skills Matrix clearly acknowledges that! Thank you!

  5. I would like to see the 36 cube. It's very colorful and looks nice. but I don't understand what it is.

  6. I've had a chance now to cruise around the ThinkFun site. Great layout! I love the categories and that all their games are listed. At a glance I can pick out something that can be educational, fun and challenging. Well Done ThinkFun!

  7. "Tell us which ThinkFun game you want reviewed next!" I would love to see Solitaire Chess reviewed... but with a twist! ThinkFun let's you play it online or on a tablet/ipad through App stores. How does it differ to play it online vs in real life? Does it still help with focus and attention? Is it more or less frustrating for a child to play (assuming they have the computer skills needed). What are the benefits of online play vs in real life?

  8. one quick feed back that I have... can you freeze the titles of the columns on your special needs chart? By the time I get to a game at the bottom, I have forgotten if the 3rd dot is memory or fine motor and I have to keep scrolling back and forth.

  9. You always ask the best questions! We have never done an app vs. real life comparison. I wonder how one could make claims scientifically. Sounds like a great science fair project for kids too!

  10. As a pediatric OT I LOVE ThinkFun Games! The chart would be helpful for all parents... why does it have to be ear marked for children with special needs?

  11. Would love for you to review Hyper Swipe next... how fast does one need to move/process? How detailed are the pictures? How many pictures to a card? I would think it could address so many visual perceptual skills, but hard to tell from the pic and brief description.,73,10.htm

  12. Christine, What great questions! I will try to remember these questions everytime I review any visual perceptual game. Thank you!!!

  13. I love that ThinkFun has created this special section on their website. This is an amazing resource for parents like us who look for more substance and teachable moments in our toys. Thanks ThinkFun!

  14. Thinkfun has such great games that our kids really love! Thank you for sharing this information. It is so helpful to have that chart when trying to navigate what games may be appropriate and fun at the same time.

  15. Melissa MorgenlanderJuly 10, 2012 at 9:29 AM

    Jenn, I a completely applaud ThinkFun for this effort. However, they don't indicate what level of learning is needed. For example, if a game supports "Number Sense" - it does not give an indication at what learning level a child should have for that. This chart basically needs to be combined with a developmental chart of some kind to be optimal for me. But what a great idea!

  16. Melissa MorgenlanderJuly 10, 2012 at 9:53 AM

    For what Game to review next: "Yackety Smack" - i love that it can be a family-fun game, but more importantly, SPEECH and LANGUAGE is encouraged! For my son with Autism, this is so important - getting language out of him can be hard, but a fun game like this could be so motivating!

  17. I just checked out the chart and LOVE it! The only recommendation would be to be able to click on the game from the chart. After the reviews, we are definately doing Pathway's Junior. Thank you!

  18. I just checked out the chart and LOVE it! The only recommendation would be to be able to click on the game from the chart. After the reviews, we are definately doing Pathway's Junior. Thank you!

  19. Nicole,
    Thank you so much for your cheerful comment. I'm glad you mentioned this note because in that chart, there are two columns for the games. One column shows the graphic version of the name of the game. The column right next to it entitled "Game & Link" does contain the link! So you don't have to leave the page, you can just click onto that. And you have good taste! Pathwords Jr. is totally awesome. Our Pathwords (original) game is due to arrive today in the mail! My son is really looking forward to it!

  20. Gosh, I have been ignoring age recommendations for so long that I didn't even consider that. I wonder how that can be done..... I too have to make a chart of some sort so your comment is very helpful to me too! Thank you for your thoughtful comment!

  21. I totally agree! It's the chart that I never knew that I needed very badly. Does that make sense? Better go get some more coffee.

  22. More substance! That's exactly it! Well put!

  23. I think I saw on ThinkGeek that this is the hardest puzzle ever..... but it's so pretty too! I'm torn!

  24. I am so happy to hear from other ThinkFun fans. Our first game was Rush Hour Traffic Jam Jr. I hadn't seen my son do a puzzle in two years prior to buying that game! I didn't realize there were logic puzzles out there and now we have more logic puzzles than....... goodness, I'll stop right there. It's probably embarrassing to write the actual number.

  25. Jenn, I really like the chart specifying what areas the game can help strengthen, and the fact that these games are not simply educational/therapeutic, but also fun and engaging. I agree with you that the language introducing the special needs page is respectful and positive, with I appreciate. Thanks for pointing out this great resource!

  26. Jenn, I really like the chart specifying what areas the game can help strengthen, and the fact that these games are not simply educational/therapeutic, but also fun and engaging. I agree with you that the language introducing the special needs page is respectful and positive, with I appreciate. Thanks for pointing out this great resource!

  27. Jenn, I really like the chart specifying what skills the game can help strengthen, and the fact that these games are not simply educational/therapeutic, but also fun and engaging. I agree with you that the language introducing the special needs page is respectful and positive, with I appreciate. Thanks for pointing out this great resource!

  28. Kay, I love your comment. Everyone, Kay did not leave her multiple links and so I will!

    ADHD Parenting Blogger at

    Easy to Love but Hard to Raise (co-Editor of this anthology)

    This anthology was reviewed here too!

    And there is more but I'll stop for now!!! Thanks Kay. I am so happy you like the language too. It's really so thoughtful!

  29. Jenn, I really like the chart specifying what skills the game can help strengthen, and the fact that these games are not simply educational/therapeutic, but also fun and engaging. I agree with you that the language introducing the special needs page is respectful and positive, with I appreciate. Thanks for pointing out this great resource!

  30. We love ThinkFun games at our house. They have done so much to help increase my son's self confidence. He had a really hard time loosing games which made it impossible for us to play anything together. Single player games like Rush Hour and Shape by Shape really helped him be able to enjoy a game and eventually learn to play with other people.

    I would love to have shelves stocked with the entire ThinkFun inventory!

    I'd love to see you review some of the Brain Teasers. Do the small puzzles in that category have staying power once you've solved them? Is there a challenge in repeating it?

    I'd also love a review of UnHinged across age groups. It looks like a great sensory/tactile toy for younger kids and a challenging puzzle for older ones. Does it come with puzzles simple enough for little ones?

    Thank you Jenn for letting us know about the new chart for special needs on the ThinkFun website. What a great resource you are!

  31. I love Toys are Tools' readers! Ohmigosh. These are awesome questions. Very challenging! I have to say that we have never tried a ThinkFun brainteaser but truthfully, when my son was using the chart and picked things without seeing the name, he was led to the a-ha puzzles! He didn't quite understand it. But I suppose it is hard to show how challenging it is through a photograph without giving away the answer! And Unhinged looks awesome - your question is great!

    Thank you so much for the kind words. I really hope more charts are made like this!

  32. Love the Roll&Play Game:,100,16.htm

    I love that your special needs page begins by talking about strengthening skills rather than focusing on deficits. I love your chart and had a great time reading about your games. The only suggestion I have is maybe a short break-down of what the skills are (I love it, but I'm always amazed at how little some people know about what qualifies as a special need).

  33. I'm new to this blog, so the game I'd like to know more about may have already been covered. BUT, I'd like to hear more about BugTrails or really any games that are good for the preschool crowd. My son has Zingo and it's a wonderful game. I would probably get him Clever Castle if I won. Thanks!

  34. I think the chart would be very helpful when choosing games for special needs such as my son with ADHD

  35. I just browsed ThinkFun's page and am impressed with the layout and ease of navigation. We have toys that are 'just toys' in our home but usually look for learning skills to be paired with the fun, and are always looking for fun ways to build confidence and learning. The special needs page is wonderful. A fabulous way to find games and toys for our children whether or not they have a diagnosed special need or need work in a certain area, or truly enjoy games and toys emphasizing specific skills. I definitely will come back to take a longer look at their page, and thank you for bringing it to our attention!

  36. I am torn between two games to review next. I would love to see a review on 'Yackety Smack'. It looks like it could encourage my often non-verbal daughter, to speak more while having fun. I also would like to see your thoughts on 'Bug Trails'....if it is challenging enough for the ages listed, or if it might be for younger children as a stepping stone to real dominoes.


  38. these toys are great, I would buy every single one of them if I could, right now Id d like to try the spell it game,

  39. Hi Jenn, Thanks for posting about ThinkFun's Special Needs chart. And thanks for pointing out how concept of "special needs" has broad application well beyond the limited population that gets defined by that label. I would love to see your review of Yackety Smack. I love ThinkFun toys.