Toys R Us catalog targets special kids

Toys R Us is expanding its effort to help parents find toys that are fun and developmentally beneficial for special-needs children.

The retailer has produced its annual Toy Guide for Differently-Abled Kids catalog, featuring California first lady Maria Shriver as spokesperson, since 1994. This year it has tripled distribution to 3 million copies and beefed up the Web presence at toysrus.com, including answers to questions about toy selection for children with disabilities and a guide that categorizes toys by parameters including skill-building and age.

"We're making a bigger commitment," says Toys R Us President Ron Boire. "It's an important piece for us and the parents in our stores. There's a lot more awareness that many different toys can help differently abled children with everything from motor skills to fundamental learning. Parents really appreciate an organization helping them make smart decisions."

Toys R Us puts together the guide in cooperation with Lekotek, a non-profit organization that specializes in helping parents with therapeutic development and play for special-needs children. Lekotek reviews the toys in the guide and assigns them with code symbols for the developmental skills they aid.

Among them are the V.Smile Baby: Infant Development System ($34.99). The board with easy-to-press buttons help kids learn shapes and colors and aids thinking, visual and language skills.

There's also the Brilliant Basics Walker-to-Wagon ($24.99), which can double as a walker or pull-wagon and helps fine and gross motor skills.

Toys that can be adapted for special-needs development — mainstream toys at everyday prices — are a growing concern among parents, especially as diagnosis rates for conditions such as autism continue to rise.

Learning and development toys also are one of the growth segments for Toys R Us and the $8 billion toy industry, which has struggled to increase sales in recent years. Toy sales are 3% for the first half of this year, with learning toys among the categories outpacing the industry. While doll sales are flat, for instance, infant and preschool toys rose 4%, youth electronics jumped 8% and arts and crafts increased 6%, according to retail tracker The NPD Group.

"All parents are interested in helping their kids develop better," says Anita Frazier, toy industry analyst for NPD. "Regardless of special needs or not, a parent wants to know if a toy is appropriate for their child. The more that any toy manufacturer or retailer can help, the better."

How Toys R Us is promoting its guide this year:

•Shriver, whose mother Eunice started the Special Olympics in 1968 with support from the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, is the guide spokesperson and appears on the cover of the catalog.

"The toys featured throughout the guide provide a wonderful way to inspire children with special needs, encouraging them to have fun while learning everyday skills," Shriver said in a statement. She says the toys can harness "the power of play."

•The 586 stores this month will showcase some of the toys and the guide near entrances.

On shelves, toys are flagged with one or more of 10 color-coded symbols to highlight skills they can help, such as auditory, fine or gross motor, social or tactile.

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