A newly opened toy shop in the north of England has laid out its plans to become a ‘hub for families across Merseyside’ in supplying toys, products, and resources for SEN children.
The Sensory Toy Shop is an independent, inclusive toy shop situated in Wirral that, having opened on the day of the lifting of Government restrictions on non-essential retailers in April, is placing itself at the centre of its local community while “giving SEN toys the High Street presence that they deserve to have.”
Run by Leanne and Adam Eaton, the indie store is only a few weeks into its brick and mortar business – having operated a Click and Collect service throughout the last national lockdown – but sales already appear to be booming. “Fantastic reaction from local parents and families” as well as “pent up demand” from across the UK for its products have made for a successful outing for the pair so far.
Working in an SEN school and having been brought up with British Sign Language as a child along with her deaf sister, Leanne Eaton has spent a lifetime embedded in the SEN community. It stands to reason that she shares the frustrations of parents of children with additional needs that products for which “there is such high demand”, cannot be found on the UK’s high streets.
With her partner, Adam, the pair decided to provide a solution to the issue themselves and set up their own store.
“Children shouldn’t have to go to a school to find and use these kinds of SEN toys and products,” Leanne Eaton told ToyNews. “Parents shouldn’t be forced to traipse the internet, they should be there, ready on the High Street with real mainstream presence.”
It’s the reasoning that sparked the concept to create their own hub for families with SEN children. Not only will The Sensory Toy Shop look to supply the latest in SEN toys and gadgets, from Braille LEGO and Braille products, Wheelchair Barbies, and dolls with cochlear implants, to unflavoured toothpaste and vibrating pillows, but host a sensory room for children – and adults – as well as special classes ranging from British Sign Language, to speech and language, and mindfulness lessons.
“A lot of parents who have SEN children don’t feel comfortable about meeting at the local Costa because of their behaviour,” explains Eaton. “So there are a lot of parents who come here and say that it is great that they don’t have to apologise for their children for asking inappropriate questions, because we understand.
“We will have breakout rooms where parents can go and sit and have a chat with like-minded parents going through the same thing and have a cup of tea.”
In fact, once restrictions are lifted further this month, the plans for The Sensory Toy Shop are vast. Top of the bill is to develop a sensory room in one of the shop’s downstairs areas that according to Eaton will contain “all you can imagine for a sensory room.”
“We will have fibre optic ceilings, bubble walls, the large, infinity mirrors,” she explains. “We are looking to open more upstairs as well, with sign language classes (taught by a deaf teacher from the school I work at) while I will be able to help people practice when they come in and talk to me.
“We are also having a bike with a platform for a wheelchair that will be for hire. There are children that have never been on a bike ride, and now they can. They just wheel on and off they go. It’s all part of our plans to become a hub for families across Merseyside.”
Having spent five years teaching at her local SEN school, Eaton has been able to witness first hand the impact that additional needs-focused products and inclusive toys – such as Wheelchair Barbie and Lottie Dolls – have on, not only SEN children, but all children she encounters. Her passion for the topic drives a frustration that many of these toys are hard to come by here in the UK.
“There is simply not enough of these toys,” she says. “Mattel and Barbie have done well with their inclusive range, but some of the other big doll brands out there – why haven’t they got dolls that are inclusive of all different abilities?
“We have children coming in, able-bodied children – wanting to buy a Barbie in a Wheelchair doll, because, well, why not? They just like it. I think a lot of the large companies are too scared to do something too specific in case it doesn’t sell. But that’s wrong.”
Both Leanne and Adam Eaton have been active in bringing the conversation to suppliers, talking with one Spanish supplier about developing dolls that present additional needs, highlighting that the audience has always been there for these products, and the demand for them is only starting to make itself known now.
“I think the fact that some steps have been taken, parents are seeing that toys can be inclusive and can be representative,” says Eaton. “Awareness that there is something that can be done to bring inclusivity to the high street is picking up, so the demands are becoming more vocal. Hopefully the message will become more prominent. In the meantime, we will continue to do our bit to fill in the gaps in the market.”