A network to share best practices for children with special needs
Blocks, I think, give a huge bang for the buck as they can be used for many ages.
A pack of chenille strips (pipe cleaners) makes for great cosntruction, can be used for letter formation and nuber formation, etc.
A craft box of recyclables with tape and glue is always favored by my children.
Anything open-ended is my vote!
I agree with the previous poster, anything open-ended.
Some ideas I thought of:
Crayons, or markers and paper
Legos or building blocks
I just mentioned http://www.toysaretools.com/ on another comment, but thought I would share the site here, too. It is a fairly new one, but SO rich in practical info on tools (budget and otherwise) I have been looking toward it a lot to get ideas about inexpensive developmental and therapy toys, as well as ones I might want to save up for.
I would like to add to Martianne's post that pipe cleaners can also be used for beading with learners who need something a little more stable than string or shoelaces.
Additionally, I work at a camp for people of all ages with special needs, and one of their favorite activities last summer involved stacking, building with, and manipulating cereal boxes. They cost nothing, because you've already got them around the house, and they're bright, colorful, and easy to play with. Plus, they don't weigh much so if someone builds a tall tower and it gets knocked down there is very little risk for injury. And if one gets damaged it's no big deal because there are always more cereal boxes being emptied at home. :-) Great alternative to blocks for those with a limited budget.
(As a note, the boxes can be filled with rice, pasta, sand, etc. for extrasensory stimulation, but in my experience... remember to tape the boxes shut if you do this!!) :)
My grandparents had homemade blocks with beans and whatnot inside recycled cardboard and contact paper on the outside. I LOVED them!
Also, not seasonal now, but at Christmas time, I asked my local Lowe's if I could take a few bags of the "tree cookies" they cut off the bottom of live tress for customers. On the nice days this winter, my children have loved using these as blocks outside and also using them when playing in their mud kitchen - kind of like these, but free: http://www.nature-watch.com/natural-tree-blocks-36-blocks-with-bag-...