The Best Toys for Speech and Language Development
Low Technology is the Best Technology
While there are many high-tech tools marketed as a way to encourage language development in young children, they are not the ideal method to grow a child’s receptive or expressive language skills. Language requires interaction with other people, and the best tools are toys and games that are low in technology and high on interactivity.
The best toys lack batteries. While a big, fancy toy police car that lights up and has buttons to push for siren sounds and horn sounds is attractive to young children in a store, the battery-free variety will encourage more language. When playing with the low-tech version of this toy, your child will provide the “beep – beep” sound of the horn and the “vrrrooom!” sound of the car’s engine. Instead of being a passive observer of the high-tech toy’s light and sound show, your child must engage and become an active participant with the battery-free version.
Don’t let gender-specific toy labels deter you from purchasing a great language toy. Many of the toys packaged and marketed for boys, such as construction toys, have the problem-solving and open-ended play that is beneficial to the language of both boys and girls. Likewise, play equipment marketed for girls, such as a toy kitchen, offers a lot of interactive play for both genders.
Basic Techniques for Language Play
- Joint attention refers to the ability of two people to share attention on an object. Pointing and eye-gaze are two non-verbal ways young children are able to share attention. Joint attention is required for communication, and many children with language delays have difficulty with this skill. Make sure all televisions and electronics in the area are turned off to decrease distractions that will prevent the ability of a child to focus on the activity you are engaging.
- Modeling is a way to give the child an example of the speech you are looking for or to expand upon the child’s current language. For example, if a child would like a cup of milk and says, “Thirsty!” an adult would model, “Could I have a drink, please?” Model the language you are working on with your child and expand on their phrases. If a child says, “Go car!” the adult may say, “The blue car goes fast!” to expand on the child’s sentence.
- Waiting, or the expectant pause, is one of the hardest skills for an adult to master. We like to “fill in the gaps” and often do not wait long enough for a child to respond before we jump in with the sounds or words for the child. When playing with language as the main goal, it is important to wait for the child to speak. This may take much longer than an adult is used to waiting, but it is important to continue to wait. Games with repetitive words are very useful in practicing this skill. When playing with toy cars, say, “Ready, set….” and simply wait for the child to say, “GO!”
- Verbal routines are words that are used in conjunction with certain activities every time you engage in that activity. One example is the “ready, set, go” we say before starting a race. Other verbal routines are used in saying goodnight (sleep tight!), upon waking up (good morning!), and around meal times (dinner time!). When playing with a toy kitchen, you might use the verbal routine, “let’s get cooking!” and when playing with blocks you might use the verbal routine of “one, two, three!” before knocking down a tower.
Language Techniques in Action
A Toy Kitchen for Language Goals
A toy kitchen is a fantastic way to develop language through play. Children love to pretend to cook! Besides learning the obvious object names associated with food and cooking tools, children learn action words like “roll,” “stir,” and “turn.” Descriptive words for color, size, and shape are also easily taught while playing chef!
How to Play
Find the Ingredients
Hide various play food items throughout the kitchen. Have the child look “inside” the microwave, “under” the sink, “on top of” the stove.
Make a Stew
Have the child obtain ingredients in order. Increase the number of ingredients as the child’s ability to recall grows. “Please help me get a carrot, a potato, and a banana for my stew!”
In the Pot!
This game uses the expectant pause to help generate speech. Hold up a play food item and say “Hmm… this is a….” and wait. It often takes a child a while to produce a sound, but continue waiting. When the child produces a sound or word, say, “Oh, that’s right! This is a carrot! It goes into the pot!” The item to go into the pot may vary to target specific speech goals.
Gender Neutral Toy Kitchen
This toy kitchen was a favorite used by my boys during their preschool years. Both of my children were in early intervention for speech and language therapy and many skills were developed with the use of this toy!
Rhyming is a very critical skill that preschoolers should acquire, as the ability to rhyme is a precursor to being able to read. The following nursery rhymes are wonderful when used with the play kitchen:
Pease porridge hot,
Pease porridge cold,
Pease porridge in the pot,
Nine days old!
An unbreakable mirror meant for use by small children is a wonderful toy (and tool) for babies. Babies love to see themselves in the mirror with their parent and can explore facial expressions, tongue movement (sticking out the tongue) and naming parts of their face while looking into the mirror. Children who have difficulty making eye contact may feel more comfortable making eye contact by looking into a mirror instead of directly at a person’s face.
Children under three years of age love stacking cups. Besides building spatial awareness and balancing skills, these simple toys are fantastic for teaching size concepts (big, bigger, biggest), colors, counting, and sequencing.
Blocks are an open-ended toy that can be enjoyed from infancy through the early school-age years. The possibilities for speech and language skills are endless with a great set of unit blocks. Young babies will enjoy tapping two blocks together to make noise. Coupled with a song, the tapping blocks may be used to explore rhythm. As children grow, the blocks are used to make tall towers to knock down, then buildings, and finally as a stage for more complicated pretend-play with small toy cars and action figures.
A simple game we called Take it Out, Build it Up is a great way to foster the understanding of prepositions and to encourage speech skills. Fill up a small box with blocks. Take turns removing the blocks from the box to build a tower. Use the language “take a block out of the box!” when removing a block. Place each removed block “on top of” the previous block. When the tower falls, put the blocks back “inside” the box. See how high you can build the tower before you have to put the blocks back in the box!
Blocks with letters, numbers, and animals printed are also available and can be used to help foster counting skills, letter recognition, and naming of colors.
Playing “fix it” is a fun way to help a toddler or preschooler increase their understanding and use of different language concepts. One favorite activity is to turn a tricycle upside down and pretend to fix it. Besides learning the name for basic tools, the child will learn a lot of action words (turn the screwdriver, pound the nail).
Mr. Potato Head
The Mr. Potato Head toy might be one of the greatest toys any child could have to encourage vocabulary growth. Besides the obvious naming of body parts, the toy can be used for learning prepositions, action words, color names, and more.
To encourage collaborative play, fill a box with Mr. Potato Head’s parts. Give the box of parts to one child and give the potato head to another child. The child with the head must ask the child with the box of parts for the items they would like. This game encourages social interaction and taking turns! There are many games that may be explored with this toy.
Potato Head Language Games
How to Play
I Need An Arm
Turn Taking, Joint Attention
Give one child the parts, the other child the potato head. The child with the potato head must ask for the parts from the other child. Once the potato head is completed, switch roles so each child is able to experience both roles.
Identifying Body Parts
Have many parts of the potato head available. Build the potato head using simple labels (give me a nose; give me an ear). As the child’s language skills grow, change the game to include descriptive labeling (give me the part that sees, give me the part that walks).
Potato Head Line Up
Understanding Who, What, Where
Put together several Mr. Potato Head toys with the child. Line them up and ask the child questions such as, “who has the red glasses?” or “where is the one with the blue shoes?” or “What is that one holding?”
Playdough has many benefits for preschool-aged children. Cutting and molding playdough help strengthen fine motor skills, helps develop creative skills, and is wonderful for symbolic play. Many language skills are employed when playing with playdough. Roll the playdough into a snake and make the snake hiss to practice the “S” sound. Use cookie cutters to cut playdough into different animal shapes and make the animal sounds that belong to each one. Use different tools to make different shapes, narrating the activities as they are performed. Playdough is very easy to make and can be made to include different smells (one of our favorites was a pumpkin spice playdough in the autumn) to enhance the sensory experience of the child and to fit a seasonal theme.
Obtaining a gender-neutral dollhouse is a wonderful way to engage a child in language-building play. In addition to fostering pretend-play, a dollhouse will help a child share attention with a playmate. Many different skills may be practiced, including turn-taking, prepositions, descriptive words, and action words. Since many of these sets include real-life objects in miniature, there are many opportunities to increase a child's vocabulary.
Dollhouses come in many forms, so don't limit yourself to one particular design. Any set that involves action figures and a building to house the action figures may be classified as a doll-house.