The holidays are coming, and if you have children in your life, you might have toys on the brain. Speech therapists are big champions of play–we use toys all the time in our sessions. That’s because play is central to how children explore, learn, and develop.
There are endless ways to work on speech and language skills with all sorts of toys. But for the 2023 holiday season, we asked our speech therapists to recommend specific toys and books that make it easy. Below are some of their favorites, along with tips for how to use them. Have fun shopping–and playing!
First, how does play help with language development?
Playing actually mimics communicating! Think about it: Playing with others involves a back-and-forth exchange, just like a conversation.
Playing also helps children learn about cause and effect. Knock over the blocks and they’ll fall. Press the button and you’ll hear a noise. Typical early language involves a cause and effect relationship, too. A toddler says a word, then they get what they requested in return.
Playing helps children learn about cause and effect. Typical early language involves a cause-and-effect relationship, too.
In addition, playing helps kids develop joint attention, or how to focus on the same thing as another person. They also learn how to take turns and follow directions. All of these skills are needed for language development and growth.
And lots of toys encourage toddlers to vocalize and make noise! This is important because learning how to make vehicle, animal, and environmental sounds (“vroom!” “meow”!) is an important step toward learning to talk.
If you’re making a toy list and checking it twice–or simply wondering how to make the most of toys you already have–read on!
Promoting language with: Fun games and flashcards
Talking flashcards Many of the families we serve like this toy, which gives children tons of chances to repeat common words. We encourage caregivers to sort out a stack of words that are most functional and relevant for their child. For example, if your kiddo loves strawberries and apples, keep those cards in a separate pile. Your child can use the cards to communicate what they want to eat, or simply as a prompt to try saying the words themselves. Toddler Scavenger Hunt Card Game You can work on building vocabulary, following directions, and improving attention with this game. Plus, you can practice turn-taking skills.
Promoting language with: Toys for pretending
Color-Your-Own Gingerbread House Lots of kids love playing with boxes, and this life-size one is a step up! It's great for pretend play; teaching words like in, out, and above; and building a variety of vocabulary words, such as the parts of the house. Since kids can color and decorate the house, it also helps their fine motor skills. B. Toys Toy Vet Kit Taking care of animals is a hit with many children, and this toy vet kit also offers the excitement of surprise. Kids love opening the doors to see what’s there. You can even hide other small toys besides the animals. With this toy, you can work on:
Pretend play, using the vet toys on the animals
Core words and concepts like in, out, open, and close
LeapFrog Scoop and Learn Ice Cream Cart Deluxe An Expressable speech therapist with a toddler at home loves this ice cream cart, but she notes that any toy food is great for pretend play! Toy foods offer many opportunities for language development. You can work on:
Following directions, such as the steps to make a meal
Turn-taking, such as each taking a bite of the food
Asking and answering questions
Pretending to cook, eat, and feed others
Promoting language with: Car and truck toys
Coogam Wooden Race Track Car Ramp Toy Here's one for the car lovers! You can use this toy to practice cause and effect and sequencing–what happens when you add a car to the ramp? You can also work on:
Noises like “vroom” and “beep beep”
Words like car, wheels, ready, go, mine, more, please, up, and down
Melissa & Doug Dump Truck There are so many fun language routines with this dump truck toy. Pretend-playing and role-playing can be done with the little workers, and you can teach parts of a whole (body parts on the people, and parts of the truck). You can also practice:
Stacking the shapes like blocks for a language routine such as "Stack stack stack...oh no…it fell down!"
Words and phrases such as in/out, front/back, on top, on the side, put it in, dump out, ready-set-go, fast/slow, open/closed
Battat Shape-Sorting Toy Garage Push the button and watch the car come out! Remember, cause and effect teaches important cognitive skills that have to be in place before learning to talk can begin. With this toy, you can also work on:
Concepts such as in/out and open/close
All those fun vehicle sounds: “boom,” “beep,” “crash,” “vroom”
Promoting language with: Other fun toys
Melissa & Doug Reusable Sticker Pad Sticker books are a great opportunity to build vocabulary and follow directions. You can tell your child where to place a sticker, and teach them describing words (such as big, small, fuzzy, striped) and location concepts (above, under, next to). Bonus: These books are portable and entertaining on long car and plane trips! Pound a Ball Toy This is just one among many brands who make this kind of cause-and-effect toy. The child hits the ball with a hammer, then sees the effect of the ball dropping through the tube/slide.
This toy also teaches using a "tool" to accomplish a routine task: putting the ball in the hole, hitting it with the hammer, watching it make its way down to the door, then getting the ball and starting over. Play activities like this help children learn how to use other objects during daily routines, such as eating with utensils and brushing teeth with a toothbrush.
Edushape Stack & Drop Tower Toys like this one, which include a ball tower or stacking cups, are perfect for practicing turn-taking. You can also work on concepts such as ready, set, go and up/down.
Melissa & Doug Latches Wooden Activity Board Lots of kids love door-latch puzzles! They’re great for labeling items, making sounds, making requests, and, as with many of the other toys on this list, practicing core words such as in, out, open, and close.
Promoting language with: Baby and toddler books
Children's books by Tabitha Page We love these beautiful books, which are written and illustrated by a speech-language pathologist. Here’s an example: Wishy Washy: A First Words and Colors Book features strategically chosen words that include a child's earliest developing sounds, such as /m/, /b/, and /p/. The book also includes guidance on how to promote your child's speech and language development as they grow. First Words, Animals, and Colors and First 100 Words: A Padded Board Book, by Roger Priddy Speech therapists recommend books like these because they use real pictures, not cartoons, which help teach vocabulary and picture identification. It's important to remember that repetition is key. You’ll need to point to and name the picture many times before your child starts to imitate you. Then you can move to identification, asking your child, ”Where's the ______?”
Baby Faces by DK This book is sure to grab your child’s attention. Toddlers love looking at babies! It’s also a great tool for teaching your child how to follow directions. Looking at each picture, you can model a word or action, have the child imitate, then have the child follow verbal directions: kiss the baby, pat the baby, high-five the baby, tickle the baby, etc.
Poke-a-Dot: Old MacDonald's Farm by Melissa & Doug Our speech therapists love these Poke-a-Dot books as much as children do! Kiddos get lots of chances to repeat sounds and words because the books have multiple “poppers” on each page. You can target many early language concepts, including animal names, animal sounds, turn-taking skills, and the word "pop!"