With the holidays right around the corner, I know I’m not the only mama fielding questions from friends and family regarding gift suggestions for the littles. As a speech and language pathologist, I am frequently asked for gift recommendations to promote speech and language development in young children. Holiday wishlists are bound to include anything from tablets to smartphones to droids. Striking a balance in our technology-driven society can be challenging. While the tide has seemly shifted towards more high-tech toys and gadgets for very young children, I maintain my advocacy for old fashioned toys that allow children to foster social interaction and imaginative play.
My rules for choosing toys to expand communication opportunities are simple:
Choose toys that don’t require batteries. You want your child to make the noise, not the toy!
Less is more. Too many options for play can cause children to become overwhelmed and move quickly from toy to toy without truly engaging in appropriate play. Trying a toy rotation may help to minimize the available options. Choose toys that can be played with in a variety of ways.
Traditional toys trump techy toys. Think wooden blocks, baby dolls, and train sets without batteries. These toys require the child to create the play script rather than the toy doing the playing.
Give the gift of experience. Your child will learn the MOST about communication through interaction with you! Museum memberships, trips to the zoo, or passes to the aquarium are great gift ideas!
There is no app that will teach children to become effective communicators. Face-to-face interactions are the only way!
Play is an integral part of developing communication and social skills. The best part? When enhancing the communication skills of babies, all you truly need is YOU. Babies learn language best through interactions and bonding with their caregivers. The right toys can truly enhance this interaction and opportunity to develop language skills during the most critical stages of development.
Here are a few of my favorite toys to help you give the gift of gab this holiday season:
Birth – 18 months
Books, books, and more books! It is never too early to expose your children to literacy activities. At this age, choose books that offer a multi-sensory experience (think different textures, colors, or lift-the-flap options that beg to be touched) and utilize real photographs when possible. In addition, high contrast black and white books really grab the attention of younger infants. Choose board books because they will end up in baby’s mouth sooner or later! Some of my favorite titles include Peek-a-Who, My First Words: Let’s Get Talking, Touch and Feel: Jungle Animals, and Look! Look!
Shape sorters and nesting blocks allow babies to develop important prelinguistic skills such and joint attention (attending to the same thing as her caregiver) and object permanence (understanding something still exists even if it is out of sight) as well as provide exposure to positional words such as in, out, on, under. Another fabulous toy for this age range is the Fisher-Price: Laugh & Learn Smart Stages Piggy Bank. This toy tickled every client I shared it with; the possibilities for exposure to basic concepts are endless. This toy does break my battery-free rule, but it’s very easy to turn off the sound.
Bubbles are a great stocking stuffer that offer opportunities for you to facilitate requesting continuation of an activity (more bubbles), lip movements, and highlighting early speech sounds like /p, b, m/.
18 months – 5 years
Building blocks offer endless opportunities for imaginative play and language modeling. You can stick with the traditional wooden blocks or go big with the larger cardboard building blocks and let the fort building commence. Target concepts like up/down, positional words (on top, under, next to, beside, in from of), and a variety of new vocabulary (building, crashing, stacking, falling, tall, high, short, big).
Outdoor play — water tables , bubbles, riding toys — with outdoor toys are a great way to get your kiddos away from the screens and engaged in mulitsensory play. Water tables provide hours of fun as well as a reprieve from the Texas heat. Model a variety of verbs (pouring, dripping, splashing), positional words (in, under, below, on top), and adjectives (wet, cold, damp) to create language dense activity your kids will love.
Things that go. Train tables, cars, trucks provide ample opportunities to target increasing understanding and use of action words, novel vocabulary, and much more! Chose a set without batteries; you want your child to make the accompanying noises! If space is an issue, choose a car rug that can easily be rolled up and stowed away. Try to pass by the cars with the blinking lights and screeching sirens; save your sanity AND grow your child’s language skills and stick with a more traditional model.
Tents, tunnels, and trampolines give your little ones a much-needed gross motor break, but also an opportunity to practice going in, under, through, and out. In our house, we create a little village and practice taking turns, following directions, opening and closing, and pretending to be anyone from a princess to an alligator. This trampoline lets G burns off his endless energy while learning about jumping, hopping, leaping, crashing, and so much more.
Arts and crafts provide many opportunities for meaning communication as well as fine motor practice. You can utilize self talk (talking about what you are doing “I am glueing the red apple on the yellow paper”) and lots of descriptive talk (i.e. this glitter is sparkly) as you and your child create a masterpiece. If the idea of a huge mess has you down, try these coloring books — just as fun without the clean-up!
Sensory-based play is always a winner in our house. Children love exploring a variety of ooey, gooey textures. Multi sensory learning is the way to for this age range. Multisensory learning is defined as using two or more of the sense in the same activity. It is a highly effectively for children to take in knowledge about the world around them. Some of our favorites include Kinetic Sand, which boasts easy clean-up and the old favorite, Play-doh.
Our play kitchen is one of my children’s most treasured toys. They can spend hours cooking, feeding their stuffed animals, and creating elaborate tea parties. There are countless ways you can turn these activities into a language-rich environment. My children really enjoy the play food they can cut, and I love the opportunity to model present progressive verbs, vocabulary labels, size concepts, and personal pronouns!
The dollhouse. The ultimate speech therapy tool! They all but GIVE each newly graduated SLP a dollhouse when they enter the workforce and with good reason. You can target vocabulary development (furniture, rooms, people, pets), positional words, verbs, answering questions, and so much more. If your little guy balks at a dollhouse, a farm set is also a wonderful option that affords the same language learning opportunities.
Baby doll or stuffed animal with accessories — another SLP staple! A wonderful way to engage your child in pretend play (feeding the baby, rocking the baby) and target vocabulary growth!
Simple board games provide opportunities for you to teach your child essential pragmatic skills such as, turn-taking, waiting, requesting, and expressing disappointment in an appropriate way. And bonus — it’s an activity you can enjoy together! We love Shelby’s Snack Shack, Pop-Up Pirate, and of course, Candyland.
Dress up clothes are hands down, my daughter’s favorite activity. She loves pretending to be different types of people and acting out her favorite literary characters. In addition to encouraging pretend play, dress-up play allow children to practice dressing themselves, which is an important self-help skill. If your child loves princesses, choose a princess book and pair it with the dress-up accessories. I promise it will provide hours of entertainment!