To help you with your Christmas shopping, I’m re-publishing a list of toys I LOVE and use in my practice as a speech-language pathologist with babies and toddlers.
I’ll also tell you that I’m currently working on a NEW book filled with even more toy ideas and specific ways to use those to facilitate language with young children. Stay tuned for more info! In the meantime, here’s this article which was originally published in March 2008…
Before you run out and buy toys listed below, remember that no toy can substitute for an engaged, nurturing, responsive, and FUN adult as a play partner for a language delayed toddler!
I pick from this list of toys everyday and have great luck with them in eliciting sounds, words, signs, and social interaction. Probably the main reason they’re successful is because I am PLAYING (not observing) WITH the toddler. Don’t neglect that as a common denominator when you’re deciding what makes a good toy for your child!
You’ll find a list of categories with recommended toys, a general description for how I use the toy, and also a suggested list of early words to teach.
The following are the toys and games I use during movement parts of the session to get a kid going at the beginning when he’s not attending to me OR when I feel like I am “losing” him, especially between sit-down activities. I believe that ALL of us need to move, especially when we’re learning something brand new like talking, so that we stay regulated, focused, and on alert. A lethargic, inattentive, BORED child is not in an optimal state for interacting or communicating. GET UP AND MOVE!
No-spill bubble containers changed my life! I love the smaller ones with characters on the sticks that kids recognize. You can find them at major retailers (WalMart, Target, Meijer, Toys R Us, etc…) - especially when the spring/summer toys start coming out. I do not use the automatic blower types because I want kids to learn to blow. Imitating blowing is a great way to get toddlers to start to imitate any kind of mouth movement.
Target words - bubbles, pop, more, mine, please, blow, all gone, wet, yucky, in, out, plus character names. Right now I’m using a Dora set with Dora, Boots, and Diego. It’ s been a big hit!
The most cautious mothers on my caseload nearly have a heart attack when I bring these out, but with adult supervision, balloons are always fun and a GREAT movement activity. Several years ago we did discover that one of my little clients had a severe latex allergy when her face began to swell right before our very eyes, so be careful and attentive! I never let toddlers blow up the balloons because of the choking hazard, but some adventurous mothers do let them try (especially those with several older children!).
Target words - balloon, blow, more, mine, please, up, down, throw, catch, hit, kick, color words (If a kid is really into colors.)
This is a newer toy for older children, but I use it with toddlers everyday. It’s a ball that can be pushed flat and then pops open. You can find it at most major retailers, and it’s usually on the aisle with the Nerf toys. Toddlers need help to learn to push the ball flat, and their little fingers can get caught in the edges, so save this toy for play with a parent or older child.
The directions talk about throwing the ball and letting it pop open in the air, but I use it on the floor. It’s a great toy for sensory-seekers and kids who crave deep pressure. I also use it for turn-taking practice since the turns are fast and fun, even if you’re not the one who gets to push the ball.
Target Words - ball, push, pop, mine, more, please, roll, kick, surprise, scary (”not scary”)
I love this game for 2 1/2 year olds and up. You can practice turn taking, do LOTS of running/moving, and it’s also great for learning to WAIT until something is ready to play. For kids who can’t wait, you can start by having them knock down one pin, then run get the ball while you set up two pins, and then gradually increase the time they wait for the pins. It’s a good verb & preposition game - roll, catch, fix, throw, stand up, knock down, etc… It also lends itself to lots of cheering - good for kids who are still non-verbal at this age who need to practice learning to use their voices. Try the standard, “Yay,” but also “ooh” and “aah” and even, “Oh man!” when you miss the pins completely.
Inflatable Bouncer Toys
If you have the room in your basement or another larger room, a good investment is one of the blow up bouncy sets. Kids can jump, and jump, and jump. If the set is durable enough and I don’t exceed the weight limit, I jump too. (Or I get skinnier Mommy to jump). When I ran a playgroup program in my clinic, this was a standard warm-up activity. Once kids are regulated, they are more likely to attend and learn. Great target word too - JUMP! Also fall, crash, down, up, in, out, stop, go, etc….
Launchers - (Hot Wheels Motorcycle Set, Wind Up Cars, etc.).
Another kind of “movement” activity is to use a set that launches vehicles so kids have to go retrieve them. You can find toy launchers for planes, cars, motorcycles, etc… I use wind up cars/trucks for this same kind of task.
The girl version of this toy is Sky Dancer, a Barbie-like princess that “flies”off a launcher. This is an older toy that’s no longer available due to a recall, but if you’d still like to try it, please use it only with careful adult supervision.
Target words - Ready, Set, Go!, wind, car/truck/plane/bike (motorcycle is usually too difficult for the kids I see to say), crash, roll, fly, etc… This is a great one to practice the directions, “Go get the _____,” “Bring it back,” and ”Come here,” since the child is going to return to you anyway for another turn. Don’t forget to practice “help” since the toddler will likely not be able to operate this toy on his own.
This is a cute game with an elephant that blows butterflies out of his trunk. You stand up and use nets to catch the butterflies as they blow all over the place. This is a great early game to use with peers and siblings since a kid doesn’t have to take turns or share per se. You can gets lots of language too talking about the butterflies and the whole reloading process. I use this game often to target “ing” verbs when a child is ready- flying, catching, blowing, holding, running, walking, dropping, etc…
When I use these at all, I get up and have a parade. It’s a great social activity too since kids don’t have to take lots of turns, but are playing “with” other kids. Other therapists may recommend sitting in a circle and trading instruments to play, but I love to MARCH!
CAUSE AND EFFECT TOYS
This is a huge cognitive concept to master. Most typically developing children master this concept at/near 1 year of age. Some kids who have sensory issues, especially those with autism spectrum disorders, may even get “stuck” in this kind of play.
If I am seeing a child and they haven’t mastered this kind of play yet, this is where we start. Kids have to learn that they can have control/power in their worlds. If a kid doesn’t get this, he’s not going to be ready to talk yet since requesting with language is an extension of this concept. They have to learn, “I have to DO something to GET something.”
I like lots of these kinds of toys and all for the same reasons. I start with toys that are appealing, but have only one kind of movement to make something happen. I like the Fisher Price spiral race track, and there’s a newer cooler one with the “Cars” movie theme. All a kid has to do is push the lever, and the cars slide down swirly lanes to the botttom. Kids will try to imitate the car noise, ”Vroom, vroom.” It’s a little tricky to get the cars put back in the top to get ready to race again, but you can work on the word/sign for “help,” since it does require adult assistance.
I love Jack in the Boxes that operate with one push of the button. (Save the wind up kind for later.) My favorite one is from Discovery Toys, and it has a clown that’s removable. I always start with words like more, push, open, close, in, out, bye-bye, and my favorite,”Boo,” when the clown pops up.
Fisher Price has many toys geared to the concept of cause and effect. There’s a turtle that you place the balls in his open shell, and the child can push his head down to make the balls spin. Their Gumball Machine is also similar since you push the lever and the balls fall down. Other ball toys are listed in the next section down under “balls.”
Any Poppin’ Pals toy is also good for cause and effect, but sometimes frustrating because some of the switches are too hard to master without adult help. I like to practice saying, “bye” to all the animals/characters as you close the doors. Other vocabulary - push, turn, open, close, animal/character name. Good for working on receptive vocabulary too for these concepts, way before a kid can say these words.
Other toys that fall into this category are the bells/whistles/lights toys. For some kids, this is a place to start if you can’t get them interested in playing with any other toy in any other way. However, I don’t stay here long, and I beg parents not to let their children play only with this toy to the exclusion of others, especially if their child is struggling with social interaction. Read the article titled, “Ditch the Bells and Whistles” if you’re haven’t yet, or are still not sure why I feel this way.
SIT DOWN ACTIVITIES
Ball and Hammer Toys
This is a standard toy with lots of versions available. The one I’m using now is made by the Parents line from Target. I like it because the hammer squeaks, and it has a clear front so kids can watch the ball fall into the hole, slide over a wheel, into a tunnel, and out the door.
Target words - ball, hammer, in, hole, out, door, hit (it), bang, boom, mine, more, please, down, I got it (When the ball comes out of the door, I grab it away before the child can get it and say, “I got it!” I can’t tell you how many kids have started to try to imitate and say a 2-3 word phrase using this ”game.”)
Other Ball Toys
Balls are a big hit with the toddler set. Sometimes it’s the only word I can get spontaneously for a while, so I try to rotate several different ball toys to keep it fresh and fun. Here’s a description of the other ball toys I use (You’ll have to wait for the final version of this article for the exact names. These toys are so old that I don’t remember the real names.)
- Tomy has one that looks like a gumball machine. The kid pulls the lever and the balls come out. Different Target word - pull
- Fisher Price has a cute one that looks like a bug. There’s a hole for the ball that looks like its mouth is open. It plays cute music while the balls fall, so we can work on “dancing” to the music in imitation.
My favorite blocks are an OLD set from Tupperware. They are plastic, and they open so you can hide small animals/characters in them.
I also like a new set of graduated-sized stacking blocks that a mom just gave me as a gift. They’re cardboard, so they won’t last forever with the kind of abuse my toys get, but they have darling artwork with great vocabulary choices (plus ABC’s, but that’s not important). They are from Walmart, and I think it’s from their cheaper, in-house line of toys. Most of the kids I see like to stack them up high and (you guessed it), knock them over, but they are having fun putting them back in the larger one. You can target size words with these, ”Get the big one,” or “That one is little.” I love anything with “fall down” as the gag, because I can get kids to do it over and over again. I used to have a cute bucket set of graduated sizes so you could either stack or place them all in one. Same benefits.
As a rule I don’t like shape sorters for language because parents are always expecting their kids to say ”circle” or “triangle,” when their kids can’t even say “milk” or “ball.” But I have found one that I like. It’s by Parents (I got it from Target), and it has an animal on top of the shape. The thing I love is that it makes a cool sound when the animal/shape goes in and down the chute. You can still practice the matching concept (a very important cognitive skill), but it’s an attention getter, and not as boring as the traditional shape sorter.
VOCABULARY BUILDING (more sit down activities)
I have collected lots of these sets over the years as well. This is a basic vocabulary building activity since you can target body parts and basic clothing items such as hats and shoes. They even have sets now with purses and earrings and other “themed” sets related to holidays and children’s characters. Get the giant 2.5 size gallon ziplock bags so you can keep all of your accessories together. I would definitely use this during parent-child playtime only so your pieces don’t get lost.
This is probably the only electronic toy I’ve ever loved. It’s made by Neurosmith and not in production anymore. You can still find used ones on e-bay occasionally. This comes with 15 or so familiar objects that are placed into the base, and the toy says the name or makes the sound when you push the appropriate button. This toy was originally made to teach other languages to children, and you could use the cartridge for English, French, Spanish, Japanese, etc… Since I see language delayed children, and they are struggling to learn one language, I never used or recommended the other cartridges. If you can track this one down, it’ll be worth your time and effort.
I own an embarrassing number of wooden, inset puzzles, but they are ”gold” when it comes to targeting language. These are cheap ($3-$10) and most toddlers love to do them. You can find them now with any kind of theme - farm animals, zoo animals, transportation, food, bath time, toys, etc… Stay away from ABCs, colors, & numbers until your child is really talking. Stick to ones with words your kid needs to learn to expand his vocabulary.
Puzzles are also great for targeting receptive language. After you’ve had your child name the piece going in (or choosing from a choice of 2 is even better), you can have him, “Get the _____,” to clean up the pieces. You can expand receptive language more by asking him tougher questions, “Which one says moo?” “Which one flies?” “Which one goes in the water?” “Which one do you wear on your feet?”
This is the very best and easiest early pretend activity you can do. For dads who are too macho to let their boys play with obviously girl dolls, try a boy doll, or a character doll, or stuffed animal. Get lots of accessories to use. My basic set includes cups, spoons, a fork, bowl/plate, bottles of milk and juice, blanket, carrier, brush, hats, shirts, diapers, wipes, socks or shoes, a few pieces of plastic food, and a “toy” for the baby. There are so many things you can use this for to target both receptive and expressive language. You can give lots of directions, “Feed the baby.” You can expand to higher level receptive concepts, “She’s sleepy. What should she do?” You can have your child request for every single thing you’re going to do with the dolls. It’s endless and a must-have activity for every toddler.
Target Words - baby, (all of the nouns/names for all of the accessories you’re using), plus all of the verbs/action words you can do with dolls - wash, eat, sleep, drink, jump, walk, dance, swing, night-night, etc…, plus the prepositions/location words you can target - clothing items can be put on/off, baby can be put in/out of various things, baby can climb up, fall down, etc…. Descriptive Words - big, little, wet, dry, yucky, stinky, pretty, etc…
My favorite plastic food sets are the ones that can be cut into pieces with the pretend knife. These usually come with Velcro to attach the halves back together. Many therapy catalogues sell them, but you can find them cheaper at major retailers too. I often play with this with dolls once a child can sequence lots of actions. I like to use plastic foods with a pretend kitchen or pretend microwave to “cook” the food too. The microwave is always a huge hit! Look for one of these too!
Target Words - cut, eat, cook, all done, plus all of the names/nouns of the foods
Pretend Playground, Farm, House
I use these kinds of toys often once a kid understands and gets past cause and effect/object permanence, and has started to do some early pretending with dolls. Fisher Price makes lots of good toys in this category. I use the barn quite a bit and the house occasionally. I use an older version of the Little People slide with attachable swing almost every day.
I play with the Little People, but I also collect other little plastic characters for kids preferences. McDonald’s used to offer lots of these kinds of toys with Happy Meals, so I have gathered quite of collection of lots of different people since the mid-90s. You can also buy other little characters solo in the giant retailers. Favorite ones for kids I see now are Dora, Diego, Swiper, Boots, Elmo, Mr. Noodle, Cookie Monster, Big Bird, Teletubbies, Woody, Buzz, Jessie, etc…
My friend who is a Developmental Interventionist loves the Fisher Price Lovin’ Family sets & accessories. This is great for pretending with Mama, Dada, baby, sister, brother, and even grandma.
You can often find these toys at garage sales and tag sales to save a buck or two. Look in children’s consignment stores or second hand toy stores for these items as well.
Target words - endless depending on your activity. Try to get several of these kinds of sets. It’s a keeper!
Zoo Animals, Farm Animals, Dinosaurs
I have many sets of these since they are so versatile and great for vocabulary building. Try to find big/little ones to work on size and pretend using the whole family concept.
For my zoo animals, I play zoo by putting the animals into their “cages” using a Chico shape sorter toy with colored keys to open the matching doors.
I use dinosaurs with sand in a small Rubbermaid container with a top so I can lug it in and out of my car and control spills. This is great alternative for a larger sandbox if you don’t have the space, or when it’s too cold. Toys R Us sells clean sand in small bags.
Thomas The Train
I used several Thomas toys often before the whole lead scare, but I still have one set that I really love. It’s Carry Around Thomas, and it comes only with one small wind up Thomas, 2 horses, 2 trees, a bridge, and a clock that all conveniently fits inside a green case. I have been looking to buy a new one of these since my Thomas is getting old, and I’m not having much luck at the major retailers. For little boys (or girls!) who love trains, this is a winner.
Target words - nouns/names for items in set & train names, choo-choo, go, stop, crash, fix, tunnel (even if you have to make one by unfolding a cardboard book over the tracks).
I generally stay away from all of the Tickle Me toys because the use is usually so limited, but I LOVE one particular Cookie Monster toy. He can actually “eat” the plastic cookies you give him, and it goes into his backpack. I use this with any other plastic food that will fit in his mouth. It’s an older toy, but you still may be able to find it on e-bay. Search for ”Puffalump Cookie Monster.”
Candy Land Castle
This is the brand new toddler/preschool version, not the traditional board game. It has a castle to hold colored, plastic shapes. The shapes fall out of the castle’s door when you pull the candy cane lever. You match shapes to your gingerbread board. I don’t use this game with kids until they can sit through several turns, can match pretty well, and are talking using lots of functional words. At this point I do go ahead and talk about color and shape names, but ONLY if they have lots of other “real” language first. This is a good one to use with older siblings too so that your toddler can participate in a “game.” For kids who can’t/won’t take turns yet and get too upset when I try to force the issue, I set out several game boards and find the matching shape together. Again I focus on more functional phrases - my turn, I got it, I pull, I need more, more please, etc…. rather than the shape’s name. Lots of kids I see are learning colors, so they may say, “red one,” or “I got/have blue,” rather than the shape’s name, and this is fine with me.
This is a cute matching game with a “pond” so that the baby ducks can swim and around in the water. The object of the game is to match the shape and color on the bottom of the duck to the one you have in front of you, or the older version, where you match the duck to the “lily pad” with the same color. For kids who can’t/won’t match yet, I have them ask me for ”duck” to put in the water. This game “quacks” continuously when it’s on, so it’s also good for facilitating an animal sound. I also practice “on/off” for pushing the button to start and stop the game. Put your hand over the button until your child asks for “on,” or “go,” or “more.”
This is another cute matching game. The fish swim around the water and swim under a “slide” or “bridge.” You turn it on by pressing a turtle’s shell. There are fishing poles and matching cards too when your child gets over the initial fascination of watching the fish go around and around. I use this one for lots of requesting practice at the phrase level - “More fish please,” “Give me fish,” “I need (a) fish.”
ARTS / FINE MOTOR / SENSORY PLAY
I love playdoh for kids after 2 1/2 when they no longer want to eat it! I especially love the little sets. My favorite one is the Barber Shop set because you can make the man’s hair grow and then cut it with scissors. It’s very fun and can last a long time - good for kids who want to move on after only a few minutes. I also use cookie cutter shapes - those that come with the sets and then other real cookie cutters I’ve added. Add a rolling pin, plastic knife, and child scissors. This is especially good for kids with tactile defensiveness/sensory issues who want to play, but refuse to touch the playdoh.
Don’t forget to make your own playdoh creations too. Every kid loves to make snakes and balls. Try snowmen. My favorite is making a birthday cake complete with a little candle so you can sing, “Happy Birthday,” and pretend to blow out the candle.
This is another good activity for action words/verbs - push, pull, roll, cut, etc…
Some toddlers love to draw (My own daughter wanted to do this for hours from age 24 months on, but her brothers did not!), so I use washable markers and giant sheets of paper (or the backs of my progress notes). Try to draw things to label instead of shapes and letters.
I lucked out several years ago and found plastic beads in the arts/crafts section at WalMart in the shape of farm animals and people complete with plastic strings for threading/stringing. Many 2 1/2 + year olds have loved this. You may also find sets with larger blocks and geometric patterns. My OT and DI friends love that I work on this too! I don’t like to do it unless I can get some “language” mileage too, so look for objects with different pictures or of different shapes of real things (not just a circle, bead, block, etc…).
I do not recommend or use these with kids unless they LOVE them. Otherwise, they will get plenty of this later in preschool/school-age speech therapy. IF I am working with a child who loves it, the way I make it more age-appropriate and fun is to do something with the cards vs. sitting at the table with them. For example, this winter I found a cute plastic snowman bucket with a top. I cut a slit in the top so kids can drop the card in. You can make one using an ice cream bucket.
Other ideas - hide the cards around the room and let your child run around to find them. Or use them with a puppet or another toy that can “eat” the cards. When I use this activity at all, I only do it for the amount of time a child wants to. If that’s only 3 cards, so be it. BEG your SLP to move on to “play-based” therapy activities if your child hates these. It will take more work on your therapist’s part, and it’s not as efficient, but it’s not worth the fight if he doesn’t want to sit and do them.
I prefer to use books with one or only a few real photographs per page during therapy, but as parents, you do need begin reading very simple books as soon as your child can tolerate it. If he can sit and listen to a whole story, by all means, do this as often as he’ll let you. If not, try just pointing to the pictures, labeling the object, give a brief 2-3 word phrase about the objects’ function, and then move on. I use the Bright Baby books (almost) everyday. Other repetitive theme books by authors like Sandra Boynton , Good Night Moon, and Eric Carle’s Brown Bear and Polar Bear books are also hits with toddlers. I also like books that give you directions to follow, such as Barney Says.
The only CD I recommend with any regularity is “Time To Sing.” It’s produced by a man whose son has apraxia because he was disheartened by the fast pace of most children’s CDs. His son wanted to sing, but couldn’t keep up. It has beautiful orchestral accompaniment for the slower tempos. Better yet - sing the songs yourself without the CD and keep it s-l-o-w!