“First Sessions” Toy List for Toddlers in Speech Therapy from teachmetotalk.com
Both therapists and parents of late talkers email me at teachmetotalk.com to ask me a version of this question…
What are your favorite toys?
I want to begin every response to that question with, “I’m so glad you asked!”
Several years ago I wrote a post that included my favorites, but I’ve had some additions in the last couple of years that I’d love to share with you. If you listen to my podcast or have watched my YouTube videos, you’ve seen lots of these toys. I’ve certainly included many of these toys in this post, but I wanted to approach this a little differently this time, mostly because I also get this kind of question…
Where did you get that toy?
In this post, I’m sharing Amazon links. (As an Amazon affiliate, we earn a tiny commission when you purchase.)
Speech Therapy with Toddlers Best “First Sessions” Toy List
When I say “first sessions,” I’m talking about those first few speech therapy sessions with toddlers who have developmental delays, who are late talkers, or who are at risk for a more comprehensive diagnosis such as autism, apraxia, or another medical diagnoses such as cerebral palsy, prematurity or Down syndrome. In nearly all of these cases, these children are nonverbal or minimally verbal when I start working with them – hence the need for speech therapy!
No matter what the diagnosis or suspected problem is in those first visits, I’m always still getting a feel for a child’s overall development, not just how they talk. So we’re looking at other skills too such as:
· social engagement – how a child interacts with other people
· cognition – how a child thinks and learns
· receptive language – how a child understands the words he hears
· expressive skills – what a child communicates using gestures, words, or any other means and how easily he’s understood
All of the toys on my list can be used to target a wide variety of goals in those areas and accommodate any young child at nearly any developmental level. I wanted to get that in here for parents (and grandparents!) who are new to this speech therapy thing, and who may think we can only use a certain set of materials or certain kinds of activities. Here’s the truth…
We can teach language anytime, anywhere.
However, having a go-to set of toys and lots of ideas of what to do with them can help you tremendously, whether you’re a speech-pathologist like me, a therapist in a related discipline – including any kind of early intervention provider (or whatever they call “teacher people” in your state), a committed mom or dad who is trying to tackle speech therapy at home, or even a grandparent trying to do everything you can to help the little late talker in your life.
That’s what this list is for!
No matter what your role is, this list of toys is a great place to start because you’ll see early success more often with these kinds of toys with very young children.
Since I’m in private practice now, most of my speech therapy visits in the last few years have been office visits, so I have these toys ready to go for my new little friends. For the 15 years I did home visits, I kept this kind of toy bag prepped in my trunk.
If you’re a “no toy bag” kind of therapist or work in a program where they’ve forced you to stop using your own materials, these are same the toys you should be looking for when you’re working with a family in their home so that you can provide the same initial ideas for parents. In my experience, most moms CRAVE direct teaching for how they can use the toys they already have – not just a suggestion of vague ideas like “Try to talk to him all day,” or “Read at least one book a day to her.”
Some state EO programs have discouraged SLPs from providing ideas to parents that look too much like “direct therapy” with a child. They’d like for you to do something a little more natural that a family would already do. My experience and success with families is contradictory to this idea. My style of coaching parents is NOT just hanging out with a family and trying to blend in with whatever they happen to be doing that day. For years, before coaching was this “brand new” way to do therapy, I spent time with mothers and dads going through their child’s toys and giving them TONS of very specific ideas for how to play WITH their child with the toys as we addressed whatever goals their child needed to target.
In case you’re one of those “but I only embed my strategies in a child’s natural environment and daily routines” kinds of picky people, I will address that concern. It IS important to teach parents how to tweak their daily routines like bath time, getting dressed, eating meals, doing chores, etc… so that a parent can target language (or whatever you’re working on) all day long. It’s so important that I’ve written several posts and devoted entire podcasts to this topic. Find those posts here:
we cannot forget how important it is to teach parents to play with their toddler who is struggling to master milestones.
Why did playing with a child fall out of favor?
To me, play should be a BIG piece of every child’s day.
And if that weren’t enough to convince you to play, let me just add that virtually EVERY skill a child needs to learn can be addressed through play (and through daily routines.) But often in order to get a skill to become mastered enough so that it can be generalized to the daily routine, moms and dads will probably have to do lots of direct teaching.
When you say a phrase like “direct teaching” to a parent, they automatically associate it with something similar to school… aka boring…aka tedious…aka SO. NOT. FUN.
Thank goodness we professionals who work with toddlers have come to associate every single skill we teach with PLAY so that it IS very, very, very fun… for the child and for his parents!
So… without any further explanation, I’m going to share my list of solid go-to toys. I use these toys faithfully during my first speech therapy visits with toddlers. Let me tell you why they’re so great:
· These toys are EASY to find and most are fairly inexpensive.
· Many families will already own these toys or a very similar version so they can continue to play between sessions using your new ideas.
· The ones that aren’t so common or inexpensive are totally worth your investment and here’s why…
These toys work for nearly every kid!
How’s that for an endorsement?
In my previous post for recommended toys , I included ways you can use most of these toys.
In case this kind of information is new to you, let me be clear that YOU should be playing directly with a child in order to help him or her learn to understand and use new words. Every child learns to talk and learns to understand what words mean by hearing the people they hang out with all day talk. This means that parents play a HUGE role in helping late talkers, no matter what the diagnosis is. Even when your child is lucky enough to be seen by a wonderfully skilled therapist, parents still need to do their part at home.
That’s where this list of toys comes in. I want you to feel like you know what you’re doing!
But buying these toys isn’t enough.
The toys are not magic in that just by giving them to a toddler, he or she will begin to talk. (If it were only that easy!) You’ll still need to play with the child, but I’ll be making it a little easier since you’ll be getting lots of fantastic ideas to go with these fabulous toys!
For even more guidance, I’m linking a few clips so you can see EXACTLY how I play with these toys with toddlers I’ve worked with in therapy sessions. I’m also linking several of my Therapy Tip of the Week videos where I’m explaining how to use the toy to work on lots of different goals.
Here we go… my top 10 best toys for “first sessions” with toddlers…
1. No Spill Bubbles
I first wrote this sentence in 2008 when we launched teachmetotalk and it’s still true:
No-spill bubble containers changed my life!
I love the smaller containers with characters that kids recognize on the ends of the wands.
The link I included here is for the smaller size container. Lately, I’ve not seen the variety of bubble containers that I have in past years, so if your child loves a particular character, it may be worth it to purchase a special set when you see it. But here’s the truth…
Most little kids think bubbles are so fun that you won’t need the special characters! You may not even want the “no spill” feature and use the old-fashioned jar of bubbles, but the extra expense for the no-spill feature is worth it to me because it saves more time for fun when I’m not worried that a toddler is going to waste the whole bottle of bubbles in about 15 seconds!
For the record, I rarely use the automatic blower bubble toys with batteries because I want kids to learn to blow bubbles, or at least try, with their own little mouths. Imitating blowing is a great way to get toddlers to start to imitate any kind of mouth movement. Research tells us that for most children, learning to blow has very little connection with learning how to talk or with improving speech intelligibility, but my purpose here is to teach a toddler who is not yet talking to imitate me which is a very important skill!
When you’re playing with bubbles, your target words, or the words you try to teach a child, can be endless, but here are the words I say and try to encourage my little friends to learn – bubbles, pop, more, mine, please, blow, all gone, wet, yucky, in, out, plus any character name on the wand.
If a child is developmentally ready to talk, begin with words to teach him to ask for what he wants, or as an SLP would say, to request. The most obvious word to try is “bubble,” but if he can’t say that, it’s perfectly fine to teach him a general word to use for requests like “more” or “please.” Some therapists discourage those as early words, but read here why I STILL think teaching these all-purpose requesting words are a good idea for late talking toddlers:
If a child can’t repeat words yet, try teaching him simple sign language. Here’s some information about teaching toddlers to sign in my article Early Sign Language Vocabulary.
Bubbles are a great way to teach early words or signs! For even more ideas for using bubbles, here’s a Therapy Tip of the Week video for you filled with great tips!
2. Phlat ball
This is the COOLEST BALL TOY EVER!
The Plat ball is a toy for older children, but I use it with toddlers all the time! It’s a ball that can be pushed flat and then pops open. 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 on the package 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.
There are so many words you can teach with this toy, but the ones I use most are: ball, push, pop, mine, more, please, roll, kick, stuck, uh-oh, surprise, scary (“not scary”).
You can take a look at the phlat ball during this Therapy Tip of the Week video. The phlat ball ideas are at the 4 minute mark. (The ball and hammer toy at the beginning of this video is #5 on this list!)
In that clip I told you about my very fun Verbal Routine I use every single time I play with this toy. Boy, has it been a HUGE success for eliciting early words! I also use this little game for teaching impulsive and busy toddlers to learn to “wait,” for a few seconds anyway. You can see me play this game with a child during one of my online videos called Creating Verbal Routines with Toddlers. In this one hour video, you’ll learn how to design your own Verbal Routines and receive tips for achieving fantastic results fairly quickly with some children as you’ll see with clips of real children during therapy sessions with me and their parents.
If you’re more of a reader and want very specific directions for developing your own Verbal Routines, it’s actually Level 7 of the approach I use to teach late talkers to imitate words outlined in my book Building Verbal Imitation in Toddlers. If you need step-by-step instructions for working with a nonverbal child, then that book is the resource for you!
3. Wind-up Toys
I own at least 20 wind-up toys and here’s an example of a set. Wind up toys have worked for me for years!
Wind-up toys are a staple for my early therapy sessions, but an even more critical piece in my assessment for toddlers. A wind-up toy is the perfect way to assess several important skills in a baby as young as 11 or 12 months all the way through a 4 or 5 year old. In just minutes you’ll be able to determine a toddler’s joint attention skills, how he asks for help, how he understands a simple command like “Give it to me” and information about problem solving. In older preschoolers, you can also take a look at those fine motor skills! For a discussion of these skills, I’m writing a new post – 5 Things You Can Learn About a Toddler with a Wind-Up Toy.
Your target words for wind-up toys can be early requesting words such as “more” or “please,” but the word I typically start with for wind-up toys is “go.” I teach a child this word by consistently introducing the popular Verbal Routine “Ready, Set, Go!”
Let me give you some direction for how I implement this Verbal Routine with a wind-up toy. Start by getting the child’s attention with a warm smile, big eyes, and lots of anticipation as you wind up the toy. Slowly but excitedly say, “Ready…Set…Go!” Then set the toy on the table or floor to activate. If you don’t know how to use your voice and face to increase anticipation and establish a child’s attention, take a look at my book Teach Me To Play WITH You. In that book I give you step by step instructions for using early toys like wind-up toys and social games.
The other word I frequently teach with wind-up toys is “down” as I ask the child, “Where should we put it?” Then pat or slap wherever you’re setting the toy, as you excitedly model the word “Down!”
For children who are a little more verbal, teach action words. I have wind-up toys that jump or hop, walk, swim, and clap. It’s a perfect opportunity to introduce those kinds of early verbs.
You’ll find more good ideas for using wind-up toys in this Therapy Tip of the Week video.
4. Shape Sorter – Battat Sound Puzzle Box
As a rule, I don’t like shape sorters for teaching language because parents usually expect their child to learn the words for shapes such as “circle” or “triangle,” when their kids can’t even say simpler words like “milk” or “ball.” For new talkers, we always want to focus on the functional words a child needs in his everyday life. How many times should a child ask you for a “square” as he’s going about his day? Not many!
But I have found one shaper sorter toy that I do like. Mine is several years old so it’s not quite the same as this one here, but it’s close! There are shapes, but with cute animals on top. The thing I love is that the toy makes a very cool sound when the animal slides down the chute. You can still teach and have a child practice matching (a very important cognitive skill) like you would with any other shape sorter toy, but this one is an attention getter, and not as boring as the traditional shape sorter.
For children who are nonverbal, I mostly target play sounds and exclamatory words with this toy by making the animal sound as we’re choosing which animal to get and modeling (as best I can!) the “whoo” sound the toy makes as the shapes slide down the chute. Of course you can work on your early requesting signs and words for “more” or “please” or “again” and the location word “in” as you’re inserting the shape.
When a child needs help with receptive language, you can work teaching animal names by saying, “Where’s the cow?” or “Find the bear.” Here are more tips for this toy in this Therapy Tip of the Week at about the 6 minute mark:
5. Ball & Hammer Toy
With early talkers and any child under 2, I rarely do a session without this extremely engaging toy! You can find ball & hammer toys in lots of different versions by different companies. The one I’ve used for the last several years is shown here. The things that make this version so great are the squeaky hammer and the clear front so that kids can watch the ball fall into the hole, slide over a wheel, go into a tunnel, and roll out the door. Other features are matching the ball with the colored hole and teaching a child to sequence the entire routine by putting the ball in the hole, hitting it with the hammer, watching it make its way down to the door, getting the ball and starting over.
Because this toy involves a hammer, you’re teaching a child about tool use, but not in the sense of construction or repair work! We’re helping a toddler learn to use an object to accomplish a task. Play like this is an important step in learning how to use other objects during daily routines, such as eating with utensils, brushing his own teeth with a toothbrush, or using a hair brush to brush his hair.
Target words I teach with this toy are: ball, hammer, in, hole, out, door, hit (it), bang, boom, mine, more, please and down.
My most popular Verbal Routine with this toy is grabbing the ball as it comes out of the door before the child can get it and mischievously saying, “I got it!” I can’t tell you how many kids have started to try to imitate their first phrase using this Verbal Routine!
I used this ball and hammer toy in my first DVD Teach Me To Talk. Here’s a clip with this toy:
If you’re a visual learner and need to SEE other examples with how to use play-based activities to help a child learn to talk, Teach Me To Talk the DVD will be a good resource for you!
6. Mr. Potato Head
Mr. Potato Head is fantastic for early sessions. This is a basic vocabulary building activity since you can target body parts and basic clothing items such as hats and shoes. There are sets 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.
7.Toddler Race Track
All car toys can be tons of fun for toddlers, but I love a good race track!
Kids will try to imitate the car noise, “Vroom, vroom,” if you leave the batteries in, but I took my batteries out long, long ago so the child learns to imitate me saying, “Vroom, vroom!” Or a raspberry car sound or any other goofy car sound you make!
Other targets are “Ready, set, go!” especially if you’ve introduced that phrase or word with other toys and are trying to generalize that word.
When a child LOVES this toy, I do use it for requesting. You can start with a general word, but I try to teach words like “car” or “truck” since the toy is motivating and the turns are very quick.
The race track comes with 2 cars and the cars are usually different colors. I’ve noticed that many parents default to trying to teach color words with this toy and having a child ask for the car by color with “red” or “green.” Resist that urge! It’s much better to teach functional words like “car” or “truck.” You’ll have to find another small truck that will work with this race track, but you probably already have one that fits, and it will provide a new vocabulary word for you to teach!
It is 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 toddlers may need assistance to learn how to place the car on at the top of the track.
This toy is one of my favorite toys to teach cause and effect. When a child over 12 months old doesn’t understand the concept of cause and effect (If I do this, then this happens,) you will have to do some direct teaching so they can learn this important cognitive concept.
You can see this super fun race track in action during this Therapy Tip of the Week video as well as some other toy options and ideas for teaching this important prerequisite for talking:
If you need help treating children with cognitive and receptive language delays, the best resource I can offer you is my Teach Me To Talk: Therapy Manual. You’ll find information about that book and my other therapy manuals in that post. Teach Me To Talk: The Therapy Manual is a comprehensive guide for developing treatment plans for toddlers with cognitive, receptive, and expressive delays and disorders.
8. Djeco Blocks
There are hundreds of block sets available for toddlers and last year I introduced several of my favorite kinds of blocks in a series of Therapy Tip of the Week videos from last year.
My most favorite set of blocks is this darling one from Djeco. It is pricier than plain ole wooden blocks, but your possibilities for using this toy are unlimited! The blocks are so cute and graduated for stacking by size and have a rounded opening for a “door.” The set comes with several darling plastic animals for you to place in the “house.”
I have so many cute play routines for this toy, but in the beginning I tell the child we’re going to stack the blocks and I teach the word “build” or “up” as we’re stacking the blocks on top (“On top” is a good one too!) When several blocks are stacked, we choose an animal to go inside the opening of the block and, as I mentioned previously, I call this a “house.”
If a child is working on receptive language, I’ll teach him to learn the animal names and follow directions by holding 2 animals and asking, “Where’s the dog?” Once he’s chosen the correct animal, let the child put it in one of houses. Or model “up up up” as you make the animal climb up to find his house. You can knock on the door, which toddlers love, and you’re teaching them to imitate an action.
I use this toy often to introduce a toy to extend a child’s favorite social games. If a child likes peek-a-boo, we play this game with the animals by hiding them inside the blocks. The game most toddlers love with this toy is a version of sleeping or “night night,” where you pretend the dog is asleep and you wake him up. If you need more ideas for these kinds of fun social games, check out my book Teach Me To Play WITH You.
When a child is more verbal, you can try to elicit animal sounds or names. In case I haven’t said this clearly enough, the sillier you are, the better, when you’re teaching animal noises and other fun play sounds. Usually when you let go and really get in to playing by loudly modeling animal noises or doing ridiculous things with the animals, the better the child’s attention and participation will be!
Once the blocks are stacked, or anytime you feel like you’re losing the child’s attention with blocks, ask him to knock over the tower. I love anything with “fall down” as the gag, because toddlers love it and I can get them to do it over and over again.
Target words I teach with this toy are: block, up, push, uh-oh, fall down, knock knock (on the “doors” when animals are in the blocks), animal names, animal sounds, and names of objects on the blocks.
You can also target size words with this set by teaching a child with directions like, “Let’s find the big one,” or “That one is little” as you’re stacking and playing.
9. Baby Doll and Accessories
Dolls are the best and easiest early “pretend” toy you can introduce with young children. For dads who feel that dolls are too feminine for their sons, try a boy doll, or a character doll, or even a stuffed animal.
I stick to plastic baby dolls, rather than cloth, so we can give the doll a bath in REAL water!
Beyond the doll, you’ll need to add accessories to build a child’s play skills by providing options for play. The doll in the link comes with a few accessories, but some of them are above where you’ll begin with many late talkers.
My basic set of baby doll accessories for toddlers at this developmental level includes one doll, a cup or bottle, one or two spoons, a bowl, a hat, a baby wipe, and a brush. I mix and match toys all the time OR I grab whatever is laying around the house that will work. There’s no need to buy a special baby doll bowl when you can walk in your kitchen and grab one out of your cabinet!
The most obvious way to begin teaching pretending is by playfully demonstrating how to use the objects on the baby doll. Develop some cute and silly play routines with lots of sound effects. When you’re giving the baby doll a drink, slurp loudly. If you’re offering the doll a bite from the spoon, say “Mmm mmm mmm.” The more fun you are, the longer the child will play with you, I promise!
Using play sounds and exclamatory words like the examples I gave you are an important step in learning how to talk. If you need more information about the steps that many nonverbal toddlers need to master before they learn to say their first word, I can help you in my book Building Verbal Imitation Skills in Toddlers. If you’re a therapist and want to take my full course on DVD with CEUs, check it out here in Steps to Building Verbal Imitation in Toddlers.
When a toddler seems uninterested in the dolls, it nearly always means he’s not developmentally ready to understand this kind of pretend play yet. You’ll need to back up and teach him the prerequisite skills. To introduce the baby doll with this kind of child, try patting, kissing, or hugging the baby first. Model those actions for him with LOTS of ENTHUSIASM – meaning that playing with this doll is the most fun thing you have ever done in your entire life!! When a parent seems too reserved or too adult-like during play, I always say this, “Ratchet it up a notch! Make it goofier! Be more fun! If you wouldn’t be embarrassed if your neighbor walked in and caught you playing, you’re not doing it right!”
Another way to hook a child’s initial interest in pretend play is by encouraging him to use the objects on himself (or on you!) for a while before you try to get him to play with the doll. Don’t be distressed if he wants to pretend to eat with the spoon, wear the doll’s hat, or brush his own hair. That’s what he’s supposed to do before he figures out how to use it with the doll! It’s all a part of the process!
There are so many language concepts you can teach with dolls and a few extras in the previous paragraph. First of all, target receptive language by teaching a child to follow directions such as, “Feed the baby” and “Brush her hair” and “Where’s her hat?” For toddlers who understand more words, expand to higher level concepts such as, “She’s sleepy. What should she do?” If you’d like to have more guidance for developing and working on these kinds of less obvious “goals” for a child, take a look at my book Teach Me To Talk: The Therapy Manual.
Dolls can be fabulous for teaching expressive language too. See my list of words in the following paragraph. For starters, have a child ask for every single thing you’re going to do with the dolls. There will be multiple options for what you teach as you add new accessories and become creative when you think about the kinds of words you will introduce. With dolls, you can teach not only new nouns (or names of objects), but verbs (action words), prepositions (location words), pronouns (words for possession) and descriptive words.
Here’s an extensive list of target words I use with dolls by category:
Nouns– baby or doll, all of the nouns/names for all of the accessories you’re using such as spoon, bowl, bottle, cup, brush, hat, socks, etc…
Verbs – actions you do with dolls – wash, eat, sleep, drink, jump, walk, dance, swing, night-night, etc…
Prepositions – location words you can target – up, down, in, out, off, on – 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…
Here are 3 Therapy Tip of the Week videos with tips for teaching pretend play with dolls. The first one includes ideas for early play and the complexity increases with each segment.
10. Easy Wooden Puzzles
In previous posts I’ve admitted this, and I’ll share it here too…
I own an embarrassing number of toddler puzzles, but they are “gold” when it comes to targeting language.
The best puzzles for toddlers have wooden pegs or tiny knobs for easy handling by little fingers. Each picture is one individual piece that comes out separately.
Wooden puzzles are cheap ($3-$10) and most toddlers love to do them. You can find puzzles with any kind of theme – farm animals, zoo animals, vehicles, food, bath time, toys, etc… I’ve linked several here so you can be sure you’re looking for VARIETY! Don’t buy more than a couple for each theme!
Stay away from puzzles with ABCs, colors, and numbers until your child is really talking. Stick to puzzles with words a child needs to expand his vocabulary with new words.
Of course you can teach a child to say new words with puzzles, but many times a toddler isn’t quite ready for this during early sessions. What should you do then? Puzzles are great for targeting an earlier skill – building receptive language or what a child understands. You’re teaching a child to learn new words as you label the piece as you place it in the puzzle, but there are several better ways to target comprehension with puzzles. You can hold up 2 different pieces and say, “Get the ___.” Or place several pieces on floor and ask him, “Where’s the ___.”
You can also target receptive language during clean up time with puzzles. After you’ve named the pieces as he’s putting the piece in, tell him which piece to get to clean up the puzzle. 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?”
One more IMPORTANT tip…
DON’T INSIST THAT THE CHILD DO THE WHOLE PUZZLE BEFORE YOU PUT IT AWAY.
When you do this, you are CONTRIBUTING to all sort of undesirable behavior!! No wonder he cries or throws or whatever else he does that you don’t like… if he can’t sit still that long, he can’t sit still that long! It’s up to YOU to make it fun enough so that a child wants to stay! If he does 2 pieces today, that’s okay. He may do 3 tomorrow and 4 the next day. Take it at each child’s pace! I promise this is a better “no tears” way : )
Watch how to do this in a clip from my DVD Teach Me To Listen and Obey 2 as I’m working on both receptive and expressive language with one of my little friends in a really fun way with a “racing” game with puzzles:
Here’s one last Therapy Tip of the Week video with additional tips for wooden puzzles:
that’s my “first sessions” toy list. Did you find some new ideas or get energized to use the toys you already have in new ways? I hope so!!!
I have other lists to share with you too – Best Books for Toddlers with Delays.
Until next time…
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