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#270 5 Things You Can Learn About a Toddler with a Wind Up Toy

wind up toy

I love wind up toys! How about you?

Besides the sheer “fun” factor, there are at least 5 very important skills you can observe when presenting a wind up toy to a toddler. Listen to this week’s show to hear my take on why this toy should be in every pediatric SLP’s arsenal, particularly during the initial assessment when we’re getting to know a child, and as a way to “spot check” developmental progress as therapy continues.

Here are the skills you’re looking for as you play together with a wind up toy:

  1.  Joint Attention

    Joint attention means how a child shares this play experience with you. Does he look back and forth between you and the toy? Does he watch for your reaction? Toddlers who don’t know how to shift their attention between objects and people often aren’t socially engaged enough to learn language. They don’t “get” that they should include others in their own play and experience. These kids may be described as “doing his own thing” or “super focused” because they have a hard time connecting with others, particularly when their attention is glued elsewhere.

  2. Cognitive Skills

    Cognition refers to how a child thinks and learns. We can observe several important early cognitive milestones with a wind up toy, and the ones I look for first are cause & effect and simple problem solving. When children are typically developing, both of these skills are emerging around the age of 12 months.

    Cause & effect means that the child understands that one action leads to an outcome. With the wind up toy, I’m looking for how quickly a toddler understands that the toy must be wound up before it moves. Even if a toddler can’t wind the toy himself (and most of them can’t, which is completely normal!), he should somehow demonstrate to you that he “gets” the cause – that someone must wind up the toy first before it works.

    Simple problem solving refers to how a child uses first one option and then another to accomplish his objective. In this example with a wind up toy, a toddler might try a few different actions in order to figure out if he can activate the toy. When a child ignores toys or doesn’t try new ways to operate the toy, we can begin to think about how his cognitive skills are developing. Many times parents assume that a child who doesn’t play with toys doesn’t like toys, when the real issue is that there are cognitive delays and the toys and play aren’t meaningful for a child yet.

 3. Receptive Language

Receptive language means how a child understands the words he hears. With a wind up toy, you can see how a child responds to a familiar command such as, “Give it me.” If he doesn’t give you the toy as you requested, add a gesture by offering your open hand to see if he will place the toy in your hand.

Understanding simple requests such as “Give it me” or “Come here” or “Sit down” begin to emerge around a child’s first birthday. If an 18 month old (or a 2 or 3 year old!) can’t follow these kinds of directions, we know there are delays with receptive language, or how a child understands language.

4. Communicative Intent

Here we’re looking for how a child asks for help. Most of the time, a toddler won’t be able to wind up the toy so he needs  adult assistance. When we use a toy that a child can’t operate by himself, like a wind up toy, we’re naturally setting up an opportunity to measure how a child communicates.

We’re not necessarily looking for words yet either. Does a child look at you as if he’s asking you for help? Does he give you the toy before you can offer to wind it up again? Does he indicate in some way to you that he needs you? Even whining is communicating, particularly when he’s directing that “fussiness” toward you by looking at you or moving closer to you.

Does he take your hand and place it on the toy? Many times toddlers with autism will use an adult in this way. Although this is a red flag and is not typical, it does show that a toddler understands at the most basic level that he does need another person and it’s the beginning of teaching him to truly communicate.

5. Expressive Language Skills

Obviously as SLPs and other pediatric therapists, we’re listening for any kind of vocalization a child may use during your interaction. Are his verbal attempts words? If not, is he squealing and laughing? Does he use any exclamatory words such as “Uh oh” or “Wow”? Is he imitating any words you use?

If a child is nonverbal, we can still assess his very early expressive skills. Can he imitate any actions, such as clapping when you clap, and eagerly say, “Yay!” as you watch the toy move? Does he use any gestures, such as pointing at the toy?

Does he follow your point when you point at the toy? Although this is not an expressive skill, it’s very important diagnostic information. Many times children with autism don’t understand nonverbal communication, including gestures like pointing or waving.

Of course, this list is not exhaustive. There are other things we can begin to evaluate using a wind up toy, or any other toy for that matter! (Which is why I will always, always, always be a play-based SLP!)

  • We can note a young child’s fine motor skills with how he uses his hands – although most toddlers (even those whose fine motor skills are fine!) will not be able to wind up the toy on his or her own.
  • We can look at a child’s ability to attend and participate in a play activity together.
  • We can assess a child’s ability to transition to a new activity.
  • And on and on and on…


Because of how versatile wind up toys are, I own enough to fill a couple of buckets! Anytime I post about my love for a specific toy, my inbox is flooded with questions asking “Where can I buy that?” My favorite places to purchase wind up toys are the same places I buy other toys – Target, Toys R Us, Walmart, and drug stores like Walgreens, especially during holidays (like Halloween, Easter, and Christmas) since wind up toys are popular seasonal promotional items. Links from Amazon are included here for your convenience if you don’t have access to retailers near you:



Beyond assessment, we can also use wind up toys to begin to treat a child’s delays. For some ideas for how to use wind up toys in therapy, check out this post with several of my Therapy Tips of the Week videos. Scroll down to #3 for ideas for wind up toys.

For specific instructions for how to use wind up toys and other familiar toys to address joint attention, early turn taking, communicative intent, and all of the other social skills, you can get fantastic information in my book Teach Me To Play WITH You.

Hopefully between the show and this post, I’ve given you some reasons to go out and get yourself at least a couple of different wind up toys to use with toddlers. I promise, it’s money well-spent!

More options I mentioned during the podcast:

My new favorite… so cute!!

My previous favorite wind up that I’ve replaced over and over because there are so many things to target with a FUN dog toy! I work on all kinds of animal sounds – panting like a puppy, barking like a dog, growling, whining – and then of course the words “dog” and “puppy,” extremely important words for little ones who love animals!

Another popular one…

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