Prelinguistic Skill #1 – Reacts to Events in the Environment… Toy List


Over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to review each of the 11 skills all toddlers master before words emerge and provide examples of toys for targeting each of these skills.


This information is from Let’s Talk About Talking, my most comprehensive resource for addressing all the foundational skills for talking. If you’re working with a child who is not communicating despite your best efforts, at least one of these 11 areas is disrupted and hasn’t been identified and addressed.


The good news is… I can help you with that!


In the therapy manual, you’ll determine what’s missing with simple checklists and descriptions and then find activities to help a child strengthen those skills.


What I can’t do in the therapy manual is provide specific toy pictures and links (since that kind of information can outdate so quickly!), but I can do that here, which is what I’m going to do!


But first, let me give you a description of the skill to help you decide if the child you’re working with needs help in this area.


Skill #1 – Reacts to Events in the Environment


This means that a child acknowledges incoming sensory information in the surrounding environment. In everyday language, this is how a child reacts to things he or she can see, hear, touch, hold, and manipulate.


Questions to ask yourself to determine if a child reacts to environmental events:

  • Does she notice when things happen?
  • Will he alert to noises?
  • Does he explore his world by looking, listening, and touching things?
  • Can she hold a toy?
  • Does he try to manipulate an item beyond getting it in his mouth?


Responding to environmental events is the initial milestone we look for in all children. When a child can do these things, we know that at the most fundamental level, his little brain is working. His eyes, ears, hands, and body are receiving information to be processed and there’s a noticeable reaction.


A child’s internal drive to explore should be obvious and dominate most of his waking moments throughout childhood, but especially in the first three years of a child’s life. New discoveries create new neural pathways in the brain. Educational and medical experts refer to this as cognitive development.


When I explain cognitive development to families I’m working with, I say that cognitive skills include how a child thinks, learns, remembers, and pays attention. Therapists may add terms like “processing” and “planning.” Parents may think about these brain-based skills as IQ or “how smart a child is.”

Reacting to environmental events is the cornerstone for developing cognition. This skill comes first and sets the stage for all other skills a child acquires, including language development. A child who is not alert and who is unresponsive is not developmentally ready to learn to understand and use words. More realistic wording for that sentence is that a child who does not respond to incoming information is “not even close” to being developmentally ready to learn language.


If you’re a therapist, that’s not news to you. However, I’ve worked with a few families with children with severe neurological disabilities or rare genetic conditions who did not understand the impact that these significant diagnoses have on language development. Even though they knew to expect physical disabilities and other developmental lags, some parents (and grandparents) had not yet faced the possibility that their child would have difficulty learning to understand words and talk.


Of course, children with identified physical limitations and muscle tone differences will have difficulty with this milestone due to problems coordinating their body movements as they attempt to handle toys and explore their environments. Modifications will have to made to help a child learn to move and react.


Any young child who does not react to environmental events has a severe developmental delay, no matter how old they are, since responding emerges very early during infancy. When this milestone is absent, it may mean that a child cannot see or cannot hear. Each of these disabilities can significantly impact a child’s development. Even partial blindness or a mild hearing loss can limit a child’s ability to explore his surroundings. Chronic, unidentified ear infections can cause hearing loss and must be resolved before some children begin to respond consistently to any kind of auditory stimulation. If there’s no known etiology to explain this lack of awareness, a comprehensive medical work-up is warranted.


If your child needs to work on improving his ability to react or if you’d like more information to help you decide, get Let’s Talk About Talking.


If a child consistently reacts to events in the environment, you’re ready to move on to the next skill…


RECOMMENDED TOYS for activities in Let’s Talk About Talking


Toys a Child Can See: Unbreakable mirror, pictures of faces, books with black and white pictures, vinyl books, touch and feel books, soft dolls and stuffed animals, toys with light


Unbreakable mirror – so important for tummy time for babies and any other child in this first developmental phase who is not yet consistently responding to the environment


High Contrast Toys and Soft Books for visual stimulation







Touch and Feel Books


Soft Dolls (good for looking at faces!)


Visual Stim Toys – Light  toys that are easily activated




Toys a Child Can Hear: Toys that crinkle, squeak, rattle, ring, and play music, a rain stick, Mom and Dad’s recorded voices



A Rain Stick… Ideas in Let’s Talk About Talking


Toys for recording voices are fanastic too!




Toys a Child Can Taste: Teething toys and any other object that’s safe to mouth and chew







Toys a Child Can Touch and Feel: Textured blankets, taggie toys, touch and feel books, rattles, bendy balls, links, squeezable toys, soft dolls/stuffed animals, vibrating pillows




Taggy toys are fantastic fidgets toys for this phrase and beyond




Vibrating Pillows – instructions in Let’s Talk About Talking


Vibrating Ball


For ideas for using each of these toys to facilitate prelinguistic skill #1, check out Let’s Talk About Talking.




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