As a speech-language pathologist, one of the questions I am asked most often is “What toys should I buy to help my child talk?” With the holidays approaching, I thought a GIFT guide outlining my picks for the best toys for speech and language development might be just the thing some of you are looking for. The toys on this list include many of my speech therapist “must haves” for working with early language learners, as well as those that I would generally RECOMMEND to parents of young children.
You may be surprised that you will not find any toys on my list that are designed specifically to teach basic academic vocabulary. My dear friend Kim over at The Little Stories calls these SCLANS (Shapes, Colors, Letters, and NumberS, get it?) and has a great article on why these are what you should NOT be focusing on if you have a little one in the early stages of communication development.
The best toys for early speech and language development are those that set the stage for language rich play in meaningful context. In other words, toys that inspire children not just to memorize words, but to use those words functionally in a variety of ways- requesting, showing/sharing/commenting, role play, problem solving/asking for help, making plans, etc. I always tell people that I’d rather see a child who has ten words that he can use functionally than a child the same age that has 100 words but only uses them to label objects or symbols. Language is SO much more than just vocabulary!
So let’s get down to business. Each toy on my list was chosen based on the following guidelines:
-Sturdy and well-made – eco-friendly is even better!
-Relatively open-ended and versatile; you want toys that can be used in a variety of ways over time.
-Related to meaningful, familiar experiences for your child (i.e. everyday role play like feeding, bathing, dressing)
-Encourages reciprocal social interaction (toys that are fun to play with a partner or group)
So without further adieu, here are my picks for the Best Toys for Speech and Language Development (in no particular order)…
1) Farm Set
Did you know that making animal sounds is linked to both early speech and language development AND early literacy? But that’s not all- playing with a farm set allows children to act out lots of familiar actions and scenarios (eating, sleeping, running) and provides OPPORTUNITIES to practice basic concepts such as prepositions (in, out, beside). Ex. Playmobil 1.2.3 Animal Farm
Building with blocks is a fantastic language building ACTIVITY. It involves social interaction (turn taking, problem solving, collaborating), basic concepts (tall and short, big and small, more and less), and plenty of opportunity for pretend play. Let’s face it- with a little imagination, most of the toys on this list can be replicated with a set of basic building blocks! There are TONS of amazing block sets out there, but I am firmly convinced that every child should have a sturdy set of basic, naked blocks because they are the best for open-ended play. Ex. HABA Basic Building Blocks
3) Baby dolls
Baby dolls are another go-to therapy toy for me. The OPPORTUNITIES for language-building are abundant because a child can replicate so many meaningful real-life experiences (feeding, dressing, bathing, etc.). There are dolls out there for any size and budget- I picked the Corolle Baby Doll pictured below because we personally love them (yes, my son is snuggling his right now)- they are soft and sweet and smell faintly of vanilla ? Ex. Chicco Doll Stroller and the KidCraft Lil’ Doll Cradle
Music has countless benefits for language building. Ex. Melissa & Doug Band in a Box
5) Sensory Table
Sensory play isn’t just trendy and fun, it is truly wonderful for language development! Read more in my post on Building Language with Sensory Play. You can use pretty much any container for sensory play, but if you have the ROOM it never hurts to have a dedicated sensory table. Ex. Step2 Sand Table
6) Play Dough
And speaking of sensory play, one of our favorite sensory MEDIUMS is good old fashioned play dough. Playing with play dough, whether it’s just plain and natural (my personal favorite) or scented and brightly colored, always results in rivers of language from my little ones. I’m not going to list any specific doughs or dough products here- you can make it yourself for a fraction of the cost without all the yucky ingredients and you have lots of interesting play dough tools disguised as household items already ? What I will do is share my go-to resource for all things play dough (and salt dough and bread dough etc. etc.). Ex. The Homemade Play Dough Recipe Book
7) Mr. Potato Head
As far as therapy toys go, this was one of the first ones I ever owned (my Daddy bought it for me at Sam’s, I think) and now my own kids are playing with it years later. The Playskool Mr. Potato Head Super Spud is a giant potato head with a bunch of smaller ones (and all their accessories) inside. Every child I’ve ever worked with, even the old ones, have been fascinated by him for some reason! There are tons of language OPPORTUNITIES with this toy- body parts, emotions, clothing, size comparisons, prepositions, etc. And even more important, tons of social interaction and pretend play. We love this spud, and so will your kids!
8) Toy Subscription Service
I couldn’t resist the OPPORTUNITY to mention our favorite subscription toy service, Little Pnuts. I found out about this company last year and immediately signed up- four times a year you get a box of eco-friendly, developmentally stimulating, BATTERY FREE toys that are expertly curated for your child’s age and developmental milestones. It’s been a great introduction to new (often European) toy brands that are a great alternative to the buzzing, flashing monstrosities that clutter American toy shelves. After being a paid subscriber for a year, I now write for their blog in exchange for their amazing products, but I can’t say enough about how great my experience has been with this company!