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.
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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)…
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). Here are two that I love…
I’m partial to anything wooden, and this HABA Farm Set stole my heart right away. I love the chunky pieces and the fact that the packaging also acts as a barn where the animals can be stored when not in use. HABA makes such high-quality stuff that I know this would last for years. This one may be going on our personal wish list this season!
Another farm set that I adore (and is a bit more affordable) is this Playmobil 1.2.3 Animal Farm. Playmobil 1.2.3. is a special line of Playmobil sets made with larger pieces to reduce any choking hazards, so it is appropriate for toddlers 18 months and up. We have several Playmobil 1.2.3. sets and my twins play with them nonstop. I love the larger pieces and bright colors of this set.
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. We have these HABA Basic Building Blocks and I love them- they are perfectly uniform, smooth, and not too small.
I’m also very intrigued by Wedgits this year- after reading so many great reviews, these are going on our personal wish list as well.
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 😉 Accessories are optional but oh-so-fun- pictured below are the Chicco Doll Stroller and the KidCraft Lil’ Doll Cradle.
Oh, and if you object to a pink doll for a boy (oh, the horror), the Corolle Baby Doll comes in blue, too 😉
Music has countless benefits for language building- rather than list them all here I will direct you to my post on Building Language with Music.
Remo Drum– we have a couple of these in different sizes. They are very well-made and substantial and have held up to many a toddler beating. Heirloom quality for sure.
Melissa & Doug Band in a Box– a good sampler of different instruments to explore.
Music Together Family Favorites CD– I can’t say enough great things about Music Together music; it one of the few “kid music” collections I’ve ever found that doesn’t make me want to pull my hair out after listening to it repeatedly. Music Together classes are awesome, too, but you don’t have to take them to get the music!
West Music Scarves– We love these. Great for inspiring movement to go along with music, both of which are good for stimulating speech production. Also great for pretend play!
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. I like this Step2 Sand Table for its reasonable price, good size, durability, and lid.
My parents gave us the Step2 Water Table and it has turned out to be great for sensory and small wold play as well- the different levels within the basin allow you to include separate materials for mixing, etc.
You can see an example of sensory play in the Step2 Water table in this post: Reptile Small World and Sensory Play.
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.)- The Homemade Play Dough Recipe Book written by Cathy James of NurtureStore. It’s a wonderful e-book packed with recipes and activities for an entire year of play!
A dollhouse is another language stimulation must-have. I am positively swooning over this Maxim Designed by You Dollhouse for my twins- it may be one of our big Santa gifts this year. This is a great example of a toy that can grow with a child over the years- younger children will be happy just playing with the little accessories, while older children will be interested in actually rearranging the sections and creating their own custom-built creations. It would be great for families with mixed ages of children, too!
Here is a good one for travel or for mobile therapists- the Melissa & Doug Fold & Go Dollhouse. I really like how the wood has been left naked- just like basic blocks, it leaves lots of room for imagination! The less a toy can do for your child, the better for language and cognitive development.
Kitchen play is yet another language basic. If you have the space, a play kitchen is always a worthwhile investment. For lack of a more professional term, this Hape Gourmet Kitchen really rocks my world.
There are lots of great kitchen accessories out there so you are sure to find some that suit your budget and preferences. Try to find foods that your child actually has experience eating in real life (or ones that you want them to eat more of). Personally, I love these Plan Toys Fruits and Vegetables and we own the Green Toys Tea Set which is always in heavy rotation. Bonus- it’s eco friendly and completely food safe!
If you’ve read my popular post on Building Language in the Kitchen, you know that I love real cooking with kids for language development as well. That post includes some product recommendations at the bottom, but I had to include the Little Partners Learning Tower in my list. We got this last year and use it everyday- it helps the twins be involved (safely) in lots of kitchen and self help tasks. It is a bit of an investment but you can often find them on Craigslist, Ebay, or secondhand stores. If you have the room, try and swing it. We love ours!
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!
This post is getting impossibly long, but art is another great language stimulation tool. I’ve written about it in my post Building Language with Art. My list of favorite art supplies is pretty long, so I’ll save it for another post- we like to get fairly adventurous (see our Painting a 3D Rainbow post for an example)! Here are two relatively low-mess activities we have been enjoying lately- our AquaDoodle and Crayola Washable Window Markers.
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!
There are so many great toys out there that didn’t make the list- I just couldn’t include them all! And of course, books also deserve a spot on the list, but they really need a separate post.
If you are looking for more developmentally stimulating toys, check out our Battery Free Toys for Babies and Toddlers post- it’s a treasure trove of amazing finds for little ones ages 0-3+!
The 2013 Ultimate Gift Guide for Kids
This post is part of the 2013 Ultimate Gift Guide for Kids, and I couldn’t be more excited to be participating! The Ultimate Gift Guide is a collaboration of over 50 kid bloggers featuring 50+ unique gift lists for all ages, stages, and interests, all in one convenient place. Once you are finished here, be sure to hop over to No Twiddle Twaddle to view the Ultimate Gift Guide in its entirety- I guarantee you will find something you love! (Add a few specific links). You can also check out the Ultimate Gift Guide Pinterest Board– all 50+ lists PLUS more will be pinned to this board, which will serve as yet another great resource for you (and me)!