Pediatric speech-language pathologists often get asked about toy recommendations for young children. It makes sense because we often use toys in sessions to keep children engaged in learning. So, which toys should we recommend to parents?
A recent study by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) compared traditional toys to electronic toys. The report concludes—not surprisingly—that traditional toys result in better child-caregiver interactions. These interactions provide multiple communication-learning opportunities. So how can we help parents look beyond advertising that promises toys will teach children ABCs, numbers, shapes, and other seemingly important preschool skills?
Inexpensive, readily available objects can turn treatment into a flood of sensory experiences for the youngest of clients.
Tackle foundational communication skills—not just language skills—by infusing fun and silliness into sessions.
The influence of electronic toys on a child’s development gets a lot of attention, but let’s focus specifically on toys helpful to little ones learning to talk. Notice, I wrote “helpful” and not “toys teaching little ones to talk.” In fact, toys cannot teach children communication. They are simply tools SLPs use to engage children in an activity so we can teach children communication.
Toys as tools, not teachers
A child who can imitate sounds and words might imitate sounds and words a toy makes, but does this mean the child learned to communicate? I say no. They learned to imitate. Repeating an electronic toy can’t teach a child to request, comment, protest, command, ask and respond to questions. Furthermore, it takes a person to truly teach children the social uses of language—like gestures, facial expressions, voice changes, intonation patterns—as well as how to listen attentively.
When a child focuses on a toy’s lights, buttons, music, sounds, switches and second languages, it might be challenging to engage the child in anything else. Especially while traveling or waiting, parents often give children access to handheld devices to encourage them not to engage. These “educational electronic toys” more commonly teach a child to be quiet.
When we help children learn to talk, we don’t want quiet!
When I help parents overlook the attractive allure of “learning toys” in favor of activities and toys to support communication development, I ask them two questions:
- What words would your child want to say?
- What words would you want your child to say?
Listing the child’s preferred words may include favorite people, foods, actions, or objects. The parent’s preferred list of words may include greetings and social niceties, such as “please” or “thank you.” Families also include words on their lists specific to their routines and traditions.
Toys to create context
Using the lists, help parents explore contexts in which to teach those words. Then, recommend toys to create those contexts. For example, if food words feature prominently on the lists, I might suggest pretend food or a toy kitchen. If saying “hi” and “bye” appear on the list, then try toys with people and doors. For action words—such as “go, stop, up, down, fast”—get out cars, play ball, or dance.
In general, I use toys in sessions—and recommend them to parents—that don’t need instructions or batteries: The toys children can play with in countless ways and that spark the imagination. If you have to stand in the toy aisle and read the box for more than a minute to figure out what the toy does, you may want to move on.
Choose toys to encourage interaction and creativity. Stick with traditional toys like blocks, dolls, puzzles, books, simple toy cars, and balls. The less a toy does, the more the child can do with it. The more a child can do with it, the more opportunities for interaction it allows.
Sometimes the “toy” isn’t even found in a store. Empty boxes and containers become some of the most enjoyed toys for little ones. In fact, you may be the best toy of all!
So, the next time a parent asks about toys to help with speech, suggest toys that do nothing.
Emily Ferjencik, MS, CCC-SLP works in private practice focusing on early language development and autism spectrum disorder. She also hosts the website and Facebook group, “Let’s Play: the speech and language way.” firstname.lastname@example.org