Speech therapy Toys for Play and Communication
As the Holiday season is upon us, Toy wish lists and shopping lists are being made at the very moment! Play-based learning has tremendous benefits and offers opportunities for optimal speech and language stimulation in the Early Intervention and Preschool age group. As a speech-language pathologist, I am often asked what toys I recommend for children with speech and language delays. From a true speech therapy perspective, toys don’t really matter. It’s the interaction that happens WITH the toy or activity that sets the stage to build verbal or nonverbal communication skills. That being said, choosing the right kind of toys makes it a lot easier to facilitate good play routines and communication opportunities between child and caregiver.
My criteria for selecting toys for the toddler and preschool age group with speech and language delays and difficulties is simple. They should support Creative play or Active play or Pretend play. If you have a toy that does all three, you have hit the jackpot! Here goes my short and sweet list of tips for Toy Selection for the little ones:
1) Go back to the basics
In-store and online toy aisles are inundated with “educational” toys, STEM toys, light-up toys with music, sounds, multiple languages and more. While these electronic toys are fun, there’s minimal opportunity to interact with others. Traditional toys are more open ended in nature and can be played with in many different ways. They offer your child plenty of creative freedom. Blocks, play dough, puppets, costumes, containers, boxes, baby dolls, cars, trains, play kitchen, play food, farm and zoo toys, toolbox, doctor’s set etc.
Side note: Avoid gender-stereotyping when selecting toys. National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) published research on the Impact of Specific Toys on Play highlighting “What set the highest-scoring toys apart was that they prompted problem solving, social interaction, and creative expression in both boys and girls. Interestingly, toys that have traditionally been viewed as male oriented—construction toys and toy vehicles, for example—elicited the highest quality play among girls. So, try to set aside previous conceptions about what inspires male and female play and objectively observe toy effects to be sure boys and girls equally benefit from play materials.”
2) Skip the Batteries
If the toy requires batteries, then it probably talks, sings ABCs or moves on its own. It does everything for the child at the press of a button. You want your CHILD to make the noises, to manipulate the toy themselves or to seek your attention and help, thus initiating communication routines. Not all battery-operated toys are on the naughty list! There are a few exceptions. For example, moving trains with batteries are a beautiful sight to watch. Take out the batteries from your toy laptop or a toy vacuum and there is so much that can be done with them other than the pre-programmed entertainment. It can be used to open/close, tap the buttons in different patterns or different pretend play routines (depending on the child's age).
3) Use Toys That get Them Feeling and Moving
Incorporating sensory play in your child's activities can encourage them to use their senses: touch, smell, taste, sight, and hearing. It allows children to discover and investigate the world around them by building neuron connections, which increases a child’s overall ability to understand. Incorporating movement gets the blood pumping throughout the entire body, which maximizes brain performance, improved mood, attention, and a better ability to retain what they’ve learned. This is beneficial to all children, but especially to those with autism or sensory processing disorder. Sensorimotor activities can be implemented indoors or outdoors- in nature, in the backyard, at the local park. Sensory bins, small shovels for digging, gardening tools, sand pits, water tables, swings, climbing activities, ride-on toys are great for this purpose. Making forts and tunnels or obstacle courses are fun ways to keep them moving indoors.
4) Less is More
Children don’t need a lot of toys. Sometimes the best toys are not real toys at all! Have you noticed that children always seem to be more interested in the cardboard boxes that their toys arrive in? Pots, pans, spoons, boxes can keep children entertained for a long time Children tend to get overwhelmed with too many toys and can end up moving quickly from one toy to another which can actually limit their play skills repertoire (and language) opportunities overall.
While we might dream of minimalism, the truth is that toys and things keep finding a way into our homes -from holidays and birthdays to random grocery store trips! One practical solution is to do a toy rotation-- between sets of toys in your house or participate in a toy library among friends/ in the neighborhood. A toy donation activity with the child can also be a great opportunity for cognitive tasks and speech and language stimulation (sorting, counting, planning, vocabulary, negotiating, conversation skills etc). Bonus points for being good for the environment and for the soul!
5) And finally, YOU are the best toy for your child!
Research has shown us that newborns come to the world preferring to look at anything that looks like a face. They favor human speech more than any other sound. They use human faces and voices as social cues and this scaffolds cognitive development. They learn to follow gaze cues, recognize identities and emotions, and learn social characteristics and language. The best form of speech and language stimulation for a child is through human interaction. Through You!
Talk. Sing. Do finger plays. Be silly and pretend in a funny voice. Tell stories. Play peek a boo. Play hide and seek.
Ultimately, play-based Speech-language therapy using Toys helps harness the child’s curiosity, interest and attention that’s needed to develop speech, language and communication skills. Using toys can enhance play, thus providing a natural context for communication and supporting all areas of development. If your child is experiencing Speech and language delays, or has limited play routines and overall communication, please consult a speech-language pathologist for guidance.
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