Nov 13, 2018

The Perfect Toy

Suggestions that can help promote growth and development

the perfect toy: suggestions from a grant wood aea slp

It's the holiday season, and we are all out trying to find that perfect gift. Whether it be for our own child, a niece or nephew, a grandchild, a family friend, or whether you are helping out families in need, picking out toys can be fun, but it can also be overwhelming. How will I know if they like it? What can the toy do? What is the new “it” toy? Will they use it if I buy it? Do they already have one?

Have you ever asked yourself how the toy promotes growth and development? Some toys can help increase language skills, and even be used to promote speech, language, fine motor, cognitive thinking, problem solving, cause and effect. As a speech-language pathologist, these are questions I ask myself before purchasing toys of any kind and for any use (for use in therapy with students, or for kids on my personal shopping list!) Here are some ideas of how to promote growth and development in children through use of some of my favorite toys.



Ages Birth-Three

Farm sets
Farm sets are great ways to encourage pretend play. Pretend play encourages and promotes language skills, joint attention, imitation skills, requesting, and social interactions. Practice making animal sounds, promote turn-taking (e.g. my turn, your turn), identify animals and their attributes, and practice narration skills (e.g. The pig is eating, the horse is running, the farmer drives the tractor, etc.).

Baby dolls
Baby dolls are fantastic toys for girls and boys. Baby dolls promote imitation skills and pretend play (e.g. feeding the baby, rocking the baby, etc.). It also teaches children about symbolism, understanding that one thing represents something else. Baby dolls are also the perfect way to teach new vocabulary, such as different clothing items, bottle, diaper, burp, feed, etc.

Busy Ball Popper
You might have seen these at the store or on Amazon: these are interactive toys that play music as the child plays with it. During play, a child could request different colors of balls, practice identifying colors, request turning toy on and off (on/off switch on toy), and practice counting the balls as they put them in. This also is a great toy to work on imitation skills, joint attention, answering yes/no questions, following directions, and expanding vocabulary and utterance length (e.g. “pop”, “ball pop”, “ball goes pop”).


Ages Three-Five

Potato Head
Like many toys, Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head can be used over and over again. This classic toy promotes turn-taking, social interaction, collaborative play, and expressive (e.g. labeling body parts) and receptive (e.g. Where’s the nose? Child finds or points to the nose) language skills. Parents, you can use playtime with this toy to work on descriptive language (e.g. red shoes) and basic concepts (e.g. under the nose, behind his back, on top of her head).

Cars and Trucks
Race them, build them, “fix” them or make a town and drive them around, these are favorite toys for a reason! Cars and trucks can be played inside or out, and they build imagination skills and creativity in children. You might not have realized that they’re also perfect for targeting fine and gross motor skills, eliciting language, labeling, prepositions! (How? Ask a child to put the car behind the truck, park the truck next to the house, etc.) They’re also great to help a child understand how to follow verbal routines (by saying, “One, two, three... go!” for example.) Cars and trucks also could help teach speech fluency (e.g. smooth versus “bumpy” speech, or practicing speaking fast versus speaking slow).

If you don’t mind the mess, Play-Doh is a great way to encourage creativity, fine motor skills, imagination/pretend play, and sequencing skills (e.g. first, then, next, last). Play-Doh is also a great way to reinforce behavior by keeping hands busy, and to incorporate sensory needs into play time. There are several different Play-Doh sets available, and usually is a cheap fun way to target speech and language skills!

Melissa and Doug Toys
There are a variety of different Melissa and Doug toys available to purchase. Some of their toys include dress-up outfits, puzzles, sensory toys, books, pretend play sets, arts and crafts toys, puppets, and activity/play mats. Their toys can be used for a variety of purposes. We often use these resources to help children with pretend play, imitation skills, answering questions, narration skills, phonological awareness skills, early print awareness and early literacy skills, vocabulary building, fine and gross motor movements, social skills, and sensory play. We’ve found these to be durable toys that are loved by a variety of ages.



Five and Up

Board games

As a speech-language pathologist, I LOVE using games during therapy. Not only do they keep therapy sessions fun for children, they can also be used over and over again. Board games are interactive, they incorporate turn-taking, social interactions, and provide children with different types of language models. Board games can be adjusted for different ages, and are a great activity for families to do together!

Art and Crafts (friendship bracelets, painting, coloring projects, etc.)
Art activities and/or crafts are a great way to teach language concepts naturally. Arts and crafts are interactive and allow children to be creative. They are great for targeting skills such as turn-taking, following directions, vocabulary building (e.g. pattern, palette,, collage, etc.), requesting, fine motor skills, sequencing, and listening. Completing arts and crafts provide children with physical objects that they will remember later, which provides them with a great conversation piece to share with others.

Marble Runs/Building Blocks/Legos/Magnatiles
Blocks, marble runs, and Legos oh my! Incorporating learning through play and toys is a lot more fun than flashcards and worksheets. Building toys allow children to be creative, active, and are a great way for children to build imagination skills. Building toys are also a great way to work on targets such as basic concepts (e.g. on, off, on top, below, next to, between, etc.), counting, shapes, colors, requesting, turn taking, and motor skills.


Any Age


Puzzles are great for any age. Whether they are beginning puzzles for toddlers (e.g. insert puzzles) or the thousand piece puzzles for older students. Puzzles can be used to target requesting, problem-solving, vocabulary (e.g. naming the pictures on the puzzle pieces), colors, shapes, reasoning skills, visual processing, spatial awareness, sharing, describing skills, and many more. Puzzles can be used over and over again, especially puzzles for younger students to build vocabulary and language skills. Puzzles are motivating, and can be completed together or individually.


I saved my best suggestion for last! Books are probably my favorite gift to give to children, and are perfect for children of all ages. Books are an authentic and natural way to teach meaningful language skills. Books can be used to target vocabulary, language expansion, sequence, narration, recall, answering questions, sentence formation, grammar, routines, speech sounds, labeling, rhyming, alliteration, phonological awareness, describing, and association skills to name a few. Books can be found in almost any topic or interest area. Books are entertaining, can be read repeatedly, and are great learning resources.

Liz Donnelly is a Speech-Language Pathologist at Grant Wood AEA who works primarily with students at the elementary level. Learn more about Grant Wood AEA at, and get more information for parents and caregivers at The Carpool Lane on Facebook!

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