The holiday season always seems to spring up faster each year. And as a new mom myself, it can be a bit overwhelming to cross everything off that holiday list.

If you’re in the same boat, I’ve got you covered! Below is a list of fun toys that your infant or toddler won't only love, but can help promote their early language skills.

The Importance of play on language acquisition

Toys facilitate play, and play time is an extremely important area of childhood development. It’s how young children learn, explore the world around them, and start acquiring the foundational language and social skills that can improve their communication abilities.

Using Play to Promote Speech & Language Development
Play is an integral part of learning in children. It helps them explore and understand their environment, foster language development, problem solve, acquire social skills, and so much more!

I’ve heard my mother (a very excited new grandmother) say countless times, “Less is more.” And as a speech-language pathologist, she’s exactly right! Research indicates that simple toys (i.e., wood blocks, legos, stuffed animals) cultivate more opportunities for descriptive language from parents than elaborate toys (i.e., bright, noisy plastic toys with all the bells and whistles).

Now, I’m definitely not suggesting that you get rid of all of your elaborate toys. There can be a time and a place for them. However, for the purposes of this article I’ve compiled a list of simple, language-building toys, along with what skills they promote and how to use them effectively with your child. So without further ado, let’s jump in!

Puppets

Playing with puppets can be extremely educational and they provide a ton of great language opportunities for your young child to learn and model. The creator of the Muppets, Jim Henderson, said it well, “One of the nicest things about puppets is that it's your own hand in there. You can make it do anything you want.”

When playing with puppets, you can try singing a favorite song with the puppet, teaching “open” and “close” with the puppet’s mouth, have your child touch the body parts of the puppet (i.e., touch the puppet’s eyes, ears, mouth, etc), or tell a story with the puppet. The opportunities are endless! What’s important is that you and your child are having fun and learning a thing or two along the way. Plus, puppets can be great travel companions during the holiday season to keep your child entertained.

Here’s are a few language skills that puppets, along with the other toys listed in this article, can help your child master:

  • Conversational exchanges: First your puppet talks, then your child’s puppet talks, and so on. This is the same back-and-forth exchange and engagement used during a conversion.

  • Sustained eye contact: Focusing and paying attention to the puppet when it’s speaking can help develop this essential social skill.

  • Listening skills: Encouraging your baby to listen to what you or your puppet is saying.

  • Fine motor skills: Every time your child points to the puppet, touches the puppet, or makes the puppet move, they’re improving their fine motor skills.

  • Following directions: Using the puppet to give basic, one-step directions, like “open your mouth."

  • Learning directions: Teaching basic vocabulary used when providing directions, like “up,” “down,” “under,” and “over.”

  • Social development: Simply interacting with the puppet can increase the communication exchanges between your child and their puppet.

  • Emotional development: Teaching your child what feelings and emotions look like on the face of the puppet, and using appropriate language to make that connection (i.e., “I feel sad, look my face is sad”).

  • Vocabulary development: Increasing the number and variety of words that your child hears.

  • Confidence building: Your child’s ability to independently play with the puppet can improve their confidence and self-esteem.

  • Creativity: Crafting the puppet and having creative control over what the puppet does and says.

  • Storytelling: Having the puppet tell stories with a sequence of events.

  • Taking turns: Sharing the puppet or taking turns making it talk.

Pretend Kitchen Set

I had one of these growing up and want my son to have one too! This is a phenomenal tool to encourage pretend play. A kitchen set can also begin to address tons of valuable functional skills, such as following directions, turn-taking, making requests, asking questions, and creativity.

We use so many words in the kitchen, and this is a perfect opportunity to help your child learn opposites, like “hot” vs “cold,” “on” vs “off,” and “sweet” vs “salty.”

Another great skill is sequencing (i.e., the steps to make a sandwich). You can try asking your child to make you a meal, and go through the order of what goes first, next, and last. Or, ask your child for a hot drink and, when they hand it to you, say “Ouch! It’s too hot. Let’s make it cooler.” Then blow on the drink to cool it off.

And finally, we follow directions when cooking recipes. You can help your child learn simple directions like, “wash the dishes,” “wash your hands,” “pour the water,” “cut the food,” and more.

Stacking Toys

Simple wood blocks, or plastic stacking tubes, can provide hours of individual play and exploration. These are excellent tools to teach functional vocabulary words and promote language development. Some of these words include:

  • Up
  • Down
  • Fall
  • On top
  • First
  • Last

As you stack blocks atop each other, try saying “up, up, up” repeatedly to reinforce the concept. When they fall over, you can say, “Oh no! It fell down!”

Toy Cars

There are so many creative ways to use toy cars to promote language acquisition. Let’s take a simple activity like rolling a car back and forth with your child. It may sound simple, but it requires two people to complete the task. This back-and-forth exchange mimics conversation. One person speaks, the other responds, and so forth.

When playing with your new toy car, make sure to model language by moving the car forward and saying, “Go car go! And… stop!” You can even turn this into a game of Simon Says. “Simon says move the car up!” And finally, one of my favorite pastimes is racing two cars against each other to teach children the concept of "fast" and "slow." While you move the car, you can say, “My car is so slow! Your car is so fast!”

Toy cars are also great for:

  • Following directions: Tell your child where to drive their car. You can say, “Let’s drive around your room.”

  • Vocabulary expansion: When playing with your child, reinforce words like “forward,” “back,” “go,” “stop,” “over,” and “under.”

  • Turn taking: Trying sharing the car and taking turns - each person gets a few minutes of play time.

Mr and Mrs. Potato Head

One of the all time classic toys, and definitely the best characters in the movie Toy Story. They’re also a fantastic way to teach your child how to label body parts and different articles of clothing.

You can model the language, “I’m putting on his shirt,” to introduce new vocabulary and functional life skills. To improve following directions try saying, “Put on his mouth.” Or, to teach different body parts, model it first by pointing to his nose and saying, “Look at his nose!” Then ask your child to do the same, “point to his nose.”

Play Gyms

Play gyms are an age-appropriate toy that can be used to target different milestones, such as tummy time, rolling over, and encouraging your baby to reach and grab desired objects. Many play gyms can grow with your child by allowing you to change hanging toys, which can help maintain your baby’s interest and attention as they get older.

Let me leave you with this. The toys you choose for your child are just as important as how you use them to promote language development. Remember, YOU are your child’s greatest gift! So be creative. Don’t be afraid to be silly and theatrical. And most importantly, have fun!

The more time you spend playing with your child, the more their language skills will flourish and thrive. HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

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