What toys do I get for my little one? The options and adverts are endless and it can be overwhelming! It’s hard to know what is going to be interesting for your child for more than 10 minutes, what will be ‘educational’, what will be durable and what will get your little one excited when they open it up!
From a speech and language development perspective I have to say that the toy doesn’t really matter. It’s the interaction that happens with the toy that allows the fun and learning to happen. When you are walking through the toy shop you may be drawn to the ‘educational’ aisle with the toys that have flashing lights, make sounds and have lots of buttons to push. These toys can be entertaining for your child but there is minimal opportunity for your child to interact with others when using these electronic toys. The best toys:
- Don’t need batteries
- Involve building or are creative.
- Encourage pretend play
The 3 B’s: Bubbles, Ball, Blocks
All of these toys are great for supporting early interaction as you can play sitting opposite your child to roll a ball back and forth, build a tower of blocks or blow and pop bubbles. Eye contact is important for early communication and you can help to develop this by being face-to-face with your child. Children can also work on their motor skills – moving the ball around, grasping the blocks and using their fingers to pop the bubbles. You will find some great opportunities to add words language to these interactions – ‘roll/catch the ball’, ‘pop the bubbles’, ‘more bubbles’, ‘a big tower’. Encourage your child to communicate as much as possible by waiting for them to point, gesture or vocalize when they want something. A small child might not say ‘more’ but if you wait, their body will tell you! For example, they might move their body, look at you or look at the toy to request more bubbles, or to have the ball rolled back to them.
Jigsaws and Form Boards
Jigsaws and form boards are excellent for building attention skills. You can add words and language by talking about what’s in the jigsaw. Jigsaws/form boards often have a theme or category, such as farm animals, clothing, transport etc and this helps to develop your child’s vocabulary. Children work on their problem-solving skills when completing jigsaws, and you can give them a hand with this by asking questions – ‘what piece do we need next?’ ‘Does this piece fit here?’ ‘What colour piece will go here?’. Balance these questions with comments – ‘I have a big piece,’ ‘You have the yellow piece,’ ‘We found the missing piece!’. Jigsaw activities are also a great opportunity to develop fine motor skills, as children learn to grasp small pieces and push them into place. You can find jigsaws including your child’s favourite characters or interests if they are reluctant to play with jigsaws at first.
Playing with a dolly or a teddy is so much fun and can encourage your child’s early language skills and pretend play skills (using your imagination to play by pretending). Pretend play is an important building block supporting your child’s language development. Pretend play is important for many reasons:
- It helps develop your child’s understanding of what objects are used for.
- It helps your child to learn that a word can represent an object just like a toy can be used to represent a real object.
- It helps your child use their imagination and use flexible thinking.
- It helps your child to learn about real-life situations and helps them act them out.
- Children’s language often develops alongside pretend play.
Here are some ideas for playing with a teddy or a dolly to encourage the development of pretend play:
- Help the child to do the same as you by modelling actions with the teddy/dolly. You could feed teddy, brush doll’s hair, put teddy to bed, wash baby or make a teddy’s tea party. Use appropriate sounds and words such as slurping sounds, mmm yummy or snoring noises.
Using Dolly or Teddy to play with a kitchen or tea set
Playing with a kitchen or a tea set can also encourage the development of your child’s imaginative play skills and help them to learn new words. These toys are great because they represent objects that you have in your home and are important words for your child to learn. Here are some tips for playing with these toys:
- Encourage your child to copy your actions, such as drinking from the cup, pouring tea or cleaning the dishes in the kitchen set.
- While you are modelling these actions make sure to tell the child what you are doing by using all of the wonderful vocabulary you have. For example,’ Teddy is drinking from the cup,’ ‘ I am washing the dishes’ or ‘I am chopping the carrot.’ Say these phrases over and over again because little ears need to hear new words many times before they can learn them!
- Extend the play into short sequences of actions, for example, Teddy pours the tea, drinks the tea from the cup and then washes the cup in the sink. Remember to always talk about what you are doing so your child can learn new words. Continue to extend these sequences as your child becomes more confident.
Role play toys – farm, toy animals, tractors, dolls house, characters, furniture
These toys can also be used to develop pretend play, imagination and vocabulary for important categories of words such as the different types of animals or furniture. Real life situations can be acted out and stories can be made up by using dolls’ house materials, toy machinery, play characters, farm and zoo animals. Here are some tips for playing with these toys:
- Encourage your child to make characters or dolls interact with each other, for example, making a character give another character a piece of cake. At first you may need to model this for your child and encourage your child to join in and copy. Soon, your child might start the play by themselves and if so, respond by following their lead.
- Create storylines using the toys as the characters. For example, the dog caught the chicken and the farmer came along to stop him. This is creating an opportunity for your child to hear all of the new words that you use. For example, ‘chicken’, ‘duck’, ‘foal’, ‘sleeping’, ‘eating’, and ‘driving’.
- Always remember to talk your child through everything you do so they can learn new words. For example, when the dog catches the chicken you can act out the farmer asking the dog why he did it. By doing this your child can hear how the new words are used sentences.
- Repeat all of the phrases you use during role play over and over again. Remember your child needs to hear the new words many times so they can learn them.
Playing games helps children to learn the importance of turn-taking and following rules so that everyone can enjoy the activity, in a fun way that all the family can participate in. Some examples that always go down well with children are Pop-Up Pirate, Mr. Potato Head and Tumbling Monkeys. You can add language to help sentence development, especially building on using different tenses, e.g. when playing Pop-Up Pirate, ‘He’s going to pop!’, ‘He will pop soon!’, ‘He popped!’.
Orchard Toys have a wide range of table-top games that work on building vocabulary and give opportunities for you to talk to your child and help them learn about familiar routines and settings. For example, when playing the Shopping List game you can talk about what to do at the supermarket (making a list of what you need, putting the food in the basket, pushing the trolley, asking for help if you don’t know where to find something, paying at the checkout, putting the food away when you get home) as well has helping your child to learn lots of new words in the same category (food). Other examples including Crazy Chefs, Two by Two (great for animal vocabulary) and a range of Lotto games with different themes (transport, the beach, etc.)
Pop up pirate or tumbling monkeys
Encourages turn-taking and sentence development for tenses e.g. ‘he popped’, ‘he fell’, ‘he’s going to pop’.
Here are some tips for getting the most out of pop up pirate and using it as an opportunity to teach your child new words.
- Keep the coloured swords to yourself and tell your child that they must ask you for a sword by describing it. For example ‘can I have the blue sword’. This creates an opportunity for your child to practice the important skill of using describing words to request things.
- When you are playing the game with your child remember to talk about everything you do. This allows your child to hear new words over and over again which helps them to learn. For example, you can help your child to learn new tenses by continuously repeating what you are doing ,’ I put the sword in’, ‘you put the sword in’, ‘I am going to put the sword in’, ‘ I gave you a yellow sword’, ‘he’s going to pop’.
Head Bandz and Guess who?
Encourages problem-solving, thinking skills, questioning and vocabulary development.
Here are some tips on how to use Head Bandz and Guess Who to help your child’s language development.
- An important skill that children need to be able to master is the ability to ask a variety of questions. Head bandz is a highly motivating game that teaches kids how to ask questions. Children need to be able to ask all types of questions in order to be able to guess the card so they will learn to use who, why, where, when and how questions as well as other questions such as ‘’Did I…?’ or ‘have I …?’. Tell your child that they must use all of the above words to ask the questions before they can take a guess at what’s on the card.
- When you are playing this game with your child make sure to ask them lots of questions so that they can learn new words. Here are some examples:
- Where does it live (e.g. Does it live on a farm? Does it live in the kitchen?)
- What group is it from ( e.g. Is it a zoo animal? is it a vegetable? Is it a piece of furniture? Is it something I can eat? Is it something I can wear?)
- Ask questions using describing words (e.g is it round/smooth/hard/soft/tall/small/red/yellow/loud/furry)
The more your child hears you asking questions like this, the more likely they are to learn how to ask and answer such questions using the words they have learned from listening to you.
- Guess who can also be used to help your child learn how to ask questions and learn new vocabulary for describing people such as hair colour etc. Each player has a game board with pictures of all of the characters and each selects one character card for the other player to guess. The kids take turns to ask each other a question that can only be answered by a yes or no such as “Does your character have blue eyes?”. However, each question must be answerable with only a yes or no and so it teaches kids to phrase a question accurately. For example, asking “What color are his eyes?” would mean your opponent can’t answer so kids quickly learn to rephrase the question to “Does he have green eyes?”. This game is also great for helping your child to learn how to describe things. Your child will have to describe what the characters look like in detail to play. Encourage your child to ask questions using words to describe:
- Hair colour
- Face shape
- Are they wearing anything like a hat or glasses
- Eyebrow thickness
- Eye colour
- Size and shape of the nose
Encourages following directions, turn-taking, balance, co-ordination and gross motor skills. Playing twister helps children to, learn how to give and follow instructions. The ability to follow instructions is a really important skill for children in the classroom and at home. For example a child must be able to follow instructions such as ‘put on your coat, then your shoes and get your bag’. Twister gives children a chance to practice remembering all of the important information they need to be able to follow an instruction. Children also get a chance to learn colours and important words such as left and right when they play. Your child will also get a chance to use their problem solving skills while trying to follow the directions without falling over!
Story telling games
The Story Telling Game or Rory’s Story Cubes are some examples of games that help children to build their storytelling, or narrative, skills. The shop ‘Flying Tiger’ has Story Telling Dice too, if you cannot get your hands on the original Rory’s Cubes. Narrative skills are important for social communication, as children love to tell stories to their friends, teachers and families about what they have been doing, and they also play a part in academic activities as older children often do creative writing exercises in school. Through these games, children learn how to structure a story, using words like ‘beginning, middle, end’ and ‘first, next, last’, which helps them to tell their story clearly so that others can understand. They also learn new vocabulary and skills for describing people/places/things, which you can help with by asking questions such as ‘what did the princess look like?’ or ‘what kind of castle did she live in?’. There are endless combinations that can be made using Story Cubes so you can create a brand new story every time, and they are easy to carry around for playing on the go.
Reading aloud to your child is a special activity and can really strengthen the bond between you. From very early in your child’s development, listening to stories helps them get used to all the different sounds they will need to use when they learn to talk, so it’s never too soon to start reading to your baby. By listening to stories and looking at a book alongside you, your child is working on their attention skills, their listening, and building on their language, without even realising it.
There are different types of books that work well for children of different ages and stages, so this can help you decide what would work best for you and your child at present.
Babies: Board/Touchy-Feely books
These types of books are great for helping your baby to work on their sensory development, especially their sense of touch. They are also durable and sturdy so you can let your baby handle them without worrying about any torn pages! Examples include ‘That’s not my….’ books, ‘Oh Dear!’ and Mary Murphy books. When reading to your baby, make sure they can see your face to enjoy the shared interaction, and go slowly. Act out the noises, voices and actions as best you can, as this makes it more fun for you both! Repeat the parts your child likes the most – use the book as a guide, but you don’t have to stick to it like a script, you can do whatever works best for you and your baby.
Toddlers: Lift the Flap books and repetitive books
Lift-the-flap books such as ‘Dear Zoo’ offer toddlers lots of opportunities to start using their early words, especially as they become more familiar with the stories. You can encourage this by asking ‘What’s behind the flap?’ or ‘Who’s behind the door?’ and your child might begin to join in and name the objects/people/animals as they get to know them. Repetitive books such as ‘That’s not my…’ books are also great for language development – little ears need to hear words lots of times before they can start to use them by themselves, so reading repetitive books to your child regularly gives them a chance to become familiar with new vocabulary and short phrases before they start to say them. You can help with this by reading slowly and allowing pauses for your child to join in. Talk about your child’s favourite characters and ask them which parts they like best. Look at the pictures together and comment on what you can see.
Preschoolers: Nursery rhyme and short story books
Stories that have rhymes in them, such as ‘The Snail and the Whale’ and ‘Room on the Broom’, help children to build their awareness of sounds and the rhythms we use when we speak. When reading short story books to your pre-schooler, talk about what’s happening in the story and relate it back to their own experiences – for example, ’There’s a frog in this story, have you ever seen a frog before?’ or ‘The children in the story are playing outside, what games do you like to play outside?’. Comment on what you think might happen next or at the end and encourage your child to do the same – this helps them to learn the structure of the story and gets them thinking creatively too. Discuss and explain new words to your child as they come up along the way when you are reading.
Dr. Seuss and Julia Donaldson books are fun and include lots of rhyming, so they can be a nice transition for new readers ready to move onto longer stories. Diary of a Wimpy Kid books and books written by David Walliams (e.g. Mr Stink) contain loveable characters and are very popular with children aged 7+ -you can read a little bit with your child in the evening and they may be happy to continue on reading it themselves too. Encourage them to chat with you about what’s happening in the story, describing the characters, and you can ask them questions to help with this – ‘What do you think Mr Stink would look like?’, or ‘What do you think might happen next?’. This supports their imagination and critical thinking, and talking about it with you or with siblings/friends can be a boost for their expressive language skills too.
For older or more independent readers
Roald Dahl stories e.g. Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and the Harry Potter books are some popular options. Make sure not to pick books that are too challenging, and encourage your child to ask for help if there is any new vocabulary that they don’t understand. If you and your child visit the library or the bookshop together, you can guide them to the right section for their age group or reading level but encourage them to browse and pick out books that they are interested in themselves, as this can maximise their enjoyment.
This article was contributed by Little Voices.