Archive: Language and Play

Speech Therapy with Toddlers: My Favorite Toys

December 18, 2016

I’m Brooke
I'm a speech therapist specializing in early language, but more importantly, I'm a mom of a toddler who has been on her own journey with physical and occupational therapy
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Toys and Speech Development

The key here is to use toys without the “bells and whistles.” In fact, research shows that electronic toys and gizmos actually reduce the amount of language during an interaction. In a 2015 study by JAMA Pediatrics, researchers found that when children were playing with electronic toys, parents said an average of 30 words per minute compared with 56 words per minute for “traditional” toys and 67 words per minute during book reading. The more opportunities for interaction between you and your child, the more language they will ultimately hear and learn. The most important part is to have fun. When you are having fun together and playing, there will be many opportunities to embed language and bond with your little one

. Here are a few of my favorite toys to use during speech therapy with toddlers:


  • Potato Head: An oldie, but a goodie! I love my Mr. Potato Head for all of the language opportunities it provides. In addition to body parts, you can target words such as “in,” “out,” “push,” “pull,” “on,” and “off.” Not to mention toddlers love putting the glasses and hat on themselves. This provides excellent opportunities to practice words such as, “mine” and “yours” and modeling word combinations such as, “My hat is on.” Gather up all of the pieces and give your child a choice for which one he wants to put on next. You can also target language comprehension by asking him or her to follow directions and telling them what to put on. Be very dramatic as you “push” and “pull” the pieces with all of your “strength” and pair the words with your actions.


  • Wind-Up Toys: Anything that requires assistance is a great therapy tool. Since most toddlers have difficulty winding up the toy, it provides a wonderful opportunity to model words such as “go” or “help” when they hand you the toy. You can build in a prompt by saying, “Ready, set, _____” and looking at your little one expectantly. My favorites are from a company called Z-windup ( I have a duck, dinosaur, frog, and monkey. I make sure to build in choices for which animal the child wants next and model the name of their choice several times.


  • Bubbles: Ask any SLP and they will tell you bubbles are their secret weapon. Not only are they super motivating and fun for little ones, but they lend themselves to perfect sounds and words for toddlers such as, “pop,” “bubble,” “blow,” and “open.” My bubbles are difficult to open so I purposefully close them periodically in order to create opportunities for the toddlerto request that we “open.” Ask your child if they want the bubbles to go “up” or “down” or sing the song, “There’s a bubble on your nose, on your nose…” modeling different body parts.


  • Books: Books with flaps to open and noises are my favorite for toddlers. The reason is because they are easy to make interactive and you can model words like “push” or “open.” Hard cover books are nice since they are durable for little hands. Follow your child’s lead as he points to different pictures in the book. Make comments such as, “See the doggy?” instead of constantly asking, “What’s that.” We often put children on our laps for a story, but research shows interactions are best when face to face. Try laying on your stomach facing your child as they lay on their tummy or sit on the floor facing your child if they are on the couch. This allows you to be at eye level and your child to see all of the communication you’re are doing with your face and mouth. My favorite book is the Noisy Farm- (My First Touch and Feel Sound Book)


  • DK Touch and Feel Cards: I love these cards! They come in several categories including “My first words,” “Animals,” and “Transportation.” These cards are great because they have different textures for your little one to feel. Talk about how they feel and look such as “soft” or “sticky.” We often focus on nouns when we are modeling words and it is important to focus on other words too such as verbs and adjectives. This will give your child a variety of words to use when he or she starts combing words to form phrases and sentences. The key here is not to turn it into a “quiz” (“What’s that?”), but rather comment on what your child is interested in and model the language associated with it. Kids love putting the cards in the box and taking them out. Use this as an opportunity to target the words “in” and “out” and periodically close the box to create an opportunity for them to request “open.”


  • Blocks: I have plastic blocks that are bright and all fit in one bag for easy clean up. If your blocks are different colors, offer your toddler a choice for which color he or she wants next. Model his choice before giving it to him. In addition to colors, you can practice stacking the blocks “up” and knocking them “down.” If you are working on having your child imitate sounds, this is a great opportunity to practice, “Boom” or “Uh oh.” Have fun making different objects and making their sounds such as “Vroom” and “Beep Beep”


  • Baby doll: Play and language develop hand and hand. For children that are beginning to use pretend play, you can expand by adding different actions such as eating or putting the baby to bed. If your child is already using some pretend play, you can expand by adding a step. (ex: feed the baby, then burp her, then wrap her in a blanket) You can embed sounds and words such as “Shhh” and “Night Night.” A cup, plastic spoon, and something that looks like a blanket are wonderful tools to add to practice pretend play and action words.


  • Plastic foods and dishware: Similar to a baby doll, plastic foods provide many opportunities for pretend play and language. Children love it when I pretend to take a sip and dramatically tell them it’s “hot” while waving my hand in front of my mouth. There are many opportunities to target action words such as “eat,” and “stir.” A child who is not yet imitating words will often imitate taking a big gulp and sighing “ah” after.  Give choices to your child on which food item they want and model the word several times during play.


  • Ball Popper: I like this because it’s very motivating for children. It also provides a great context to target words such as “Go,” “Ball,” and “Pop.” Since they often have trouble making the toy go by themselves, there are many opportunities for communication. When your child hands you the toy, model the word they could use such as “go” or “help.”


  • Play Soh: The best part of play dough is the endless things you can make. Children working on imitating sounds can imitate sounds such as “pat pat,” or “squish.” I often leave the lid on and hand it to the child. Since the lids are often difficult to take off, it provides another opportunity for your child “help” or “open.” Don’t demand your child says the word, but rather model it several times (“Oh, you want me to I opened it”). Make objects together such as balls (“roll it”), snakes (“ssss”), pretzels (“chomp chomp”) or whatever the two of you come up with!



Brooke Andrews Speech Pathologist at The Speech DynamicBrooke is the owner of The Speech Dynamic, where she provides play based and family centered speech therapy. She is the co-creator of “Wiggle time,” an interdisciplinary curriculum for pediatric therapy.  She has presented at The North Carolina Exceptional Children’s Conference regarding embedding language into routines. She has also shared her expertise on a panel for The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Brooke has a passion for helping families understand the importance of play for speech and language and all areas of development.

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