One of the most common questions I get from parents is, “What can I buy to help my child learn to talk?” Many of these parents are looking for educational or speech apps, or perhaps flashcards that they can use at home. And while yes, these can be beneficial for increasing a child’s language and I do use both in therapy, I would not recommend either for parents to use on a regular basis with their children at home.
How many of you find that shocking? Confusing maybe? “If she uses those in therapy, that’s exactly what I want to use at home.” Right? So here’s the thing… It’s true, apps and flashcards are great, and kids can learn many facts and memorize many words using these. But that’s the opposite of what I want for kids. I want them to learn language and understand concepts and be able to apply them to other areas of life.
When I use flashcards or apps in therapy, I do not typically use them the way they were intended. Where a parent might ask “What is this?” and show their child a flashcard of an apple, I might ask “What group does this belong to?” (fruit), “What do we do with apples?”, “What color is this/what other color could an apple be?”, “What’s your favorite fruit?”, “Where do we find apples?”, or “What does an apple taste like?” I might use a picture of children playing to target pronouns, wh questions, categories, social skills, describing, yes/no questions, irregular past tense verbs- or I might just model language using them. Not only do I use the picture for many different skills, but I do not ask the same questions each time we look at a picture.
With that said, I do feel flashcards can be a good support for learning words and concepts and I will include touch and feel flashcards that you can use in play with some of the items I list below. I like these because they have a tactile component which can build more vocabulary than a regular flashcard. You can have your child match the toy to the flashcard, or use it as a way to request a specific toy. I would not suggest you use these solely to just “drill” your child by having them label pictures. My First Words flashcards have a lot of common pictures that you can use with several different toys.
So if not apps or flashcards, what kinds of things should parents buy? My (and 95% of SLPs) favorite toys for building language are toys that are not electronic. Toys where you are the one interacting with your child instead of a computer. There are so many options- Melissa and Doug toys are excellent examples- but I will give my top 5 as well as vocabulary to target while using them in this post! This list is intended for children 1-5 or older children with significant language or intellectual disabilities. I would encourage you to have at least one book that goes with each toy (you probably have some already at home!) to read and include in your play!
1. Toy Kitchen: Melissa and Doug have an awesome kitchen (pictured above-here), and there are lots of mini kitchen and cheaper options like this one - but there are tons of options out there! My son’s kitchen is from Ikea and is super cute! When playing with this, model the vocabulary for your child by describing what you (or your child) are doing. “Oh, I’m going to cook some eggs on the stove! Let’s put them on. Ouch!! That’s hot!”. This will expose your child to so many words, and will also encourage them to play creatively! Learn the words for the parts of the kitchen, and the food that you have. You can say things like, “I need some bread… Where did the bread go?”or “I really need a round fruit that’s orange, I wonder where that could be?”- to work on receptive language, but your child will think you are just playing! You can talk about categories while you cook: fruits, vegetables, grains, meat- and sort them. Prepositions – “put in”, “take out”, “put on”, “on the stove”, or “under the microwave”. Verbs- giving, opening, closing, cooking, frying, and waiting are good ones to practice. Adjectives- color, temperature, texture, size, and shape. Following directions- make a recipe and grocery list and “buy” the items with your child, and then follow the recipe to make something (This would also be fun to do in real life- go to the grocery story and make a meal together!). The opportunities are endless with kitchens and I love that there is so much you can target- you can use this to help children when they are first learning words and also when they are learning more difficult language concepts. For children who are not yet speaking, I would recommend starting with a routine that you do each day you play. You can say something like “I’m hungry, let’s eat. Oh, cookies! Put in! Take out! Eat! Yum yum yum!” When you are first modeling, emphasize the main words, and use exaggerated intonation, as your child begins to talk, increase the complexity of your language. Once you move on from your ‘go to routine’ use more language as well- even if your child isn’t saying many words. The following are great books to use as companions with kitchen play: Waffles and Mochi, Gingerbread Baby, Froggy Bakes a Cake, and The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
2. Little People Sets: There are so many options, but the farms are always a big hit with both boys and girls! My son has this Little People Caring For Animals Farm and it is awesome- and affordable! You can learn the words for the parts of barn, as well as the the farmer and animals. Ask about and model animal sounds. This set does have an electronic component, but it gives ideas for play: put the cow to sleep, brush the horse,etc. Model these actions for your child and give them words to describe what you are doing. “Let’s feed the cow, he’s so hungry, moooooo. Cow wants corn! nom nom nom, yummy!” With the bell (which I’m not going to lie, is pretty annoying…), you can say “Bell! Ding Ding! That’s loud! Stop, let’s be quiet, shhhhh… DING DING DING! Oh no it’s loud!” In the middle of this set, there’s a door you can put the animals in and then they come out at the bottom (my son is obsessed with this). “Put in, it came out!”, “open door”, “shut door”, “on the nest”, and “in the pin” are great phrases to use repeatedly in your play. Ask questions to kids who are able to answer (if not, you can ask AND answer)- “What is the cow doing?”, “Who is sitting in the nest?”, “Where is the corn?” You can move the animals around and work on prepositions (where is the chicken?). Sing Old MacDonald, and use the animals to sing. Be creative in your play and encourage make believe: The farmer is riding on an invisible tractor or pretend a wolf is stealing eggs and the animals need to protect them. Other farm options are: this Melissa and Doug Wooden Farm Set, and if you need a smaller version, I like this one. Great books to use as companions with the farm include: Pete the Cat- Old MacDonald Had A Farm, Peek-a Moo, Moo Baa La La La, I went Walking, or this super cute soft and interactive farm book. Touch and feel farm or animal cards are great to go with this play.
Some of my other (non-farm) Little People sets include: Around the Neighborhood, Princess Castle, Play House - and tons more! You can even get themed little people set let Toy Story or Disney Princesses.
3. Baby Doll Play Set: I love using babies for ALL GENDERS in play because most little kids love babies and it reinforces everyday language and word routines! This bath set doll is very life-like. You could also buy different play sets to use with the same baby like this Melissa and Doug Bath, or this time to eat set. I also like this one - which is a boy. You can also use dolls with real items (like a crib/bed, the bathtub, etc). For the bath set: reinforce vocabulary for the objects, “wash the baby”, “soap soap soap” or “scrub scrub scrub”, “put in”, and “brush hair” are good verbal routines. Ask “Where is baby?”, “What’s next?”, “Who is getting a bath?” For the food set: “feed the baby”, “yum yum”, “drink milk”, “oh no! We spilled!”, “more food”, “all done”, “baby hungry/thirsty”, “big bite”, and “bib on” are great phrases to repeat. Start by modeling the bath or dinner routine and see if your child will add too it. If your child plays, give them words to narrate their actions in play. You can do a whole nighttime routine- feed the baby, burp her, give her a bath, then get her ready for bed. You can pretend to change her diaper, rock her, read her a story, sing her a song, and then tuck her (or him!) into bed. Baby dolls are also great ways to work on body parts (wash hair, tickle feet), or learning words for clothes and getting dressed. Books to go along with doll play are: Where is Baby’s Belly Button, Little Mommy, Kitty’s New Doll, and the super cute Baby Cakes.
4. Legos or blocks are ALWAYS a great toy. Foam or wood blocks are awesome and the Mega Block Legos are always a hit with the kids. Have your child ask for or model asking for blocks/Legos, you can talk about colors and shapes too! Build a “tower”, “more blocks”, “blocks please”, go “up up up”, “bottom/top”, “put on”, “fall down”, “OH NO!”, “oops!”, “it’s okay”, and “try again!” are all a good vocabulary routine for this. Learn prepositions on, under, and next to with blocks. You can practice colors and following directions, “Give daddy the blue Lego”, “Put the green block on the yellow block”. You can practice simple turn taking by taking turns putting blocks on top of each other to build your tower and saying “my turn”, and “your turn”. You can build things to look like animals or vehicles or anything really- you can model by saying “Wow! This looks like a giraffe!” or if your child is verbal, ask “What do you think this looks like?” Also, be sure you are modeling to ask, sign, or use a picture to request “open” or “help” to access these toys. I like to put things out of their reach, but where they can still see them (initially, don't do this in the middle of play). I do lots of wait time and act confused and like I don’t know what they need-if I know they are able to ask for help or to open! The good thing about these toys is that kids can play with them over and over and will still love them for a long time! Books about blocks: Blocks, and When I Build With Blocks.
5. Doctor play sets: I love this adorable vet set because it’s so cute but also it has a lot of items which increases noun and verb vocabulary for play. This Melissa and Doug Vet Set is great for older kids too! Words and phrases to model are “puppy in”, “dog out”, “open door”, “close door”, “brush hair”, “eat puppy”, “doggie hurt”, “owie”, “oh no!”, “give shot”, “ouch”, “it’s okay doggie”, “are you ok?”, “feel better!”, “listen”, and “cut”. Your child can learn a lot about going to the doctor and hopefully be more comfortable if they have been fearful in the past. This regular doctor set is also great and could be used for humans (your baby doll!) or stuffed animals. Body parts are a great language skill to target when working with doctor kits! “Head hurts”, “sick belly”, and “hurt finger” will help your child learn to communicate when they are hurt. Pretend you are the doctor and your child is the patient and vice versa. Or your child is the doctor and a stuffed animal or baby are hurt. Veterinarian companion books are: Biscuit Visits the Doctor and Olivia Becomes a Vet. Doctor companion books: If I Were A Doctor, and The Berenstain Bears Go to the Doctor
I hope this list gives you some ideas for gifts this holiday season- as well as some ideas for how to use them in play! Remember, modeling language is an excellent way to encourage your child to speak- don’t get frustrated if they do not immediately start speaking. Just keep trying, and most importantly engaging in play with your child. For children who are not talking yet, try to incorporate sign language or consider AAC (using pictures) in your play and work on building their receptive language (helping you look for items, following directions). Also for these kids, work on saying the first sounds of their favorite parts of toys (ex. if they love the blocks, practice “buh”), or sounds (moo for cow, wah for baby).
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