Can you believe it? Another year has come and past and with the chill in the air you know that the holidays are just around the corner! It is only November and already I have seen many toy lists posted online with suggestions for what to get kids this Christmas season. There are lots of lists out there that look great but I feel like I keep seeing the same ideas over and over again. So this holiday, I am inspired to do a post about all the new, fantastic toys out there that may not be found on the typical Christmas list, but should be!
I love all these items listed below because I have found they are fun for both boys and girls, they stand the test of time so kids will play with them for years to come, and of course, they encourage the development of strong speech, language and literacy skills.
Before we get to the list I need to draw attention to two key points. Firstly, it has to be said that there are classic toys that are super for language development like books, puzzles, games, blocks, playdough, toy cars & dolls and other pretend play items, and if you don’t have any of these they should be on your list. Secondly, as far as toys go, you will likely not find an SLP out there that says “this is such a great toy to develop language skills because the child sits and plays alone for hours”. Hopefully no one out there with kids 5 and under is looking for toys with this idea in mind! When it comes to young children you can’t get around the simple fact that strong language skills are developed through meaningful communication interactions with a supportive adult. Certain toys can help support these interactions and those are the kinds of toys SLPs look for when picking items for both their clinic rooms and their own kids.
In general, toys that support a healthy language development:
- are open-ended, with no specific beginning, end and rules of play
- inspire creativity, imagination and critical thinking skills
- allow a child to play independently but easily allows for peers or adults to join in too
Here are a few ideas for your holiday list!
BIRTH TO 1 YEAR
Language development at this stage is all about interaction with an adult so babies need almost nothing but mom or dad’s time and talk! However, you do want to have a few great toys around to stimulate growing senses and inspire communication.
1) Eric Carle Developmental Elephant by Kids Preferred
I love this toy for infants! Lots of things to grab and touch, with seemingly endless words to describe this colourful friend. Don’t forget to think about other ways to play with this toy, like hiding him under blankets for peek-a-boo or giving tickles!
2) Jolly Jobs Hand Puppets by Melissa and Doug
Puppets are a must for early language development to inspire lots of back and forth communication. Melissa and Doug offer a wide variety of hand puppets (zoo animals, farm animals, etc.) small enough for little hands to grasp and cuddle early on or use themselves at later ages.
3) Baby Band Set at Mastermind Toys
These cute and modern little instruments are great to stimulate the hearing senses. Sing songs, accompany nursery rhymes or just explore the textures and sounds each one makes!
4) Nest and Stack Buckets by Gowi
Nesting cups are my fave early language development toy! Their versatility in play makes the amount of vocabulary you can expose kids too seemingly endless! They can be used early on to play with on the floor, bathtub, sandbox or on the go. You can also use them as intended to stack and build or in pretend play at later ages.
5) Indestructibles books for babies
These books are wonderful for infants. Part of literacy development for babies is to explore and enjoy books, and these durable (and washable) options make it possible for babies to explore the way they want to, by stuffing things in their mouths, without the worry of injury or wrecking the books.
1 YEAR OLDS
For these early toddlers play is all about cause and effect. “Toys” can still be many every day items found around the house while exploring their own environment. In fact too many toys can become overwhelming in their small world. When it comes to supporting a 1 year olds’ language development look for toys that stimulate the senses, inspire them to initiate communication with others around them and build vocabulary. Don’t forget, these little ones still learn best when interacting with an adult so use these toys as inspiration for games, silly play and lots of talking!
1) Tent Tunnel by Mastermind Toys
Although tunnels have been around for a while, this new tent/tunnel combo by Mastermind is super! Play indoors or out, this toy will grow with children for years and will inspire them to initiate many different games with adults and peers alike.
2) Country Critters Play Cube by Hape
I have never met a child who doesn’t love to explore this toy! There are so many vocabulary options to introduce with this item, it is one of my “go to” toys during therapy with little ones. Remember to think about all sorts of vocabulary not just colours and shapes (e.g., in, out, up, down, push, pull, spin, turn, bang, etc.).
3) Interactive Animal Cubes by Kidz Delight
Little ones find it very exciting to put the blocks in and hear the animal sounds. Make this toy even more language rich by playing games with the blocks (e.g., hide the blocks and have your child discover new exciting places to find their fave animals) or pair the sounds with books, puzzles or pretend play items to encourage more communication and in depth play.
4) Go! Go! Smart Animals Grow and Learn Farm by VTech
Every 1 year old needs some early pretend play toy that stimulates their “cause and effect” play desire. This new farm by Vtech offers some very fun ways to play with lots to talk about. Already have a farm? VTech has many other options in their Go! Go! collection!
5) Elefun by Hasbro
This is a classic toy with a modern twist. The company switched the butterflies for balls and in my opinion it makes the game A MILLION times better. This game is great to inspire communication initiation with little ones, joint attention (as the balls go everywhere) and turn taking. It’s fabulous to help develop those language foundation skills.
2 YEAR OLDS
At this stage children are beginning some early pretend play and continue to explore their environments with their whole body! This is why toys that stimulate all the senses, involve movement and encourage make believe are typically loved at this age. In regards to language development, two year olds need toys that let them practice expanding sentences, learn early grammar like plurals, possessive ‘s’, and tenses like -ing, expand vocabulary and find lots of different reasons to communicate. Having a small, but varied selection of toys that can be used for multiple purposes is good at this stage.
1) Music Live Set by Janob
Songs and nursery rhymes are still fantastic for language development at this age and what better way to get musically inspired than with these colourful instruments! Don’t forget to take turns! The adult can play the instrument while the child can sing and do the actions to the song!
2) Gourmet Kitchen Set by Step 2
The idea of a play kitchen is definitely not new but I couldn’t make a list of great language development toys and not have it on there! If you don’t think your kiddo would especially enjoy a kitchen, any large-scale pretend center (e.g., construction center, gas station, hair dresser, etc.) that goes with their interest is a must for a two year old.
3) Sand and Water Play Table by Keter
Sensory tables are always a favourite. Keter has made a super table with holders, a divider in the center and attached lids, that are all small but fantastic twists to modernize the typical sensory table. Go outside and fill the table with water or sand in the hot months. Stay inside in the cold months and fill the table with dried rice, uncooked quinoa or shaving cream for different sensory experiences. Toss in different items (dinosaurs, cars, Barbie dolls, etc.) to make unique “worlds” for your child to play in and watch their imagination come to life!
4) Delux Art Master Desk With Chair by Step 2
Art is one of the best ways to inspire communication and creativity. Art is also a super way to support early writing skills. A table that is the right height, with supplies that are easily accessible, such as age appropriate paints, markers, crayons and glue, is the first step in getting those fingers ready to write.
5) Soft Oversized Blocks by The Creativity Institute
These blocks are the definition of why simple toys are the best. Toddlers love to use these giant blocks for active play, like throwing, kicking and pushing. They are also super to add to pretend play, for example the larger block becoming a table and the smaller ones becoming chairs. There are endless possibilities for how you can play with these and they are still a favourite with school age children when they come to our house!
3 YEAR OLDS
This group of kids is also known as the world’s best scientists because their job is to ask questions and figure out how things work. Toys that can support a growing imagination and creativity will be super for language development, as well as those that encourage question asking and problem solving. In addition, three is a great age to introduce letters and print awareness in a fun and playful way.
1) Magna-Tiles by Clear Colour
Both girls and boys love to create with this modern take on blocks. This is a super toy for children to learn how to communicate with each other and share ideas to accomplish their building goals. These tiles also offer a great opportunity to be creative while using their problem solving skills to make new and unique structures.
2) See and Spell by Melissa and Doug
This toy is really fun to develop pre-literacy skills. Kids can learn letter names and sounds while they play with each letter. As they fit the puzzle pieces together they also begin to understand that letters come together to make words, which have meaning. Remember, this toy is only fun if you let it be! No testing or quizzing on the part of the parent. Just enjoy the natural exploration of literacy.
3) 12 Piece Lab Set by Primary Science
We have adored this in our house for years and it is one of the best toys I have ever had that encourages asking questions and critical thinking in preschoolers. The kit comes with easy preschool science experiments you can do at home. We also use the Kitchen Science Lab for Kids book that should set you up with ideas for at least a year!
4) Leap Reader Juniour by Leap Frog
These electronic books are great for preschoolers to explore on their own or with a grown-up. The age limit suggests ages 1-3 years but I find these books much more appropriate for 3-4 year olds. You can order different books with your child’s favourite characters (e.g., princesses, Cars, Dora, Nemo, etc.). Read along with the words and answer content questions as you explore each unique book.
5) Dress Up Clothes by Amazon
Pretend play should be flourishing with three year olds and there is no better way to develop language! A great dress up box with imaginative and diverse props and costumes is a must for all three year olds and with Amazon.com you should be able to find a variety of new and creative costumes for your kiddo.
4 YEAR OLDS
These kids speak in full sentences and have mastered a good amount of grammar that they sound almost adult-like when they speak. Great ways to support language development at this stage are to continue to expand vocabulary by exposing kids to new and interesting experiences, continue to challenge their critical thinking and problem solving skills, find pretend play items that support their developing social and narrative language skills, as well as toys that support early literacy development.
1) Early Explorers Subscription by Little Passports
This company will send your child a new way to explore the world, while developing their vocabulary and literacy skills without leaving your house! Each month a new theme is mailed to your home for your child to enjoy, including materials to encourage exploration and communication all month long until the arrival of the next package.
2) Leap Pad Ultra Learning Tablet by Leap Frog
Not only do I love this product’s durability, but also the content that can be downloaded onto the device is excellent making this truly a learning tablet. The apps available are big and resemble something more like large learning games. You can download your child’s favourite characters from shows like Frozen, Cars, Sesame Street and Finding Dory and you can choose content based on age or learning area. I recommend only downloading the educational content to keep this device a true learning tool (no videos). Also keeping in mind that using this toy is still exposing kids to screen time. (see screen time recommendations from AAP).
3) Adventure Kits by Fat Brain Toys
This type of “toy” will require more work on the part of the parent but is soooo worth it! I find 4 is a great time to put together “kits” for kids based on their interests. Have a dinosaur lover? Put together a dino excavation kit for your child to take outdoors. Does your child love fairies? Put together a fairy hunting kit for them to use to search for these secretive creatures. The possibilities are endless! Gardener, construction, geology, space, insects, art…..whatever your child is interested in! The point of the “kit” is to inspire creativity and communication between the child and adult as they discover the wonders of the world for many days to come after the gift has been given. Fat Brain Toys offers kits that are already put together (like this insect finding kit pictured above) or you can find specific items and make a specialized one for your child (Ex: For my son’s “Explorer Kit” I put binoculars, a note pad and pen to record observations, a small box to hold interesting new objects he found and a magnifying glass. I put all the items together in a handy rucksack for him to carry with him on our nature adventures).
4) 69 Piece Play Set by Crazy Forts
This toy is another of the “simple but great” toys out there. A modern version of the old Tinker Toy, children can download directions to build some of the structures seen here or create their own. Social language skills and pretend play are all developed with this toy as kids build together with peers or adults.
5) Kids First Automobile Engineer by Thames and Kosmos
This is a fantastic toy that combines literacy and critical thinking skills. Use the storybook manuals to build different designs while helping the characters answer how and why questions as you go. There are lots of different models to build (e.g., aircraft, amusement park, etc.) to suit a variety of different interests.
5 YEAR OLDS
At age 5 personalities are flourishing so supporting a child’s language skills generally becomes pretty specific to their unique interests. Because of this you want to find toys and activities that continue to expand vocabulary, develop communication skills with peers and adults, expand higher-level critical thinking skills, as well as encourage phonological awareness and reading abilities, but also coincide with the things they like.
1) Hoot Owl Hoot by Peaceable Kingdom
This cooperative game is the best game I have ever used to support children in developing their social language skills. The object of the game is to work together to get all your owls home so players need to communicate with each other to strategize and win the game. Peaceable Kingdom also has a ton more cooperative games for you to choose from to pique everyone’s interest!
2) Lego Juniour (with child preferred theme)
Lego and language? Yes of course they go together! As soon as you sit down with your child to complete this project you inevitably engage in critical thinking and problem-solving conversation. Continue to watch the social language skills flourish as you learn to cooperate together to complete the task. All done? Now your child can engage in pretend play with you and peers with their new completed structure!
3) Complete Art Set by Alex
Along with language, there are so many other skills that are developed during art! When a child completes an art project they are mentally planning, reasoning and experimenting. They are also given the opportunity to express their personal feelings and ideas in new and unique ways. This great art kit by Alex has everything an older child will need to create. Pair it with an art project specific to their interests and let the creativity begin.
4) Items to Encourage Hobbies and Interests
By 5 years old children generally have preferred interests that are specific to their personality. That is why this is a great age to get an item that encourages this interest to thrive. What makes this gift valuable to language development is to try and choose something that the child and parent can do together. An item associated with an activity that opens the door to time spent together and the conversations that will naturally follow all year long.
5) Magazine subscription – great kids magazine ideas by She Knows.com
When we think literacy development and reading we generally think books, but there are so many other forms of literacy materials out there to support budding readers! Kids love getting something special in the mail and a monthly subscription to a magazine associated with their interest is exciting to get! Read articles together and let kids discover how literacy can open the door to the exciting world around them.
Hopefully this post inspires you to think outside the box when buying for kids this holiday season and helps you take your special little people one step further in their language development.
- Brown, S., Campbell, M., El-Entaly, C., Hooper, J., Marshall, D., McLaughlin, B. & Morgan, S. (n.d.). Research-Based Communication: The Arts, Cognition and Social Development. Retrieved online on November 9, 2016 at http://www.earts.org/usr/Cognition.pdf.
- Dewar, G. (2015). Toy Blocks and Construction Toys: A Guide For the Science Minded. Retreived online on November 7, 2016 at http://www.parentingscience.com/toy-blocks.html.
- Hoff, E. (2005). Language Development: 3rd ed. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.
- Milteer, R., Ginsburg, K., Council on Communications and Media, Committee on Psychological Aspects of Child and Family Health & Mulligan, D. (2012). The Importance of Play in Promoting a Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bond: Focus On Children In Poverty. The American Academy of Pediatrics: Clinical Report, 129 (1), pp 204-213.