Toys that allow children to PRETEND

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We’re finally to the “P” in my acronym CAP when thinking about best toys for speech and language development in babies and toddlers.  (If you missed the others, check out CREATE and be ACTIVE).

“P” is for Pretend.  Pretend play is a huge developmental milestone and allows language to really take off!  Many children will lead the way and teach their parents how to engage in pretend play, but others may need parents to offer ideas first.  Babies may be quick to pick up a toy telephone and put it to their ear, but it’s up to the adult to seize that opportunity and model “hi” and “bye” when that happens.img_20150417_173744722

Regardless of toy, keep in mind the basic and familiar routines that your baby or toddler is most familiar with when encouraging pretend play.  In the earliest stages think eating, sleeping, bathing, and getting hurt/falling down.  These four concepts can be used equally for cars, trains, stuffed animals, dolls, dinosaurs, farm animals, and construction trucks.  Vehicles can “eat” (or get gas/coal/fuel) just as a baby doll or animal can eat “mmmm”.  A garage is a place to “sleep” just as a bed or blanket for stuffed animals “night night”, “sssshhhh”.  Animals and dolls get “boo boos” and “uh-oh” the car or train can “crash” just as well.  Both will need to get fixed or have a kiss from mommy or daddy 🙂

With pretend play comes lots of opportunity for language…if the toy isn’t doing all the talking for you.  When choosing baby dolls or cars, opt for “no batteries required”.  That way, YOU and baby get to play however you want!

In the following list, clicking on the picture will take you to should you wish to see description, price, or to purchase.

Pretend play toys include (but are definitely not limited to):

Cars, trucks, trains

Whether they wind up, pull back, or go only when your child pushes them, vehicles of all kinds are a staple toy and mostly universally enjoyed at least to some degree.  You can make race tracks, train tracks, streets out of anything or nothing.  For lots of play ideas, beyond the obvious “make the car noise as you push it”, check out playing with cars and Indoor CAR WASH.

Dolls and stuffed animals

This may be an obvious choice for pretend play, but it’s for a good reason.  Dolls (whether baby dolls, stuffed animals, or superhero action figures) are perfect for practicing feeding “mmmm”, giving a bath “wash, wash”, sleeping “night night” and providing care after getting hurt “boo boo”, “mmmwah (kiss)”, and “all better!”

Stroller for dolls

Allow your toddler to imitate how you push a stroller on a walk in a park.  Take it outside and let them walk their doll or stuffed bunny (in my son’s case).  Model simple language you might use for “buckle” and “go/stop” and “need water?”.  He can even help show the birds and cars and other fun outdoor stuff to his favorite doll – just like you would with him!

Shopping cart

Whether this is actually used for pretend shopping, or just to haul around whatever toys can fit, a shopping cart is good for active AND pretend play!  What toddler doesn’t like a good game of “dump and fill”?  Load it up, transport it, dump it out… repeat.  repeat.  repeat.

Farm with animals

If you find a set you love, but it makes too many sounds or plays long songs don’t put batteries in it right away.  Let your child explore the toy without the distraction – and save yourself some money on batteries!  Aside from the obvious animal sounds you can make, remember those basic pretend play ideas from above (eating, sleeping, bathing, getting hurt).

Play kitchen with food

Here’s another toy for imitating what they see adults do!  Whether you are a fabulous chef or mostly use the microwave, kids can practice getting food ready and then serving it to you or to all of their toys.

Toy phone

I specifically linked the picture for this ONE phone that is NOT electronic.  Sure, most kids will have never seen a phone that even looks like this, but they will learn quickly once you show them and they won’t be distracted by the buttons to push and songs to play on most all other toy phones you can buy.  Maybe I just long for the days when people actually talked to people on a phone… Anyway, phones are great for practicing “hi”, “bye” and having pretend conversations.

Dress up clothes or hats

With a simple firefighter hat or fairy wings, your child has a whole new identity and much more to talk about!  Trying on parents’ shoes is also a fun way to be mommy or daddy.  Costumes are also motivating for practicing getting dressed and asking for help as many kids will love to be a police officer or superhero or princess.


For those who LOVE to watch the mail be delivered, or at least get a card in the mail, playing with a mailbox allows them to imitate that real life, daily activity.  You can also use the mailbox (or empty diaper box) as a sorting toy.  Get those dolls out and deliver mail to each one!


Pretending to feed puppets is a great way to practice “mmm” and “yuck!”  For more puppet play ideas go to playing with puppets

As pretend play gets more advanced, and your toddler’s life experience grows, you can pretend with shopping, cleaning, and going to school.  You’ll have a parade, go to the mechanic, get a check-up by the doctor, visit the zoo, and whip up all kinds of delicious meals in the “kitchen”.  Just pretend with whatever your child knows and knows well.  If you let them lead you, who knows where you’ll end up?!

This is the final post in my “best toys” series:  If you missed any, go back to:

Best toys and gifts: a speech therapist’s list!

Best CREATIVE toys – a speech therapist’s list!

Best ACTIVE toys: a speech therapist’s list!

Just wanted to close with some final notes about toys and communication development:   THE MOST IMPORTANT part of play in order to help children communicate is INTERACTION!  No matter what toy or activity you choose, it’s how you interact with your child and respond to his interests/vocalizations/word attempts that will truly make the difference in learning functional communication skills.  You’ve probably figured out by now that I’m not a fan of electronic or noise-making toys when it comes to play.  However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t some noisy, battery-eating toys in my household!

Everything in moderation.

Although the best toys for communication should not be electronic, that doesn’t mean you can’t give those toys to your kids or that you should ban batteries from your house.  Electronic toys are appealing and entertaining and most kids love to push some buttons.   Just remember NO toy (or video or app or You Tube sensation) is going to be a better teacher for meaningful, functional communication than YOU!

Here’s an idea: If the batteries aren’t included with the toy already, don’t put them in immediately.  See how your child plays with the toy before she figures out what all those buttons do!  Let them explore it without all of the distraction.

A few other general tips for toys…

  1. At holidays, when a toy explosion is coming to your house, put away several (or even half) of what you already have. Kids can be easily overwhelmed with too many toys.  You may find that their attention and ability to play with just one toy can improve with fewer choices.  You can always get those toys back out later…on a snowy or rainy day…or when the “new” toys have lost their luster.
  2. Put toy storage on YOUR list!  Plastic bins, shelving, organizational units can help keep the toy madness at a more manageable level.  It also creates opportunities for children to request toys that may be out of sight or out of reach.  Bonus points if you can get your children to help clean up, too!

Happy playing!

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