Children love toys. Don’t they? We give them so many colorful, musical, pretty toys… then our toddlers completely ignore those and play with diaper wipes, dog toys and empty shoe boxes.
Sometimes the best toys are not toys at all. They did not come from a toy store, did not come wrapped in pretty packaging, and did not promise any kind of “educational” benefit to your toddler. These “non-toys” are sometimes what your child will play with for a much longer period of time, use in more creative ways, and cost you much less money! These are the toys that allow your child to explore and be curious. (Read: Toys that do nothing)
Engaging your child using their interests is the best way to teach early communication skills. The “toy” in the play can be anything – including YOU! Your child may be interested in blocks, cars, dolls, the ceiling fan, food, sticks, or empty boxes. Those interests are the objects or activities that we can use to teach things like problem solving, turn taking, imitation, sharing enjoyment with others, watching how others react, requesting objects and actions, learning to communicate…. THOSE ARE THE GOALS of play.
The toy is not the goal. It’s just the tool we use to teach.
Since the toy can be anything, here is my TOP 5 LIST OF NON-TOY TOYS (in no particular order):
(Disclosure: I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.)
*Plastic cups: Stack it, decorate it, use it for target practice with bean bags, or wear it as a hat… the plastic cup could be your favorite non-toy toy.
- Use it as a pull toy – Punch a hole in the bottom, pull a string through that hold and tie it up in a big knot so it doesn’t come back out. For extra noise making fun, fasten a small bell to the knot inside the cup and you have instant pull toy your little one can create noise with all over your house! Ready, set, GO!
- Hearing your own voice as an echo is pretty fun and can be motivating for little ones to practice lots of sounds when they hear their own voice – amplified! Sure, you can buy a microphone, but a plastic cup gives you the same effect and you just had to grab one out of your pantry that was leftover from a birthday party or cookout or your every day casual dining – ha!
*Empty boxes and containers of all sorts: Favorite toys for one and two year olds? Anything you can push, pull, fill and dump. Empty boxes and containers fulfill ALL of these requirements. Think food storage containers, diaper boxes, wipes boxes, tissue boxes, parmesan cheese containers, zippered bags, water bottles and plastic bins of any sort. If you shop on Amazon you get a box delivered straight to your house every time – BONUS! What to put in the boxes? Your little one will figure that out! Try puzzle pieces, toy cars, play food, shoes, socks…the possibilities are endless. For more ideas go to Playing with…containers, Purposeful Packaging, and Mystery Boxes and Sensory Bins.
*Paper towel, toilet paper, and gift wrap tubes: What might just be items for the recycling bin can FIRST be: binoculars, a megaphone, logs for a campfire, ramps and tunnels for small balls and cars, AND tapping sticks for a marching band. Attach a few paper towel rolls together for golf clubs, baseball bats, and sticks to knock over the plastic cup towers. Use them as oars in your empty box boats or attach them to the back of the “boat” and make a sail or flagpole.
*Colorful foam mat: Ok, so this one may not be an everyday kind of item, but it is just SO much more than a mat! Of course the colored squares are perfect for learning colors but take the mat apart for:
- Stepping Stones for “hot lava” games
- Helping little ones follow the path of an obstacle course
- Sitting spots for a pretend picnic
- Matching same colored objects
- Jumping targets
- Bean bag toss targets
- Smacking the squares together like cymbals in a marching band
- Line up matching colors so you can walk down the “red path” and the “blue path” to see what treasure awaits
If you get the colored square mat pictured above and resist the temptation to get the alphabet mats and the mats with edge pieces then you can construct small houses, stack them up and knock them down, build “chairs” for stuffed animals, and have longer trails to walk on!
*Flashlights: Turn the lights off, or just dim them, and get out a flashlight! Make shadow puppets if you are so talented or just shine the light around the room and let your child see their toys and familiar surroundings in a whole new way! Name what you find and wonder aloud what you might find next. Tape pictures or flash cards on the wall and play seek-n-find games. Put the light on the floor and have your toddler try to “stomp” on it or give it a “high five” before the light moves away.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: There are so many non-toys that could have made this list, but here are a few more that are not only interesting to many toddlers, but also allow plenty of opportunities for practicing communication skills:
- Bucket with a handle – for collecting stuff (any stuff) while you’re at a park or playground and hauling around treasures at a beach or just to the next room.
- Couch cushions and pillows – for soft landing zones when your toddler needs to run and jump or for obstacle courses or for fort building.
- Blankets, towels – endless hours of Peekaboo or pretend play with stuffed animals.
- Junk mail – cut out pictures of interest, cover with contact paper if it is especially interesting, then use as decoration or practice delivering mail or use as flash cards.
- Laundry baskets – This may seem like a repeat of the empty boxes and containers, but a laundry basket (or plastic bin) may also serve as a sled! Wheeee!
Whatever object or “toy” is the interest, keep your child engaged and learning by:
- Imitate what THEY do with it
- After you imitate their idea, try something a little different to see if they will imitate your idea
- Add a sound (or word or short phrase) to what you are doing (read: Where are the WORDS?)
- Offer help, but then wait – don’t actually help unless they truly want it (read: Help!)
- Take turns with it
- Pretend that your object doesn’t quite work like theirs and act confused
- Hide it or pretend you can’t find it – then call out to it while searching
- Pretend that a stuffed animal or puppet is doing the same thing with the object
Complete the following sentence in the picture below and you’ll find what your child truly wants to play with (and talk about!)
Remember when it comes to early communication – YOU are the best toy above all!
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Final note: While non-toys may be awesome for your own children, others might not think it’s neat to receive paper towel tubes as a gift! If you need to give a gift to a young child, here are some ideas…Best toys and gifts: a speech therapist’s list!