Let's Play: the speech and language way

Speech and language therapy ideas for playing at home


best toys

Toys That Do Nothing

Have you ever been shopping for toys and picked up various boxes wondering “What does this toy do?”  Well, if you want a toy that will truly encourage interaction and communication then I hope the answer is nothing.

If the toy does nothing then the child gets to do everything.  He can make whatever noises he wants, organize it according to whatever concept makes sense to him, put the parts in various places, stack it up or knock it down.  He could even just push it around in his toy shopping cart.  The toy does nothing without the child.  No batteries, no second languages, no flashing lights, no automated directions to follow, no lengthy songs that play without rhyme or reason.  Instead of asking “what does this toy do?” ask yourself “what can my child do with this toy?”

The “do nothing” toy will allow the child to Create, be Active, and/or Pretend (CAP).  If you’ve already read Best toys and gifts: a speech therapist’s list then you are familiar with CAP!  best toys for speech therapy

(Disclosure: This post contains Amazon affiliate links. This means I may earn a small percentage of qualifying sales.)

Here is a small sample of what I mean by a “do nothing” toy:

Stacking Blocks Set Learning Toy

The best part of stacking is often knocking it all down!  If your little one is not yet able to stack, then let them be involved by counting down the “kaboom” or “crash” or completing the ready, set… “GO”!  Stack it up again by saying “up”, “on top” and naming the colors.  This particular toy also serves as a shape sorter which is perfect for practicing words like “yes”, “no”, “in”, “push” in addition to naming the shapes.   However, my favorite part of this toy is what I call the Mystery Box that serves as the base of the tower.  The yellow cube has an opening with a flap – that’s the “mystery” part and you can use it for anything that fits inside!  Use it as intended – to pull out the shapes that come with the toy – but then use it apart from the tower as a box to hold your favorite  puzzle pieces!  This adds an element of surprise to basic puzzle play.  Practice guessing “what’s next?”  Then excitedly name the piece that you find!  Practice taking turns “my turn” and “your turn”.  For more “mystery box” ideas click here.

Farm Magnets

Get your animal sounds ready!  Animal sounds and other meaningful sounds such as “uh-oh”, “brrrr”, “aha” and “hmmm” are super important to speech development.  With farm magnets, you get to practice “neigh,” “moo,” “oink” and tractor sounds “chug chug chug.”  If your refrigerator holds magnets then these toys can give your little one a kitchen task while you are busy with meal prep or cleaning.  Get out that “mystery box” from the stacking toy and put the magnets inside.  She can take each piece out and stick it to the fridge.   Then take each one off the fridge, put them back in the box and say “bye bye” to each animal. However, some refrigerators are not made for magnets.  In that case, cookie sheets are perfect!  Use a small cookie sheet in the car with your toddler or preschooler for magnet play on the go.

Go beyond animal sounds and use the magnets to set up scenes or trace each animal then use the outlines on a piece of paper as a puzzle.  Pretend to feed each animal with play food or put each animal to sleep “sssshhhh, night night” by turning them over.  Hide the animals around a darkened room and then use a flashlight to find them “cow, where are you?”  Drop the magnets into a dry sensory bin of uncooked pasta, rice, leaves, feathers, etc.  Then announce each one by name or sound as you dig them out and stick them to that cookie sheet.  To practice concepts like above, below, top, middle, and bottom, draw lines on a piece of paper and tape the paper to a magnetic surface.  Then organize the magnets by saying “put the cow above the tractor” or “the horse goes on the top line”.

Service Station Parking Garage

Your little car lover will get good use out of this garage!  The cars go “up” and “down” in the elevator, park “stop” in the numbered spots, slide “whee” or “go” fast down the ramp, fill up with gas “guhguhguh” and get clean in the car wash “scrub scrub” and “ssshhhh” for water spraying sounds.  Finally, the cars can go into the garage when broken “uh-oh” to get fixed or to sleep for the night “ssshh, night night car”.  Little ones may need some help moving the elevator or using the car wash so that’s a wonderful opportunity for you to teach them how to the use the word “help”.

Here are some more of my favorite do nothing toys:

Remember that when playing with your little one, you should use sounds and words which are at, or just above, your child’s expressive ability if you want them to try to imitate what you are saying.  If your child hasn’t yet said a true word then you can use single words or meaningful sounds rather than long sentences.  If your child is using some words then you can use two-three word phrases in play.  Reduce the questions you ask and just give them the words they might want to say.  Follow your child’s lead in play and who knows where their imagination will lead you!

For a FREE, printable (condensed) version of this post, go to: FREE Handouts you can print out

Be sure to “like” and follow my Facebook page for all the latest play ideas.

Related: Why does speech therapy for little ones look like it’s just play?  Click on Where’s the speech in speech therapy?

Playing with… DOORS

Toys with doors are so magical!  The doors OPEN… and CLOSE!  Ha!  Seriously, the doors can uncover all kinds of wonderful objects inside.

Want to practice colors?  Many of the toys with doors come with colored shapes/ objects to categorize or name.

Use the doors to hide objects with a specific sound.  For example if you want to practice “f” then hide objects (or pictures) like the numbers 4 and 5, a fan, feet, foot, food, fish, etc…

Practicing animals sounds and names?  Hide animals.  Then when the door opens make the animal say “hi” or greet with the appropriate “moo” or “woof”!

Don’t limit the toy’s usefulness to whatever objects were included with it.  If it was a garage-type toy you don’t always have to park cars.  Get out some little people or figurines and put them to bed in their rooms – “night, night” and “ssshhhh”.


Another great feature of many toys with doors is that they often come with keys!  This is a great opportunity for your little one to ask for “HELP” or ask for the “key” that you may have forgotten to give them (on purpose).  Remember to also practice “knock, knock, knock(ing)” on the doors to see if anyone is home “helllllooooo?”

Toys with doors use the same concept as peekaboo or hide and seek.  Remember how your little one loved books with flaps?  Same idea.   IMG_20170817_163339

Call out to the hiding object “MONkey?  Where ARE you?”  Practice “yes” and “no” responses by purposefully finding the wrong object once or twice “is this a monkey? noooo” before finding the right one “yessssss!”  Sometimes a “tada” or “woohoo” works well when you’re really excited about finding the right one 🙂

When it’s time to clean up, make sure to say “bye monkey” and “bye bye” to all the objects, maybe even wish them “sweet dreams” and blow them a kiss!

Click on images to find products with doors and keys!

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 and affiliated sites.

Be sure to “like” and follow my Facebook page for all the latest play ideas.

Best ACTIVE toys: a speech therapist’s list!

Toys that allow children to be ACTIVE

Once those babies starting moving…it’s a whole new world of play!  You may spend most of the day chasing your toddler and keeping him safe rather than engaging in extended periods of seated, quiet, “educational” play.  Toys for active toddlers can be expensive (large outdoor swing sets, indoor climbing structures) or totally free (public parks/playgrounds, furniture you already own).

NOTE:  This is part 3 of a series of “Best toys and gifts”.  If you missed the first two, go to Best toys and gifts: a speech therapist’s list! and Best CREATIVE toys and gifts – a speech therapist’s list!

Introducing “ready, set…GO” (allowing your child to fill-in “go”) is an obvious strategy to use with active toddlers.  Using “1..2..3” or some other “something is about to happen” phrase also helps give purpose to the movement and make it more of an interactive game.  Sometimes it’s easy to engage a child in active play (chase me, tag, hide-n-seek).  Other times you may need to BE the hoop for the basketball in order to get your toddler’s attention when they are active!  Either way, here are some toys and communication play ideas for the ACTIVE category:

*NOTE: clicking on the photos will take you to Amazon should you wish to see price, description, or to purchase.  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 and affiliated sites.

Pop up houses or tents

Yes, you can make a “fort” with sheets and chairs or other furniture, but since we’re thinking of gift giving you can also buy pop up houses or tents.  If space is an issue, and if you can figure out how to fold them back up, these can be fun to get out on days when you may be stuck indoors.  “Knock” on the door and practice greetings “hi, hello” or play “I see you”/peekaboo.  Pretend to sleep inside and show your toddler how they can “roar” like a bear to wake you back up.  Turn the lights off, climb inside, and shine a flashlight around the smaller space “oooo aaaah” and then shine the light on your “knee” “foot” etc.
No spill bubbles may still get messy as the wand drips frequently so don’t let the name fool you, but most kids love bubbles and they often need to be refilled which makes it a good, cheaper gift.  Blowing bubbles is active for your mouth muscles which is also great for speech and language development!  Popping bubbles is active for your whole body – clap, stomp, dance, spin, jump… For more ideas check out Playing with…bubbles

Crawling through play tunnels can be a part of an obstacle course or a game of “gonna get you” all on its own.  Slither through on your belly and “sssss” like a snake.  Crawl through like any 4-legged animal and “meow” or “baa” or “roar” your way through it.
Balls of various sizes and textures  

Roll, squeeze, bounce, throw, catch, kick… balls for playtime are a necessity.  Use them to fill up boxes or laundry baskets “in”, “whee” then dump them out “uh-oh” and repeat.  Hide smaller toys in the laundry basket then cover with balls for a searching game “where’s teddy?”  Roll them back and forth to each other and practice turn-taking with pronouns or names “my turn” “Mommy’s turn”.
Music for dance parties

Whether it’s a children’s CD or a gift card to download new songs to a music player, nothing beats music and movement to get early communication skills going!  Gesturing, imitation, sound play are crucial first steps to speech and language development and music is a natural, fun way to learn those skills.  Even if your toddler isn’t into the idea of sitting and singing “Wheels on the Bus,” you can still have an awesome dance party and teach so many great concepts: “stop” or “freeze” when music is paused, imitation of movement “watch me”, march around the room “first” and “last”, change the volume “quiet” and “loud”, change the speed “fast” and “slow”, or just “wiggle” and “shake”!  For more ideas go to Playing with MUSIC and SINGING!
Water table

Take bath play outdoors with a water table!  A great gift for spring/summer, water tables with just a few accessories can be a great way to engage your little one in play.  For more water ideas see my post…Playing in the bath

Going up the ladder “up, up, up” and down the slide “whee” can also be part of your indoor obstacle course.  Use the slide as a car ramp “ready, set go” and race “zoom!”  Put a box/container/basket at the bottom (open side toward slide) and send all kinds of toys down the slide into the box.  Name each one as you play… “go car”!
Colored dots/discs or play mat tiles

Such a simple toy but so great for making obstacle courses, pathways, trails, jumping or sitting spots, following directions, learning colors, etc. etc.  These flexible colored spots (or foam tiles from a play mat) can also be hats, steering wheels, and plates for a picnic.  Put them in a line and name the color as your toddler steps to each one then “jump off” at the end “tada!”

This one breaks my “no batteries” rule but that’s ok because it doesn’t make noise and allows for lots of language and movement!  They may need “help” to turn it “on” but then when the lights are off, you can shine it on different pictures/flashcards on the wall to name them or search for them “where’s the car?”  Playing with flash cards.  Shine the light on the floor and then try to “stomp” on it while it moves side to side.  Ask your toddler to chase or catch the light as you move it in circles.

Here’s another “ready, set, go” opportunity and then “jump, jump”.  Let your stuffed animals have a turn then then “bounce bunny” or “uh-oh” when teddy falls down.  Stack some blocks on it then knock them down with a jump and “crassshh”.  Practice “big” and “little” jumps along with “fast” and “slow”.

The first time my son ever signed “more” was while he was on a swing.  (Go to communicating before words for more information about using sign language.)  He was a constant mover.  I would push it a few times, make silly faces and funny noises at him, then stop the swing and ask him “more?”  It was our communication breakthrough, once he figured out he could put his fingertips together to tell me “push me again, right now, mom!”  Swings are fun for peek-a-boo as they swing back, you lean over and “boo!”  or tickle their feet.
Pop toobs

These are great for “push” “pull” and “help” (as they can be difficult to click together).  Use them for fire hoses, binoculars, microphones, hats, belts… etc.  For more ideas check out playing with pop toobs.

Of course there are many other active toys toddlers love!  Things you can push, pull, climb on, throw, etc.  The key is engaging your child while they play so that communication – even with an active toddler – can be fun and meaningful.

Now that we’ve covered the C (Create) and A (Active) in my acronym “CAP” for toy buying, up next is P (PRETEND).

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Best CREATIVE toys – a speech therapist’s list!

Toys that allow children to CREATE

Time to look a little more closely at the “C” in my “CAP” acronym for best toy categories.  If you missed the first part of my “best toy” series, here is the full TOY LIST.  When thinking about creating things, let’s remember that we’re mostly talking about children under 3 years of age so their “creations” aren’t perfect, don’t follow rules, may be messy, and usually require interpretation for outside observers!

NOTE: For many items in this list, I’ve already written a full play post (links provided) which gives more detail about how to play and sounds/words to practice.  Clicking on the pictures will take you to Amazon  (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 and affiliated sites.)

The toys in this category include (but are definitely not limited to):

Crayons (or markers or paint or other things to make dots/marks with) 

Playing with art activities is meant to be playful, not necessarily artistic.  This is also a great way to put sounds with simple motions.  Say “dot dot” or go in circles and make siren sounds “oooeeeoooeee”.  Make horizontal lines and say “choo choo” as the “train” goes across the paper. Make vertical lines and “uuuuup” and “doooowwwwn”.


Paper (or coloring books or magazines) and cardboard boxes or the box the gift came in

If baby isn’t putting paper in her mouth, or if you’re watching very closely, it can be fun to wad up a piece of paper and throw the “ball” in a basket or box “tada!”.  Rip up the paper and throw the confetti in the air “hip hip hooray!”  Use a cardboard box as a blank canvas for crayons, paint or stickers.  It could be a bed for dolls/stuffed animals or a mailbox or a hat or a peek-a-boo hiding spot or a dump truck or a race car… empty cardboard boxes have endless uses!

Stacking or nesting cups (plastic or wooden, solid colors or patterns)  

Stack them up, knock them down, fill them with smaller toys, dump it all out…These can also make great echo boxes and hats!  Check out Playing with stacking/nesting cups  for more ideas.

Playdough (with or without accessories)

Make your own or buy it.  Just make sure they don’t eat it – ha!  Pair your words with the actions: “squeeze” or “poke” or “roll”.  Make a long noodle shape – now it’s a snake “ssss” or a train “choo choo”.  Make a ball and roll it “whee” or pretend it’s a bubble and “pop” it/”poke” it with your finger.  When you have lots of little pieces and need to clean up, “push” or “dot” the pieces back together.  For more playdough ideas: Playing with… PLAYDOUGH!


Puzzles or shape sorters (knobs, chunky, textured, soft, wooden, etc.)

Playing with puzzles is one of my favorite activities!  Store the pieces in clear ziploc bags or plastic containers with lids so that your toddler has an opportunity to request “open” or “help” then you get to say “bye bye” to all of the pieces when it’s time to clean up.  During play, not only can you name each piece but also practice “yes” and “no” when YOU can’t figure out where it should go.  “Does it go here? NO.  Here? NO.  Here?  YYYEEEESSSSS!”  Toddlers are often amused that adults can’t figure these things out and are more than willing to help you.


Musical instruments  

Drums, rattles, horns, tambourines, bells… Creating music (or just lots of noise) is a great way to interact and practice turn-taking/imitation.  Check out Playing with sounds for more ideas. Stickers

Even if your little one can’t get the stickers off the paper yet, YOU can!  Then just let her do the “tap, tap, tap” or “bang, bang, bang” to stick it to the paper.  Put a sticker on your “nose” to practice body parts then let your baby take it off.  Wall decals that stick for their bedroom or play area walls or window stickers are usually bigger and sometimes better for little fingers.  Let them help “peeeell” or “puuulll” after you get it started.  For bonus points get animal or vehicle stickers and make the appropriate sounds as you decorate!

Blocks (wooden, soft, Megablocks, etc.)

Stacking simply for the purpose of knocking it down is fun!  Try “up, up, up” or “more” when stacking then choose your favorite anticipatory phrase “ready, set, GO” or “1, 2, 3” or “we all fall DOWN” (from Ring Around the Rosey”) before crashing it down.  Line up some blocks and then push them like a train “all aboard!”  Grab some toy people for passengers and take a ride “choo choo!”  Oh wait, that’s pretend play and that’s the whole focus of “best toys” for PRETEND play…  Guess I’ll have to leave it at that for now.

Ball or marble tower

Building the tower will require some adult assistance which is perfect since interaction is the key to early communication development!  For a simple ball tower with no assembly required, check out Playing with…pound-a-ball.  Plenty of opportunities here to have your toddler request help, name colors, follow directions, and make choices.  Once built, there is the obvious “ready, set, GO” then watch the ball go “whee”, “round and round”, “down down”, “bonk.”  Make two towers and race!

Potato Head

This toy is obvious practice for body parts.  Use single words or short phrases for your toddler to practice “nose in” or “red nose”.  Let them put the eyes under the mouth or the hat in the ear hole.  Then you have a super silly face you can try to imitate!  The more we imitate our toddlers, the more value we place on their ideas and the more interested they may be in imitating YOU.

Magnetic Doodle Board

Here’s a no mess way to doodle.  Good for on-the-go doodling and saying “hi” and “bye” to stick people drawings.  For more ideas go to Playing with… magnetic doodle boards

I could add lots more to this list, but these ideas should get you started.  Other great “creation” toys that may not necessarily be giftable… paper towel rolls, plastic food containers/water bottles, diaper boxes, spray bottles, baby wipe containers, pudding (instead of paint), and shaving cream.

In the next “best toy” post, I’ll delve deeper into the “A” of “CAP” which stands for be ACTIVE!

Be sure to “like” and follow my Facebook page for all the latest play ideas to help little ones communicate!

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

What to get for baby?  For the 1- year old?  For the 2-year old?  There are SO many options.  It’s hard to know what’s going to be interesting to a young child for more than five minutes, what will be “educational”, what won’t fall apart, what will get that “wow” factor when your little one opens it up.  Honestly, they may be more excited about the large box (which is also a great gift) or the wrapping paper anyway.  In that case, it may be a good time to think about NON toy gifts.

Think experiences!  Memberships to local child-friendly places like the zoo or a children’s museum (in the Columbus, OH area that might be COSI or AHA! or The Works or Little Buckeye Children’s Museum) and gift cards for activities like swim lessons, play cafes, music and gym classes would all be great options.  Tickets to toddler-friendly shows and concerts would be great experience gifts as well.

I also realize that a baby or toddler may not get too excited about opening a gift card.  So, toys are inevitably on the gift list!

From a true communication perspective I have to say that toys don’t really matter.  It’s the interaction that happens WITH the toy (or activity) that allows the true magic of communication.  That said, gifts are often important to families to give and suggesting that loving grandparents get their grandchildren nothing or simply contribute to a college fund may not be their idea of a gift.

Yes, I know I promised a toy list.  I’m getting there.

This age range can be tricky as it is easy to be overwhelmed in the toy aisle with so many “educational” toys with lights and music and sounds and second languages and buttons and spinning parts, etc. etc.  Of course toys that light up, play music, and have lots of buttons to push can be entertaining but there’s minimal opportunity to interact with others when using electronic toys.

When shopping for the little ones, the best toys:

do not require batteries

encourage building or construction

encourage active play

allow for pretend play

For those who like acronyms, think “CAP”!  Toys should allow kids to CREATE, be ACTIVE, and PRETEND.

If you keep “CAP” in mind when shopping, you’ll find lots of good choices. Also, remember to think about what your child can do with the toy rather than what the toy can do.

(Disclosure: This post contains Amazon affiliate links which means I may earn a small percentage of qualifying sales.)

So, let’s get to it… my best toy list for helping babies and toddlers with speech and language development!  (For play ideas with each toy, click on the toy name).

Bubbles – “up, pop, more, all done, uh-oh” (good for mouth movement and blowing practice as well)

Musical instruments – “bang, shake, tap, go, stop” (also fun to practice imitation)

Books – look for real pictures (not drawings) and rhyming or repetitive books. Books that focus on sounds rather than stories and those that have hidden pictures are some of my favorites for first birthdays and little ones.

Tunnels – “in, out, hi, bye, peek a boo”

Playdough – “open, push, squeeze, poke, roll”

Pop up houses or tents – “knock knock, hi, bye, where are you?”

Puzzles and shape sorters – “yes, no, hmmm, tada!”

Touch and Feel Picture cards – So many great uses for these!

Stacking/nesting cups – “up, on, in, crash” (make noises into the cups for an echo effect)

Wooden or soft blocks – “up, crash, more, all done, bang, tap”

Balls of various sizes and textures – “roll, whee, bounce, me, mine, my turn”

Potato head – body parts; “in, out, push, pull”

Cars, trucks, trains – “vroom, beep, choo choo, honk, chugga chugga, stop, go”

Dolls – “night night, ssshhh, hi” (early pretend play – sleeping, eating)

Toy stroller – “sit down, in, go, stop, fast, slow”

Shopping Cart – “push, go, more, in, out, bye bye”

Farm with animals – animal sounds, following directions

Simple games – Start teaching the concept of turn taking with these fun games

Kitchen with food – eating sounds, naming foods, feed dolls, sort/organize

MUSIC – Even if your little one isn’t yet talking or if talking is taking a little longer to develop, music and singing are excellent ways to encourage using your voice!

Toy phone/microphone – “hello, bye” (ANY silly sound).

Dress up clothes or hats – body parts, singing songs, pretend play (check out the sales just after Halloween)

For the little ones (not yet sitting on their own), toys are really insignificant for speech and language practice.  Adult interaction is the key!  So, if you are looking for toys in this age range, think about your senses – touch, see, hear, smell, taste (because all of the toys will go in their mouths) – think mirrors, rattles, bath books, and toys of various textures.

Still want more ideas?  Of course!  This is not the end by any means… Check out the rest of this series of “best toy” posts: CREATIVE toys, ACTIVE toys, and PRETEND toys.  In these posts I will go more in depth about each category of toy and give ideas for HOW to play using speech and language strategies!

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Best toys and gifts for speech therapy

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For a FREE, printable (condensed) version of this post, go to: FREE Handouts you can print out

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