Let's Play: the speech and language way

Speech and language therapy ideas for playing at home



Playing with… PUZZLES!

Everyone knows what to do with a puzzle and that puzzles are great, educational toys for little ones.  Figuring out where the pieces fit helps children look at size, shape and color. It tests their fine motor skills…and maybe their frustration, if the pieces don’t fit well. Once a puzzle has been completed a few times, how do you keep it interesting and get beyond simply naming the pieces?

(This post contains Amazon affiliate links which means I may potentially earn a small fee based on qualifying sales.)

Speech development with puzzle play

1.  DESTRUCTION – Take it apart instead of putting it together

For the little ones, simply putting a puzzle together may be too hard.  Try taking the pieces out instead of putting them in!  You can still name the animals or foods or vehicles, but instead of saying “in” you say “out”.  To give the activity more purpose, get any kind of container to put the pieces in.  This way you’re making the puzzle less about getting it right and more about just filling up a basket (kids love fill and dump games). Since you aren’t giving them a complicated motor/cognitive task, this gives you more time to practice words like “pull”, “out, “more”, “my turn” in addition to naming the pictures.  When all the pieces are out, YOU can put them back in so that the game can go on and on and on…

2. MYSTERY BOXES – Fun storage containers 

Sometimes the fun of a puzzle is the container in which the pieces are hiding!  If you have an empty box of wipes or tissues, these can be fun to store pieces in and create a little more anticipation about which pieces your toddler will find!  You might just need to widen the opening to be able to pull out larger puzzles pieces.

Speech therapy with puzzles

Storing the pieces in boxes with lids, plastic bags that zip closed, or containers with slots allows for guessing and asking questions like “Oooo, What’s next?” and “Is it a dog?  nooooo.  It’s a cat.  Yippee!”  Pulling out the puzzles pieces (especially if you re-close it each time) can also be an opportunity for your toddler to ask you to “open” or for help.


3. SCAVENGER HUNTS – Make learning active!


If the puzzle board has the matching picture on it, then you can use it like a scavenger hunt and hide the pieces around the room!  Now the puzzle has just become a movement game.  Bonus points for dimming the lights and getting out a flashlight to search for the pieces.  Call out to each piece as you look for it: “banana, where are you?”  When you find it be sure to GASP!  “Aha! I found the….” (now let your toddler try to fill in the word).  This makes finishing the puzzle a bit more exciting because you’ve found ALL the pieces “hip hip hooray!”

4.  PLAY WITH THE PIECES – No need to complete the puzzle at all!

Some of my favorite puzzles are more like boards with doors on them. Make sure you “knock knock” on the door and ask/sing “who’s in there?” before you open it.  Purposefully put the dog in the garage and the car in the birdcage so that your toddler can tell you “nooooo”.  Better yet, tell the dog to “move” or “get out” or “that’s not your house”.  With these types of puzzles the pieces are magnetic so either play near your refrigerator or get out a cookie sheet so you can stick the pieces on.  Now your toddler has a better opportunity to request them from you (because you put them up too high and out of their reach).

Finally, puzzles with chunky pieces are fun to stand up and knock down “kaboom”, “crash”, “staaaaaand UP”, “walk walk walk…RUN!”  There are lots of ways to get those pieces to their appropriate spot on the puzzle.  Tired of putting them where they go?  Just stand them up in a circle, sing Ring Around the Rosy, and then knock them over when “we all fall DOWN”.

Here are some of great puzzles that work well with all of the ideas above:

For fun storage and “mystery box” ideas:

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

Here are some other posts you might like:

Where’s the speech in speech therapy?

Playing with… DOORS!

Top 5 NON-toy Toys

If you liked what you read and think others might, too, please SHARE and pass it on!  Thank you.

Playing with… magnetic doodle boards

I am obviously no artist (as evidenced by the smiley face in the above picture), but I can use a doodle board!  The magnetic doodle boards are great because they require much less pressure to make a “mark” as compared to crayons and paper.  Some boards also come with shapes so that little fingers can grab the knobs in addition to trying the pen.  But this post isn’t about fine motor skills, it’s about how to use a doodle for speech and language skills!  So let’s get to it.

Using the pen, you can make a straight horizontal line “chooo chooooooo” all the way to the other side “STOP!”

Then you can make a wavy line and practice firetruck sounds each time the line changes direction “weeeeoooooweeeeeoooo”.

Make lots of circles and choose a vowel “oooooooo” or “eeeeeee”.

When you’re ready to change your picture just slide the knob across (or down) “eeeerase!”

Another great aspect to a doodle is that there is only one pen so it’s a great opportunity to practice turn-taking with either gestures (pat on chest for “me”/”my turn”) or words “my turn”, “your turn”.

Use the doodle for body parts (or at least facial features).  Make “mommy” and “daddy” faces then let your little one tell you what parts are missing/needed “eyes, nose, mouth, ears, hair”… depending on your artistic ability.  Say “hi mommy” and “bye bye mommy” when it’s time to erase and draw siblings or other family members.

The board pictured at the top is especially wonderful because the four shapes are animals!  Instead of the traditional circle, star, square, etc. this board is great for animal sounds.  Each time the magnet makes a dot you say the appropriate sound “quack quack”, “meow meow”, “hop hop”, “ruff ruff”.

Magnetic boards are also good for car activities!  My kids like to use them to draw “maps” to our destinations.

Here are some magnetic boards you might want to try:

For other “art” activities for speech and language play at home, check out:

Playing with… ART

Be sure to “like” and follow my Facebook page for all the latest play ideas and for information about my play classes and parent workshops.

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.

Playing with…MUSIC and SINGING!

Being vocal, being LOUD, being quiet, moving your mouth… these are fun skills to practice both when singing and when learning to say words.  Whether you make up your own songs or sing along with your favorite tunes,  the repetition and rhythm of singing can be a great way for little ones to practice sounds, syllables, and words… even if they don’t always know what they are saying!

For a little one to sing along, the best music will have lots of repetition, few words, a simple rhythm, and easy or silly sounds – which is why kids love songs like Old MacDonald and The Wheels on the Bus.

Mother Goose Club is a great song collection to play in the car. 

You can also take the melody for any of these familiar tunes and make it even more meaningful.  For example, take the tune of “Row, row, row your boat” but instead of rowing your boat, you can eat your food:

“Eat, eat, eat your food… Put it in your tummy… Eat, eat, eat your food… It’s so nice and yummy”

Using your child’s name in any song may get their attention even more!

“(Name, Name) eat your food… Put it in your tummy… (Name, Name) eat your food… It’s so nice and yummy”

Some of my favorite kids’ music artists: Laurie Berkner, Jim Gill ,Raffi and BASHO and Friends.

In the toddler play classes that I teach, I use some of the music from Rachel Arnston, MS, CCC-SLP.  Her songs are wonderful for those who may be limited with words as she focuses on syllables, meaningful sounds, and songs for specific consonants and vowels.  I also recommend her songs for families with older siblings as they can sing along with the music and let their younger siblings fill in the easier sounds.  Her CDs also come with printable materials you can use to help engage your little one or give them something to hold or move while singing.

Whatever music or songs you choose, have fun with it!  Even if you aren’t a great singer (like me), chanting or talking with a rhythm or beat can have a similar effect.  Bonus points if you add marching, spinning, jumping, clapping, or even more elaborate dance moves!

Playing musical chairs may be a little too difficult for those under age 3, but FREEZE dancing is fun!  Run around the room, jump, wiggle, dance…whatever BUT when the music stops – we FREEZE.  It’s a good spin on any “ready, set, go” game or just getting your active toddler to understand the concept of NOT moving! Ha!

For more ideas about playing with songs and sounds, check out my previous posts:

50 Simple phrases to use with Baby Shark

Playing with…SOUNDS

Where are the WORDS?

Be sure to “like” and follow my Facebook page for all the latest play ideas posts and for information regarding my play classes, parent workshops, and in-home play sessions.

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.

Playing with…BOOKS!

There are endless articles telling parents about the importance of reading to little ones, but what about reading to babies and toddlers who don’t seem interested?  What do you do with all those wonderful picture books that don’t really have a story to read?  How can you use a book to help a child learn to talk when they are supposed to listen?

Well, let’s start with this:  Books are toys.  reading

Books for babies are just like anything else…something to explore.  I like to say “don’t read the book…read your baby”.  The text on the page is not as important as following your baby’s lead and talking about HER interests.  This means you don’t need to name every picture on the page.  You can even skip pages.  Let her turn the pages.  Go forward or backward in the book.  “Sing” the book to increase attention.  Try “reading” with no words at all and just make meaningful car, airplane, animal, eating or excited noises – as appropriate 🙂

(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.)

When your toddler prefers to move rather than sit for a story choose books that you can touch/feel, lift a flap, stick your hands through a cut out, or a My First Look and Find type of book.  The idea is we want toddlers to be interested in books, pages, pictures, etc.  Sitting for a story may not yet be their interest.  When you play with books, make sure you sit across from your toddler so that you can see each other.  Not only does that give your toddler a better opportunity to watch your face and mouth as you name the pictures, but you’ll be better able to talk about his interests by watching his eyes.  Of course, this does not necessarily mean you’ll both be seated.  You may need to start by holding the book up and shining a flashlight on a page just to get his attention.  If he leaves the book quickly then make sure you “peek” at the next page with an excited “wooowww” to see if that will spark his interest to come back.

If your toddler enjoys books but just doesn’t name many of the pictures, try sounds.  Pretend to eat the food “yum”, make the vehicle and animal noises, blow kisses to the babies “mmmmwah”, say “hi” to the people, and “bye bye” to the book when it’s finished.  Singing books is fun too and can help make those picture books more predictable.  Pick any familiar tune and just name each picture to that melody.  Some books ARE songs.  Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?  fits nicely with the tune of ABCs or Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

Once your toddler is interested in books and has some favorites, leave out the rhyming words for him to fill-in.  Purposefully skip a page to see if he’ll correct you.  Name objects incorrectly.  These are all great ways to make books more interactive and playful.

Which books are best?  It’s super hard for a pediatric speech therapist to select a small book list of favorites, so this list is by no means complete!  Here are just SOME of my favorites for early language learning.

You can’t go wrong with Priddy Books:


Anything by Sandra Boynton is pretty great for interactive, noise making, sing-song book play:

Here are some of my other favorites for encouraging silliness and interaction:


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 and for information about my toddler play classes and parent workshops.


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.

Communicating before words

Some parents have shared with me that they are hesitant to teach their baby sign language because they want their baby to talk.  To them, the idea that we are teaching baby to communicate without words was taking a step back.  I used to try to explain that sign language is “just a bridge we use to help reduce frustration and give baby a way to communicate.” However, that doesn’t always convince everyone.

What if we stop saying “baby sign language” and just call it gesturing?  Sometimes explaining that teaching basic sign language to children, whom we fully expect will be verbal communicators, as simply elaborate gesturing gets people on board.

In this video, my own son uses the sign for “more” (and vocalizes “muh”) when the water stops flowing.

So how is baby sign language like gesturing?  When I wave, that means “hi” or “bye”. We usually say “hi” and “bye” at the same time that our hand moves.  So, is waving a gesture or is it sign language? Has learning to wave ever stopped a baby from talking? Of course not.

It’s normal and natural to talk with our hands and to gesture. For the vast majority of babies, learning a few extra signs is just like teaching a few extra gestures. It’s normal and natural 🙂

Still not sure?  Click on the article below for more information.

The Importance of Gestures

There is no “right” time to introduce signs.  Some people start when baby is a newborn.  Others wait until she starts to do other gestures such as waving, clapping, or pointing.  You can start any time your child is not yet fully communicating with words, age really isn’t important.  Even when some toddlers start using words they can be difficult to understand.  Gestures, or signing, can help differentiate whether “muh” was more, milk, or even the woman across the street who looks like a mama.

Choose 2-3 words that may be helpful in reducing frustration such as “more” and “all done” and 2-3 favorite foods/animals/toys/activities. No need to learn all the signs and don’t feel pressured to become fluent in American Sign Language.  Just use enough to get communication going.  Some children might really take to signing and use several dozen signs.  Others will quickly understand the symbolism of gestures/words to objects and start to vocalize for those objects.

For those interested in baby sign language…Here are two really great websites with searchable video and/or picture dictionaries.

For DVDs to watch with your little one at home:


You may also be interested in reading these posts about children who aren’t yet talking:  Where are the WORDS? and Playing with…sounds

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

Be sure to “like” and follow my Facebook page


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.

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!

Are you on PINTEREST?  Remember to PIN this for future reference…

Best toys and gifts for speech therapy

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

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

Playing with…sounds

Most kids love music and love to make noise! Singing is a great way to play and also helps with activities like diaper changes, mealtimes, getting dressed, etc. Take the tune of “If You’re Happy and You Know It” and sing about putting your shoes on…

“Put your shoes on your feet on your feet
Put your shoes on your feet on your feet
Put your shoes on your feet, that will really be neat
Put your shoes on your feet on your feet”

Shaking, tapping, chiming, banging on musical instruments allows for plenty of imitation practice with various beats and simple rhythms.  Also, it naturally gives you the opportunity to announce “ready, set…” let your toddler fill-in “GO” and then lots of cheering and clapping when the song is finished!

Using instruments, or even just clapping your hands, can help little ones hear the “beats” or syllables of longer words like “FI-RE-TRUCK” and “BA-NA-NA”.

Using simple consonant and vowel sounds in play can also be lots of fun and help baby try to imitate speech sounds outside of words. Try some of these for consonants:

“mmm” when eating or thinking
“ttt” or “bbb” when tapping or banging drums
“rrr” for pirates and race cars
“ggg” when pretending to drink or put gas in a toy car

Don’t forget the vowels…
“EIEIO” in Old MacDonald song
“eeeoeeeo” for sirens
“wheeee” when sliding or pouring water

For lots more sound play ideas, check out:  Where are the WORDS?

For music to play in the car, check out: Playing with…MUSIC and SINGING!

Need some sound-making toys that DON’T require batteries?  Click on the images below:


Be sure to “like” and follow my Facebook page for all the latest play ideas and information about my play classes, parent workshops, and in-home play sessions.

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.

Blog at

Up ↑