Let's Play: the speech and language way

Speech and language therapy ideas for playing at home


toddler activities

Playing with… PLAYDOUGH!

You don’t need to make anything elaborate to enjoy playing with playdough.  I’ve seen lots of great playdough creations with a simple Google search, but I’m mostly thinking about the under 3-year-old crowd and Pinterest worthy creations may not yet be the goal here.  Using playdough to get little ones talking CAN be a worthy goal!  Make your own or buy it.  Just make sure they don’t eat it – ha!

A good accessory kit for toddlers can include basics like plastic scissors or plastic knives, a roller, a few shapes for cutouts, and something to squeeze the playdough through.  IMG_20170901_091818Look around your kitchen to find straws (to make towers or trees for a forest), dry pasta like penne or the circle ones to make wheels), and assorted colored beans for hiding or decorating.  In the straw/pasta activity (pictured), add silly sounds each time the pasta falls down the straw.  Assign each straw a vowel and make that sound aaaaaall the way down.  Count the noodles, name each “tower”, take turns “my turn” and “your turn”, and create lots of opportunities for him to request “help me” when the straw falls over or “more noodles” because you are keeping them out of reach.

In general, 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”.  When you have lots of little pieces and need to clean up, “push” or “dot dot dot” the pieces back together.

Make a ball and roll it “whee” or pretend it’s a bubble and let your toddler “pop” it/”poke” it with your finger or the end of the rolling pin. IMG_20170921_184412 I use the end of the rolling pin to make wheels on vehicles, pepperoni on pizzas, and cookies – YUM!  IMG_20170921_183246216

Sticking stuff in the playdough is fun!  I mentioned the straw idea above but using some of your toddlers toys to “stick” in the mud to see which ones stay “up” and which ones fall down “kaBOOM” can be seriously silly too.  Get out the potato head pieces and practice body parts.  Run your trucks with big tires through it to make tracks “vroom vroom”.  Have any plastic animals with feet?  They can make tracks too!  Tongue click your horse right through that playdough blob.

Make a thick noodle and each of you grab an end.  Pull it SLOWLY “oooooooo” to see how long you can hold that sound (and how long the noodle gets) before it breaks “uh-oh”.

Stack some balls into a snowman “up, up, up”.  Then squish him as he melts “ewwww”.

Gently push your little one’s hand into the playdough to make an impression.  Then sing 5 Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed and each time one of the monkeys bumps his head, smooth out that finger until the hand impression disappears (along with the end of the song): “bye monkey”.

Clicking on the photos below will take you to Amazon where you can see product descriptions and pricing.  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 and for information about my play classes and parent workshops.

Best PRETEND toys: a speech therapist’s list!

Toys that allow children to PRETEND

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.

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!

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


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!

Playing with… CARS

Fairly certain my son had a car permanently attached to his hand from the time he could grasp toys until almost 3 years of age! For many young children toys with wheels are a huge fascination. There are LOTS of different kinds and so many accessories to go with them (garages, ramps, etc.)  Pretending with cars is very similar to pretending with dolls.

  • Pretend to feed a doll = put gas in the car (“guhguhguh” or other gas guzzling sound)
  • Pretend to bathe a doll = CAR WASH
  • Pretend a doll gets hurt = car crashes (“kaBOOM” or “crasssshhhh”)
  • Pretend a doll goes to bed = car “sleeps” in a garage (“night night”)

Some of my favorite types of cars are those where you can use toy people to drive them.  Then use family member names:  “Mommy drive”, “Daddy drive”, “go mommy,” “go daddy”, “bye bye Grandma”.  One of our favorite vehicle pretend play activities was “special delivery!”  Deliveries (think dump trucks, school buses, taxis or mail trucks)  are great for practicing taking items/people where they need to go, following directions, and categorizing e.g. take red objects to the red “house” (box) or red piece of paper.

My other favorite vehicle type: any that don’t make noise or require batteries!  Well, that might just be for my own sanity.  Inevitably, if you have a vehicle-lover in your house you may find some emergency vehicles with sirens and lights that start to appear and take over your house – oh wait, maybe that’s just my house.  Emergencies are also good for pretend play  – even if the sirens are a bit nonstop.

Don’t forget all of your favorite vehicle noises:  “beep beep”, “vroom vroom”, “crash”, “ready set go”, “honk honk”, “choo choo”, tire squeals, monster truck engines, sirens, airplanes taking off, helicopters flying, and engines revving.

Other ideas?

  1.  Make a ramp out of box lids “up, down, wheeeeee”.
  2.  Make a parking lot of out blocks “stop, go”.
  3.  Go outside or watch cars from a window. As the cars go by, point and make a car noise then wave “bye”. If it’s a less busy street you can count in between cars to heighten the anticipation or sing the question “where are you” while you wait.
  4.  Use colored duct tape to make a race track on a flattened cardboard box. “start…your…ENGINES…GO!”
  5.  Send Hot Wheels types of cars down empty paper towel rolls.  “woohoo”

Of course, all of these ideas could be adjusted for trains, planes, boats and other types of transportation.

Here are some toy ideas for vehicle play:

For some washable cars, these work well: Viking Little Chubbies Primary Set

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

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