Make any toy into a language-development toy!

This time of year, SLPs are often asked about which toys are the best for language development. The magic secret (or the ultimate disappointment?) is that no such toy actually exists. In fact, the language development doesn’t even come from the toy. It comes from the interaction the child has with their playmates! As a result, any toy can become one that can be used to enrich speaking skills when certain strategies are used. While this list is not comprehensive by any means, here are a few ideas you can use during play to give your kiddos a language boost.

  1. Participate. No matter the object, the toy becomes an automatic language activity when you, the parent or caregiver, are involved. Language isn’t built when a child is playing in isolation. Parent and caregiver input in play provides rich models for speech and language. So, if they’re playing with blocks, join them! Banging on some pots and pans? Grab a spoon! Listening to “Baby Shark” for 2038749237492nd time? Put on your dancing shoes!

  2. Model. While playing with any toy, model sentences and vocabulary. For example, if your child points to a picture of a sheep in a book, you could say, “There’s a sheep! The sheep says, ‘baba.’” Before a child is able to express themselves, they need to have good models on which they can base their language. Get to chatting!

  3. Expand. Add one or two words to your child’s utterances. Doing this models longer sentences, which in turn helps your child to lengthen their own sentences. This one is an easy one to incorporate into any play activity. For example, if your child is playing with stuffed animals and says, “Bear,” add on a few words to make it a longer phrase or sentence – “Ooo, the soft, brown bear!”

  4. 3-to-1 model. It is our gut instinct to, when trying to get our children to talk, to bombard them with questions. “What’s that?” “What are you doing?” “Do you like that?” The problem with constantly questioning the kiddo is that they might not have the words or the underlying knowledge of sentences and vocabulary to answer the question to begin with! In the back of your head, think 3:1 – 3 comments and then ask 1 question. Try to keep questions open ended so that your child has to give more than a yes/no answer. For example, if having a tea party, you could say, “I would like to have some more tea and some cake. I’ll pour some tea from the pot. Ooo, it’s hot! What would you like to drink?”

  5. Serve and return. Ooo, I love this strategy! Serve and return is the foundation for communicative interaction! This involves parents and caregivers responding to any communication attempt on the part of the child. Communicative attempts can include coos/babbles, pointing/gesturing, and approximations of words. By responding to any communication, it teaches the child the back-and-forth of conversation in addition to modeling of language. For example, if your child makes a noise to signal that they want more puzzle pieces, you can say, “You want more pieces! Here you go!”

  6. Be weird. This one is easy, as most adults get a little goofy when they interact with children anyway. Doing odd things while playing gives the child an opportunity to laugh at you…I mean, for them to use language to correct you. For example, while playing with dolls, put clothes on the doll incorrectly (pants on arms, socks on hands, etc.). After the giggle subside, you can talk about what’s wrong and how to fix it.

Give these a whirl when you’re playing with your child to turn any activity into a language-rich activity!

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