The quality of the play you can give to or facilitate for your loved one/therapy client is an enormous piece of their social, cognitive, and emotional development. This is true from a language-based perspective as well as a cognitive-physical perspective. Think about the different motor skills required to manipulate blocks and puzzles when compared to watching a video on a tablet. While playing with blocks, your child is likely using both of their shoulders, arms, fingers, etc., in contrast to maybe just holding a tablet or extending their index finger to watch a video. Which would you suspect elicits more of a natural, social-emotional exchange? It is not to be said that digital resources cannot be both educational and interactive; however, they are not a proper substitute for toys that can be manipulated and promote hands-on engagement.


Below is a list of toys, in which (most) can be used for a multitude of functions and promote different levels of language development. From motor development to categorical concepts, this list has got you covered.*

*Please note that toys below reflect recommendations within each approximate age range. Please read all labels advised by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to determine if the toy is safe for use.

Baby to Early Toddler (6 months to 2 years)

-Balls: like the Infantino Textured Multi Ball Set. One of the most hands-on and versatile toys. They come in all textures and sizes and often this type of toy is one of the first to be labeled and generalized by children, meaning they have more understanding of what balls are/what they do. Balls can be used to pass back and forth and help children understand early stages of turn-taking.

-Wooden mazes: like the Melissa and Doug First Bead Maze. You know the ones that you used to see in the doctor’s office as a child? Yep, they are still around. They promote hand-eye coordination and early logistical concepts. They also serve as a model that objects can be linear but also have an end point.

-Wooden puzzles: like the Leo and Friends Zoo Animals Peg Puzzle. They teach spatial awareness and shape recognition. Additionally, puzzles often contain some sort of categorical-related items (e.g., animals, transportation, shapes, etc.). Exposure to category concepts is important for developing language, as down the road, it gives children the foundation for cognitively-sorting and describing information as their language systems develop.

-Cause and effect toys: like the Battat Pop-Up Pals Color Sorting Animal Push & Pop Up Toy. These toys are key for early childhood. Cause and effect toys teach your child that the actions they perform can/will affect their environment and elicit a response (e.g., shake a rattle → will produce noise). This can be related to real-life scenarios (e.g., point to bottle → mom picks up bottle to give child).

-Push and pull toys: like the Fisher Price Laugh and Learn Pull and Play Learning Wagon. Toys like wagons and wooden pulleys often begin to earn their appeal to children as they approach their first birthday. They are literally toys-on-the-go, and can move with little ones as they develop the strength to stand-up and begin taking steps on their own.

Mid to Older Toddler (2 to 4 years)

-Building materials: like Magnatiles. Kids love to build! It is one of the first exposures that a child may have to work towards an objective and achieving it (e.g., stacking pieces to make a tower). They may begin with simple building structures like blocks, and work up to more precise materials (e.g., Lincoln Logs) as their fine motor skills continue to develop.

-Sound books and puzzles: like We’re Going on a Bear Hunt: Sound Book. Children are drawn to these toys because they tend to be acoustically interactive, on top of all other things (more advanced cause and effect concepts). They are engaging and teach children early literacy skills, like turning the pages and print orientation. Examples of these books are also included in our article, Best Children’s Books for Speech and Language Development.

-Job sets: like the Little Tykes Veterinarian Play Set. Jobs sets can be one of the largest investments when it comes to toys and games; however, think about it as purchasing one large toy with 1000 different functions. A kitchen set can be used for something as simple as labeling (naming common household items) and teaching prepositions (e.g., “Put the pan on the stove,” “Put the drink in the refrigerator”), to sequencing daily living steps (e.g., getting the materials to pour a drink).

-Transportation: like the JOYIN Carpet Playmat (w/cars included). It is often that when a child gets a train and/or car set, that they use it for many years. In the early years, they may enjoy rolling a car on different surfaces to understand how different textures correspond to different speeds (e.g., the car will move faster on the hardwood when compared to on the carpet). Children also learn core words like “stop,” “go,” “fast” and “slow,” when interacting with these toys.

-Hand puppets: like the Melissa & Doug Barn Buddies Hand Puppets. Puppets are often what comes to mind when we think of imaginative play. Kids enjoy using puppets because they can take on different characters and relationships. They serve as excellent models as your child is increasing their pragmatic (social) language and emotional regulation skills.

Preschool/Pre-K (4 to 5 years)

-Art supplies: like the Jar Melo Finger Paint. You will begin to notice that as your child gets older, they will demonstrate more of a creative interest. This is also due to the fact that they have developed more patience and toleration skills. It gives them an opportunity to use their imagination and explore different mediums.

-Instruments: like the ToyerBee Musical Instruments Toys Set for Kids. Music is another area that kids begin to take an interest in at an early age and that promotes sensory development. By blowing into a recorder or strumming a small guitar, children can develop a sense of rhythm and patterns. Music also promotes rhyme awareness, which is also a pre-literacy skill.

-Board and card games: There are dozens of board/card games on the market, but I am talking more about the traditional games that we grew up with like Candyland and Go Fish. A game like Candyland promotes turn-taking skills, color awareness, and other pragmatic language skills that correspond with sharing and sportsmanship. Go Fish teaches more critical thinking and numeric concepts (e.g., same/different, more/less, equal).

-Water play: like the FREE TO FLY Kids Toys Water Doodle Mat. Not only is water play an enjoyable experience for all involved; there are endless ways to have liquid-fun! Swimming with your child is one of the best ways for them to obtain a lifelong (and life-saving) skill and promote core gross motor development. They are also learning physical concepts, such as what their bodies do when they blow out bubbles or turn onto their back. That also goes with manipulating toys (e.g., determining which toys do/do not float).

-Baby dolls: like the Bumbleberry Babies Deluxe Doll Set. Dolls and other manipulative figures can be a great tool as your child increases their interpersonal skills. They will often model or imitate interactions that they observe in everyday life. As your child’s social language skills increase, so will their interpersonal skills and understanding of emotional states. Interacting or “taking care” of a doll promotes a sense of responsibility and compassion.


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