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How you can use toys to develop your child’s language skills

June 24, 2013

Written by Faye Stillman, MS, CCC-SLP/ATP and Carla Hall, MA, CCC-SLP, Speech/Language Pathologists from the Outpatient Rehabilitation Department at Arnold Palmer Hospital.

When a child is asked, “What did you do in speech therapy today?” the answer is almost always, “We played.” Like we said before, we love our jobs because we get to play all day. There is a lot of power in play, and our motto is often “Play is Work, Work is Play.”

Stuart Brown, MD, a psychiatrist and well-known researcher on the science of play, said, “Play is more than just fun. Plenty of play in childhood makes for happy, smart adults-and keeping it up can make us smarter at any age.” Abraham Maslow, a psychologist, wrote, “Almost all creativity involves purposeful play.” Play with purpose is a fundamental tool that we use in our pediatric outpatient therapy.

Play is often a misunderstood concept. It isn’t frivolous; in actuality it is an essential and critical part of all children’s development. Play develops social skills, thinking skills, problem solving and incorporates fun into a child’s world.

Parents may look at a puzzle and see an opportunity to match shapes and put objects in a wooden form board. Speech Pathologists see a multitude of options to develop language with the same wooden puzzle. The ability to facilitate language with the toys that we commonly have around the house is endless. We challenge you to play with the toys that you have, but in a variety of ways.

The key is to have a good variety of toys for your child to play with. Here are some common toys that we use in therapy and the developmental skills that can be facilitated with each:


A farm puzzle like this can be used to identify animals when you offer a choice of two, name the animals, name the sounds animals make, discuss where animals live, make requests for the one the child wants or allow them find the piece hidden under a towel.


It’s always good to have bubbles on hand with children. Blowing bubbles helps to develop proper breathing techniques and the oral motor skills necessary for speech. It teaches children to pay attention and interact with others as they learn to take turns and request more bubbles to blow. It is also a great opportunity to expand their vocabulary as you demonstrate the meaning of new verbs like blow, pop, catch and others.

Mr. Potato Head

Mr. Potato Head is a classic toy that can be used to identify and name body parts, follow directions, find “missing” pieces, request pieces by color or part, discuss emotions and facial expressions, and use spatial concepts (in, out, over, under).

Shape Sorters

Shape sorters come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and each one can be used to help in identifying colors, naming colors and shapes, problem solving, requesting pieces, and making choices given options of two or more.


Play-doh is great for recognizing colors, labeling and naming colors and shapes, categorizing shapes into groups (animals, foods, shapes, etc.), improving creative and imaginative play, using actions (push, roll, cut, smush) and sharing with others.

“People” games

Most of all, games that interact with others are the best, and cheapest, around. Ideas include: red light/green light, tag, musical chairs, hide and seek, and peek-a-boo. All of these “people” games develop active listening, following directions, fair play, following rules, standing and dynamic balance, turn-taking and conceptual language.

As author and play researcher Brian Sutton-Smith said, “The opposite of play is not work. The opposite of play is depression.” So, play with purpose, and be happy.

To obtain detailed information about toy selection and safety, contact the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, Washington, D.C. 20207. You can also call toll-free: 800-638-2772. For internet access, check the web site at