Can toys and DVDs really help my baby’s language development?

Yesterday marked the close of Better Speech and Hearing Month, and as most parents will tell you, few developmental milestones are more exciting than a baby learning to talk. From sounds and syllables, to words and sentences, the first few months of a child’s language development can be some of the proudest moments for parents. But because budding communication skills are so important (and fun to watch) a lot of toy companies have flooded the market with products designed to assist in children’s speech development. As a parent it’s natural to want to give your young talker every advantage available, but are fancy toys and DVDs really the best ways to help your child’s language development? Hope Dickinson, MS, CCC-SLP, coordinator of the Speech-Language Pathology Services at Children’s Hospital Boston at Waltham and Lisa Schonberger, MS, CCC-SLP coordinator of speech-language pathology services in  Children’s Hospital Boston at Lexington are here with some answers.

Hope Dickinson, MS, CCC-SLP

Parents often ask the clinicians in the Speech Language Pathology Program here at Children’s Hospital Boston which toys are the best to promote language and communication in young children. With so many items available it can seem overwhelming, but our philosophy is that the chosen toy or activity is not nearly as important as the interaction that takes place between a parent and child while the toy is being used. As a rule, you don’t need to spend money on the latest and greatest educational toys or high-tech gadgets; most of the time it’s the simple, “old fashioned” toys that work best. By requiring more interaction and communication between child and caregiver during playtime, these toys do more to promote language development than many of their next generation equivalents. When choosing toys for your young talker, here are a few tips:

  • Avoid too many “solitary” activities like video games, computer games and DVDs or TV programs (this includes all the “educational” ones too). Instead, have your child engage in activities that require interaction, sharing and conversation. There is not a DVD or computer game out there that can provide better vocabulary input than an involved parent or caregiver.
  • Unplug your toy box! Newer versions of old classics (e.g., ring stackers, farms, dollhouses, toy cars and dolls…) often come with lights and sounds nowadays. Press on the mud button and you hear a pig squeal, squeeze a doll’s foot and she asks for a hug, etc. The level of sophistication in some of these products is a testament to how far toys have come in a few years, but when a toy does all of the “work,” there is less need for the child to use his own imagination. They become more passive learners. If you have electronic versions of some of these toys, take the batteries out and let your child develop her pretend, problem solving and communication skills while playing with them.
  • Pretend play items such as a farm, zoo, doctor kit, workbench, doll house or play phones encourage narrative play and help young children’s language and social skills. Use them with your children and you’re likely to be amazed with all the scenarios and storylines they come up with. As their playmate, you can teach new words or concepts related to what you are playing with, help them understand cause and effect, learn sequences and solve problems.
  • Lisa Schonberger, MS, CCC-SLP

    Look for toys that can be used in a number of ways and can therefore “grow” with your child. Blocks can be stacked and knocked down, used as chairs for dolls, lined up and counted, sorted by color, used to build a house and make a great low-calorie substitution for pretend “cookies” at a tea party. This symbolic substitution is an important cognitive step, and is great fun too.

  • Board games are not bored games. Games can be lively and interactive and are great for language growth. Games can be useful for building memory skills and vocabulary, and for teaching concepts like colors, sizes, and quantities. Some favorites in this category are Go Fish, Blurt, Scattergories, Boggle, Simon Says, Quiddler, I Spy, 20 Questions, Scrabble, Guess Who? and Memory.

Toys and activities can help promote language development, but aren’t the only way to help your child develop their language skills. Some other things to remember are:

  • Talk to your child all day long, every day. Talk about what you are doing and seeing, and about what the child is doing. Narrate all the things you do together throughout the day to provide natural, low-pressure, but frequent language stimulation.
  • Play talking on a phone can help young talkers develop language skills

    Don’t ask your child a lot of questions and don’t ask him a question to which you already know the answer. Testing is not a great learning or teaching tool. Talking is more fun when it involves sharing our thoughts and feelings rather than simply giving answers to questions.

  • Avoid having your child “show off” skills for others. Talking should be fun and natural, not for praise or rewards.
  • Use recasting to elaborate on your child’s words and help them understand the concept of conversational language. Recasting is simply stating back to the child what he has said, but in a slightly more sophisticated way. For example, if your baby says “ba” you might reply “Ba. Ba-ba.” If your toddler says, “Doggy” You might reply “Doggy? What a big doggy! Woof Woof doggy!” The child will naturally begin to copy these models and in time begin to use them in his own language.
  • Children are often drawn to music. Use their interest to promote language development

    Celebrate music and song. You have heard it before, but children really don’t care if you can’t carry a tune, even in a bucket! Music captures the attention of young children, and can promote vocalizations, listening, and turn-taking. Sing old favorites and nursery rhymes together.

  • Use books at every opportunity. Begin to read to your child from birth. Have books around the house and let your child see you reading. Allow her to explore books on her own and develop a personal relationship with the written word. Reading will play an important part in many aspects of your child’s development, and different books will work at different times. For instance, toddlers benefit from reading books with their parents that use repetitive phrases from page to page like “Brown Bear Brown Bear, what do you see?” because it provides practice with early words and phrases. Preschoolers who are not yet reading often do well with wordless books where the child “makes up” the story by looking at and describing the pictures, which can help with their grammar and early narrative skills. Even when a child can read, adult-child book sharing is a great way to stay close and build language. If you are curious as to what types of books are best for your child ask a librarian, her teacher or the school’s reading specialist.

Helping your child develop his or her language skills is an exciting time for both of   you, lives so by all means, roll up your sleeves, get involved and be ready to learn to together!