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.
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.
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. …