Choosing Toys for Better Play Skills

image credit: Hans and Carolyn

Play is a great way to encourage speech and language development. Play skills also enhance cognitive, social and motor skills. But there are so many different kinds of toys out there. So how do you determine which ones are the best in helping your child develop?

First think about the three developmental stages of play:

  1. Sensorimotor-Exploratory. Begins around 4 months. If this does not begin for your child by 6 months of age, talk to your pediatrician.

What you’ll see: your child uses sensory modality to explore objects (mouthing, holding, reaching, looking, hitting, patting)

Good toys: have varying textures and forms such as brushes, fur, hard and smooth objects, satin, bottles, jars, toys that vibrate or move, and pop up toys

  1. Representational Play. Begins around 18 months (may begin before depending on the child). If it does not begin by 20-24 months, talk to your pediatrician.

What you’ll see: your child starts relating objects/toys together. Initially this begins without a function such as stacking, bumping, pushing together.  Eventually function begins such as stirring a bowl with a spoon, holding a bottle. Cause and effect starts to develop during this stage. The child is able to see what happens, how or why something happens.

Good toys: music boxes, jack in the boxes, trains and cars, bells, toys with switches and lights, playdoh, sand and water toys, toys with doors or slots, blocks, simple crafts, social games such as peek-a-boo, so big, pat-a-cake

  1. Symbolic Play or Pretend Play. Can begin between 18-24 months. Playing with other children begins between 24-36 months. Talk to your pediatrician if your child has not developed this skill between 24-36 months.

What you’ll see: your child starts to use familiar situations with toys/objects related to self- such as pretending to drink from a cup. This play then extends beyond self- such as the child putting the cup up to a doll or teddy bear’s mouth or has the teddy bear talk on the phone. Then your child’s play begins to represent sequenced daily situations — putting food in a bowl, stirring it and then eating it. This sense of sequence is important to language and literacy skills development. Your child will start to use objects to represent another object — pretending a spoon is a phone. Social play starts to develop at this time. Initially, children play by themselves, then they play next to another child or adult (parallel play) and finally the children start to play with other children using the same toys.

Good toys: all those listed in the previous stages along with dolls, dollhouses, little-people type toys, play food and puzzles

Here are some categories of toys that focus on specific skills to encourage:

Cause and Effect Concepts

  • Ball and hammer game
  • Ball popper
  • Wind-up toys
  • Pop-up toys
  • Basketball and hoop
  • Shape sorters

Big vs. Little Concepts

  • Blocks of different sizes

Different Textures

Soft vs. hard

  • Fuzzy
  • Squishy

Some objects that can be included in a “common object box”

  • Ball
  • Baby
  • Car
  • Plane
  • Cup
  • Keys
  • Toy food
  • Bottle
  • Farm animals
  • Stacking blocks
  • Glasses
  • Bike
  • Hat
  • Spoon
  • Puzzles

Increasing verbal expressive skills

  • Child must say “go” to make the car go down the ramp.  Hold the car in place and cue the child to communicate to get what they want!
  • Child must say the “m” sound for “more” to get the bunny to hop more

Increasing functional play skills

  • Use common objects and play appropriately with each item — talk on the phone, make a car drive, feed a teddy bear or baby doll

— Kristina Frimmel, M.A. CCC-SLP, Pediatric Speech and Language Pathology Department at the Center for Childhood Speech and Language Disorders

1 Response to “Choosing Toys for Better Play Skills”


  1. 1 Anonymous August 3, 2011 at 8:55 am

    Lots of great information and tips! Thank you, Kristina.


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