Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Santa's List of Learning Toys for Toddlers

It's that time of year again -- the time when I begin to have conversations with parents about what to buy their kids for Christmas. As an early interventionist (speech therapist) working with kids under 3, I have very strong opinions about toys marketed as "educational" and I also have the benefit of seeing how large numbers of kids respond to particular toys, as opposed to a parent's perspective of just knowing how their child responds.

So, if you're the parent of a toddler and you're looking for great toy ideas for this Christmas, and especially if you're the parent of a toddler with speech or developmental delays, these are the toys that I have found in my practice to be the best-loved by nearly all little ones that I have worked with, as well as toys most effective for teaching new skills (especially speech and language). Just for the record, I have no affiliation with any of these companies. I know it's going to look like I'm a representative for Melissa and Doug, but really I'm not. I just really like these toys. :)

1. Puzzles. For the under 2 crowd, big wooden peg puzzles with 3-5 pieces (here's an example); for two-year-olds, peg puzzles with about 9 pieces (here's an example). Use these to develop vocabulary (by naming the pieces for your child as you give them each one), matching skills, and fine-motor skills (manipulating them into the puzzle). As a bonus tip, I keep each of my puzzles in a ziploc bag (1 gallon for smaller puzzles, 2 gallon for the jumbo ones) -- this prevents pieces from getting lost! And this is a favorite set for 2-3 year olds too, and you can teach shapes and colors as well as basic vocabulary with them.

2. Books. The type of book is important. Board books with simple pictures are great for babies and toddlers. Don't try to read them a story, just look at the books and name the pictures. Ask your little one to point to them when you name them ("Where's the dog?").

"That's great, but my child has absolutely no interest in books!" you're saying? I've found that most kids who won't look at books typically will be more interested in flap books. (Check out the other books in this set, and similar recommendations for lots of great options!)

3. Manipulative food toys. Kids LOVE these!! They look so simple, you'd think five minutes and they'd be bored, but no. Most kids I have would play with these toys for hours if you let them. Develop vocabulary by naming the foods and actions (cut, roll, etc.), fine motor, and creative pretend play. Here are my tried-and-true favorites: Melissa & Doug Cutting Food and Pizza Party! (This one has small pieces so make sure you supervise this at all times!) Also of note, these toys are particularly beloved by big brothers and sisters, as well, so don't consider it just a toy for 2 year olds. Kids up to 8 or 9 years old love these just as much! Oh, and if you just happen to have a puppet with a hole in its mouth, let the kids cut up the food and feed it to the puppet -- they LOVE that!

4. Lacing beads. These are my favorite. I use them to teach colors, counting, and also develop fine motor. Preschoolers like these a lot too. (Here's a tip: Wrap Scotch tape around one end of each string for the first couple of inches, and tie a knot at the other end. This will make the end your child has to insert in the hole straight and stiff and a lot easier to thread -- then when your child becomes an expert, you can remove the tape and give them the challenge of threading it without the tape. And the knot obviously will keep the beads on the string!)

5. Fisher Price farm. Not the one they sell in the stores. The old barn. You know, the one they sold for about forty years -- the one you grew up with! Check ebay, they always have lots of them, and you can put together a nice set for your child. Again, preschool and elementary age kids love this too. Children love the moving parts of the more realistic looking animals, the ability to completely conceal by opening and shutting the doors, and you can teach a lot of pretend play, as well as vocabulary through this toy. (Animals can eat and drink from the trough, ride in the tractor or wagon, be fenced in or jump over the fence, be put to sleep, etc.)

6. Pound and Roll. An all-time favorite. Never met a kid yet that didn't love this. This is another toy that older brothers and sisters (especially preschoolers) fight to get to play with. Again, great for colors and motor skills.

7. Mr. Potato Head. Need I say more? Body parts and those fine motor skills again. It's not that I'm always working on fine motor, although that's a nice perk. It's that little kids like things they can do with their hands. So all the favorite toys involve fine motor. Another one for the older siblings to enjoy, and the more different pieces you get for him, the more fun it can be!

8. Cariboo. I love this game for my kids that are getting closer to 3 and old enough to begin to understand how to play games. Great for preschoolers too. Kids LOVE this game. Beginner level teaches colors, shapes, and counting, Advanced level works on letters and numbers. And for speech therapy, I adapt it and you can too -- I print out pictures that are the same size as the "doors" on the game of whatever words I need a child to practice, and instead of using the cards, I just let the child pick the door he wants to open. He says the word, he gets to open the door. It's a wonderful motivator!

You might notice that among all of my recommendations, there isn't a single toy that needs batteries or makes sounds. There's a reason for that. I have seen so many parents go out and buy all these electronic toys that are touted as educational, and they are, in my opinion, such a waste of money. The noises are merely distracting -- kids learn to talk by hearing real people talk. Not tv people. Not toys. Mom and Dad. Grandma and Grandpa. Brothers and sisters and cousins. If you want your child to learn to talk, talk to him. Constantly. Name everything. Describe everything. Use simple words and short phrases, and repeat them again and again. No toy is going to teach your child to talk. The toys I've recommended, however, can be used by you to help YOU teach your child to talk.

Happy shopping! :)

This post was written for Works-for-Me Wednesday at Rocks in My Dryer.


Heidi said...

We have or have had each of the toys you mentioned. All good! A few other things I see my kidlets play with again and again are a shopping cart of some kind and/or doll stroller (even the cheap $5 umbrella strollers). The shopping cart really facilitates role playing going to the store, purchasing items, etc. And another great one is similar to the lacing beads, but it's a stacking beads toy where you can make patterns or match up patterns to pattern "cards" that come with the toy. I swear just look up Haba or wooden toys online and you'll find the best things! Or if you are lucky like we are there is an amazing independent toy store near you that carries all these toys and so many more.

jessica @pianomomsicle said...

i'm really excited about your list! My 20-month-old barely talks, (2-3 words) and his pediatrician makes me feel guilty all the time about it. Hopefully the toys from your list will help me teach him to talk before his 2-year old checkup, so we don't have to put him in speech therapy.

Prairie Rose said...

Jessica, I'll email you tonight with more specific ways to use the toys for an almost nonverbal child -- if anyone else reads this and wants that email too, leave a comment...

Anonymous said...

As a mom of a formally non-verbal child, I agree that the FP barn is an essential toy. I would comment that we bought the "new" version & found it had plenty of play value. (And you can turn off the noise) However, the noises encouraged my son to imitate them. And we used the little doors to learn concepts like open, shut, in, out, etc.

I think the real value is the time you get down on the floor & play too.

Mary said...

Sounds like you and our early intervention specialists share the same bag. :)

Prairie Rose said...

Heidi, wow, your kids are lucky in the toy dept! (I don't do shopping carts and strollers because they don't travel well from house to house! But they're fun! :o) )

Mary, I checked your blog to make sure I don't know your child (wouldn't that have been a funny coincidence?) but nope... but we early interventionists obviously think alike. :)

Heidi said...

Rebecca, yes, my kidlets ARE lucky in the toy department, though I admit many of the toys came from garage sales (like the FP Barn - old style and a lot of puzzles). That and I try to be a bit selective about the kinds of toys I buy for them. I can't control what comes in at birthdays or Christmas, but otherwise I'd go for quality over quantity. ;o) Oh and a LOT of play animals are great too. There is so much to teach with play animals. Oh and we also loved the Melissa and Doug wooden magnets in shapes of animal, dinosaurs, etc. We used them for doing grouping, sorting, characterizing, etc. :)

Oh and don't forget just plain old simple blocks.

And this year our kidlets are getting Lincoln Logs!

Christine said...

My girl is getting Lincoln Logs this year too! And I think those pop-it type beads. She's almost 4 and most of the things she likes to play with involve doing something. This is odd but she loves paper and tape and cutting and her colors. And ribbons. I was throwing away some yarn that was all tangled up and she asked "can I have that?" she carries this stuff around in a basket for days on end until she paints a new picture or cuts up a magazine or borrows my muffin wrappers.

Love the ideas here!

Prairie Rose said...

It's not odd at all... crafts are so much fun for kids!

Oswald said...

Great listing!! All these toys are the best for toddlers...

Abbie said...

I agree with you about the no batteries!

Brainpower over battery power when it comes to children's toys, IMHO. :-)