Use play therapy to stimulate language development

Speech-language pathologists view play therapy as the primary approach to infant and toddler language development. So should you.

Grown-ups sometimes get caught up in the idea that work is work, and play is play, and ne'er the twain shall meet. Playing is the reward you give yourself after you've put in your time at your job. What we too often forget is that playing is a child's job. It's how children develop and learn. Take a quick look around the animal kingdom, and you'll notice that it's the intelligent species that play—the cats, the dogs, the primates, and of course the dolphins. Lizards and slugs don't play.

Developmentally appropriate toys and games are incredibly valuable tools for shaping the growth of your child's developing brain, including language development. When I'm doing play therapy with young children, I prefer to use simple toys that children find engaging, such as tops, jack-in-the-box, or wind-up toys. What I like about these toys is that they spin, jump, twirl, pop open, etc., but then stop, compelling the child to ask me for help.

Most small children lack the motor skills to spin a top, stuff a jack-in-the-box back into the box, or wind up a clockwork toy, so they have to get me to help. This gives me an opportunity to "play hard-to-get" until the child communicates his desire to me in a way consistent with his goals. The really great thing about this tactic is its flexibility. If I'm working with a severely autistic child who does very little communicating, I might require him to make eye contact with me and hold the toy out toward me; if the child makes eye contact but doesn't produce words, the goal might be to sign or say "go" or "help". If the child is saying one or two words, I might work on increasing the variety of words or length and complexity of phrases the child produces.

You can do a similar thing using jelly-beans or other treats as the reward, as demonstrated in the video below. Warning: you may have to watch it more than once through, because the cuteness of the kid is a bit distracting.

I don't like to rely too heavily on food, though, so I like to find toys and other activities that will motivate the child.

Why ditch the batteries? A lot of battery-operated toys only require the child to push a button or move a switch to get it to do its thing. This gives the child a greater degree of independence, which has its advantages; but it also takes away the incentive to ask for help. For this reason, most of the toys I use for play therapy are not battery operated. This is not an absolute rule—I do make exceptions. For example, I saw a sound bingo game yesterday while window shopping with my daughter. You push a button and the device makes a sound, like a horn honking or a dog barking. Players then select the picture on their card that matches the sound (car, dog). I didn't buy it, but I might consider it for a supplemental activity to train early phonological awareness. However, it probably would not be my first choice for trying to stimulate expressive language in a toddler.

In addition to the toys I mentioned earlier, I'm also a big fan of wooden blocks, toy cars, train sets, stacking cups/rings, busy beads, Magnadoodle, Lego or Duplo blocks, Fisher-Price/Little People sets, plastic food, marble rollers, and puzzles.

Where can I find good play therapy toys?

It will probably never be hard to spend a lot of money on toys, but these days it is really hard to find good quality toys that are appropriate for play therapy. If you go to the toys and games section of The-Store-That-Must-Not-Be-Named (Okay, I'll say it, just this once. Waldemart. *Shudder* Now don't ask me to say it again), you'll find no shortage of cheaply built (but not cheaply priced) hunks of plastic that flash and beep and twirl and talk, but a set of solid hardwood building blocks? Say what? You mean, without microchips? Why would you want that?

The good news is, high quality toys do exist, but unless your friendly neighborhood toymaker has somehow managed not to be put out of business by You-Know-Where, you'll probably need to look online.

Here are a few links to get you started: - Toys and Childrens Products! Click Here! This is a company that sells exactly the kinds of toys I like to use for play therapy with young children. They sell high-quality, developmentally appropriate products designed for durability and value, including classic favorites like wooden building blocks, spinning tops, play food, kitchenware, tools, and more. And more. And more and more and more. Any time my mouth is dry, I just go here and I'm drooling within minutes.

Maple Landmark Woodcraft. This is a company based in Vermont, one of the last strongholds of resistance against the oppressive power of You-Know-Which-Store. They use locally grown maple wood to create beautiful toys and games that will last for generations. Don't worry, they've left enough maple trees standing that we can still put good syrup on our pancakes.

Constructive Playthings. Founded in 1953 by a former early childhood educator and her family, this company remains true to its original mission of designing and producing high quality educational toys, games, and furniture appropriate for young children.

As you play, remember to follow your child's lead and let his focus be your guide. If he's not interested in the top you're spinning, ditch it and focus on whatever is holding his attention. If your child has a lot of battery-operated toys, you'll want to have them stowed out of sight and out of reach so that they don't distract from the more beneficial toys and activities.

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