Every year we say it, and every year we mean it – can you believe it’s almost Christmas once again?! Lately, I’ve had a lot of parents ask me for recommendations on some of the best toys for their growing children that will help them learn. Although there are so many cool tech toys these days with lights and (often annoying) sounds, I have found that the simpler toys without all the bells and whistles are some of the very best for learning opportunities.
Here at The Achieve Center, there is a large focus on parent involvement across all therapies offered. Parent involvement in therapy and implementing therapy strategies at home can be pivotal to the success of many children. Although I can offer plenty of toy recommendations, there’s something you should know: In order for a toy to become a learning tool, our children need to be shown how to play with them, and how to learn from them. Demonstrating how to play with toys functionally (the way they are designed to be played with) can model appropriate play skills for your child which they can then do themselves. Here are some easy ways to improve your play sessions:
1. Sit across or next to your child, not behind them.
a. Sitting across or next to them make you a play partner instead of a play observer. Your child has more opportunities to make eye contact, read and show facial expressions, provides easier access to asking for help, taking turns, and much more!
2. Narrate your play.
a. This one is especially good to implement if your child is non-vocal. Narrating play is the action of talking through what you’re doing - your movements (“Here my car goes around and up, up, up to the top!”), involving colors (“The blue block is going on the bottom”), numbers (“I have 1.. 2.. 3 blocks!”), sounds (“BEEP BEEP!”), giving life to characters when possible (while holding a baby doll, say, “Wah! My baby is hungry.”), etc.
b. Although it’s true that the more language a child hears, the more likely they are to use it, you do not need to narrate every moment and flood the child with language. Make sure not to overwhelm or over-stimulate during play. I recommend engaging in narration every 30 seconds or so as a general rule of thumb, but every child is different.
3. Take turns.
a. This is a great time to practice with your child to help them learn how to play socially. Some ways you could do this is to take turns putting pieces into a puzzle, or with whose marble goes down the run next. Make sure to meet your child where they are at with this, meaning if sharing is hard, try not to take things away, but rather have your own item if possible (e.g. you each have a car and you just take turns going down a play ramp rather than having one car that you share).
Without further ado, here are some great toys and some ideas for what you can teach with them:
Toddler (ages 12 months-3 years)
Nesting Garages and Cars
These are great for matching colors and numbers, learning sizes (big vs. medium vs. small), and spatial skills by nesting through trial and error!
Toomies Egg Toy
I love these toys – and so do my clients! You can use these to teach your child common facial expressions associated with emotions, matching colors, matching shapes, and it makes a fun sound too!
Wooden Race Car Track
This is a fun one. This race car track is great for increasing hand-eye coordination, dexterity, visual tracking – which can aid in increasing attending, and this is another awesome toy for turn taking.
Stack & Sort Board
I think this one speaks for itself – there is so much for your child to learn with this one! Fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, matching colors, shapes, following instructions (“put this one on the red peg”). You can get pretty creative with this one.
A classic, but amazing gift. Again, so many things to teach, especially with this bundle pack. You can easily work on turn taking, matching, and fine motor, as well as colors, shapes, etc.
Play Kit Subscription
This is something that has come about in recent years that I really like. Lovevery (ages 0-36 months) offers age based play kits that come every few months as your little one grows. It’s filled with Montessori style toys that are designed to help your child explore, learn and grow through age specific toys. This would be a great gift for any little one in your life!
Children Ages 4+
More Complex Puzzles
This type of puzzle is what we clinicians often call a juxtaposed puzzle. This means that multiple pieces fit together to make one image within a frame. This type of puzzle requires a bit more trial and error, visual mapping and planning, and this one also has sounds!
Legos also offer a lot of learning opportunities. Of course fine motor is a big one with this activity, but you can also work on visual skills such as matching patterns or sequences, etc. The best part about Legos is that it gives your child the opportunity to be as creative as they want!
There are so many great board games for all ages! There’s the classics like Candy Land, Chutes & Ladders, and Hi-Ho Cherry-O for the little ones (bundle pack here), Guess Who, then there’s games like Sequence, Life, Scrabble, and many more that offer “junior” versions. Board games teach children so many concepts. This is where you can teach them (and model) how to win and lose appropriately, work together with teammates, work on counting, fine motor, forward planning and much more.
Marble Run (For a little older children)
I have yet to meet a child who doesn’t love a marble run. These challenge your child in terms of forward planning, trial and error, hand-eye coordination and dexterity, visual tracking, and more! This one also has glow-in-the-dark marbles which makes it even better.
Arts and Crafts Supplies (all ages)
Dot markers, stamp kits, mess free coloring markers and sheets, paint, Play-Doh, Floam, scissors, coloring books, and all the other arts and crafts supplies you can think of provide many opportunities for all types of skills!
My last tip is that when it comes to play, remember that that is what it should be – play. Although we might be discretely working on skills without your child knowing it, we still want to make sure that we are keeping play fun. Be silly, creative, and encouraging with your child, work on skills, but continue to keep your focus on building your relationship with them through play. Enjoy your time with them, and enjoy the holidays! I hope this list gives you a few ideas for better play, and for some Christmas gifts.
If you’re interested in more tips, tricks and resources for better play, please feel free to email me with any questions at email@example.com