There’s a nip in the air and all over social media, people are talking about toys for Christmas. Parents, Grandparents, Aunts, Uncles and friends have posted, asking for quality toy recommendations for the children in their lives.  As a children’s Speech and Language Therapist I’m passionate about this subject.  Yes, an able four year old can have hours of fun with little more than a cardboard box or a piece of string.  But, those kind of imaginative play skills take time, practice and the support of a keen role model to develop.  A few decent toys will definitely help children along their way as well as motivating carers to play along with them.  Play is of course a child’s job.  They learn language best, when they explore, try things for themselves and hear you say the words.  Much of what young children learn will revolve around the toys available to them.

Here are my 10 top tips when choosing toys

1 Ditch the batteries

Young children find it difficult to concentrate.  Noisy toys or toys with flashing lights are so exciting, they won’t be able to learn new words at the same time.  Think of how your eye is drawn to a moving wave pattern (screen saver) or how you just can’t help gazing at the warm glow of a TV (even with the sound down).  Also, noisy toys do all the work.  You want your child to be saying ‘moo’ for the cow in the farm set, not the toy saying it for them!  There are of course exceptions.  A  toy cash register that doesn’t scan is just an oversized calculator (dull). One that makes a satisfying “beep” and gives you the green light when you’ve entered your credit card details is much more likely to elicit language and keep the game going.  Sometimes, noisy toys can motivate children who do not naturally seek out interaction with others, such as children with Autistic Spectrum Disorder.  Even so, it’s best when they’re limited.  The real benefit of battery-powered toys is that they allow young children to entertain THEMSELVES, perfect when you have to take a phone call or make the lunch but not great for learning words.

2. Forget the ABCs, 123s

Many toys are marketed as “Educational Toys” and claim to teach letter names/sounds, shapes, colours and numbers.   I’d better not mention brand names, but I urge you to jog past that long and incredibly expensive isle in the toy shop.   Toddlers need to learn to talk before they can learn to read and you learn to talk by playing and socialising with others.  So what,  that a child will say “green triangle” following a synthesised voice?  Does this help your child to get their needs met? Is that an appropriate way to begin a conversation or make friends? You will not accelerate a child’s literacy skills if you introduce a laptop that says a ‘p’ sound every time you press the button.  Instead, it just takes a bite out of time for playing and talking through ideas, vital to later reading comprehension and story writing.

3. Tried and tested

There’s a reason why some toys e.g. a baby doll and pram, a ball, cars and a garage, a doll’s house with figures and furniture, play-doh or a set of bricks have stood the test of time.  These are open ended toys, meaning you can do a lot of different things with them and there’s no ‘right’ way to play.  For example, take the garage, a tiny child can just bang the cars together.  Later they might put the cars in and out of the garage and with help, play “ready steady…go” games off the ramp or against the wall. Over time, they might “brrm” the car to the shops and fill up with petrol along the way.  Later still, Ken and Barbie might prepare a picnic, head out for a Malibu Beach trip, career off a cliff, get airlifted to hospital, get checked by a doctor and be home in time for bed.

Do you remember those hulk gloves that made a noise when the child bashed stuff?  No, that’s probably because they were removed minutes after the child took a whack at the glass cabinet or another kid – the only language, grunting or being scolded.  Bad idea!

4. Buy solid toys

Young children have poor fine motor skills and they find it difficult to grade their movements.  They cannot be “careful” and it’ll make everyone’s life stressful if the toy leads to nagging about this.  A kitchen where everything falls down every time you shut the door is more likely to make you want to instruct your child to “tidy up” rather than follow what they want to do with the toy, the latter being more beneficial to language development. Again, there are exceptions and sometimes toys where items fall “uh-oh” or get “stuck” such as balls down a run or cars on a track, can be great for sharing the moment and adding language. Sometimes,  I purposefully use toys that the child cannot use independently. For example, a Thomas (train) in a Tupperware box, a toy with a fiddly (battery powered!) switch so that a child has to request my help if only by using my hand as a tool, but these children sometimes have more significant needs and an unusual approach is required. If possible, I encourage you to play with the toy yourself and see if it’s going to withstand being banged and slammed.

5. Forget gender

Baby dolls, pram, tea sets and kitchens are not just girl’s toys.  Do men not hold babies, push babies and cook these days?  These kind of pretend play toys lend themselves very easily to language development because they relate to things that children have experienced and because there’s a lot you can say about them e.g. “yum yum, baby likes porridge” ”uh oh, all dirty” “splish splash in the bath” “big kiss “ “sshh……… baby’s sleeping” .  Some toys, especially toys traditionally marketed at boys e.g. construction toys can be harder to comment on.  For example when playing with Duplo, I find myself running out of ideas pretty quickly.  The usual script goes something like this: “up, up, up…all fall down” and then the temptation is to fall back into old patterns such counting the blocks or talking about colours.  And so, we do boys a disservice, boys who are already three times more likely to experience language problems than girls. I ’ve seen blue prams in Argos and Early Learning Centre if pink will offend.

6. Toys that get children moving

It’s just not the childhood obesity crisis that makes me say this.  Children learn best by doing. Toys which allow them to physically go “up” and “down” e.g. a slide, “in” and “out” e.g. a ride on car,  play house or tent, “jump” or “bounce” e.g. a trampoline or space-hopper and go “through” e.g. a  tunnel , will help them to learn these concepts much more easily than if they saw just pictures in a book or on TV.  You might allow at least some of these toys inside e.g. pram/trolley, small ride-on toy or tunnel if you have laminate/tiles/hardwood flooring (maybe a SOFT ball depending on space).

7. Bath toys

Children don’t seem to get tired of playing with water.  Of course, you need little more than a couple of empty bottles or sponges them entertained in the bath, but if you’re looking for gifts, bath toys can be really exciting and inspire lots of chatter.  Toys that “squirt”, change colour or “zoom” around when you wind them up are great for developing young children’s excitement and anticipation skills. Waiting is key e.g. “ready steady…..(wait) go”  to helping young children concentrate for increasing periods of time. For children at a later stage, you can buy packs with weird and wonderful sea creatures that look just like the real thing. Make sure you get the ones with the names written on the back, if, like me you don’t know your whale shark from your porpoise.

8. Outside toys

Again, children need to explore things for themselves and outside might allow them a little more freedom to get stuck in without worrying about the mess.  A sand and water tray is ideal for introducing little ones to messy play and learning action words e.g. “dig”, “scoop”, “pour”, “pat”, “crush”.  A decent bucket and spade and some water wheels will stand the test of time. Some boats and people actually fit into the boats (try them out) are great add ons to keep the game going and move children from sensory play to developing pretend play skills.  Little Tikes, have some fantastic outdoor activity sets which are expensive but perhaps worth the investment because they’re  really several toys in one e.g. water tray plus pirate ship (essentially a doll’s house for boys) plus slide, plus miniature people .  A play house is another big purchase that opens up a whole world of possibilities. People often sell these items on ebay, but beware.  Before you set off up the motorway, make sure your car is big enough!

9. Less is sometimes more

Yes toys are important but too many toys can be overwhelming. In a room full of toys younger children tend to move very quickly through the room picking up and dropping things rather than concentrating on each toy for any length of time.  Help little ones to concentrate by having just one toy out at a time and then putting it away, preferably in a box with a lid before getting out another item.  Toys which are multi-purpose e.g. a play table with a drawer underneath can be useful. Great Little Trading Company have a selection of practical and beautiful, if pricey solutions, but both children and parents will thank you for this sort of gift.  We have a “shop” in the front room where we chuck everything at end of the day.  Shelves or a toy shed are ideal ‘gifts’, but you might have a bit of work selling them to children…….from the very practical toy elves perhaps?

10. Sometimes the best toys are not toys at all

Pans, funnels and jugs, sieves and spoons from the cupboard, along with some weird and wonderful textures – from edible items such as pasta/corn flakes and jelly to non-edible items e.g. hair gel and shaving foam can make for exciting and cheap ways to entertain and promote language. Give a child a toy dust pan and brush and they will demand the real thing. However, quality toys can help children to learn new concepts. For example, once your child has practiced a shopping  sequence with pretend food,  a till and a trolley or basket at a play-group, they might pretend to “shop” with little more than a few empty food cartons and a carrier bag at home.  Of course, it remains to say that you are your child’s best toy.  Singing, chatting, tickling, bouncing, playing hide-and seek – everything they need to learn is written on your face.  I once saw Lottie, a particularly gifted fun maker and actress over at Mother’s Hub (E17), throwing scrunched up bits of tin foil around and calling them “moon rocks”.  Fabulous!  For us lesser mortals and for days when you’re too tired to be creative, a few good quality toys might help.