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Some Must-Have Toys!

After more than a decade of private practice, there are some “tried and true” items that I always go-to on my office shelves during a therapy session.  In many cases, they may not be the shiniest, loudest, or most trendy items (trust me, I like those, too!), but they always win over my young clients time and time again.  It seems that no matter how old a client is or how exciting the latest, greatest competing toy or electronic claims to be, these gems captivate their imagination-- without fail, and make it to the top of the “must play” list during our weekly appointments.  They maintain interest.  They motivate!

Since the key to an exceptional therapy session is maintaining a child’s attention, interest, and motivation (so that you can elicit speech or language targets and foster positive change), knowing which toys to use is one of the most important bits of information a pediatric clinician can know.  Let’s face it,  beyond motivation, on a very practical level, you can't pick up a new toy, material, or game for EVERY single therapy session you have, nor should you.  

What is it about these particular toys or games that make them stand out?

                       Simplicity and room for IMAGINATION! 

The key to making it from a one-time “fun,” but forgettable toy to an all-time “favorite,” is as easy as this: a toy must have a clear function with an irresistible invitation to imagine something extraordinary

It takes time for a toy, game, or activity to make it to this esteemed level of distinction because a new toy will often do the trick in the short run, but you’ll quickly learn over time, that a great toy is one that a child never seems to be able to get enough of. Here are 3 of my favorites.  Check them out!  

  1. Fisher-Price Roll-a-Rounds: Swirlin’ Surprise Gumball Machine 
  2. Beads, marbles, and gems (available at home goods or crafting stores)
  3. Cranium Cariboo


Fisher-Price Roll-a-Rounds: Swirlin’ Surprise Gumball Machine

This toy is geared for the early language learner, but you’d be surprised by how well an older child may respond to this one as well! There are 2 different ways to send the balls inside cascading down the track.  With dozens of peek-balls to choose from, this gumball machine never gets old.  You can use this toy for building early language, such as semantic relations or as a reward for completing an articulation drill set.  My favorite use is to set up a “candy shop” using other pretend play items, such as aprons and shopping carts, and allowing a client with a lateralized lisp, for example, to run a candy shop and advise a new “customer” (me, the clinician) about which flavor gumballs I should buy.  You can easily vary its use to fit many articulation targets. 


Sample semantic relations

  • “ball +in”
  • “ball +out”
  • “go +ball”
  • “eat+ candy”
  • “yummy +candy”
  • “yucky+ candy”
  • “no (more)+candy”


Sample “Sh” target words (initial, medial, final)

  • Shop
  • Should
  • Sean
  • Sheep
  • Machine
  • Crashing
  • Cash
  • Push
  • Dish
  • Wish


Beads, Marbles, and Gems

I am constantly going for some kind of manipulative items in my therapy sessions.  Most often, I use them to track turns of provide feedback to a child.  They are so enticing, it’s hardly a sell to have any older child be eager to explore or play with these.  For a child who has the ability to play with these little gems (without them being a choke hazard!), it can be a real treat.  They come in all different colors and shapes.  My favorite gems are actually diamond-shaped Christmas Tree ornaments I picked up from Pottery Barn several years ago.  I cannot think of something more motivating than collecting diamonds of different shapes!  My use for these tends to be simple, but always highly effective.  Here are some of the most common ways I use them in sessions:


Counting productions- a child earns one gem for each word or set of words he or she produces.

Counting erred productions- a child starts with a prescribed number of gems and loses gems for erred productions (this is usually most appropriate in the final stages of therapy, at the level of spontaneous connected speech.)


Early Play Development OR Turn-Taking- a child takes turns dumping and filling a bucket with these beads and dumping them into another container or on the floor

Hide and seek- burying items within a container of beads

Pretend play- using the beads to represent something entirely different such as “money” or “people” or “animals”

Please note: any of these items are intended for an older child who does not mouth toys or non-edible items.  Obviously, these manipulatives should never be used with a very young child or any child when small toys are still a choke hazard.  


Cranium Cariboo

This game, hands down is my favorite.  I love to play it and so do my clients of any age, ranging between 2 ½ to 10 or even 11!  Imagine this: There is a secret treasure chest with a beautiful treasure locked inside.  Your only way to get to the treasure is by finding 6 brightly colored bouncing balls that  are hidden themselves, behind trap doors that only we can open with a special key… if that’s not enticing enough, there is the promised treasure at the end of the game which is worth the work of finding all of those hidden balls.  It’s great fun to watch children marvel at what they uncover with all of their hard work! 

This game is so simple for children to play.  Starting at a very young age, kids can navigate the board, open the doors, and find the balls hidden inside.  Because it’s a cooperative effort you can easily make it a joint experience and work together to find the balls, or for an older child with an appetite for competition, you can play the game with the winner being the one who gets the very last ball (as is suggested in the game instructions).

This is a magnificent tool for targeting so many skills; here are a few:

Turn taking (“my turn”/”your turn”)- relinquishing a turn, asking for a turn, tracking turns

Articulation –after saying several target words, taking a turn in the game

Receptive language- listening to descriptions and finding the correct trap door to open

 Commenting- making comments about the outcome of your turn

         -   “Oh man, no ball!” OR “WOW, I got a ball!” OR “You did it !”

Requesting- prompting the child to ask for the key saying, “I want the key!”

Joint referencing- once you’ve acquired all the balls, do something a little silly and BOUNCE them all around.  Have some fun together just celebrating the victory and be a little silly together! This provides a perfect opportunity to joint commenting through this zany break. 

Expressive language- targeting specific grammatical morphemes, such as

Auxiliary verbs

     -   When opening a door eliciting, “I am opening a flower door.”  “I am opening a helicopter door.”

Irregular past tense

     -   “I found a ball!”

     -   “I saw one!”

     -   “I did it!”

     -   “It went in another door!”


Next time you are out looking for a few new items to play with for your upcoming therapy sessions, remember to keep it simple.  With just a few toys, there are so many possible uses.  Give these FAVORITES a try and you’ll be amazed by how effective, yet simple they are! Send me a quick e-mail to let me know how it goes!