May 2011

A Toy is a Toy...Or Is it?

Author: Jessi Dolnik, MA, CCC-SLP

I remember that feeling I got while walking near the toy aisle with my mom. So many toys! I remember how awesome it was when mom finally said, “Yes! Put it in the cart and not another word!” I recall ripping it out of the package and just loving that new toy, because it was not only so cool, but mostly because my sister was jealous. What a great toy it was… for one day. After that one day, the toy got lost in the bottomless toy box in our playroom. I had pushed all the buttons on it and figured out how to take out the batteries; and besides, my sister wasn’t jealous anymore, so I was done with it.

Well, I don’t remember that happening exactly, my mom does. According to her, this scenario played out quite a few times. I am sure many moms can relate to this situation.

Take a moment and think about what toys you can remember playing with as a child: The Fisher-Price Barn, Magna Doodle, Lincoln Logs. Come to think of it, the only toys I can remember playing with as a child—the toys that held my attention and interest over a period of time—are the ones that we now refer to as “developmental heavy-hitters.”

I still get to play with these “heavy-hitter” toys every day at my pediatric therapy facility, Lowcountry Therapy Center. The toys in my center are chosen specifically to encourage cognitive, gross-motor, fine-motor and language skills. These toys are not only age-appropriate but also open-ended, allowing a different facet of play as a child grows and changes in ability and interest.

Open-ended toys allow us to enhance the different ways we can play to focus on all areas of childhood development, including speech and language, cognition, fine-motor and gross-motor. The best toys are those with little suggestion to method or purpose of play but that allow a child to freely create anything that is fueled by their (and your) imagination. Less is sometimes more, and it is more about the process than the actual toy. Blocks, paint, Play-Doh, sand and water play toys are some good possibilities. My personal favorite was the large cardboard box that the washing machine was delivered in. It was a house, a car, a school bus, and a grocery store… the imagined possibilities are endless, and the opportunities to target all areas of development are limitless.Let’s start with infant toys and work our way through to late elementary school age. I like to ask three questions when buying a new toy or game for my center: What is the toy? Why do we want it? What else can I do with it?


What is the toy/game?

Why do we want it/want to play it?
Encourages cognitive skill of object permanence—a skill that is the essential foundation of the memory and the memorization process

Builds anticipatory skills

Encourages pre-linguistic turn-taking and first sounds

Promotes imitation from child

What else can I do with it?

Increases motor imitation skills and bilateral coordination of two hands

Increase time “hiding” to increase attention skills

Increase verbal turn-taking and overall output by having child finish phrase (i.e., parent: “peek-a” child: “boo!”) Have child imitate motor movement like raising hands overhead for “boo!”

What is the toy/game?
Tickle and Kiss

Why do we want it/want to play it?
Utilizes turn-taking

Gives child the opportunity to sign or ask for “more”

Encourages pre-linguistic skills

Kissing posture

boosts oral motor development Enhances body awareness

Provides social interaction and bonding with caregiver

What else can I do with it?
Promotes basic concepts and vocabulary: “I’m gonna kiss your … hand, foot, belly, etc.” “I’m gonna tickle you on your …shirt, pants, socks, etc.”


What is the toy/game?
Dress-up games

Why do we want it/want to play it?

Develop imagination and original thoughts

Practice role-playing

Increase social language skills

Boost fine motor coordination with buttons and zippers

Work on balance to stand while putting legs through pants

What else can I do with it?
Increase gross motor skills by having a dress-up relay race

Enhance fine motor coordination to make hats or other accessories to match the new outfits

What is the toy/game?

Why do we want it/want to play it?
Increase oral motor skills to blow, pucker lips, bring awareness to breath support

Basic concept boost: big, little, one, many, high, low, blow fast or slow

Increase vocal output, requesting and labeling: “pop, blow, bubble, more, open, uh-oh spill”
Target manners: “more, please” “thank you”

Hand eye coordination to catch a bubble
Bilateral integration skills to “clap” bubble between hands

What else can I do with it?
Enhance turn-taking and personal pronoun usage: “My turn” “Your turn”

Add a little tempera paint to bubble solution and you can make a bubble picture by blowing on a piece of paper

Catch bubbles with a butterfly net for hand-eye coordination and tool use

If learning how to blow, start off by catching bubble on wand and having child blow bubble off wand


What is the toy/game?
Board games

Why do we want it/want to play it?

Enhance social skills, including concepts such as cheating, tattle-tailing, being “tricky,” good listening, asking questions, complimenting/receiving compliments, being a group member; being a good sport, joining a group, “keeping cool”

What else can I do with it?
Improve receptive language skills by having child set up game by your verbal directions

Throw out the rules and make up your own game!

Boost fine-motor skills by using tongs or tweezers to move pieces

More board game “bang-for your-buck”: incorporate a question (e.g., “Name three things that are green.”) for language enhancement or gross-motor tasks (e.g., “Do 10 jumping jacks.”) in between game tasks.

What is the toy/game?
Obstacle Course: use pillows, furniture, sheets, tape on floor to balance on, etc.

Why do we want it/want to play it?
Increases motor-planning and problem solving skills

Relies on use of brain-boosting bilateral integration skills

Encourages receptive and expressive language use for following directions and giving directions

What else can I do with it?
Pretend the floor is “hot lava” to boost imagination and balance

Increase sequential concepts and have child tell you in which order to complete obstacles


What is the toy/game?
I Spy & 20 Questions

Why do we want it/want to play it?
Encourages open-mindedness, questions and skills

Increases visual scanning skills

What else can I do with it?
Great car game

Increase semantic language skills by, after item is identified, naming five more items in the same category

Increase attention and visual scanning skills to have child find something in the environment that has a similar attribute

What is the toy/game?

Why do we want it/want to play it?
Increases gross motor coordination for standing on one foot, hopping, jumping, underhand, aiming, and bearing weight unevenly to pick up stone

Enhances turn-taking and waiting skills

Improves motor-planning and problem solving skills

Be sure to follow the rules for older children to address winning and losing gracefully

What else can I do with it?
Instead of chalk on the sidewalk, use hula hoops, masking tape on carpet, etc.

Instead of numbers drawn in the grid use letters in name, shapes, colors, or a category (animals, foods) and have the child offer a member of the category landed on

Lowcountry Therapy Center’s pediatric therapists turn common toys and games into “therapy” by enhancing how the toy is used or tweaking the game to facilitate a bigger learning impact. Of course, there are some toys that a child really wants that would not be considered developmental “heavy-hitters.” Nintendo DS comes to mind. The best way to incorporate some developmental play here is to think out of the box. Perhaps you can practice jump rope for two minutes after your child beats a level on his/her favorite new DS game to work on gross-motor skills. Ask your child to describe how he/she got to Level Two to work on language and sequencing skills. Maybe set a timer and ask your child to pause the game every two minutes to tie another pair of daddy’s shoes (just not together!) to work on fine-motor skills (and surprise daddy with pre-tied shoes!). Use your imagination!

I should also mention the range of “developmental heavy-hitter” activities Hilton Head and Bluffton have to offer: Karate, gymnastics, T-ball, musical instrument classes, swim teams, dance classes, horseback riding lessons… just to name a few.

The next time you are faced with the toy aisle, please choose wisely. Think developmental “heavy-hitter.” Think simple. Will this toy be forgotten tomorrow or will it help me help my child learn and use his/her imagination for months to come? I encourage you to never look at a toy or a game the same again!

Jessi Dolnik is a Pediatric Speech-Language Pathologist. Lowcountry Therapy Center is located at 29 Plantation Park Dr., Suite 403, Bluffton. For more information, call (843) 815-6999 or visit

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