THE BEST LEARNING TOYS FOR NONVERBAL CHILDREN
There is no single miracle toy that jump-starts every child’s path in learning communication and speech. In fact, kids learn best in different ways, and a variety of different toys and techniques can help kids develop skills more fully. Different toys have certain elements that can really help with language development, many providing special support for nonverbal children who are putting together the building blocks of speech.
Making any Toy a Learning Toy
Whether you’re playing farm together and making animal noises or matching colors in a board game, you’re creating an environment in which you and your child can learn together. Children learn best when having fun, that is when they’re engaged and interested in a single activity. By tucking away distractions and bringing out one very special toy at a time, you’re creating a calm environment where learning thrives.
When planning a learning activity, the environment comes first. Is there a quiet area tucked away from distractions? Is the child well fed and rested, ready to play? Are there just enough items out for a fun and engaging activity, without becoming dull or overwhelming? You may find the most success providing just two choices at a time—two different activities the child can pick from, developing autonomy as well as an investment in the game.
The goal of any learning activity is to be engaging and focused, drawing your child into wanting to play again in order to develop their skills and knowledge in a positive environment.
There is nothing like a soothing, familiar sensory toy for creating a calm, focused learning environment. Sensory toys vary from bubbles to play dough to soft toys of all varieties, anything that provides a soothing, encapsulating sensation that both delights and calms the child engaging with it. It can be a delicate balance—sometimes a child is calm arranging felt objects in a line but overstimulated with bubbles flying all around the room. It all comes back to the environment: creating a calm space with whichever toy you choose.
Bubbles have their own special magic in a learning environment. When a bubble suddenly pops in the middle of the room, there’s excitement in the air. You can show your excitement by saying “POP!” and even clapping your hands together. When blowing bubbles, you can encourage your child by saying “Can you blow?” and showing them how, and exclaiming, “You did it!” as they figure it out. Blowing bubbles is one of those beautiful occasions where repetition feels natural, encouraging kids to try out sounds and facial expressions.
Other sensory toys, from soft felt toys to play dough, add a gentle sensation to the learning environment. Instead of flash cards and photographs, which can feel frigid and distant, sensory toys can feel familiar and calming as you play, whether making animals with modeling toys or finding them on a play farm. By introducing sensory elements to any activity, you help your child to maintain attention and calm through the learning process.
Puppets, Dolls & Other Expressive Toys
Many children who are learning to speak are also learning nonverbal forms of communication such as facial expressions and social cues. Playing with expressive toys, like puppets, helps kids to identify emotions, both in themselves and in others.
Certain toys like Mr. Potato Head have a unique benefit: Kids can pick out happy smiles or angry eyes, starting the conversation on their own. You might ask how the potato head is feeling, and practice making expressions together in the mirror.
The magic of toys is they can come alive and talk to you, saying they feel sad today because their friend isn’t here, or they’re happy because they get to play on a trampoline. Whether it’s a puppet, a stuffed animal, or anything else with two eyes and a mouth, toys can help children expand their awareness of emotions, getting to know themselves or others better.
A play set is a magical thing. It opens up and there’s a whole world inside. These can be anything from a house or farm to something your child is especially interested in like a fire station or restaurant. There are many language development games that can be played, all while a child’s attention is captured by the tiny universe hidden inside the play set, from role-playing a day in the life of a duck to finding all the furniture in a house. One thing that makes our play sets special is how they fold; they can show just one room in order to focus on a couple things, or expand to show the whole play set with a world of possibilities.
Simple Board Games
What makes board games a wonderful learning toy for nonverbal children is the social experience—having other people to model behaviors from while practicing everyday conversational cues: waiting your turn, counting, matching pictures, and other familiar things. Board games also help with social development; not everyone wins but that’s okay, everyone gets a turn and everyone has to wait, and cheering each other on is a kind thing to do.
Any developmentally appropriate game is perfect—the more, the merrier. If you’re looking for more, our farm bingo game helps build language concepts: big and small, in and out, with pictures of animals, tractors, and other things kids love and identify with.
Cause and Effect Toys
Toys with a single, simple, yet exciting cause and effect can be wonderful for practicing sounds and phrases with nonverbal children. The classic example is the jack-in-the-box, but there are hundreds if not thousands of examples out there. A toddler’s toy vacuum tosses colorful balls in the air with tiny popping sounds. A little plastic frog hops when the child presses its back. A slap bracelet wraps around your wrist with a flick. Even marble mazes and yo-yos fall into the category of cause and effect.
When the marble disappears into the tunnel, say, “Where did it go!” When the domino falls over, say, “Oh no!” When the frog hops, say, “Hop” and “Ribbit.” These phrases become part of the game and the repetition helps kids to build confidence in trying them out.
The Child’s Favorite Toys
In the right environment, a child’s favorite toy is the perfect anchor for learning new things. A child may have something they love more than anything else, from ponies and trains to triangles and car washes. This could be a new fascination, or a passion for something that has lasted for years. Sometimes parents avoid involving these sorts of toys in a learning environment as the child can become overstimulated, either yelling and running around or becoming withdrawn and self-soothing. But introducing a toy that a child is very passionate about is also a great way to hold their interest while playing with different concepts, from onomatopoeia to feelings to routine phrases like “hello.”
There will always be times when parents feel disheartened, looking for ways to help and support their nonverbal child. Learning is a process that doesn’t happen all at once, but is extremely rewarding to witness.
By forming the building blocks of language-learning together in different ways, you are helping in more ways than you’ll ever know.
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