Gift Suggestions for Imaginative Play and Language Development

While working as a pediatric occupational therapist, I would always get the same question around this time of year: “What should I get my kid for Christmas?” The parents wanted suggestions for fun toys that would help their child make progress toward their goals. There are so many toys out there that shopping can be pretty overwhelming, especially if you are trying to figure out which toys would be beneficial! I’ve searched for other gift guides, but typically find they are too general. My goal is to help families find quality gifts that can serve a purpose in their child’s development. (These are only suggestions. Please follow the advice of your occupational therapist to help determine what is appropriate for your child. Also, you know your child- please choose gifts that will be used safely- i.e., no small pieces for a child who puts toys in their mouth.) I have separated these guides by needs, not diagnosis or age, because each kid is so different that age and diagnosis only tells us a little bit.

I partnered with Tools 4 Teaching, a local store in Evansville, to come up with a series of gift guides that target specific needs. This project really spoke to the owner, Julie, because she has asked the same question to occupational therapists regarding her children! As a mom of children with special needs and a former educator, she has a passion for helping families find what they need to help their children overcome learning obstacles and have fun.  Julie has offered to give 20% off in-store purchases to anyone who mentions this blog or shows the coupon at the bottom of the post!

Imaginative play is crucially important to young children. It helps them develop language skills, navigate social interactions, and experiment with different tools and toys. Playing “pretend” is a way that children can help make sense of their world and all of the new information that bombards them on a daily basis. Language skills are important because they help a person communicate what he or she wants or needs. This can be an area of frustration for young children as they are still working on the skills they need to adequately communicate.

I’ve divided this post into two part: toys and tools. The toys are items that the child can play with on their own, while the tools are more for an adult to help the child improve language skills. I am not a speech therapist, so these suggestions are very general!

1.) Toys

We’ll start with the big stuff. Sets like those pictured above help children role play different common situations, such as being in the grocery store or a restaurant. It’s a great chance to practice using “please” and “thank you” as well as think of all the situations you could encounter while on these outings. My daughter likes to be the “shopkeeper” (she watches a lot of Peppa Pig), and I am the customer. She learns basic concepts like exchanging money (“monies”) for groceries.

We have this exact kitchen at home. It has survived for two years without a scratch. I love how all of the food and kitchen accessories we buy for it can fit in the cabinets when it’s cleanup time. My daughter has gotten a lot of wonderful pretend play time with this set.

Dress up clothes are an easy way for kids to slip into a role. They can pretend to be a doctor, checking on patients. Or, they can be a chef, whipping up a wonderful creation of Lego-Barbie shoe pie (and you’d better believe they’ll have you taste it!).

Sets like those pictured above are great for pretending on a smaller scale. Tools 4 Teaching has a great selection of toys that can be used for imaginative play.

Farm play sets give kids an opportunity to make all sorts of fun noises. It can be a fun way for adults to help them learn to make different sounds as they work toward more advanced language skills.

Think of anything that you use as an adult, and put it in kid-size. A lot of pretend play is imitating what adults do so that they can learn how to navigate that social situation. As adults, we can help them develop their imagination by letting them play with toys unconventionally. A broom can be a horse, a blanket is a cape, a baby doll is a super hero, whatever their little mind comes up with, go with it! See where they take you.

2.) Tools

There are so many great tools out there for teaching the intricacies of language. The two pictured above are definitely for adults to use with children to encourage the development of positive social interactions.

The three pictures above can all be found at Tools 4 Teaching. These card sets can be used to help a child increase vocabulary and navigate social interactions.

Mirrors are a great tool to help a child see how his or her mouth is moving while forming sounds. It can also be used to bring attention to the child’s facial expression when teaching them emotions. This mirror has a normal side and a fun side!

These picture cubes would be for kids who have a good grasp on vocabulary and basic sentence structure, but are working on higher cognitive skills like telling a story and being creative. It could be especially helpful for those who have a hard time with spontaneous communication and instead rely on repeating what they’ve heard for communication.

Do you have any favorite toys for language development and imaginative play?

401 S Green River Rd, Evansville, IN 47715

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, so many of the links used in this post are my affiliate links. The price is no different for you, but I would earn a small commission on your purchase. If you find the items I have listed at a local toy store, by all means, support your local store!

Photos provided by Tools 4 Teaching.


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