A Developmental Therapist’s Favorite Toys

As a developmental therapist, parents are always asking me for toy recommendations. Here is are five developmentally-appropriate toys for toddlers that I love to use in therapy sessions:

1. Mr. Potatohead
The classic Mr. Potatohead is a fantastic, battery-free toy that people have enjoyed for decades! With Mr. Potatohead, children learn about body parts and can explore their placement on the potato. Children also work on their fine motor development while placing features on Mr. Potatohead. Parents and caregivers of older children can expand their play with this toy to learn functions of body parts and explore different facial expressions.

2. Playdough
Playdough is a great for symbolic or imaginative play, language development, and sensory exploration! Playdough can be molded into food or animals to encourage symbolic play. For their language development, children can work on color identification or following directions while manipulating the dough. Playdough can be used for imitation of gestures (e.g. rolling, poking, patting, etc.). You can also hide small toys inside playdough for texture or sensory exploration (while supervised, of course!).

And if you’re looking for an easy kitchen activity with your child, you can make the dough yourself!

Homemade Playdough
1.5 cups flour
½ cup salt
2 teaspoons of cream of tarter
2 tablespoons of oil
1 cup of boiling water
Food coloring

Mix all ingredients in a large bowl and then knead until smooth. Store in an airtight container to keep soft.

3. Melissa and Doug Nesting Blocks
These blocks are great, as they can be used for so many different areas of development! Parents and children can work on joint attention (when two parties are engaged in the same activity, sharing attention with a particular toy or activity) by taking turns stacking the blocks. Fine motor skills are developed through the motion of stacking. Children can work on their animal, color, or letter identification, as well as animal sounds, with the colorful pictures on the blocks. And while cleaning up the blocks, children can work on their understanding of size concepts while nesting the blocks.

4. Farm Set
I really like the “Little People” farm set but really any will do! This is a great toy for symbolic play and language development. Children can engage in symbolic play by feeding or putting animals to bed. It is another great toy that can be used for imitation of different play gestures. Children can also work on their receptive language by following directions provided by their caregiver or matching the sounds to each animal (use this toy while singing “Old McDonald”!) For older children, you can discuss the kinds of animals that live on a farm and those who do not.

5. Melissa and Doug Cutting Food
Whether it is the fruit, food, or grill set, children love the Melissa and Doug play food! This toy provides children the opportunity to imitate adult behavior (which we know they love to do!). Not only can you discuss the different types of food, it provides children fine motor practice and is a great symbolic play activity.

Kimberly Shlaes, MAT, DT