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Northwestern Experts Identify Best Toys for Kids

Looking for one of those interactive, Wi-Fi-enabled, voice-recognition toys to strengthen a child’s language skills this holiday season? Perhaps reconsider.

Five clinical supervisors at Northwestern University’s Center for Audiology, Speech, Language, and Learning (NUCASLL) say skip “Hello Barbie,” “Talking Olaf,” and “Stretch and Shout Raphael,” and go instead with classic toys like a stuffed animal, plastic truck, or set of stacking blocks. Those can better engage a child in productive conversation during play than anything that chats.

“We care about toys because we use them to help bring out language skills in children,” says Judith Roman, a board-certified childhood language specialist and lecturer at the School of Communication’s Roxelyn and Richard Pepper Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders.  “Speech-language pathologists pay attention to the embedding of language on top of the use of toys.”

On November 18, Roman and colleagues spoke to a group of alumni, parents, and caregivers gathered at NUCASLL about finding the most developmentally appropriate gifts for kids of all learning levels. “Toys to Talk About” was the first event of its kind for the clinic, aiming to educate grown-ups on what growing littles truly need.

“As a child learns to represent objects, actions, and feelings in play, a corresponding ability to represent them through language also develops,” says Roman, citing outside studies. “Research bears out that children gain massive benefits from being exposed to sophisticated words in all settings, including play.”

“No need to dumb it down for children,” she adds. “Expect them to rise up to it.” 

Noisy toys may also be a challenge in language development simply by becoming the center of attention and, in turn, impeding human interaction. Audiologist Jennifer Phelan says that the Sight and Hearing Association, a nonprofit research organization, produces an annual “Noisy Toy List” identifying play items with sounds exceeding the standard recommended level of 85 decibels.

“[The association members] call themselves the “Grinches of Christmas,” Phelan says, referring to the group’s list of popular, well-advertised toys that don’t do kids any developmental favors. If a parent is unsure about a certain toy’s noise, Phelan recommends downloading an app that simulates the sound before making a purchase.

On hand to answer questions and offer suggestions were Denise Boggs Eisenhauer, director of the Speech & Language Clinic at NUCASLL, as well as clinical faculty members Amy L. Sindelar and Amy B. Levin. Representatives from Becky & Me Toys in Evanston brought along bags filled with trusted and proven toys that attendees could (and did) inspect.

So what toys do the experts recommend? First, those that match the learning stage of a child’s life. Examples included: plastic keys for sensorimotor play; a xylophone or hammer-and-ball set for cause-effect play; a tea set for functional/relational play; blocks and stacking items for constructive play; child-size kitchen or grocery sets and dress-up clothes for symbolic play; and games with rules for when kids get a little older. Additionally, do combine books with toys, and choose books that include repetition, alliteration, and rhyme.

It’s what the toy facilitates, rather than the toy itself, says Roman, that can make the difference between encouraging language development in a child versus discouraging it.

And the gift of language tops every parent’s wish list.