What Makes a Good Language Toy?
When your baby arrives, it's time to play. Since newborn babies prefer a variety of shapes, curves, angles and contrasts in light and dark, your face is his first favorite toy! He reacts as you talk to him and smile, watching your mouth, eyes and face move, casting shadows and changing expressions.
But by the time your baby reaches three months, he can see more clearly, focus on an object and is interested in a toy. You're still a favorite but now it's time to pick great toys that will enhance language. Certain features in a toy will invite more language, giving you more to talk about as you play with your baby.
1. Find a Friendly Face: Choose toys that have a friendly face. A rooster, a caterpillar or even an apple can all have a face, ready to engage in your baby in conversation with you. Babies are naturally attracted to faces and actually talk more to a face, especially one with lots of expression. Take on the voice for your bug or pony and talk to your baby, describing actions like eating, sitting, playing, or galloping while moving your toy. Blocks and stacking rings are great toys for building that can be animated when they have a face on them. Look for toys with a face.
2. Feels Good: Describe contrasting textures to provide your baby with lots of exciting vocabulary like crinkly, smooth, bumpy, soft, hard or fuzzy. Talk about the puppy's shiny, smooth paws and fuzzy, squishy tummy, as your baby is exploring the toy. Look for toys that have lots of contrasts in texture—some soft, hard, slippery, fuzzy, bumpy or smooth surfaces. The more contrasts your toy has, the more you have to describe and talk about with your baby. Feeding babies' descriptions with rich vocabulary enhances their language.
3. Sounds Alive: Many baby toys make a sound—a rattle, a jingle, or a squeak. Some even make the sound for the specific animal like a bark for a dog or moo for a cow. Squeeze your little dog to bark or shake your elephant to rattle, pause and watch your baby's response. Talking about the sounds you've heard and repeating them yourself adds interest to your baby's play and promotes listening skills.
4. Colorful contrasts: Since newborns focus on the boldest patterns and see only some color, toys with bold patterns of black and white are of greatest interest to them. But, by the time a baby is three months old, he can make nearly all the color distinctions so bring on the color! While a toy with many contrasting colors is exciting to look at, it also provides lots of opportunity to describe the different colors. Don't forget a board book with bright colors on a white background serves as an interesting "toy" to look at also. Hold the book up so your baby can see the book as well as your face as you read the simple text.
After speaking to a group of new moms about the importance of strong, bright colors in a toy, one mom told me she was going to give all of her pastel stuffed animals that she received for baby gifts to her cat! She thought they didn't meet the criteria of bright colors. I discouraged her, saying that these stuffed friends might be useful when her child is around two, as guests at a pretend tea party or riders in a wagon during creative play.
5. Bring on the Action: Look for flexibility in a toy—one where you and your baby can engage in lots of actions to describe. Moving parts like doors to open, peek-a-boo windows, containers to put things in, and openings to push through all provide opportunities to talk about objects in, out, through, and opening and shutting.
Play on Words picks:
Trotter the Pony by Lamaze: Who wouldn't want to chat with this face? Lift his saddle to see bumpy corduroy contrasted with his fuzzy body and smooth, shiny hooves. Want some action? Pull his legs and watch them get shorter and longer, or let him gallop over to your baby. Talk about the actions, textures, patterns, colors and shapes as you converse with Trotter.
Pupsqueak by Lamaze: This dog toy barks and pants alternately when you press his nose and conveniently carries his bone wherever he goes. Have fun narrating while he eats, sits, walks and even takes a nap.
Me in the Mirror by Sassy: Choosing this mirror gives you versatility—you can hang it on the crib, or it stands alone for tummy time. Be on the lookout for fun faces and bugs or characters to describe around the mirror, like this sun, bug and bird. The opposite side is a picture frame so you can rotate pictures of people and places familiar to your baby.
Whoozit by Manhattan Toy: This whimsical character's face invites babies to investigate the hidden noises including rattles, squeaks, and crinkling paper. Lift up its nose and you can see yourself in the mirror.
Gymini™ Super Deluxe Light and Music Activity Gym by Tiny Love: Activity mats bring on the fun and this bright playground of toys has a dangling elephant, giraffe and bird with a big round mirror that moves and provides new vistas to describe. The animals offer different textures and sounds like squeaks and crinkles to name as your baby watches and reaches for them. You can add classical music, nursery rhymes and lights for excitement.
Sherry Artemenko, MA-CCC, is a Speech-language pathologist and founder of Playonwords.com
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