Holiday Gift Guide 2021: Best Toys for Babies and Toddlers

Bridget Hillsberg
November 15, 2021

Are you feeling the hustle and bustle for the holiday season a little bit earlier than usual this year? Us too. You may have many things on your to-do list right now and we are hoping to help you cross one of them off your list… DECIDING WHICH TOYS TO GIFT YOUR LITTLE ONE! There are lots of great toys out there, you may even feel a little overwhelmed with all the options. Rather than purchasing to cross it off the list we want to help you be thoughtful about the toys that come into your home (and even those you may gift to others). As pediatric speech-language pathologists we’ve played with HUNDREDS of toys and we have discovered that not all toys are created equal. In fact, when it comes to toys that help to build language… LESS IS MORE!!  One research study showed that parents tend to say more words and use more descriptive language while playing with visually simplistic toys (e.g. Lego Duplos, dolls or nesting blocks) versus visually and auditorily complex toys (e.g. toys that have flashing lights and make noise). This doesn’t mean you should go return/get rid of all your fun, bright flashy talking toys, however, while shopping for your child this holiday season be mindful about which toys you are selecting. Think simple non-battery operated toys. While playing with these simple toys there will be more opportunities to talk to your child thus building your child’s language skills. Also, be sure to purchase toys that are motivating to your child. Motivation is key and with motivation comes desire to communicate!

We created a holiday guide for you of some of our favorite toys that lend themselves to fun, interactive play and language building. Now not all of these toys will be motivating to your child, but when you find the one that is, go with it! When it comes to play, our focus is to start with very simple, yet functional words. For example, words like, more, help, up/down, in/out, on/off, open/close and of course labeling the noun (toy) that we are using. It’s also super important to model verbs (action words) when playing with these toys! Here are some of our top picks for this holiday season:


Stacking and nesting toys are so simple but so good for using functional language.  We love just repeating the word “up” over and over until the tower falls down and then we repeat the word “down”. Simple yet so effective! We love this Melissa and Doug Set:


This is an oldie but a goodie! This potato couple is great for teaching your little one body parts, clothing, pronouns (check out our pronoun tea party on instagram), functional language like “put on” and “take off.” This toy also gives you an opportunity to introduce your child to one step directions like “put eyes on.” We love these amazon exclusive sets:


Play kitchens and food sets are an amazing holiday gift to get children to start engaging in pretend play! Here are some of the things you can pretend...⠀”POUR HOT water”, ”FILL the cup from the fridge”,  “CUT the food”, “WASH hands in the sink”, “SET the oven timer”. You can label fruits, vegetables and snacks and use words like “NOM NOM NOM”, “MMM” and “Yuck!” while pretend playing. Here are some of our favorites play kitchen sets and items:


We love introducing children to a dollhouse because the concepts and objects you incorporate with a play house can be easily generalized into your home and everyday routines! Here are some words and concepts you can introduce to your during this play routine: “knock-knock”, “open”, greetings such as “hi” and “bye” in the bedroom you can use words like “bed”, “ tired”, “sleep”, “wake up”,  and “shhh.” We show you how to pretend play with this dollhouse on our instagram page:


When playing with puzzles, you are the keeper of the pieces and that is a very powerful position! Puzzles are a great activity to help your little one understand and start using the word “MORE”. When we are using puzzles in therapy, we are always the keeper of the pieces and all of the puzzle pieces are in a large ziplock baggie or clear container. Each time a client wants a new puzzle piece, they need to either sign or say “MORE” or “OPEN”. After they communicate one of these words, immediately reward them with a puzzle piece. For kids who like puzzles, this is motivating enough to get them to request it! We love these puzzles:


“1-2-3……GO!!” This is our go-to when playing with cars. Cars are also great for teaching exclamatory words like “CRASH” and “BOOM” and can be super motivating for kids. We love these sets:


Baby dolls are a great toy to stimulate language development. There are lots of verbs to model when playing with baby dolls like “hug” “kiss” “cry” and “sleep”. You can also add doll accessories to your play like a bottle and some pretend food and work on words like “eat” and “drink.”


Puppets are interesting, different, fun and highly motivating! There are SO many activities that can be done to incorporate language learning through puppets. You can use puppets to get toddlers to engage in back and forth interactions by copying the puppet’s gestures or words and visa versa! We love to practice this actions like “open your mouth”, “wave your hand”, and “touch your _____.” Here are some puppets we love:


When you play doctor, lots of the concepts and objects you incorporate can be easily generalized into your real life! This game is MOTIVATING so your little one is soaking up all these words and concepts without feeling the pressure to talk! Here are some of the words and concepts we used within this play routine: greetings (say “hi” to the patient) spatial concepts (“put the bandaid ON”), body parts (“Her ARM hurts”), emotions (“The baby feels SAD”), asking questions (“Does it hurt”), answering Questions (“Yes it does hurt”) verbs (“CALL the doctor,” “SIT on the table”), exclamatory Words (“Ouch!” “Yay!). Watch Stella and I play doctor in this igtv. We love this set here:


Cause and effect thinking allows your child to start making guesses about what is happening around them. These types of toys are good tools to teach children that their actions can cause something to happen. We share some of our favorite cause and effect toys below:


Just like with puzzles, when playing with these “push in” toys, you are the keeper of the pieces which is a very powerful position! Again, we like to put the pieces in a large ziplock baggie or clear container. Each time a client wants a new piece, they need to either sign or say “MORE” or “OPEN”. Also, once your little one is saying enough functional words you can use these toys to teach numbers and colors. We love these ones.


Did you know animal sounds actually count as a word? Modeling animal sounds can be beneficial to your toddler's expressive language abilities. We always make an animal sound when we label an animal because they are FUN and what is fun is MOTIVATING! Animal sounds are the most basic word shapes because they usually only contain a consonant+vowel ("baa" and "moo"). This means they are one of the easiest words to say. Try working on animal sounds with these farm toy sets:


When it comes to play kits our absolute favorite are Lovevery Play Kits. These play kits include simplistic and developmentally appropriate toys that are broken down by age group. Each toy was thoughtfully developed to help build a child’s development in one or more areas. The Lovevery toys target language, motor and even academic skills. We love all that they have to offer!

This is just a snapshot of some of the toys we like to use to elicit language but there are many, many more. As you can see, the recurring theme here is these toys are SIMPLE, no batteries or flashing lights!


Choose a few simple yet functional words depending on your play activity and repeat those words over and over and over again. When you REPEAT, they REMEMBER! Also don’t forget the importance of motivation…Choose toys that your child enjoys playing with because these toys will help to encourage your child to communicate! And when you are playing, have fun and don’t be afraid to be silly and animated… Your little one will love it and be more inclined to start talking!

One last thing, more toys does not always mean more language.  There are even ways to build your child’s language skills that don’t involve toys. Sometimes the magic really happens when YOU act as your child’s toy! Let’s be real, you are your child’s greatest gift anyway. Toyless-parent-child interactions are FUN & SIMPLE and sometimes even make it easier to teach your little one new words or concepts!  We talk all about this in our online courses! So if you are looking to learn simple and effective strategies to help get your little one talking, check out Talk On Track (newborn-14 months) and Time To Talk: Toddler Course (15-36 months)!

Bridget Hillsberg
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