I hope to be doing a haphazard series on toys that I love when working with preschoolers with speech and language delays, or for the 3-5 age group in general.  Since I have the opportunity to be in many different classrooms, I’m gathering a compilation of toys I prefer, and will definitely be buying for my own kids, whenever they come along!

I love toys that break.  I love toys with a million pieces.  I love taking them out, and I love putting them away.  Either I am a sick masochist, or I am a speech-language pathologist.  I’ll let you decide.

The great thing about toys with a million pieces is that I get the opportunity to present each piece as a communicative event.  For a child learning to request — verbally or with pictures — seeing a peg, or a bead, or a sticker staring them in the face, tantalizingly close, can spur communication.  Ooh, shiny.  Oooh, pretty.  Ooh, that mean lady only let me have one at a time.  I’ll show her.  I’ll ask for it again and again until she’s all out and I have them all!!!  Precisely.  Repetition helps solidfy these foundational skills. 

And guess what cleaning up is?  I love to use boxes with lids and make a terrific game out of cleaning up.  Kids working on articulation sounds might have to say a “magic word” (and no, it’s not “please”) for the lid to open.  That lid only allows one block in at a time, and it’s only triggered by the magic word of the day/moment.  Sneaky kids try to shove in as many pieces as they can before I shut the lid on their fingers  (oops, did I just admit that?).  With that element of a game, somehow, cleaning up just became fun. 

Another fantastic opporunity for repetition is in toys that break.  I don’t mean literally “break”; more accurately, I like toys that fall down, break apart, and require frequent “maintenance”.  Giant foam blocks are an easy one, especially for kids who just enjoy stacking.  If the tower is a little too sturdy, a gentle tap from a well meaning adult, will induce peals of laughter, a couple of “uh oh!”s and maybe some “it fell down”s.  I can’t tell you how many /f/ sounds I’ve elicited using toys that fall down.  I can’t tell you how many children who are autistic or otherwise introverted have been tempted by the allure of the perpetually falling tower.  Once they get past their initial frustration that this. stupid. thing. will. not. stay. up. they’re usually quite content to just keep on building.  Another toy in this genre I love is Unifix cubes.  While initially one might see only the limitations — they only connect linearly, and cannot be used to build in 3 dimensions, they’re more suitable for learning colors, sorting, and counting — I find them invaluable for their tendency to break apart at a certain length/height.  Precisely because they can only make lines, kids tend to either build up (making “towers”), or on the floor (making “snakes”).  And since I need my toys to have a million pieces, I use something like 200 Unifix cubes with one child, and the towers inevitably get too high.  The snakes invariably need to be moved to avoid furniture and people.  And in moving the snakes, they break apart.  In constructing towers taller than my munchkin clientele, they fall down. 

Repetition, repetition, repetition.  Kids are learning perseverence as they start all over again.  They’re learning problem-solving when they ask me to hold the base of the tower (never dreaming I’m the one behind the sabotage).  They’re measuring short and long, small and “big tall”.  They’re trying to make the snakes longer than me, the towers taller than they are.  And yes, they are sorting and labeling colors.  They are counting and occasionally making patterns.  And with my million pieces,  I also get opportunities for speech sounds or grammatical forms (“No, me do it!” is  popular refrain) as they earn pieces.  We also take turns as we put together towers and snakes.  We reinforce eye contact when I hold pieces in front of my face.  And you’d better believe it’s a big clean-up when we’re done.