Toys, Books & Games that Promote Language Development

Toys, Books & Games that Promote Language Development

Sherry Artemenko Guest Writer- Mommy Speech Therapy
Having just announced my first PAL Awards (Play Advances Language), recognizing toys, games and books that encourage language, I wanted to share why I am so passionate about promoting children’s language. Early language proficiency correlates with later performance in school—reading, writing, and critical thinking skills—and influences emotional, cognitive and social growth. From a baby’s first coo, a toddler’s words, a preschooler’s little sentences to storytelling, children progress in their ability to express feelings, successfully connect in social situations, solve problems and make good decisions. As speech language pathologists, we can educate parents on toy selection, and guidelines for best usage to make a difference in the quality of play their child experiences.

In my private speech therapy practice, Play On Words, traveling from house to house, I have the unique opportunity to see kids in their home play environment every week. I find myself in playrooms surrounded by fun toys that entertain but don’t encourage talking. I am constantly educating parents, giving suggestions for toys, games and books to turn up the chat in the playroom. Add a mini kitchen with cookies that Velcro to the cookie sheet, plenty of spatulas, oven mitts and Playdoh to form some original cookies! Put some people on the train table, turn over a box for the ticket office and start selling tickets. Provide the fun, engaging props that invite pretend play and conversation.

How do parents sort through this huge supply of kids’ toys? Who do we listen to? Who are the experts? What is marketing hype and what is the truth?

Each time I start with a new family, I realize I am teaching the parents what to look for in a toy and how to select toys with lasting interest that encourage talk. Recognizing toys, games and books that do just that, and giving parents a list to start with helps them be discerning in choosing toys that will encourage their child’s language development.

Recently, I began to work with 22 month-old Sam, who was language delayed. The parents had originally called me to consult with them since some professionals were questioning whether he had autism. He was just beginning to string together babble but was generally pretty quiet, did have inconsistent eye contact but little joint attention, and the parents were worried. He was being raised bi-lingual, and was cared for by his grandparents who spoke Chinese exclusively to him. I walked into the house and was met by a smiling little guy who approached me with ease. As we played I heard some verbalizations, but no words.

I always make a quick assessment of the playroom. If play is his “work,” where are the tools of his trade? I saw lots of blocks, shape sorters, and a big train set, but no people or animals to animate, no vehicles to give the people a ride, houses to live in or playgrounds to enjoy. I reached into my bag of goodies and brought out some little people, vehicles, chairs, tables, picnic accessories and food. When I brought out the little table with cups, cookies and a cake on it, he tilted the little boy figure to take a bite, closed his own mouth imitating my “mmmmm” and then offered some cookies to a truck nearby. Not bad for pretend play! We had interaction, open-ended play, some imitation of sounds and symbolic play.

After two weeks of therapy, I walked into Sam’s house to see a new play table (next to the beloved train table) and it had a little airport with taxis, drivers, planes, suitcases and a picnic area for a snack. Mr. Potato Head was standing over the scene too! Mom had understood my lessons on toys selection.

PAL winners are examples of great language toys, games and books. My hope is that parents will see the scope of play these toys engender and be empowered to make wise choices when selecting children’s products. PAL Award recognizes children’s products that encourage language development, characterized by several of the following criteria:
Toys and Games:

  • Provide numerous opportunities to describe multi-sensory characteristics and actions for infants
  • Offer faces and characters to encourage conversation
  • Provide flexibility—can use the toy or play set in variety of ways for open-ended play
  • Encourage interaction, dialogue, and story telling
  • Contain related props to extend pretend play
  • Foster imagination and creativity
  • Teach specific language concepts through play
  • Build social skills and pragmatic language


  • Provide creative, engaging story with outstanding illustrations to easily narrate
  • Invite interaction
  • Encourage pre-literacy learning with clever rhyme, challenging vocabulary, and bold words, etc.
  • Provide the opportunity to teach critical thinking skills such as compare/contrast, inference and prediction.
  • Invite dialogue on topics that promote building kids’ character

For more than 30 years, Sherry Artemenko has worked with children to improve their speech and language, serving as a speech language pathologist in both the public and private school systems and private practice.

Prior to establishing Play on Words LLC, Sherry’s career as a speech language pathologist spanned 22 years in the Illinois and Connecticut public and private schools, where she worked with pre-school to high school-aged special needs children.

You can view the complete list of Pal Award winners and read Sherry’s full bio at her website


  1. Hello!

    I love your site. I have a question for you that I hope you can answer or provide some insight into.

    I have twin boys who are 2 years 7 months. They are delayed in their expressive language. I have been waiting for an evaluation from a private agency only to realize our insurance does not cover speech. So now I’m waiting for the school district to eval, which is going to take until the end of May for anything to be completed.

    My question is: Do you think not having speech these next 3 months, until May rolls around, will be detrimental to their development? Do you think they will fall even farther behind? How important is it that we jump into speech right now? Can you offer any sort of advice?



  2. Hi Susie,

    You are doing the right thing to seek out help for your little ones. My advice to you would be to read all you can on what you can do at home to help your twins until they receive their evaluation in May. Waiting a few more months will not be detrimental, but definitely do what you can now to help them in the mean time.

  3. My son is 15 months and he is only saying a few words and just started shaking his head yes or no. My only question is if he is asked where a certain part of his body is he points to it but he doesn’t say the word. Also if he wants something he says uh uh uh.. then if he doesn’t get it he falls out.

  4. Hello. I am an SLP. I love your website. Do you have an android version for mommy SLP?

  5. Hi Heidi, Thank you! You should be able to access the Mommy Speech Therapy website on your Android device using a browser. If you are referring to Articulation Station, the articulation app I’ve developed for the iPad, it is currently only on the iPad and coming to the iPhone/iPodTouch. I don’t have immediate plans to develop for Android, but looking into it. Thanks!

  6. Hi Jasmine,

    I am not sure I understand what your question was. It sounds like your son’s expressive language is not too far behind and that he is making more progress every day. Keep working on building that receptive vocabulary with games like labeling body parts and labeling pictures in books and things around the house and the expressive vocabulary will follow. Good luck!

  7. hello Susie I have twin girls that will be 3 in July and are delayed in speech. I am trying to look for moms that are in the same situation with twins to get some insight. Please message me so we can talk privatelty. I’d greatly appreciate it.



  8. hi heidi, i like your site. It’s very informative. I came across your site when I’m searching information about my son, he just turned 2years old last May and his not speaking a decent word neither a sentence so I’m so worried. Development Pediatricians here in the Philippines takes about 2-3 months for scheduling of assessment and due to this I can’t just enroll my son in a Speech Therapy/Class.
    My question is my son uses actions if he wants something like if he wants me to play a video on my cellphone, He gets the cellphone and put it on my hand so that I can play it and there is other things that he wanted he takes my hand lead me to what he wants but not speaking. Can you say with his kind gestures he’s getting there or almost there ready to speak? Thank you so much. Hope you could reply.

  9. Hi Maryan,

    Those gestures don’t necessarily indicate that he is close to speaking. They do however show he is finding ways to communicate what he wants. If you want to know if he is close to speaking watch for things like pointing, waving bye-bye, giving high fives, good eye contact, playing with sounds, babbling to himself, babbling to you as if he is trying to tell you something, imitating things you do, trying to imitate things you say, playing social games like peek-a-boo, enjoying social time like story time, songs and snuggling, enjoys playing with friends, follows other kids around trying to do what they do, wanting to be involved.

    In order to take full advantage of speech therapy services once you finally get them is to know as much as you can about the way your child communicates and be prepared with as many questions as possible. One thing that stands out to me is the way he uses the gestures you have described. Instead of pointing to what he wants he physically takes you to what he wants. The same goes for playing a game on your phone. He physically puts the phone in your hand to get you to play a game. My first reaction when I hear you describe your son in those few short sentences in respect to his late onset of language and the way he physically leads you to what he wants is those are consistent with signs of autism. He just as well may not have autism but I would recommend researching it further.

    There are so many sites on signs of Autism in toddlers where you will be able to view a checklist of behaviors that are typical of kids with autism. Look over a few of these. You may find with the exception of the late onset of language that he doesn’t do anything else on the list and then at least you can rule that out. On the other hand you may find that there are a few other things he does as well that are consistent with autism. If that is the case you will be prepared for your meeting with the speech therapist and hopefully you will be able to take full advantage of services to provide your son with the most advantages possible.

    Whatever happens I wish you the very best in your efforts to help your son learn to not only speak but to communicate.


  10. Hi Maryan,

    I am also an SLP, and I have to disagree with Heidi. All of her suggestions are fantastic, but i disagree that your son’s symptoms indicate autism. While autism is a possibility, but I have seen many 2 year olds with similar symptoms who have expressive language delays, but who are not on the autism spectrum. In fact, most children with language delays that I see use similar tactics to communicate their wants and needs in the absence of words. Does your son have a history of ear infections? Temporary hearing loss, sometimes due to fluid in the ears can contribute to a language delay. I’m not saying autism isn’t a possibility, but nothing you described seems seems to indicate autism instead of a more basic expressive language delay.


  11. Thanks Laura for your comment. Let me clarify what I was saying. I did not say the symptoms indicate autism, I said they were consistent with symptoms on the autism spectrum, meaning that autism is a possibility. He may just as well only have an expressive language delay. The reason I mentioned autism at all is if I were the mom I would want to research all the possibilities that could be contributing to my son’s language delay so that I could get him the help he needs as quickly as possible. We all know that early intervention can make all the difference.

  12. Hi Heidi,

    I loved this article and it made so much sense. My daughter is 23 months old and I’ve been speaking to her in my mother’s language which is Somali. She understands the basic words like “come here” and “eat” etc. But doesn’t speak. She babbles a LOT but doesn’t say any words. She says her aunties name and her grandmothers name but nothing else. I’m getting really worried but people tell me that every child is like that at this age. But as her mother, I can’t help but worry. I have made some appointments for a developmental evaluation. Do you think I have a reason to be worried? Oh and if you could post some links for the toys you most recommend, I would very much appreciate it! 🙂 thank you x

  13. Hi Reem,

    My recommendation is to go ahead and get an evaluation from a Speech Language Pathologist because only 2 words at 23 months is behind the norm. Don’t be too concerned yet though. Wait to see what the therapist has to say. If you can get an evaluation with a bilingual Speech Pathologist that would be even better.

    My favorite toys for kids 0-3 years old are toys I can manipulate with my hands. In general I like stacking blocks, shape sorters, stacking cups, play dough, and train tracks. I also love toys that inspire dramatic play like dolls, kitchens, and puppets. There are always new fun toys on the market though to keep kids motivated and that’s when I turn to Sherry Artemenko for advice because she is always on top of the latest fun toys.

    All the best!

  14. I just want to thank you in advance. I know you get a lot of these questions so I’m sorry if this has been asked already and I just didn’t see it on your site. My son is 26 months and today he had a assessment with early intervention and I was told he was in the first percentile with his expressive and receptive communication. I’m going ahead with the monthly in home visits they offer but do you think it would be beneficial to push forward with private therapy as well? I don’t want to overwhelm him but I also want to do everything I can for him. Can I do enough for him or is this something better dealt with by professionals, with my assistance of course.

  15. Hi Melissa,

    I would recommend you start with the home visits through early intervention. Ask as many questions as you can when they come and do everything they tell you to do. Progress is so much faster when parents follow through with the recommendations from the therapists! After a few months, if your son still isn’t making the kind of progress you think he should be making you may want to ask about the possibility of increasing the frequency of the home visits. If that is not an option I would recommend looking into private therapy. Because, like you said, you want to give him every opportunity to succeed possible. I’m sure he’ll do great!

    All the best!

  16. Niloofer Nizar -SLP

    HI Heidi..I am working with a child of 2 yrs old with features of autism .Has a history of exposure to tv and ipad for almost 10 hours a day. Now the parents have adapted environmental changes and now child is limited to them.Is it ok if I use apps to work with him ?or should I completely avoid ipad exposure even to work with speech?

  17. Good question! This would be a situation in which you would want to work very closely with the parents to determine what is best for the child. The iPad might be used in therapy as a motivational tool to motivate the child to complete speech/articulation drills and exercises. However, if the parents feel that it would be better to not have the child exposed to the iPad during therapy, or if it becomes too much of a distraction, then it’s probably not an appropriate tool for this particular child in therapy. Good luck!