• Rachel Brehm

Why Your Kids Don’t Need Fancy Toys for Developmental Play




“Too much” is overwhelming and stressful, whether it’s too much stuff, too much information, too many activities, too many choices, or too much speed – always hurrying from one task to the next, never a moment to relax or play. Having and doing too much can overwhelm a kid and lead to unnecessary stress at home and in the classroom. Sandy Kreps


It can be so tempting to buy our kids the latest and greatest toys. There’s always something new and exciting when it comes to children’s toys, and the desire to make our kids happy (while also working on appropriate developmental and social skills) can sometimes overpower our common sense. We know that toys and play are so important, but what we sometimes forget is that less is more. The fewer play choices kids have in front of them, the less overwhelmed and overstimulated they will be – and the more likely they are to engage in deep imaginative play. The fewer flashing lights and buttons to press, the more the opportunity for turn taking, sharing, language development, and creative play.


Playing with friends and playing with toys is fun, but it’s so much more than that. Exploration and play are a crucial part of cognitive development, and how children learn about their world. It’s also how our therapists turn hard work into something interesting, fun, and meaningful.


Educational play doesn’t need to be fancy! Children can learn so much through basic activities and simple toys. We don’t always need flashing, lighting up, button pushing toys to teach our children. In fact, it’s not really about the toy – it's about the engagement, experience, and meaningful play.


At Orange County Speech Services, we use simple and basic toys as part of our everyday therapy. The simplest activities and the simplest toys can make the biggest difference. Check out the list below of some basic (and favorite) toys that can be used both in therapy and at home.


  1. Bubbles: so basic! Bubbles are a wonderful activity for so many reasons. One, they’re easy. Two, they’re cheap. Three, kids love them. Four, they encourage eye contact, joint attention, and a meaningful shared experience. Bubbles are a great communication tool, and so much fun. Need something more exciting for older kids? Try a bubble machine!

  2. Mirrors: mirrors can be fascinating! Little ones love to see their reflection. Encourage play through naming and pointing to body parts. It can also be less intimidating to work on eye contact through the reflection of the mirror, rather than face to face. For older kids, you don’t need to simply sit down in front of a mirror and play. Sit down near a mirror while you play a game or work on an art project. Take small breaks to smile at each other, make eye contact, and talk to each other about your activity in the mirror.

  3. Blocks: no buttons, no lights, no noise – just blocks. Building with blocks encourages an understanding of cause and effect (if I knock the blocks over, they will make a sound, if I build too high, they will fall over), it encourages spatial awareness (on, under, next to), and it’s perfect for turn taking and sharing. Furthermore, building with blocks creates meaningful opportunities for pretend play and conflict resolution (she knocked down my castle!)

  4. Balls: there’s not much to it, but playing with a ball has so much potential for developmental play! Playing catch encourages turn taking, eye contact, speech, object permanence, hand-eye coordination, timing, motor planning, attention, and has the potential to branch off into more creative play.

  5. Stacking rings: similar to blocks, but a bit more complex. During play you can use descriptive language to explain size, location, color, etc. to engage in interactive and meaningful play.

  6. Stuffed animals or dolls: toys that facilitate pretend play are great for language and cognitive development. Taking care of stuffed animals or dolls (feeding, changing diaper, holding) can encourage empathy and an understanding of basic feelings (baby is crying, baby is sad, baby is happy). This type of play sets the foundation for pretend and imaginative play.

  7. Tea Party: create a social scene! Invite some stuffed animals, dolls, or friends to play together at a tea party. Simple directions will encourage listening skills, turn taking, and inclusion of others. This activity creates opportunities for language development and an introduction of new words.

  8. Puzzles: great for problem solving and working together. Puzzles create so many opportunities for learning and growth. It encourages task-oriented activity, focus and attention, concentration, language development, pattern recognition, and group effort.

  9. Cars and trucks: so fun for creative play! Racing and driving cars gives us the opportunity to compare colors, sizes, speeds, shapes and much more. It encourages language and early reasoning skills. This is another activity that can lead to deeper imaginative play.

  10. Shape sorter: similar to a puzzle, but best for the little ones. This activity encourages exploration, cause and effect, comparison of shapes, colors, sizes, and the opportunity for early problem-solving skills.


The great thing about each of the above-mentioned toys and activities is that they can be customized and tailored to work on each child’s specific needs and developmental/physical goals. One of the most important reasons we like to keep things simple is that it actually encourages play. Having too many things and too many choices makes all of us feel stressed out. A few choices of their favorite things encourages kids to strengthen social skills, overcome physical obstacles, enhance language skills, and use toys in new and imaginative ways.


“To simplify is to find a place of balance as you move away from ‘too much.’ Only with less can children figure out what they truly like and want.”

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