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December 2011

Holiday Shopping With Development in Mind

By the Outpatient Occupational Therapists and Speech-Language Pathologists at TLC

Finding the perfect gift for the child in your life does not have to be difficult. There are many toys and games that are educational and address a child’s development of fine motor, gross motor, visual, sensory, speech-language and social interaction skills. As pediatric occupational therapists (OTs), we help children develop the skills they need to participate in daily activities and occupations. Speech-language pathologists (SLPs or speech therapists) help children develop and understand the spoken sounds and words—or an alternative method of communication, such as sign language—used to express their wants, needs, feelings, opinions and ideas.

Most children develop these skills as a result of typical childhood play and interaction with peers and family. Others may need skill development assistance with the help of a trained therapist. Because a child learns through exploration and play, pediatric speech and occupational therapists incorporate toys, books and games into therapeutic activities to facilitate a child’s development in the following areas:

Fine motor activities use small muscles in the hands and fingers for skills such as drawing, writing, cutting, manipulation of objects and feeding. Fine motor skill development, which includes strength and coordination, can be enhanced through playing with toys and games: using a pincer grasp to hold a checker or game piece with the fingers, maintaining a proper three-finger grasp on a crayon and using an isolated index finger to push a button on a game.

Gross motor activities use large muscles for skills such as running, climbing, jumping, skipping, playing hopscotch and riding a bike or scooter. Through these gross motor activities, children develop the skills to further explore their environment.

Visual perception refers to the ability to understand and interpret what we see. Through visual perception, children are able to distinguish similarities and differences among pictures and objects. Puzzles of all shapes and sizes, from very simple form boards with non-interlocking shapes to more complex 25-plus piece puzzles, provide a great and fun opportunity to enhance perceptual skill development.

SensoryProcessing: Our bodies send our brains information through the various sensory channels of vision, sound, touch, smell, taste and movement experiences. Our brains process this information to enable us to respond efficiently and automatically. Many childhood games and activities have inherent qualities that help to enrich our sensory experiences (e.g., sounds from automated toys, textures from bubble-blowing solution and modeling compound, such as Play-Doh).

Speech-Language: “Speech” refers to the sounds of a language that are used to form words. “Language” has many components, including expressive language (what we say, sign or write), receptive language (what we understand), structure (including rules of grammar and word order) and pragmatics (social communication). Most interactive toys and games can be used to address a child’s speech through naming objects that start with specific sounds (e.g., the /k/ sound incookies, cat, cow, etc.) and repeating specific phrases to improve intelligibility (e.g., “Go fish”). They may also be used to address receptive language through following directions (e.g., “Put the fish puzzle piece next to the dog puzzle piece.”), identifying concepts (i.e., color, shape, size, spatial), answering “wh” questions (e.g., “Where does the cow go?”). Finally, these toys and games can address expressive language skills through requesting (e.g., “I want five cherries.”), naming (e.g., “That is an orange fish.”), increasing sentence length, asking questions (e.g.,”Do you have a ball?”) and answering questions (e.g., “No, “I do not have a ball.”).

Social Interaction. Each culture has a variety of conventions that govern social interaction. These rules of behavior may include use of eye contact, proximity between communication partners and physical contact, as well as social conventions such as verbal and nonverbal greetings and turn-taking during a variety of activities.Many games and toys can address social skills through turn-taking (e.g., “My turn/Your turn”), manners (e.g., “May I please have the red block?”/”No, thank you”), following rules and directions (e.g., “First open the door, then take out the animal, finally match it to your board”), and interacting with adults, peers and family.

We have included a link to a table with some of our favorite toys and games to assist children's development (click here). Although this list does not begin to cover all of the quality toys and games that can address a child's needs, our hope is this guide will help you find those that are fun for the whole family and enrich your interaction at home.

Happy Shopping!


Brigid Baker, Erica Fuentes, Meridith McLane and Shirley Wietlisbach are licensed pediatric occupational therapists, and Shannon Parnell, Renee Wilson and Stacey Thompson are licensed speech-language pathologists with the Outpatient Services of TLC – The Treatment and Learning Centers (ttlc.org), a Rockville-based non-profit community organization founded in 1950 that provides multiple services to individuals with special needs. Janet Graves-Wright is a licensed speech-language pathologist and director of outpatient services at TLC.