When it comes to toys, less is more!


When a parent asks, “Is there a good toy I can buy to help with Timmy’s language development?” how do you typically answer that question? We already know that symbolic play is pretty important for language development, so we could go with an old TISLP favorite: pick toys that can “be” stuff rather than toys that “do” stuff.

But what other evidence-based suggestions can we give?

This study looked at whether the visual simplicity (or complexity) of a toy changed how parents talked to their toddlers during play. Researchers took visually “busy” ring-stackers and stacking blocks and simplified them by taking out some of the patterns and textures of the toys. Then they recorded the interactions between mothers and infant while playing with each type of toy. From the recordings, three kinds of parent comments were coded:  

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It turned out that moms offered more specific vocabulary to their toddlers (36% of utterances) while playing with the simple versions of the toys. While playing with visually busy toys, Moms only used more specific vocabulary in ~8% of their utterances.  

How did this study come to be? You’ll probably relate to the authors pointing out how, you pick up a kind of ambiguous toy, try to name it, and think, “What is this?!?” There are times when even people with great vocabularies are at a loss for words, and that’s not a great thing to have happen when we’re working with a language-delayed toddler. Sometimes it’s hard to name parts of really busy toys (lots of bright and unique colors, many different parts and pictures, stuff like that). While this study doesn’t tell us that those award-winning educational toys are bad for language development, it does tell us that adults may not refer to these visually busy toys very specifically during play. So if you have a little one on your caseload who would benefit from repetition of more specific vocabulary—help the family pick out some of their more simple toys to use during play!


O’Neill, D. K., Deglint, T. J., McKinnon, A. M., Nyhout, A., & Scott, J. (2019). Busy toy designs reduce specificity of mothers’ references to toy parts during toy play with their toddlers. Canadian Journal of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology.

Infant Directed Speech: Not just for play!


How often do you coach parents of the infants and toddlers on your caseload to incorporate language elicitation strategies into play? Probably a lot. And for good reason—infant directed speech (the spontaneous changes in a caregiver’s language and speech that support language development, commonly called “motherese”) is often automatic for parents when playing hide-and-seek or exploring those new birthday toys.

But how often do you coach parents to address communication development during feeding?  If this is already a part of your practice, pat yourself on the back!  Currently, the majority of research on infant directed speech is within the context of play, but this study found promising results when examining changes in mothers’ speech and language with their infants and young toddlers across play, milk feeding and solid feeding routines. See the full article for a handy graphic about specific differences across these conditions and a detailed explanation of what we know about infant directed speech so far, but here are some key take-aways when it comes to feeding routines and capitalizing on infant directed speech:

  1. Caregivers naturally make more attention-directing statements during solid feeding compared to their adult-directed speech baselines.

  2. Caregivers’ type-token ratios are higher during feeding than even in play. (And that skill can be really difficult to teach!)

  3. Feeding happens at least three times a day, every single day.

  4. You can address feeding and language goals simultaneously.

Admittedly, this study has some significant limitations. The sample size was fairly small and consisted of a very heterogenous group of mother–child dyads without any significant medical diagnoses or feeding difficulties. This study is also one of just a few to take an in-depth look at infant directed speech during feeding, and the authors have several suggestions for further investigation in this area. But if you are already inclined to work language development into all parts of a toddler’s day (and let’s face it—of course you are, you’re an SLP), this study should be a great excuse to have a snack with your next client and their caregiver!


Zimmerman, E., Connaghan, K., Hoover, J., Alu, D., & Peters, J. (2019) Is feeding the new play? Examination of the maternal language and prosody used during infant-directed speech. Infant Behavior and Development. doi:10.1016/j.infbeh.2019.01.005

Additional commentary:

  • The first author of this paper was interviewed in a podcast episode discussing this paper. Check it out!

  • In the United States, is seems like we’ve put a lot of value on parent–child play; however, this hasn’t always been the case. This opinion piece is an interesting commentary parent–child play interactions.

Imitation: a simple and powerful strategy for parents of toddlers at-risk for ASD

While we all know that involving parents in early intervention for toddlers with ASD is important, knowing where to start can be another matter altogether. What if there was one simple and effective strategy that we could teach parents right off the bat--one they could master easily with a big impact? Imitation might fit that bill.

Imitation is a strategy you already have in your toolbox: it’s as simple as copying what a child says or does. It’s been researched in different forms for decades, and it belongs to a family of strategies called “responsive” language strategies. Other responsive strategies include following the child’s interests, avoiding questions and directions, and responding to his communication attempts.

The great thing about imitation as a strategy is that it naturally incorporates many components of other responsive strategies. If a parent is imitating his child, then he is probably following his child’s interests, reducing the number of questions he asks, and paying more attention to how his child is communicating. If we teach parents to imitate, maybe we won’t need to explicitly teach the other responsive strategies!

These researchers did a small study in which they taught three parents of toddlers with ASD* to imitate their children’s actions, gestures, and words (the format of the sessions is fully described in the article!) Generally speaking, the sessions had these components:

  1. The therapist reviewed the parent’s questions or concerns that had come up since the previous session.

  2. The therapist explicitly taught the parent about why imitation is important and how to use it.

  3. The therapist played with the child and pointed out when she imitated the child.

  4. The parent played with the child while the therapist provided the parent with constructive coaching and feedback.

  5. The therapist summarized the session and answered the parent’s questions.


The results showed that all three of the parents were able to master the imitation strategy, and all three children made improvements in their social eye gaze. An extra cool bonus? As parents started imitating their children, the number of questions and directions they gave naturally decreased without the therapist explicitly instructing them to do so. Talk about getting some great bang for your buck! Imitation shows promise of being a simple and efficient “first strategy” to teach parents. 

*or suspected ASD


Killmeyer, S., Kaczmarek, L., Kostewicz, D., & Yelich, A. (2018). Contingent Imitation and Young Children At-Risk for Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of Early Intervention. doi:10.1177/1053815118819230.

Early object exploration linked to communication skills in preterm and full-term infants

A few months ago, we reviewed a study on identifying early learning delays in preterm infants. Well, this study provides us with an additional skill to keep an eye on when working with preterm and full-term infants. Keep reading to learn how object exploration at 6 months can predict communication skills at 12 months.

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Researchers observed 20 extremely preterm infants* (gestational age < 28 weeks) and 20 full-term infants engage in play with their mothers at 6 months and 12 months of age. (Note: the preterm infants were observed at their corrected ages; more on age correction here.) At 6 months, the researchers measured how often infants engaged in oral and manual exploration of toys. For example, an infant could engage in oral exploration by mouthing a rattle and manual exploration by transferring the rattle from hand to hand. Then at 12 months, the researchers measured the infants’ gestures, vocal productions, cognitive skills, and word comprehension.

Not surprisingly, the preterm infants tended to score lower on measures of cognitive skills and language skills than full-term infants. This fits with the broader findings of previous research showing that “preterm infants as a group, do not tend to catch up to peers’ language by school-age.” 

But what may take you by surprise is that neither neonatal condition (preterm vs full-term) nor cognitive performance were significant predictors of 12-month word comprehension, gestures, or vocal production when also considering object exploration. For all infants in this study, oral exploration at 6 months was a significant predictor of word comprehension at 12 months and manual exploration at 6 months was a significant predictor of gesture and vocal production at 12 months.

So what does this mean for EI SLPs? Diagnostically, we would certainly still consider preterm birth a risk factor for future language difficulties. However, we may also consider object exploration skills at 6 months as a possible predictor of communication skills at 12 months for both preterm and full-term infants. As for intervention, the authors note that supporting object exploration could enhance communication skills, but they didn’t explicitly examine whether or not this is the case. We’ll keep you posted as more comes out on this topic!

*One limitation of this study is that the extremely preterm infants selected to participate were deemed “healthy.” Many extremely preterm infants receiving EI services have health complications relating to preterm birth.

NOTE: Interested in another paper on the link between motor skills and communication? Check out this recent review on infant siblings of children with autism. 

Zuccarini, M., Guarini, A., Iverson, J.M., Benassi, E., Savini, S., Alessandroni, R., Faldella, G., & Sansavini, A. (2018). Does early object exploration support gesture and language development in extremely preterm infants and full-term infants? Journal of Communication Disorders, 76, 91–100.

Identifying early learning delays in preterm infants

Do you remember a few months back when we learned that preterm infants don’t seem to catch up to their peers’ language skills by school age? Well, this study took a look at how premature and full-term infants learn, and found some interesting differences we can add to our list of things to watch in our preterm cases.

The authors repeated assessments on 23 full term and 30 preterm infants over a period of 18 months to see if there were changes in how the infants performed on means-end tasks, which included a towel or a turntable as the means, and a fun toy as the end. In other words, the authors recorded whether the babies could pull the towel or turn the turntable to get a toy. Success requires a whole bunch of sensory, motor, and cognitive abilities to interact, and typical infants can complete a one-step means-end task like towel pulling by about 8 months (see here for an older study). They also recorded how much time the infants spent exploring, how many different ways the infants interacted with the task, and how many times the infants successfully completed the trials.


The authors found that all infants got better at getting the toy with age, but preterm infants as a group were less likely to succeed in both tasks compared to full-term infants (2.25 times less likely in the towel task and 1.55 times less likely in the turntable task). The authors also found differences in how the babies explored during the tasks. While everyone explored more over time, babies who explored more early in development had more success with the means-end tasks overall. Not only that, but preterm babies showed more variability in their exploration later in development than the full-term babies. As it turns out, we decrease the variability in exploration as we fine-tune our skills. Think about it this way—when we learn a new skill, we try it this way, try it that way, try it another way, and store maps for the most efficient ways to do the skill. We explore less as we get good at it, but pre-term babies continued to explore different behaviors longer than full-term babies in the means-end tasks.

OK, got it. But how can we use it? Diagnostically, we could use these tasks during assessments (the authors suggest the towel task for 5- to 7-month-olds and the turntable task for 11- to 13-month olds). Red flags would include lack of exploration in earlier ages and lots of variability in exploration later in infancy. For intervention, we should remember to encourage infants to explore solutions. Instead of modeling the solution, have fun in the learning process! We can also call attention to the end object so infant can see what happens to the toy when she acts on the towel or the turntable. Help these babies become the little scientists they were born to be!


Cunha, A. B., Babik, I., Ross, S. M., Logan, S. W., Galloway, J. C., Clary, E., & Lobo, M. A. (2018). Prematurity may negatively impact means-end problem solving across the first two years of life. Research in Developmental Disabilities. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1016/j.ridd.2018.03.007