Parents are always asking me to recommend the best toys for their child’s age. They are tired of spending money on toys that end up in the toy bin, ignored and a waste of money. Since I spend several hours a day playing with children from 2-8 years of age, I can tell you what excites kids and maintains their interest because it changes as their imagination ignites.

I know this sounds simple but my pick is Play-Doh. Yes, that squishable brightly colored molding clay begins as a blob of undiscovered fun and can end as a sandwich for your tea party, a chair for your play figure to sit in, letters to mail or a favorite animal to roam the forest. The next playtime with your preschooler try these tips to build language and have fun:

  1. Pick a theme. Choose a theme associated with your child’s recent activity–a trip to the zoo, baking cookies, playing in the yard, going for a swim or visiting the playground. Or pick a theme based on your child’s interest such as pirates, castles, or dinosaurs. This is just a starting point. You are acting as the producer of his play by offering some fun components for him to use in creating his story and dialogue. Your child will take over as the director, beginning at the zoo and maybe ending up at the park for a snack. Put out the Play-Doh and start modeling with your hands as well as your language. Take out some large props as a background for your theme–Diego’s Talking Rescue Center, the Fisher Price Little People Sweet Sounds House or the Weebles Weebalot Castle. These provide the backdrop for your child’s story telling.
  2. Add the little people. Now you are ready for conversation with people or animals that you can animate. You pick up a figure and start the chat with an open ended question like, “I wonder where we should go today?” or “What should we take to the beach?” Encourage your child to pick a person too and move your people for face to face conversations, planning your next play move.
  3. Provide the Play-Doh. Show your child that anything is possible with a lump of dough. The animals at the zoo need food? No problem. Roll out some carrots, apples or hay out of the dough. Provide some starter thoughts on what to make and then sit back and let your child lead the imaginative play. Language is more greatly enhanced when a parent is involved in play but not directing the action.
  4. Offer the tools. Make sure you have plenty of scissors, forks, knives, rollers or cookie cutters to start his imagination going and adding to his play scheme. Don’t go for pre-packaged sets that provide all the supplies. Instead, offer the tools to create his own food, animals, furniture or toys. While playing with a small oven, I have seen kids fashion a square of Play-Doh, flatten it and hang it up on the towel rack to dry hands after baking!
  5. Give movable props. Provide a little wheelbarrow, shovel and bucket or oven to cook your delicacies. Slides, swings or vehicles can move your creations or provide an opportunity to change the action. Roll out a ball of Play-Doh for the park–sending it down the slide or pushing it in a swing. Use the shovel to dig and create crabs, fish, worms or whatever to transport in your bucket. Good props are open-ended so your child can use them in many ways, changing their stories and expanding language skills.
  6. Expand the story. After following your child’s lead in play, occasionally introduce a new prop or idea to expand their story. Don’t take over. They are still the leader of play, but you have raised the language level when you move the theme to a new topic. While playing with a train set, you might offer a play house to be the ticket office and mold some tickets to be sold.
  7. Introduce some themed props. While I find it easiest to gather props from different toy sets to create new stories, I do have some favorite sets based on themes that children love. Play-Doh’s “picnic bucket” and “beach bucket,” have cutouts, rollers, and props centered around food and the beach. The Play-Doh “Fun with Food-Meal Makin’ Kitchen Playset” has all the tools to cook up a tasty treat. Kids love to open and shut the oven, baking their creations and serving them up. After a trip to the beach, grab Play-Doh’s “Sand Sensations,” the brightly colored textured dough that feels like wet sand. Kids love to make castles and re-create their water experiences.

So be the producer of your child’s play, setting out some great props, Play-Doh and a creative child and watch the action begin!