The Hierarchy of Toys – Part 2

I recently presented at our state speech-language pathology association conference.  My topic was “The Hierarchy of Toys”.  I gave strategies to sequence and pair toys with the levels of play to achieve therapeutic outcomes.  Here is a snippet of my workshop:


  • the child pays attention to non-toys; paces or wonders about the room without attending to toys in the envorinment.
  • use any basic toys placed on a shelf or table within the child’s line of vision and reach
  • address skills such as initiating play, joint attention and engagement

Manipulative Play

  • the child dumps or empties containers; handles and examines toys and then sets them aside or lines them
  • at this level of play, introduce:
    • sensory bins
    • containers of animals, vehicles, doll house furniture or a collection of random objects
    • inset puzzles
    • books with 1-2 pictures per page
  • address skills such as:
    • labeling nouns
    • put in/take out concepts
    • give me
    • joint attention
    • motor imitation

One-Step and Cause Effect Play

  • the child is able to activate a switch or button to engage a toy; toys are activated in  single action
  • appropriate toys include:
    • musical toys
    • instruments – drum, xylophone, horn, bells, keyboard
    • ball popper or top
    • light up toys
    • See-N-Say
    • bingo markers
    • table apps – Cosmic Tops, Pocket Pond, Baby Bubbles, Modus to name a few
  • at this level, address:
    • requesting “more, again, go, on, stop”
    • attending, joint attention
    • production of vowels or consonant-vowel combinations

Two-Step Play

  • the child has to perform two actions in sequence in order to use the toy
  • two-step toys include:
    • sensory bins filled with rice, water or beans (scoop/pour sequence)
    • busy boxes (open/close sequence)
    • marble, ball or car tracks
    • gear toys
    • Connect Four
    • tablet apps such as Angry Birds, Grumpy Snowmen, Twinkle Star
  • language skills at this stage might include”
    • independent play and two-step sequencing
    • requesting
    • joint attention
    • vocabulary building – colors, shapes, nouns and verbs such as open, close, stop, scoop


  • Construction play can occur at any level along the hierarchy depending on the materials used.  Construction is best introduced after the child has mastered 2-step play.  Construction any play that involves stacking, building or creating.
  • My favorite construction toys:
    • magnetic blocks
    • Bristle blocks
    • Duplo blocks
    • plain wooden shaped blocks
    • marble tracks
    • train tracks
  • So many language skills can be enhanced with building including prepositions, requesting, colors, shapes, sizes, imitating block designs and sorting

Multi-Step Play

  • play that requires 2 or more steps in sequence; toys that have multiple pieces that need to be used in specific ways
  • many many options including:
    • cookie jar or piggy bank
    • lift the flap books
    • musical ring stacker
    • simple games such as Candy Land, Chutes and Ladders, Lucky Ducks
    • shape sorters
    • stickers, coloring, cutting and gluing
    • tablet apps: Tiggly Squiggles, Build and Play
  • typically developing skills:
    • motor sequencing
    • temporal concepts (first, next, then, last)
    • turn-taking
    • prepositional phrases
    • following 2-3 step directions

Functional Play

  • a child at this level uses toys to perform a task and uses toys purposefully in the way the toy was intended to be used.  Level of play can vary depending on the complexity of the toy
  • good toys for functional play:
    • pushing cars, trains or boats
    • tossing a ball through a basketball hoop
    • books
    • toys vacuum, lawn mower, grocery cart or stroller
  • at this stage of play, work on:
    • expanded vocabulary, especially verbs
    • categorizing, sorting
    • introduction of pretend play and expanded play themes

Pretend Play or Dramatic Play

  • children at this level engage in play that uses toys as real objects; the play has multiple props or parts; can be solo or interactive with other children
  • the options are endless!  Some common pretend play toys:
    • kitchen set with pretend food
    • doctor’s kit
    • dress up clothes
    • doll house
    • barn and animals
    • sensory bin with corn,  construction vehicles and blocks
  • while engaging in pretend play, you can work on:
    • complex sentence usage
    • dialog; maintaining a topic
    • sequencing

Symbolic Play

  • symbolic play is the most sophisticated level of play.  It involves useing a toy or obect for a purpose other than that which it was intended.  It combines various toys and objects
  • such as:
    • using crayons to be logs hauled by a train
    • using torn paper, beads or blocks to be animal feed
    • doll house furniture made from blocks, books, boxes or puzzle pieces
    • instruments made from other toys or kitchen utensils
  • symbolic play foster:
    • complex sentences and narrative
    • problem solving
    • non-literal thinking

I hope this is helpful to you.  In my office I keep 1-2 toys for each level of play available at all times.  Limiting the number of toys available and carefully choosing the toys that are available can be the key to increasing play skills and language development.


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