Picture of a pile of toys against a blue background. The text reads "5 brilliant alternatives for common toys".

5 Brilliant Alternatives to Common Toys for Early Intervention

Have you ever worked with a family that doesn’t have many common toys at home? Well, rather than taking toys or having families feel like they need to buy them, try these brilliant alternatives to common toys; they’re perfect for your early intervention sessions.

The problem with taking toys

We know that coaching parents/caregivers to use language facilitation strategies during daily routines is an effective therapy approach, however sometimes (for a variety of reasons) you or they may want to do more play-based activities, in which case, you may choose to take your own toys, particularly if the family doesn’t have many common toys at home.

This is not an uncommon choice; an item that is often synonymous with a paediatric SLP/SLT is the therapy/toy bag, so much so that McWilliam (2010) called the toy bag the “icon of the Early Intervention home visitor” (pg.160).
Typically, the toy bag is full of motivating toys (shape sorters, car ramps, bubbles, etc.) which are considered beneficial for a child’s development (cognition, language, etc.). It may also include a variety of other useful and motivating items which the therapist deems necessary. 

However, the use of a therapy/toy bag is counterintuitive. Although you are able to engage a child well during your session, and you are able to target a range of skills and strategies using those toys, when they are taken away at the end of a session, the family is unable to use them in-between visits. So practice is limited because parents/caregivers may find it hard to replicate the strategies and activities you demonstrated with your toys, with their own toys.
And, by taking the toy bag and a selection of your own toys, you’re inadvertently implying to the family that their toys are not good enough to help their child’s development, and that it is the toys and contents of the bag which make the difference, not the strategies and approach you’re using (Crawford and Weber, 2014).

What to do instead of taking toys to your sessions

If you want to do play-based activities in your early intervention sessions, rather than taking toys to your home visits or sending them resources to use in your sessions, use what the family has at home!

Recently, early intervention providers have begun to embrace the “bagless” therapy approach. This involves using materials available in the home environment, and demonstrating how to use these to support the child’s development, as opposed to taking a toy bag. Therapists can demonstrate how to use familiar items as toys (like the ideas included in these handouts), or can coach parents/caregivers how to add more playfulness into daily routines.

It may seem like a strange shift to make in your practice initially, but coaching parents/caregivers in this way is so impactful. And I promise, you can coach parents/caregivers to do the SAME activities with these alternatives to common toys.

Try these alternatives to common toys…

Picture title reads "Use what they have" with two pictures- on the left a picture of a car ramp, then on the right a picture of a ramp made out of a cardboard box.

Car track/ramps are wonderfully motivating and you can target so much vocabulary and a range of skills. But not every family owns one. So, instead of taking a car ramp to your session, encourage them to use a cardboard box as a ramp instead. You could even use a large book or a sofa cushion.

Title reads "Use what they have",on the left there is the picture of stacking cups in a tower and on the right there is a picture of stacked up containers/Tupperware tubs as an alternative toy option.

Stacking cups are another fabulous toy; they are great for supporting early language skills, however not every family owns them. As an alternative option you can use empty plastic containers or Tupperware tubs. These are lightweight and stackable, so you can target the same language goals and use the same strategies as you would with stacking cups.

Title reads "Use what they have", on the left is a shape sorter toy, on the right is a cardboard box with holes cut out and toys being pushed inside. This is a great alternative option for this common toy.

Shape sorters are great toys for targeting a range of skills, however again, not every family owns one. A brilliant alternative option for this common toy is to use an empty cardboard box with a variety of shapes cut out. You can then gather a selection of the child’s toys and mail these into the box instead.  This is a great activity to get the child involved in preparing too; encouraging them to collect certain toys from around the house.

Title reads "Use what they have", on the left there is a picture of a car mat, on the right is a picture of a simple road drawn on a large piece of paper. This is a great alternative option to this common toy for EI sessions.

Cars are very popular with little ones and the addition of a car mat/town mat can develop and expand children’s play. However if you’re working with a child who loves cars but doesn’t own a car mat, encourage the family to draw a simple road layout on a large piece of spare cardboard or paper, or to make a track on the floor out of tape. This is just as motivating and engaging for little ones, but makes use of things they have lying around the house instead of them feeling like they have to buy one!

The title reads "Use what they have", the picture on the left shows a stacking ring toy with the colours in rainbow order. On the right there is a picture of bracelets/bangles on a wooden spoon.

Stacking rings are another toy which has a range of developmental benefits, however not every family owns one. A brilliant alternative to this common toy is to stack bangles/bracelets/hair scrunchies on to a wooden spoon or rolling pin. The child still get exposure to the same language, and parents/caregivers can use the same language facilitation strategies, but they haven’t had to purchase anything!

Caregiver handouts to make your job easier

I hope this post has given you fresh ideas for how you can encourage parents/caregivers to use what they have as alternative toys, rather than taking your own toys to a session, or having them feel like they need to purchase additional toys.

If you’re keen to embrace the bagless therapy approach and support families to use what they have at home to develop language skills, check out these caregiver-friendly Early Intervention handouts.
There are 80 simple yet fun play ideas included for 11 everyday items, so they’re perfect for sharing with families in your Early Intervention sessions. All of these everyday item handouts are written in caregiver-friendly terms, and are full of manageable ideas families can do at home

If you want other ideas for alternative options for common toys, as well as hundreds of engaging play ideas (for toys and routines) for your Early Intervention sessions, check out the Early Intervention Handbook, available to purchase from my TpT store.

Crawford, M.J., and Weber, B. (2014). ‘Early Intervention Every Day: Embedding Activities in Daily Routines for Young Children and Their Families’. Paul H Brookes Publishing Co., Baltimore, MD.

McWilliam, R.A. (2010) ‘Routines-Based Early Intervention: Supporting Young Children and Their Families’. Paul H Brookes Publishing Co., Baltimore, MD