Potato Head is one of my favorite therapy tools and, let me just say, this toy is amazing because of its versatility!
In fact, I love Potato Head’s ability to facilitate children’s development so much that I have chosen him (and the Mrs.) as Mama OT’s Product of the Month! This post contains some affiliate links, see my full disclosure here.
Below is a list of 30 developmental benefits of playing with Potato Head. I have included lots of suggestions in this list for creative ways to play with Potato in order to maximize these benefits.
My focus here is on the under-three-years-old population, so there are even MORE ways to benefit from playing with Potato in the later preschool years (ages 3-5). Remember that children progress at different rates based on a variety of factors such as skill, environment, practice opportunities and more, so age ranges presented are just approximations of when certain skills are expected to emerge. The majority of the milestones listed are referenced from the HELP Strands developmental curriculum for children birth to three years old.
Potato Head sets can be found pretty much anywhere, and I would strongly encourage you to check out Craiglist and garage sales so you can have lots of different kinds of body parts on hand! (You’ll see why below.) If that’s not realistic for you, then click here to check out all the ridiculous kinds of Potato Head sets you can find on Amazon. It’s really quite remarkable. Okay, here we go!
FINE AND GROSS MOTOR SKILLS
1. Grasping Skills: Playing with Potato’s parts encourages kids to hold and manipulate them with a “radial digital” grasp that uses their thumb, index, and perhaps middle finger. This grasp should emerge by about 9 months old, but many children with developmental delays or limited fine motor play opportunities exhibit less mature grasp patterns that involve holding objects with the pinky side of the hand (“ulnar grasp”) or even with the whole palm (“palmar grasp”).
2. Midline/Bilateral Skills: Both hands work together right in front of the body (at the midline) while one hand holds Potato and the other manipulates the parts (bilateral coordination). For a different approach, kids can practice these skills by rolling a play dough with a rolling pin (or the side of a cup) using both hands and then creating just his face flat on the table. These midline and bilateral skills should develop by about 1 1/2 years and are important for later development of higher level skills such as lacing beads, cutting while holding the paper, and writing while stabilizing the paper.
3. Stooping/Squatting: If toddlers are playing with Potato Head while standing at a kiddie-sized table, they will inevitably drop some pieces on the floor. This gives them the chance to practice picking them up from the floor without falling by stooping or squatting without support. This motor control and coordination is expected to develop around 1 1/2 to 2 years old.
4. Identifying Familiar Objects by Touch: Hide Potato’s parts in a bag or have kids’ close their eyes as they reach for a body part without being allowed to peek. They can simply identify it, or they can search for a certain part you have asked them to fine. This skill should come in around 2 1/2 to 3 years old with obvious objects (like arm vs. hat) and then continue to be refined in the preschool years and beyond. The ability to be able to identify items by touch alone is actually a very important foundation for the development of higher level fine motor skills in the later years.
5. Interacting with Tactile Media (like Play Dough!): This just might be my favorite way to play with Potato Head. Instead of “Potato Head”, I call him “Play Dough Head” and kids think it’s SO funny. Instead of using the plastic body, use a big ball of play dough! I used this recipe with two orange Kool Aid packets instead of food coloring (orange color and scent!) so I’d have enough to make a full-sized Potato body. Playing with “Play Dough Head” provides kids the opportunity to practice adjusting how much force they need to use in order to push the pieces in and keep him upright (important for higher level skills like coloring, cutting, and even using a pencil). Make it easier by pre-poking holes as a guide for the body parts. Or try making a Mr. Pumpkin Head with your kids for a totally different sensory experience!
6. Pretend Play: Kids develop pretend play skills between 1 to 2 years of age and then they begin to expand their play scenarios between 2 to 3 years of age by talking intelligently to themselves or narrating while playing. Potato is the perfect spud for the job here!
7. Parallel Play: Potato is great at facilitating parallel play. This is the most basic type of social play, in which kids about 1 1/2 to 2 years old play next to or near each other, but not with each other. Adults can engage toddlers in parallel play by designating a certain table or rug as the special spot for playing with Potato Head. Some children who struggle with play skills or social skills (such as those with developmental delays or autism) may require more adult modeling and prompting in order to engage in parallel play (as opposed to solitary play).
8. Associative Play: Associative play is the next level of social play for toddlers and preschoolers, and it occurs when kids play while using some of the same materials. They may occasionally engage in similar activities, imitate each other, or even exchange toys or items while playing (but not usually with the intention of sharing or interacting). If you provide one bucket with multiple sets of Potato Head parts (rather than several buckets), children will likely gather around the bucket and engage in associative play as part of their Potato Head experience. Some children who struggle with play skills or social skills (such as those with developmental delays or autism) may require more adult modeling and prompting in order to engage in associative play.
PRE-WRITING AND PRE-READING SKILLS
9. Developing Body Awareness: Did you know body awareness is actually a very important pre-writing skill? Read here for more info. In fact, because body awareness is so important for the development of handwriting skills, Handwriting Without Tears has developed the beloved “Mat Man“. Mat Man is simply a tangible, hands-on way of developing body awareness through building and drawing a stick figure who has a blue “mat” for his body. Hence, Mat Man. There’s a Mat Man song that teaches kids the correct order and function of body parts and everything! (Click here to watch it in action.) When I work with 2 to 3 year olds, I like to build Potato Head while singing to the tune of the Mat Man song (simply using the word “Potato” instead of “Mat Man”) in order to get them engaged and to introduce them to body awareness.
10. Spatial Awareness: This is a hugely important pre-writing skill. Kids start out by learning positional terms such as on, off, next to, on top of, behind, in front of, etc. Then they learn the all-important pre-writing terms: top, middle, bottom. For example, Potato’s eyes go at the top, his nose is in the middle, and his mouth is at the bottom (of his face). As kids learn these spatial concepts by playing with Potato, they are better prepared to understand that, when writing a letter such as the capital letter “E”, there are lines that go at the top, middle, and bottom. So so so important!
11. Visual Scanning: Dump all of Potato’s parts on the floor or table and ask kids to find certain parts using only their eyes to look. In order to do this, they must visually scan the pile of parts while isolating their eye movements from their head (i.e., not moving their head while they move their eyes, which should develop by kids’ first birthday). This skill is similar to what older kids do when completing word searches, and it is super important for efficient reading and writing later on in life. You can make it trickier by dumping multiple sets of Potato parts so there is even more to visually scan.
12. Figure Ground: Along with the motor ability to visually scan a pile of parts, kids must also possess the ability to visually perceive objects amongst a crowded visual background. So dump all of Potato’s parts so they are laying in a crowded pile and ask your kiddo to find a certain body part using only their sense of vision. This is basically the equivalent of opening up your junk drawer and quickly trying to find a paperclip or roll of tape amidst the cluttered mess, and it is an important skill for the development of higher level reading and writing skills. Quick, find the purple eyes!
13. Copying a Model: Show a child a completed model of Potato Head (picture or real) and challenge them to copy it exactly with their own Potato Head. As I’m sure you can imagine, when kids possess the basic ability to copy or re-create a visual model, it sets them up for being able to later copy shapes and letters in preparation for handwriting.
COGNITIVE SKILLS, LANGUAGE COMPREHENSION, AND LANGUAGE EXPRESSION
14. Identifying Body Parts: Obviously! Kids are expected to identify one body part by 15-19 months, three body parts by 19-22 months, six body parts by 22-24 months, and seven or more body parts by 24-28 months.
15. Dramatizing Using a Doll (aka- Potato Head): By 2 to 2 1/2 years, kids may begin expressing their own feelings or emotions during play such as soothing, hitting, throwing, or hugging Potato.
16. Pointing to Six Body Parts on a Picture of a Doll (aka- Potato Head): This skill is expected to emerge between 2 1/2 to 3 years, and all you need is a picture of Potato Head!
17. Choosing Between Two Objects: Choice-giving is one of the most basic and empowering ways to encourage children to communicate, particularly those who cannot yet talk. Present two body parts and let them choose which one they want first. Kids who are new to choices will benefit from you presenting one highly-preferred body part (maybe the eyes?) alongside a less-preferred one (an ear, perhaps?) so it makes the choice easier to begin with.
18. Using Gestures or Vocalizations Spontaneously to Indicate Needs: Because Potato Head can be a little tricky at first, he is the perfect toy for encouraging children to indicate what they need. Do they need help? Do they need Potato’s hat? If they would rather whine or throw a tantrum when they need something, we can use this toy as a tool for teaching young ones to more appropriately communicate their needs. It could be through pointing, using a certain word, or even using baby signs. This skill is expected to develop between 1 to 1 1/2 years of age but I find that it is often delayed in children with global developmental delays, autism, and/or speech-language delays.
19. Matching Objects to Each Other: Around 1 1/2 years old, kids should be able to find a matching object from a group of three. Present an arm or ear and see if your toddler can find the matching one from a group of three parts!
20. Matching Objects to Pictures: Hold up a picture of a body part and have the child find the matching object. Do this as part of an obstacle course or scavenger hunt and it’s even more fun! Perfect for kids 1 1/2 to 2 years old.
21. Sorting Objects: Again, if you have multiple sets of Potato parts (Craiglist or garage sales, people!), you can challenge your 1 1/2 to 2 year old to sort a mixed group of parts into three piles (separate piles of arms, eyes, and noses, for example).
22. Helping Put Things Away: Potato has a lot of parts so once the fun is over, encourage your little one to help clean up! This is an important skill for kids around 2 to 2 1/2 years to practice. They may need encouragement and might not always comply, but they’ll get the hang of it soon enough!
23. Showing Understanding of Color: Kids as young as 1 to 1 1/2 years old may begin to check out the different colors of similar objects before choosing which one they want. This totally applies to Potato if you have multiple sets of his parts on hand for free play (yeah, Craigslist!).
24. Number Concepts: Potato has either one or two of each body part, so he’s perfect for helping kids learn the concept of “one” and how to give “one” out of many (around 2 to 2 1/2 years), as well as learning the concept of two (between 2 1/2 to 3 years).
25. Identifying Function of Body Parts: Ask your 2 1/2 to 3 year old, “What do we smell with?” or “What do we hear with?” as a prompt for selecting body parts or for conversation after he has been put together.
26. Answering What/Where/Who Questions: “What is on Potato’s head?” “Where are Potato’s shoes?” “Who is wearing a yellow hat?” As kids’ play and language skills develop, they should start to be able to answer these basic wh- questions between 2 to 3 years of age, and Potato Head is a great way to keep it playful.
27. Imitating Phrases: Use Potato to encourage kids to imitate two-word phrases like, “Hi Potato,” around 18-21 months and four-word phrases like, “Potato needs a nose,” around 22-24 months.
28. Creating Simple Sentences: Potato has a way of pulling sentences out of kids! Around 1 1/2 to 2 years, kids should be creating their own two-word sentences such as, “Potato eat,” or, “Night-night Potato”). By 2 to 2 1/2 years, they may use a three-word sentence describing Potato’s action or location by saying something like, “Potato go sleep,” or “Potato in bed.”
29. Using Plurals: Potato’s very nature is good for introducing kids to the concept of plurals. They may begin to use plurals to describe his body parts around 2 1/2 to 3 years old, though they may still use incorrect terms like “foots” or “feets”.
30. Sequencing Visual or Verbal Directions: It’s important for toddlers and preschoolers to be able to follow two-step instructions such as “First eyes, then nose”. If verbal directions are too much, then try giving them a visual sequence to follow. It could be the same simple First/Then instruction, or it could be pictures with a sequence of several steps that are presented one or more steps at a time such as the picture below.
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Well, that’s it for me! What about you? How do you and your kids like to use Potato Head to play and encourage their development?
For more ideas and information about the importance of playing with Potato Head, visit Katie’s Speech Therapy blog at Playing With Words 365 and Dana’s Occupational Therapy blog at Embrace Your Chaos. Thanks for reading!