Electronic toys for infants that produce lights, words and songs were associated with decreased quantity and quality of language compared to playing with books or traditional toys such as a wooden puzzle, a shape-sorter and a set of rubber blocks, according to JAMA Pediatrics.

The reality for many families of young children is that opportunities for direct parent-child playtime are limited because of financial, work, and other familial factors. Optimizing the quality of limited parent-child playtime is important.

Researchers from Northern Arizona University conducted a controlled experiment involving 26 parent-infant pairs with children who were 10 to 16 months old.

Participants were given three sets of toys:

  • electronic toys (a baby laptop, a talking farm and a baby cell phone);
  • traditional toys (chunky wooden puzzle, shape-sorter and rubber blocks with pictures); and
  • five board books with farm animal, shape or color themes

The Results

While playing with electronic toys there were fewer adult words used, fewer conversational turns with verbal back-and-forth, fewer parental responses, and less word production than when playing with traditional toys or books. Children also vocalized less while playing with electronic toys than with books, according to the results.

Results also indicated that parents produced fewer words during play with traditional toys than while playing with books with infants. Parents also used less content-specific words when playing with traditional toys with their infants than when playing with books.

The authors note results showed the largest and most consistent differences were between electronic toys and books.

These results also prove what I have been saying all along; electronic toys that are promoted as educational and are often quite expensive aren’t really worth it. It also adds to the large body of evidence supporting the potential benefits of book reading with very young children.

Electronic Toys Keeping Children’s Attention

Electronic toys that make noises or light up are definitely effective at commanding children’s attention, no one is arguing that.  The study by JAMA Pediatrics suggests that they may do more than just command children’s attention; they appear to reduce parent-child verbal interactions.

Why does this matter? Conversational turns (the back and forth between parent and child) during play do more than teach children language. They lay the groundwork for literacy skills, teach role-playing, give parents a window into their child’s developmental stage and struggles, and teach social skills such as turn-taking and accepting others’ leads.

Verbal interactions, of course, are only part of the story. What is missing from this study is a sense of how nonverbal interactions, which are also an important source of social and emotional skills, varied by toy type.

“Any digital enhancement should serve a clear purpose to engage the child not only with the toy/app, but also transfer that engagement to others and the world around them to make what they learned meaningful and generalizable.” says NAU researchers.

“Digital features have enormous potential to engage children in play, but it is important the child not get stuck in the toy/app’s closed loop to the exclusion of real-world engagement. Bells and whistles may sell toys, but they also can detract value,” they conclude.

So What?

Electronic toys can be expensive and aren’t developing your child as well as books or traditional toys. I was always under the impression that these electronic toys don’t give children the silence to be able to think and concentrate but I’ll have to find another study to corroborate that theory.

Again, play with electronic toys is associated with decreased quantity and quality of language input compared with play with books or traditional toys. One recommendation to help you keep a healthy play balance is to buy a book for every toy you get your child.

To promote early language development, play with electronic toys should be discouraged. Traditional toys may be a valuable alternative for parent-infant play time if book reading is not a preferred activity.