Traditional Toys, Electronic Toys, and Language Development

Lego blocks for early childhood playing, conversing, and learning.

Lego blocks for early childhood playing and learning.

In December I read an article about a study published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics describing how different types and amounts of parent/child speech interactions during infant play may increase or decrease, depending on the type of toys that the child uses.

The new research, though conducted on a small sample of participants, finds an association between talking electronic toys and and reduced parent/child interaction during playtime, and the results add to an existing body of literature that observes how electronic toys affect a child’s language development.

In her article, Association of the Type of Toy Used During Play With the Quantity and Quality of Parent-Infant Communication, (abstract) researcher Anna V. Sosa, PhD. discusses her research, carried out with 26 parent and older infant pairs (dyads). The article is not too difficult to read, but it is available only at a library with access to the journal.

There is lots to talk about with these toys.

When babies play with these toys we have lots to talk about.

Supplying each parent and baby (age 10-16 months) three sets of toys — traditional, electronic, and engaging books — Dr. Sosa and her research assistants asked each dyad (parent and baby) to play for a certain amount of time with each set of toys — playing exactly as they would normally do. The electronic toys selected for the study were promoted by companies to parents as educational toys that help a child acquire language. The activity times were recorded with digital language processor recording equipment, and each child wore a vest with the recorder in a pocket during the play periods.

The recording equipment generated estimates of the amount of adult speech, child vocalizations, and conversational interactions. Research assistants then coded the vocalizations on the recordings, keeping track of the adult words and a subset of content words, the child’s vocalizations, and the back-and-forth conversational interactions. The number of parent responses each minute were also noted. To ensure accuracy, two researchers went over each data tape separately, and their results were similar.

According to the article, when parents and children played with electronic toys, there were significantly fewer adult words, fewer adult responses, and fewer conversational interactions between the parent and baby. Interaction was greater with traditional toys, and still more parent-child interaction occurred when they were playing with and reading books. According to the journal article:

…the parents tend to let the toys do the talking for them when the child is interacting with electronic toys. This is particularly worrisome given that there is no evidence that children this young are able to learn vocabulary from media or other nonhuman interactions.

Commenting about the parent interactions during play with electronic toys in a New York Time Well Blog report Dr. Sosa said, “My hunch is that they were letting the baby interact with the toy and they were on the sidelines.”

This decreased language interaction is especially concerning to me after reading and writing my post about Thirty Million Words, the book written by Dana Suskind, MD, who found that children who do not hear enough words or have enough conversational interaction, may have huge deficits in the language that they hear and understand.

Adults need to pay attention to their conversations and chatter with infants and young children. While digital devices built into toys will probably increase rather than decrease in our 21st Century lives, parents and grandparents would be wise to remember that for these little people, human conversation takes developmental precedence over almost everything else, even the learning that electronic toys claim they can achieve.

N.B. NPR broadcast a story about the above study on All Things Considered.

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