Toys play an important role in child development. They not only stimulate fantasy and creativity, but can also enhance the development of skills such as attention, thinking and language. However, not all toys have the same educational potential. Some can even be counterproductive and, instead of stimulating child development, they end up limiting it.

Language development, for example, is particularly important because it influences the child’s success in reading and writing, as well as facilitating adaptation to the social environment. However, a study conducted at Northern Arizona University revealed that some of the toys marketed as educational actually have the opposite effect and end up harming children’s language development.

Parent-child communication during play is essential for language development

The study in question was conducted with 26 pairs of parents and children aged between 10 and 16 months. The researcher observed the play sessions with electronic toys, traditional toys and books at home for fifteen minutes, for three days.

The electronic toys chosen were: a baby laptop, a talking farm and a baby mobile as they fall within the category that is marketed as “educational” to promote language development in children of that age range. Instead, the conventional toys used were: a farm animal puzzle, a shape sorter, and building blocks.

The research analyzed the number of words used by adults, children’s vocalizations, conversation turns, parents’ verbal responses to their children’s expressions, and the words produced by parents in different semantic categories during the sessions. of game. Thus, it was found that the type of toy was related to the language used during the game sessions.

During play with electronic toys, adults communicated less with their children, there were fewer turns of conversation, fewer responses from parents, and fewer content-specific words than during play with traditional toys or books.  As expected, the children also vocalized less when using the electronic toys.

The study concludes that “ play with electronic toys is associated with a lower quantity and quality of language, compared to play with books or traditional toys. To promote early language development, play with electronic toys should be discouraged. Traditional toys can be a valuable alternative for parent-child playtime if they don’t like to read . 

The importance of the linguistic context for the development of children’s language

Today, parents are also being “bombed” by advertisements for “educational” toys that claim to promote language development in young children, even from infancy. These are usually battery-powered electronic toys with buttons that produce lights, sounds, music, words and phrases when activated by the child.

These toys promise to become a kind of private “teacher” for little ones, but the truth is that they cannot imitate the richness of interpersonal exchanges, so leaving children many hours with this technology actually limits their learning opportunities. .

The child’s linguistic environment will largely determine early language development. The key for children to develop a larger vocabulary, learn to pronounce correctly and acquire basic communication skills is the quality and quantity of language they hear from their parents and caregivers during the first months of life and, above all, during the first two years. That is, the more words a baby hears from her parents, the more she will engage in reciprocal interactions and the more her language will develop.

While the amount of linguistic information that parents transmit to their children during the early years has been positively associated with children’s linguistic achievement, being in front of screens and using technological toys (especially in children under two years of age) delays development of language. The reason is simple: the use of technological toys displaces other more beneficial interactions that promote language and communication.

In fact, at the moment there are no electronic toys sophisticated enough to maintain reciprocal social interactions that feed communication. A baby needs feedback and reinforcement, not only with words but also with smiles, caresses and hugs.  The language centers in the infant brain thrive on interactions with people. Language is not a simple acquisition of vocabulary, but rather implies a richer communicative universe that includes extraverbal expressions typical of human interactions.

For that reason, among others, the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended significantly reducing screen time and electronic toys by prioritizing parent-child interaction. Specifically, it recommended that children under the age of 18 months should not be exposed to screens, unless they are video calls. And if parents want to introduce any digital content, it must be of quality and they must be present to help children understand what they are seeing. In the case of children between 2 and 5 years old, the use of screens should be limited to one hour a day, always under the supervision of an adult and choosing quality programs whose content is truly educational.

So the next time you’re in a toy store, avoid the aisle of buttons, beeps, and buzzes. Instead, take a look at the traditional toys, those of a lifetime that you probably played with. These types of toys are usually not only cheaper but also more resistant and will provide more cognitive benefits to children. When choosing, consider that the more things a toy does, the less the child’s mind will do.