Electronic Baby Toys Associated with Decrease in Quality and Quantity of Language in Infants

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 an article published online by JAMA Pediatrics.

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

Anna V. Sosa, Ph.D., of Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, and colleagues conducted a controlled experiment involving 26 parent-infant pairs with children who were 10 to 16 months old. Researchers did not directly observe parent-infant play time because it was conducted in participants’ homes. Audio recording equipment was used to pick up sound. 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.

While playing with electronic toys there were fewer adult words used, fewer conversational turns with verbal back-and-forth, fewer parental responses and less production of content-specific words 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 indicate 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 between electronic toys and books, followed by electronic toys and traditional toys.

electronic toys word press

The study has important limitations, including its small sample size and the similarity of the participants by race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status.

“These results provide a basis for discouraging the purchase of electronic toys that are promoted as educational and are often quite expensive. These results add to the large body of evidence supporting the potential benefits of book reading with very young children. They also expand on this by demonstrating that play with traditional toys may result in communicative interactions that are as rich as those that occur during book reading. … However, if the emphasis is on activities that promote a rich communicative interaction between parents and infants, both play with traditional toys and book reading can be promoted as language-facilitating activities while play with electronic toys should be discouraged,” the study concludes.


Editorial: Keeping Children’s Attention

“Electronic toys that make noises or light up are extremely effective at commanding children’s attention by activating their orienting reflex. This primitive reflex compels the mind to focus on novel visual or auditory stimuli. The study by Sosa in this issue of 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 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,” write Jenny S. Radesky, M.D., of the University of Michigan Medical School, Ann Arbor, and Dimitri A. Christakis, M.D., M.P.H., of Seattle Children’s Hospital and a JAMA Pediatrics associate editor, in a related editorial.

“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. Digital features have enormous potential to engage children in play – particularly children with a higher sensory threshold – 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.

Funding: This study was funded by a research grant from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Foundation.

Source: JAMA Network
Image Source: The image is in the public domain
Original Research: Abstract for “Association of the Type of Toy Used During Play With the Quantity and Quality of Parent-Infant Communication” by Anna V. Sosa, PhD in JAMA Pediatrics. Published online December 23 2015 doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2015.3753


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10 Ways to Encourage Curiousity!

Did you know that our brains are actually wired to release feel-good chemicals when we learn new things? Yep, we’re actually physiologically programmed to be rewarded for our curiosity. Obviously, curiosity is a critical piece of learning—it’s much easier to understand something you’re interested in, and research* indicates that being curious leads to a more positive academic experience and better results, both at school and at work. But the benefits of curiosity don’t end there! According to one study**, people who are curious exhibit more positive emotions, less anxiety, and are generally happier and more satisfied than their non-curious counterparts. Curiosity is also linked to stronger relationships and empathy. All good, right?

So how can we encourage curiosity in children, at home and in the classroom? After all, we can only answer “why” so many times. Read on for 10 tips to encouraging curiosity (and take heart, none of them have to do with why the sky is blue!):

  1. Ask open ended questions. “How was school?” “Fine.” We’ve all been down that frustrating path. But asking open ended questions like “What was that like?” when a child first jumps off of a diving board, or “How do you feel about…?” after reading a sad non-fiction passage in class leaves room for kids to formulate their own thoughts and perhaps even come up with more questions. Oh, and by the way, we also need to…
  1. Teach kids how to ask questions. Formulating and articulating a confusing thought that needs answering is a skill unto itself.  Teachers and parents can aid kids’ natural curiosity by helping them learn how to assemble a question. Repeating what you think a child is asking in detailed question form helps reinforce this critical skill. But then we need to…


  1. Make time for questions! Parents are busy and teacher’s days are jam-packed with mandated lessons and super-tight schedules. But making time for thoughtful discussions now and then provides an opportunity for kids to express their opinions, understand other perspectives, ask questions, and identify the need for more information in order to answer them—all cornerstones of curiosity. Teachers know that some of the best learning happens when their lessons get derailed by a particularly passionate discussion.
  1. Work in groups. Group work in the classroom is a wonderful way to encourage curiosity. Provide enough context for kids to understand a topic, then assign each group a position and listen as they work through the ideas and challenges together, asking questions and formulating hypotheses.
  1. Be a mirror. Before responding, deflect your child or student’s question back to her. “Why do YOU think porcupines have quills?” What do YOU think we could do to solve this problem?” These questions not only reinforce how to ask a question, but also encourage the child to get curious and prove that her opinion is valued.
  1. Wonder aloud. To our students and children, we are adults who know everything. Curiosity, by nature, is wondering about things we don’t Show kids that YOU are curious, too, by sharing some of your own pursuits. “I’ve been reading about the pioneer days… I wondered what they ate during the winter when they couldn’t hunt.”


  1. Follow their lead. Whenever possible, help kids pursue their own interests. If your class can’t stop talking about the ant infestation in the cafeteria, move your bug lesson up a month and dive in! Daughter doodling rainbows (with her Rainbow Prancer™ Markers) all the time? Research the weather conditions that cause the phenomenon online or hit the library for a book on rainbows.
  1. Encourage open-ended thinking. So many of kids’ daily experiences are completely directed. From classroom learning to video games, kids are told what to do almost all the time. Providing open-ended play props like blocks, dolls, and puppets like our Puppet-on-a-Stick™ are a great way to encourage curiosity. Let the kids loose and watch them wonder what to do!
  1. Stock the toolbox.Some tools are designed specifically for the curious. Providing kid-safe magnifying glasses, microscopes, telescopes, binoculars, chemistry kits, and other discovery tools gives kids the supplies they need to begin to discover and understand their worlds. Our GeoSafari® and Nancy B’s Science Club® lines feature the perfect props to satisfy kids’ natural scientific curiosity.
  1. Forget the mess. Speaking of satisfying one’s curiosity, that can sometimes be messy! Understanding why it’s hard to contain a handful of sand requires, yes, sand. Seeing what happens when you add water to a pile of dirt is downright filthy! Instead of discouraging messy exploration, contain it in a classroom center or backyard area and let kids go to town.
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