Posted by Shannon Schield, MS-LSLP
It’s that time of year again. The snow is falling, trees are going up, and parents are wracking their brains for what to get their children for the holidays. In recent years, electronic toys have become more advanced, more available, and often preferred. These are tempting to go for, as electronic toys may offer parents a welcomed break. After all, the toys entertain their child long enough so they can finally finish that cup of coffee while it’s still hot.
But as a speech therapist, I have noticed more often that the relationship between child and toy has changed. A child using an electronic toy becomes almost mesmerized by the beautiful flashing lights, whirring, beeps, and twirls. And sure, these toys can be great fun when used in moderation. But all too often, I have seen that the toy is so vocal, entertaining, and distracting that there isn’t much need for real words at all. And what’s worse – the child finds any other traditional toy boring and undesirable in comparison to the electronic toys.
I got curious about this so I looked into some research. As it turns out, even if the parent is interacting with the child while they are playing with electronic toys, language production is notably more limited than when playing with a non-electronic toy. A study published in 2016 by JAMA Pediatrics concluded “during play with electronic toys there were fewer adult words, fewer conversational turns, fewer parental responses, and fewer productions of content-specific words than during playing with traditional toys or books.” So, in a nutshell, electronic toys do decrease the quantity and quality of language.
But what about those electronic toys that are made for educational purposes? Well, those are great to have around for the occasional slow morning, but ultimately those educational electronic toys just can’t provide the same input as face-to-face interaction between a child and parent using traditional toys or books. While the educational electronic toys may have great content they don’t provide immediate, personalized feedback, facial expressions and non-verbal cues, or social interaction opportunities. Moreover, these toys can’t build phonemic awareness that ultimately results in learning words. Humans are social learners – we learn best from our communication partners. Although electronic toys can do a lot, they just can’t quite fill the shoes of actual human interaction with traditional toys.
Now, don’t be mistaken in thinking that I’m suggesting you throw out all electronic toys. Of course, any toy can provide language opportunities; it’s all about how you interact with the toy. But perhaps limiting the amount of time on electronic toys would be a healthy solution. Don’t worry, you can still pull them out and finish that coffee while it’s hot. But try bringing back those shape sorters, puzzles, books, and barns, and watch how your child learns to create their own script.
Here are some guidelines for electronic toy /media use for young children:
Sosa AV. Association of the Type of Toy Used During Play with the Quantity and Quality of Parent-Infant Communication. JAMA Pediatr. 2016; 170(2):132–137. doi:https://doi.org/10.1001/jamapediatrics.2015.3753
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The Achieve Center blog is written by the professionals who are focused on children's mental health.