cognitive development

Can the Type of Toy a Child Plays With Affect Language Development?

Jessica Tomaszewski, MD

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.

It has been well studied that parental interactions play a role in the language development of children. Television exposure at a young age is associated with decreased quality and quantity of parental communication, and there is some thought that media use in general displaces more beneficial language-promoting interactions. Parents also have the option of employing many new electronic toys that promote language development. With so much data and so many choices being offered to caregivers, primary care practitioners and pediatricians may be asked to provide guidance for families.

To learn more about promoting language development, Anna V. Sosa, PhD, and colleagues at Northern Arizona University designed a study to compare parent-child interactions while using electronic toys, “traditional” toy sets, and books.

The researchers used a digital recording device to observe parent-infant (aged 10-16 months) dyads in their own homes. The device software conducted automatic analysis of the recordings, estimating speech by adults, adult-child conversational turns, child vocalizations, and environmental noise.

Each pair (26 total) played with certain toys in a specified order during two 15-minute play sessions. They were given 3 battery operated toys (such a “baby cell phone”), 3 traditional toys (such as a shape sorter), and 5 board books. All toys focused on animal names, colors, and shapes. Each play session was then transcribed by the team with validated intercoder agreement and coded for adult words, child vocalizations, conversational turns, and parental responses. Data were analyzed using repeated measures analysis of variance.

The study results showed that when the parent-infant dyads played with electronic toys, there were fewer adult words, fewer conversational turns, fewer parental responses, and fewer productions of content-specific words than during play with books or traditional toys. There were also fewer child vocalizations measured during play with electronic toys than during play with books. In addition, parents produced fewer words and fewer content-specific words during play with traditional toys compared with books.

Although the study had a small sample size, it is notable that for all outcome measures, play with books provided a better tool for interaction (and, subsequently, language development) than did electronic toys. It would be helpful if future research were to examine these toys with a more diverse population to determine whether the conclusions hold. 

These results appear to correspond to the current guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which discourages media use for children younger than 2 years of age in exchange for book reading and other interactive types of play time. As we learn more about the developing brain and the role of technology, it is important to remember that one of the most educational things we can do for young children is simply reading a book to them.

Jessica Tomaszewski, MD, is an assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at the Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and a hospitalist pediatrician at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Delaware. 

Charles A. Pohl, MD—Series Editor, is a professor of pediatrics, senior associate dean of student affairs and career counseling, and associate provost for student affairs at the Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.