Stuffed animals that say the alphabet at the press of the button. Digitized
books that read the story for you. Toy sets that light up and make animal
sounds. Plastic play cell phones and tablets with all the bells and whistles.
There's a wide variety of electronic toys for toddlers--and many of
them are labeled as educational. But a recent study suggests that when
it comes to language learning, these newfangled toys can't compare
to more "old fashioned" playthings such as blocks and books.
"Early childhood, through the age of three, is perhaps the most important
time in a young child's life in terms of speech and language development," says
Wilfredo Alejo, MD, a board-certified pediatrician at
St. Jude Heritage Medical Group. "Those skills will help build a foundation for future learning and
academic success, and a child can get those skills in an environment that
surrounds him with the written and spoken word. The study reminds parents
that a toy can still be educational if it doesn't sound off or light
up. It's how the parent uses it that matters."
The study, published in
JAMA Pediatrics, focused on 26 pairs of parents and children, with all the kids between
10 and 16 months old. Each parent and child were studied as they played
in 15-minute sessions with regular toys such as blocks, electronic toys
or books. Different types of communication used during the play sessions
were measured, such as the number of adult words, the times a child made
a vocal noise and the parents' "conversation" with the child
in response to those vocal sounds.
Researchers found that playing with electronic toys produced the fewest
instances of communication compared to the play times with books and normal
toys. "Parents used less words with their children--they didn't
communicate back and forth with each other, and that is crucial to building
early language skills," Dr. Alejo says. "The researchers theorized
that the electronic toys took over the parents' role in communicating
with the child. In fact, in every category measured, electronic toys scored
the lowest, while books scored the highest across the board. When parents
read aloud to children, it's a positive model of communication. In
addition to building early literacy and communication skills, books can
also teach young children how to handle objects, such as when they try
to hold a board book or turn a page; recognize everyday objects in picture
books; and understand how a story is told."
Dr. Alejo says the study is a reminder that play time between parents and
children isn't just fun and games--it's a valuable opportunity
to build positive language skills. "If parents feel they rely too
much on electronic toys when they play with their toddler, they should
put them away and instead reach for a book, puzzle, game, stuffed animal
or other traditional toys," Dr. Alejo says. "Not only can it
help the toddler's language development, but the one-on-one interaction
will be enjoyable for both the parent and the child."
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