Children’s toys and books sell because they engage. So any “doodad” that catches the eye of a kid, or his parents, helps to generate sales. Nowadays, lots of kids’ toys make noise or flash lights – even board books and traditional games like Monopoly have electronic versions. And screen-based entertainments have proliferated; apparently 3/4 of kids have their own cell phone or tablet by age 4.
Is this good? I think not. Kids need to learn language and social skills, as well as self-regulation. Toys that “do the work” for the child may entertain, but kids don’t learn these difficult skills by reflexively responding to noises and lights.
Now, a new study supports this view. According to a study in JAMA, such toys suppress language interactions between parents and children. “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,” according to pediatric researchers. (Click here for a commentary.).
Kids learn more from open-use toys that require imagination, not just rote following directions or completing tasks. Old-style toys such as legos, building blocks, plastic dolls and animals, “craft” activities, and board books fit the bill. (You might have noticed that I have filled my waiting rooms with such toys; this is intentional.) Give a kid a rubber ball, and watch what happens!
Newer toys are also available. The “Melissa and Doug” line of toys will give gift-givers more ideas. And consider EBay for inexpensive used options, such as Playskool Village (about $15).
As you sort through all the presents this year, encourage your kids to keep the non-electric toys at hand.
— David M. Epstein, MD