Thursday, December 24, 2015
Traditional Toys May Beat Gadgets in Language Development
By Pam Belluck December 23, 2015 9:43 pm New York Times
Baby laptops, baby cellphones, talking farms — these are the whirring,
whizbang toys of the moment, many of them marketed as tools to encourage
babies’ language skills.
But in the midst of the holiday season, a new study raises questions about
whether such electronic playthings make it less likely that babies will engage in
the verbal give-and-take with their parents that is so crucial to cognitive
The study, published Wednesday in JAMA Pediatrics, found that when
babies and parents played with electronic toys that were specifically advertised
as language-promoters, parents spoke less and responded less to baby
babbling than when they played with traditional toys like blocks or read board
books. Babies also vocalized less when playing with electronic toys.
“My hunch is that they were letting the baby interact with the toy and they
were on the sidelines,” said Anna V. Sosa, an associate professor of
communications science and disorders at Northern Arizona University in
Flagstaff, who led the study.
The study builds on a growing body of research suggesting that electronic
toys and ebooks can make parents less likely to have the most meaningful
kinds of verbal exchanges with their children.
“When you put the gadgets and gizmos in, the parents stop talking,” said
Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple University who was
not involved in the new study, but who has found similar effects with ebooks
and electronic shape-sorters. “What you get is more behavioral regulation
stuff, like ‘don’t touch that’ or ‘do this,’ or nothing because the books and toys
take it over for you.”
She added, “A toy should be 10 percent toy and 90 percent child, and with
a lot of these electronic toys, the toy takes over 90 percent and the child just
fills in the blank.”
Dr. Sosa said she was surprised by the results. She had expected some
parentbaby pairs would talk more with one type of toy, while others would
talk more with another.
But the results were consistent almost across the board. When electronic
toys were being used, parents said about 40 words per minute, on average,
compared with 56 words per minute for traditional toys and 67 words per
minute with books.
They also used fewer words that were relevant to the content of the toy,
like saying “Oh, that’s a piggy,” or “That barn is red.” Words like that were said
over four times as often with books than electronic toys, and more than twice
as often with traditional toys than electronic ones.
Dr. Sosa said the results were the same regardless of the sex or age of the
baby, and whether the parent (almost all were mothers) was a “chatty” person
“Since the toy was providing some feedback to the baby — if they pushed
the button, it did something, it made a noise, it lit up — we think that in
addition to sort of letting the toys talk for them, the parents also sort of let the
toy interact for them,” Dr. Sosa said.
The study was small — 26 families — and most were white and educated.
So the researchers say the results might be different with a larger and more
diverse group. But the study is notable because it sought to capture real world
parent-child playtime in their homes without researchers watching.
Parents were given three sets of toys: electronic toys including baby
laptops, cellphones and a talking farm; traditional toys like blocks and farm
animal puzzles; and board books about colors, shapes and animals.
Over three days, parents and babies, who were 10 to 16 months old,
played for two 15minute sessions with each of the sets of toys. The parents
were given audio recording devices that were turned on for the full three days,
including for the 15-minute play sessions.
Erica Jones, 39, and her son Devin Willy, now 3, participated in the study
when Devin was 10 months old.
Ms. Jones, who teaches English composition, said that when Devin was a
baby, “I would sometimes talk to fill up the space,” saying “this is an onion”
while cooking, for example. But she realized that with electronic toys “if there’s
this other noise already there, I didn’t really feel like I wanted to talk. It felt a
little bit weird sometimes to talk over the noise.”
Ms. Jones found the researchers’ findings were useful because “the busier
I get, the more easy it is to let him play with different electronic toys, and
because of the study, it just reminds me to kind of move away from that.”