What are some of your child’s favorite toys? Do they gravitate towards classic toys like building blocks, dolls, or puzzles? Or do they tend to choose more modern electronic toys that buzz, light up, or talk? It’s easy to see the novelty and appeal of these high-tech toys, but do they really bring any added educational benefits that classic toys lack? In the modern consumer environment full of toys to garner our children’s attention, how do we choose the ones that really foster learning and development? With a few insights from research, we can learn to navigate the toy aisles with more confidence and help our children choose toys that will support their development.
Pros and Cons of Electronic Toys
With the increasing prevalence of electronic toys in the lives of children, researchers have become more interested in understanding the ways in which these toys might impact children’s learning and development. While research in this area is still early, we have begun to see some evidence of different patterns of play when children interact with electronic toys compared to traditional ones.
In general, research on children’s play with electronic versus traditional toys shows a marked difference in the level and type of interaction each promotes with adult caregivers. When playing with electronic toys, children and adults tend to share fewer verbal exchanges. Additionally, children and adults tend to use fewer words1 overall when engaging with electronic toys compared to traditional toys.
While this finding may not seem concerning on the surface, it can be problematic when considering how young children learn through play. In the context of play with adult caregivers, the verbal back-and-forth is a key component of the learning environment. It is through this interactive “serve and return” process that children not only learn verbal cues, but also scaffold their learning and extend their play. Thus, the ways in which toys either foster or inhibit these interactions are of vital importance to children’s learning and development.
One helpful example of the role of electronic toys in influencing children’s play and language use is a study of geometric toys. When comparing sets of physical geometric toys with geometric shapes that children interact with on an electronic app, children used significantly more words and spatial language when playing with the physical toys. Although the electronic app produced audible shape names, children adopted and used more spatial language2 when using the physical toys with adults.
This is not to say that electronic toys have no value for children’s playtime. Some studies have shown that electronic toys, such as interactive or robotic animal toys, can foster children’s pretend play as they offer life-like interaction3 in their movements and sounds. Adults, too, are often able to interact with children in novel ways with the addition of an electronic toy.
Overall, the research clearly indicates that children’s patterns of play and interaction with adults may be altered by the addition of electronic toys. These differences in the types of play fostered by electronic and traditional toys can provide useful insights for parents as they choose the types of toys to purchase for their children.
Tips for Choosing Toys for Children
Choosing toys for children may seem like a mundane, even unimportant, aspect of parenting. As we have seen, however, toys have the ability to significantly impact the ways in which children play and learn. Rather than an afterthought, toy choice can be a meaningful way in which we influence our children’s development.
Know the Facts: As we have seen in this discussion of electronic and traditional toys, understanding the impact that different types of toys might have on children’s development can be helpful. It’s not always the case that certain toys are better than others, but that they may impact children differently or that the impact might vary by age. Parents may find it helpful to read reviews of toys or understand how they work prior to purchasing one for their child. You might be able to determine if the toy fits your child’s developmental level well or not. With the prevalence of new, innovative toys on the market, it is easy to assume that these are superior to traditional toys. However, as we have seen, more complex or innovative toys are not necessarily better for children’s development.
Find Balance: As with many aspects of children’s development, finding a balance between traditional and electronic toys is key. Electronic toys can have a place in any child’s toy box, but traditional, open-ended toys remain beneficial to children’s learning as well. Having a wide variety of toys and materials with which children can choose to interact is a great way to support different aspects of their development.
Look for a Match: Perhaps more important than the specific type of toy a child uses is how well the toy matches up with their current developmental stage. In their report about selecting toys for children, the American Academy of Pediatrics1 writes, “In general, the best toys are those that match children’s developmental skills and abilities and further encourage the development of new skills.” This idea provides insightful advice for parents trying to choose toys for their children. Rather than choosing “trendy” or “fad” toys, parents can try to find toys that meet their children’s developmental skills and interests.
When choosing the next toy for your child, consider what skills they are currently developing or interests they have. For young children, they might be developing gross motor skills like pouring or stirring, climbing, or cognitive skills like learning colors, shapes, or object names. Skills like these could easily be enhanced and fostered with the addition of a few simple toys. Older children might use toys, art supplies, or games to further their sports interests, critical thinking, or art skills.
Toys may just seem like simple playthings to us, but for children, they are tools to help foster their social and cognitive development. With this in mind, it’s helpful to understand the differing impacts of electronic and traditional toys on children’s interactions and play patterns. Armed with this knowledge, we can make smart toy choices on our children’s behalf to help support their development.
The information provided on this site is NOT medical advice and is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, provide medical or behavioral advice, treat, prevent, or cure any disease, condition, or behavior. You should consult with a qualified healthcare professional regarding your child’s development to make a medical diagnosis, determine a treatment for a medical condition, or obtain other related advice.
- Healey A, Mendelsohn A, (2019) AAP Council on Early Childhood. Selecting Appropriate Toys for Young Children in the Digital Era. Pediatrics;143(1):e20183348. https://amotherjoy.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/peds.2018-3348.full_.pdf
- Verdine, B. N., Zimmermann, L., Foster, L., Marzouk, M. A., Golinkoff, R. M., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Newcombe, N. (2019). Effects of Geometric Toy Design on Parent–Child Interactions and Spatial Language. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 46, 126–141. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecresq.2018.03.015
- Sung, J. How Young Children and Their Mothers Experience Two Different Types of Toys: A Traditional Stuffed Toy Versus an Animated Digital Toy. Child Youth Care Forum 47, 233–257 (2018). https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Jihyun-Sung-4/publication/321508305_How_Young_Children_and_Their_Mothers_Experience_Two_Different_Types_of_Toys_A_Traditional_Stuffed_Toy_Versus_an_Animated_Digital_Toy/links/5b1532f8aca2723d9981f519/How-Young-Children-and-Their-Mothers-Experience-Two-Different-Types-of-Toys-A-Traditional-Stuffed-Toy-Versus-an-Animated-Digital-Toy.pdf