Electronic toys for infants that produce lights, words and songs were associated with decreased quantity and quality of language compared to playing with books or traditional toys such as a wooden puzzle, a shape-sorter and a set of rubber blocks, according to an article published online by JAMA Pediatrics.

The reality for many families of young children is that opportunities for direct parent-child play time is limited because of financial, work, and other familial factors. Optimizing the quality of limited parent-child play time is important.

Anna V. Sosa, Ph.D., of Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, and colleagues conducted a controlled experiment involving 26 parent-infant pairs with children who were 10 to 16 months old. Researchers did not directly observe parent-infant play time because it was conducted in participants’ homes. Audio recording equipment was used to pick up sound. Participants were given three sets of toys: electronic toys (a baby laptop, a talking farm and a baby cell phone); traditional toys (chunky wooden puzzle, shape-sorter and rubber blocks with pictures); and five board books with farm animal, shape or color themes.

While playing with electronic toys there were fewer adult words used, fewer conversational turns with verbal back-and-forth, fewer parental responses and less production of content-specific words than when playing with traditional toys or books. Children also vocalized less while playing with electronic toys than with books, according to the results.

Results also indicate that parents produced fewer words during play with traditional toys than while playing with books with infants. Parents also used less content-specific words when playing with traditional toys with their infants than when playing with books.

“These results provide a basis for discouraging the purchase of electronic toys that are promoted as educational and are often quite expensive….”

The authors note results showed the largest and most consistent differences between electronic toys and books, followed by electronic toys and traditional toys.

The study has important limitations, including its small sample size and the similarity of the participants by race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status.

“These results provide a basis for discouraging the purchase of electronic toys that are promoted as educational and are often quite expensive. These results add to the large body of evidence supporting the potential benefits of book reading with very young children. They also expand on this by demonstrating that play with traditional toys may result in communicative interactions that are as rich as those that occur during book reading. … However, if the emphasis is on activities that promote a rich communicative interaction between parents and infants, both play with traditional toys and book reading can be promoted as language-facilitating activities while play with electronic toys should be discouraged,” the study concludes.

Source: JAMA