Small study on how toys influence the language of young kids

It’s a bit late after christmas and new year – best wishes btw – and many presents have been bought and given, but this – warning, relatively small – study sheds some interesting light on the influence of toys on the language kids use during playtime, both in quality and quantity. 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. This study is useful as inspiration rather than a basis for big conclusions

From the press release:

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.

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.

Abstract of the study:

Importance  The early language environment of a child influences language outcome, which in turn affects reading and academic success. It is unknown which types of everyday activities promote the best language environment for children.

Objective  To investigate whether the type of toy used during play is associated with the parent-infant communicative interaction.

Design, Setting, and Participants  Controlled experiment in a natural environment of parent-infant communication during play with 3 different toy sets. Participant recruitment and data collection were conducted between February 1, 2013, and June 30, 2014. The volunteer sample included 26 parent-infant (aged 10-16 months) dyads.

Exposures  Fifteen-minute in-home parent-infant play sessions with electronic toys, traditional toys, and books.

Main Outcomes and Measures  Numbers of adult words, child vocalizations, conversational turns, parent verbal responses to child utterances, and words produced by parents in 3 different semantic categories (content-specific words) per minute during play sessions.

Results  Among the 26 parent-infant dyads, toy type was associated with all outcome measures. During play with electronic toys, there were fewer adult words (mean, 39.62; 95% CI, 33.36-45.65), fewer conversational turns (mean, 1.64; 95% CI, 1.12-2.19), fewer parental responses (mean, 1.31; 95% CI, 0.87-1.77), and fewer productions of content-specific words (mean, 1.89; 95% CI, 1.49-2.35) than during play with traditional toys or books. Children vocalized less during play with electronic toys (mean per minute, 2.9; 95% CI, 2.16-3.69) than during play with books (mean per minute, 3.91; 95% CI, 3.09-4.68). Parents produced fewer words during play with traditional toys (mean per minute, 55.56; 95% CI, 46.49-64.17) than during play with books (mean per minute, 66.89; 95% CI, 59.93-74.19) and use of content-specific words was lower during play with traditional toys (mean per minute, 4.09; 95% CI, 3.26-4.99) than during play with books (mean per minute, 6.96; 95% CI, 6.07-7.97).

Conclusions and Relevance  Play with electronic toys is associated with decreased quantity and quality of language input compared with play with books or traditional toys. To promote early language development, play with electronic toys should be discouraged. Traditional toys may be a valuable alternative for parent-infant play time if book reading is not a preferred activity.

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Filed under At home, Education, Research

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