Playtime: some toys promote language use more than others

Justin Markussen-Brown

Imagine three different one-year-old children receive three different toys for Christmas. The first child receives a toy-laptop that flashes letters of the alphabet and words, the second child receives a traditional wooden puzzle, and the third child receives a book. Which of these toys will promote the most language use, when parents play with their kids and their new toys?

A new study reported in the prestigious journal JAMA Pediatrics sheds new light on how different kinds of toys influence parents’ playtime with their kids. In the study, researchers from Northern Arizona University found that children who played with the electronic toys vocalized less during playtime than children who played with traditional toys or books. Play with electronic toys was further characterized by less turn-taking between the child and parent, fewer uses of complex language, and parents generally spoke less to their children. Whereas playing with books and solving puzzles appeared to promote richer language environments, playing with electronic toys consistently related to poorer language environments. A summary of the study can be read here.

The question is then, why do electronic toys seem to negatively affect parents’ linguistic interactions with their children – even when the electronic toys are intended to be educational? The researchers in the study point to the fact that electronic toys, with exciting lights and sounds, are excellent at obtaining and holding a child’s attention, but they also decrease the the parent’s involvement in the play.

Children do not learn language on their own. Decades of research have demonstrated that children largely learn language from listening and interacting with their parents and caregivers. In general, children’s language development reflects the quantity and quality of the language input that each child receives to a large extent. Therefore, if electronic toys hinder linguistic communication between the child and the parent, then it stands to reason that the child will receive less language stimulation, even though the opposite perhaps was intended.

It might seem enticing to give children exciting electronic toys that appear to be educational at first glance; however, no toy will ever surpass the linguistic stimulation a child receives when engaged in high quality play with a parent. This is not to say that parents shouldn’t use electronic toys in their shared-play with children. Some electronic toys give parents an important role so that they can engage the child in talk while they play. However, many electronic toys promote isolated play, where the parent has a reduced role. Although these toys may entertain the child, they appear to be less conducive to language development than traditional play objects such as books.

What is the morale of the story in this blog? Parents, you are the most important factor in your child’s language development! Toy-laptops and iPad apps have value for language development if they increase talk and turn-taking during play. If, however, they isolate the child’s play, then they serve little value in child development. Playing with traditional toys and books may seem boring for kids, but these acts appear to promote enriching linguistic interactions. If parents wish to include electronic media in their play with children, then the toys should be used in a way that support talk and interactions.

Nowadays, parents are inundated with many options to buy electronic toys intended to enhance children’s learning and play. I would suggest using one’s own critical judgement to assess the value these toys hold for your child. If the toys don’t bring about more and richer interactions with your child than for example booking-reading would bring, then they are probably not worth their added expense.


Anna V. Sosa, PhD. Association of the Type of Toy Used During Play With the Quantity and Quality of Parent-Infant Communication. JAMA Pediatr., December 2015 DOI: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2015.3753