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Books, Puzzles Trump Electronic Toys for Infants' Language Skills

Books, Puzzles Trump Electronic Toys for Infants’ Language Skills

Electronic toys for infants that light up, say words and/or play songs are linked to decreased language skills compared to playing with books or traditional toys such as a wooden puzzle, a shape-sorter and a set of rubber blocks, according to a new study published online by JAMA Pediatrics.

The findings show that playing with electronic toys often leads to less direct communication between the parent and child. The researchers note that these parent-child interactions are extremely important and that this time should be optimized as direct parent-child play time is often limited due to financial, work, and other familial factors.

“Conversational turns during play do more than teach children language. They lay the groundwork for literacy skills, teach role-playing, give parents a window into their child’s developmental stage and struggles, and teach social skills such as turn-taking and accepting others’ leads,” writes Jenny S. Radesky, M.D. and Dimitri A. Christakis, M.D., M.P.H. in a related editorial.

“Digital features have enormous potential to engage children in play — particularly children with a higher sensory threshold — but it is important the child not get stuck in the toy/app’s closed loop to the exclusion of real-world engagement. Bells and whistles may sell toys, but they also can detract value,” they said.

For the study, Anna V. Sosa, Ph.D., of Northern Arizona University conducted a controlled experiment involving 26 parent-infant pairs with children ages 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.

The largest and most consistent differences were between electronic toys and books, followed by electronic toys and traditional toys.

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. Babies also vocalized less while playing with electronic toys than with books.

The findings also reveal 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. 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,” the study concludes.

Source: JAMA Network Journals

Books, Puzzles Trump Electronic Toys for Infants’ Language Skills

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2018). Books, Puzzles Trump Electronic Toys for Infants’ Language Skills. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 4, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 24 Dec 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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