Behind doors 1, 2 or 3──which toys promote infants’ literacy development?

Behind doors #1, 2 and 3, you can select three types of toys for your infant. Which door do you select to promote literacy development ── and why? Findings of a Northern Arizona University study examining the type of toys used by infants during play and the quantity and quality of parent-child communication using the toys provides some surprising answers.[1]

In the study, 26 parents and their 10-16 month old infants were given three sets of toys to play with:

  1. Books── five different board books[2].
  2. Traditional toys ── farm animal puzzle, shape-sorter, set of blocks.
  3. Electronic toys ── baby laptop, talking farm, baby cell phone.

Audio recording equipment in the families’ homes recorded the language between parent and infant as they interacted with the toys over a three-day period ──during two 15-minute play sessions for each toy set. This scenario enabled families to play with all of the toys in each set.

What were the researchers looking at during these interactions? Throughout each minute of the play sessions, researchers measured the number of adult words used, the child’s vocalizations, the conversational turns[3], the parent’s verbal responses to the child’s utterances, and the types of words produced by parents.

Why would a study like this be important? We know from a growing body of research that early language development creates the foundation to support a child’s success through school, children who know more words at age two enter kindergarten better prepared than others, and infants develop larger vocabularies by the types of interaction with their caregivers. We know too that “size matters” ── the size of a child’s vocabulary. More than a decade ago, Hart and Risley[4] studied families from various socio-economic backgrounds to assess the ways in which daily exchanges between parents and their child shape language and vocabulary development. The findings revealed major disparities between the number of words spoken and the types of messages conveyed. After four years, these differences in parent-child interactions added up to significant discrepancies. Children from high-income families were being exposed to 30 million more words than children from families on welfare. And follow-up studies showed that these differences in language and interaction experiences have lasting effects on a child’s performance later in life. This has become known as the 30 million word gap.

This knowledge informed the study to determine if the type of toys used during play affects a child’s language development?

What then did the researchers find when they analyzed the data collected by the recording devices?

The researchers found that there were indeed significant differences in the language interactions between parent and infant playing with books versus traditional toys versus electronic toys. During play with electronic toys, there were fewer adult words, fewer conversational turns, fewer parental responses, and fewer productions of content-specific words than during play with books or traditional toys. Children vocalized less during play with electronic toys than play with books. Parents produced fewer words during play with traditional toys than play with books and use of content-specific words was lower during play with traditional toys.[5]

  • Book play averaged 66.89 words per minute.
  • Traditional toy play averaged 55.5 words per minute.
  • Electronic toy play averaged 39.62 words per minute.

The researchers conclude that “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.”[6]

Many folks are looking at this study now and adding their perspectives – see two recent blogs: When It Comes to Infant Language Development, Not All Toys Are Created Equal (Aaron Loewenbeg) and Electronic versus Traditional Toys: What They Mean for Infant Playtime (Ann at “The Thoughtful Parent”).[7]

Loewenberg notes, “When children are engaged with electronic toys, such as a baby laptop or talking farm, parents may get the mistaken impression that the toy is helping the child more than their parents can. Or, given the demands and stress of juggling work and household duties, parents may feel no choice but to leave their infants and toddlers alone with these toys for periods of time. But there’s no evidence that children in the 10-16 month age range are able to learn vocabulary by using media without a parent or other adult talking with them about what they are seeing and playing with.”[8] Loewenberg also points out that the study size was small and not very diverse. “The study had a small sample size of just 26 parents and almost all of them were white and college-educated. Hopefully, similar research will be done in the future with a more demographically diverse set of participants.”[9] But these limitations aside, he concludes, “… it’s hard to dismiss research that shows such clear benefits of traditional toys over fancier (and more expensive) electronic items. So my advice to parents of very young children looking to purchase a toy to help their infant’s language development would be this: Be skeptical of a toy company’s grand claims about the educational benefits of their high-tech product since they rarely have research to back it up. Instead, opt for a low-tech toy or book that both parent and child can engage with together.”[10]

Ann at “The Thoughtful Parent” reminds us that, “Electronic toys …are pretty much ubiquitous. Young children are very attracted to them. So what is a parent to do? Electronic toys can be helpful if used sparingly. We all need a few minutes to do dishes or cook a meal and these toys can be good distractions for a few minutes. It’s good, however, to keep in mind that you as a parent are the best “toy” for your infant. Talking to him/her over toys and books is the best way for her/him to learn language and interaction skills … and narrating to your child what you are doing as you go about your daily routine.” [11]

My takeaway: when the “game show of life” has us standing before door #1 (books), #2 (traditional toys) and #3 (electronic toys), I’m selecting door #1 first for the infant in my care because vocabulary development matters and engaging infants through effective communication is a high-stakes ── 30 million word ──pay-off.


[1] Sosa AV. Association of the Type of Toy Used During Play with the Quantity and Quality of Parent-Infant Communication. JAMA Pediatrics. 2015. Dec 23

[2] Board books: designed to survive the wear and tear of infants’ mouths and hands and offer opportunity to share with a child on a caregiver’s lap. The best ones tell a simple story with few or no words, allowing readers to invent their own. Illustrations are crisp and clear, with limited images on each page.

[3] In conversation, turns include the pauses, silences, moments of potential transition when the momentum may be taken up by either party.

[4] “The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3” by University of Kansas researchers Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley. (2003). American Educator. Spring.

[5] Sosa study

[6] Sosa study.

[7] and






Lisa Guernsey’s 13 minute TEDx Talk on the impacts of screen time on children

If you’re wondering why there’s growing concern about the impact of “screen time” on children, especially those under three, you may want to devote 13 minutes to watch a TEDx Talks[1]How the iPad affects young children, and what we can do about it (TEDxMidAtlantic, April 27, 214).

The speaker on the stage is Lisa Guernsey, Director of the New America Foundation’s Early Education Initiative. A decade ago she was a technology and education reporter for the New York Times. She also wrote a book on how media affects children (Screen Time: How Electronic Media — From Baby Videos to Educational Software — Affects Your Young Child).

If you’re not clicking right now to the Internet to listen to Lisa, here’s the gist of her remarks. As parents (and she is one), we should pay attention to how children understand the omnipresent screens in their lives─ iPADs, smart phones, computers and television. Lisa calls out some key questions she and others have about screen time: Will it affect children’s’ attention span? How will children come to understand the world around them through screens?

“Children see things a little differently than we do,” Lisa reminds us. She shares some compelling examples of how we know this from the research world. For example, research informs us that young children think that popcorn will come pouring out of a television if you turn it upside down when it’s showing popcorn on the screen. From this and other research we know that children up until about two and a half to three years old react to screen “reality” differently than older folks.[2]

Lisa says there are three “C’s” we should pay attention to in interacting with the screens in our children’s lives: content, context, and the children themselves.

  • There should be good content that children can learn from. The content should contain the same aspects we would seek in a good preschool teacher: 1) focuses on learning and engaging the child, 2) says things more than once (repeats messages) for more effective learning, 3) provides chances for pause to allow the child time to react to what is being said, and 4) contains no violence or aggression because young children often imitate what they see.
  • Context is about how the child is interacting with the media. The parent should engage with the child as the child engages with the media ─ to ask the child questions and explain what’s being presented.
  • Children is about how to interact with your own child, knowing the ways he/she reacts, taking into consideration the particular needs and interests of the child.

Lisa offers us an interesting idea for thought, in addition to her call for attention to the three C’s. What if every family had a media mentor, someone who could talk to our children about what they’re seeing? This could be a preschool teacher, child librarian, childcare provider, or even parent. Her thinking is, even if we follow the three Cs, by the time a child is around nine, screen time is all around them. It seems best then to put serious attention on managing this growing presence ─ to learn from media and apply this learning to the wider world.

While many commentators are calling right now for restricting screen time for children, especially under three years old, Lisa focuses on better managing the child-to-screen relationship to benefit learning. I take heart that a former technology and education news reporter who continues to write and think about media impacts on children’s’ lives – and indeed all our lives – thinks that we have a major force to be reckoned with – the media. And here we are with our own “screen” choices on this topic ─ able to view a free online presentation on a screen through TEDx Talks if your preference is audio/visual; or to read a blog on a website if your preference is reading for information. However we prefer to acquire information and share our thinking, it’s clear that screen time is an important ─ indeed a vital part of our “real” world.

I don’t know at what precise age children realize that popcorn is not going to come out of the television if you turn it upside down when popcorn is depicted on the screen, but it’s clearly our job to help them sort through what is in the screen and what is not. I’m a fan of Lisa’s three Cs: let’s focus on good screen content, the context for using screens well, and adapting to the needs and interests of our children. And if media mentors can help families make best use of the omnipresent screens in our world, I’m all for it.


[1] From TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) is a global set of conferences run by the private non-profit Sapling Foundation, under the slogan “Ideas Worth Spreading.” TED’s early emphasis was technology and design but it has broadened its focus to include talks addressing a wide range of topics within the research and practice of science and culture, often through storytelling. Speakers are given a maximum of 18 minutes to present ideas in the most innovative and engaging ways they can. As of April 2014, over 1,700 talks were freely available on the website; and as of Nov. 2012, TED talks had been watched over one billion times worldwide. TEDx is a program of local, self-organized events that bring people together to share a TED-like experience. At a TEDx event, TEDTalks video and live speakers combine to spark discussion and connection in a small group. These local, self-organized events are branded TEDx, where x = independently organized TED event. The TED Conference provides general guidance for the TEDx program, but individual TEDx events are self-organized though subject to certain rules and regulations.

[2] If you want to learn more about why folks are focusing on birth to 24-30 months in a child’s development, check out my blog from Dec. 27, 2913, “Looking into “screen” time for children ─ impacts on reading at: <>