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.
In the study, 26 parents and their 10-16 month old infants were given three sets of toys to play with:
- Books── five different board books.
- Traditional toys ── farm animal puzzle, shape-sorter, set of blocks.
- 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, 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 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.
- 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.”
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”).
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.” 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.” 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.”
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.” 
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.
 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
 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.
 In conversation, turns include the pauses, silences, moments of potential transition when the momentum may be taken up by either party.
 “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. http://www.readtosucceedbuffalo.org/documents/30%20Million%20Word%20Gap.pdf
 Sosa study
 Sosa study.