Even as adults, toy stores are alluring. Maybe the appeal comes from the flashing lights, the beaming colours and high stacked shelves. Often we are drawn in by the manufacture’s promises and guarantees to help our children develop in EVERY possible way.
There are the teethers that promise to promote language development*, the baby iPad that will teach your crawler to code and the toy pianos that promise to take you from waddler to Wolfgang.
Whether it’s the toy kitchen that says it will increase your child’s social communication through promoting role play, or the shape sorter that gives hopes of expanding your child’s vocabulary, a toy store, any toy store, comes with a million promises. Some more far-fetched than others.
In the UK, the toy industry is worth 3.4 billion. Toy manufactures know that we want the best for our children and they are cashing in on it!
But what does the research on toys say? And is there a connection between marketing and your child’s development?
Toys are fun, but toys are expensive. Do we really need the latest expensive gadgets and gizmos to give our children the very best start?
There is not much evidence to say that we do!
Child psychologist Alison Gopnik is adamant that relying on toys and iPads to give your child a developmental edge ‘fundamentally misunderstands what is happening in development’ and even if products did exist that fulfilled all the promises they made, ‘we would have defeated the whole point of childhood’
Gopnik goes on to assert that many of the toys that we see today are marketed using questionable claims rather than solid science. This is not to say that toys are not useful and that they don’t provide any value. But being wary of their claims and knowing that there are other things that are just as good, perhaps even better for your child’s development, might well be the place to start.
Drop the flashy and save some cashy! Lets get traditional with toys
It can be tempting to buy the noisiest, flashiest, talking toy on the market, but if we are going to buy a toy, what kind of toy is the best?
A 2016 study found that compared with electronic toys, traditional toys e.g. building blocks, puzzles, stacking games and tea sets, yielded higher language interactions. With the traditional toys, parents used more words and there were more conversational turns, more often!
More conversational turns are linked to better language gains (see our article one good turn deserves another). A recent study (2018) from MIT also points the importance of taking time to use your traditional toys. It found that children’s "language centres" in the brain were stronger in relation to the length of conversational turns that parents took. The children also did better on language tests.
Traditional toys therefore provide a platform on which to stage the back and forth conversations, but that communicative edge and language boost, can come from just you and the things you have lying about.
That is right! Traditional toys might be better than electronic ones, but YOU are the best!
Playing is one serious job and it is the first way that we interact with the world. (see article on the value of play)
Playing with your child, games like peek a boo, pointing to body parts and naming them, talking about what you are doing around the house and making it in to a fun game, are excellent ways to provide the language for your child to soak up.
Using everyday objects, pots pans, spoons and spatulas! Your tiny tot can have lots of fun banging, role playing, and listening to language, not through a battery operated talking machine but through listening to your voice and the everyday language that they will then go on to understand and use.
The adage is true, children are happiest with a cardboard box. Get ‘stacking’, ‘cutting’, ‘tearing’, ‘colouring’, ‘building’, ‘knocking’ and ‘hiding!’ Playing with such objects helps children (and you) to get creative, use their imaginations, motor skills and learn lots of words!
This is not to say that you shouldn’t buy toys! But know, you are your child’s first and best one. Nothing out there on the shelves of a toy store can replace what you can teach your child through playing with them. So, when you do go to buy that expensive, shiny, noisy toy, choose one that you like! As when your child eventually favours the cardboard box, you will have something to enjoy too! ;-)
Written by Carolyn Fox, Children's Speech and Language Therapist
- Scientific American June
- Sosa, A. (2016). Association of the type of toy used during play with the quantity and quality of parent-infant communication. JAMA Pediatrics, 170 (2), 132-137. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2015.3753
- Stat on toy industry - https://www.toyfair.co.uk/uk-toy-market-decreases-in-2017-amid-concerns-about-counterfeit-toys/