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  • The Challenge of Electronic Toys on Visits(current)

This will come as no surprise to you as an early interventionist…findings from a new study in the online journal JAMA PediatricsMother and children playing with toys on floor suggest that electronic toys are not so good for toddler communication development. Shocked? I knew you wouldn’t be.

Electronic Toys & Play Interactions

I often found this to be a big challenge on intervention visits – the plethora of electronic toys and books. I would try to join the family as they played with their toys, and found it hard to coach the parent in different ways to engage the child with these toys. The child would often delight in pressing the buttons (sometimes over and over again) to make the lights, sounds, or voices play, but that was about as creative as the play got. The parent would try to talk about pushing the button, ask the child to find a particular button, imitate the sound that played, or maybe praise the child after he found the button. That was often the extent of the language displayed, not because the parent wasn’t trying, but because the repertoire of activities that can be done with many electronic toys is just so limited. You might think, wait a minute, an iPad or the latest Fisher Price toy can do a ton of things…that may be true, but consider this…how can the parent interact with the child while the toy is doing all the work?

Too Many Buttons, Too Few Words

In the new study, parent-child communication was measured when the each dyad was playing with three kinds of toys: electronic toys, traditional toys (like blocks), and books. Children in the study were between 10-16 months of age. When parents and their toddlers played with electronic toys, both said fewer words. There were fewer conversational turns between them, the parent responded to the child’s utterances less often, and the parents used fewer content-specific words. This really matches what I’ve seen on visits and actually, what I’ve experienced when playing with toddlers with these toys myself. It’s just harder to communicate around electronic toys and books. I don’t necessarily thing that electronic toys are “bad” for children – in moderation. Electronic toys grab a toddler’s attention, and I think they are really well-marketed to grab ours (as adults). In moderation, a few lights and sounds toys can be fun. Too many, though, can hijack a child’s attention and make it harder for the parent and child to interact, which is so important for communication and social development. Like most things, it’s probably about balance. A few noisy, flashy toys with more traditional toys, like blocks, cars, baby dolls, rattles and (lots of!) books can go a long way, especially when there is a responsive adult playing along with the child.

A Few Suggestions

So, with this said, what’s an early interventionist to do in a home full of electronic toys? Here are a few suggestions:

Observe parent-child play – You might find that the pair are having a blast and interacting fantastically with whatever toy they have. Or, you might find that they are struggling to interact with toys that trap the child’s attention away from the parent. If a toy interferes with communication, talk to the parent about it, not in a “you bought the wrong toys” sort of way. Ask the parent what she notices about her child’s communication when he plays with his lights and sounds toy, and I bet she’ll say that he doesn’t talk much. That gives you a great lead-in to explore this topic with the parent.

Remove the batteries – I’m not suggesting that you remove them when the parent’s back is turned. Rather, if the child loves his animal farm that makes all of the animal sounds for him, ask the parent what she thinks would happen if the batteries were removed. Sure, the child might not be very happy at first, but when he figures out that interacting with his mom while she makes the silly sounds is much more fun, the parent might see how her interaction with her child, rather than the toy, can make a big difference.

Don’t play with toys – Wha? Yes, how about you suggest to the parent that on the next visit, that you do something else. Ask her what they like to do, what’s fun for them. Ask what they would be doing if you weren’t coming and plan to do that. Early intervention can be immensely successful without toys. Try it and you’ll be amazed. Don’t go in and automatically plop on the floor near the toy box. Afterall, parents really don’t spend most of their day playing with toys of any kind with their toddlers. Instead, they are running errands, fixing meals, doing laundry, cleaning the house, taking walks, getting the mail, etc. Join those activities on your next visit and help the parent seize the natural learning opportunities as they happen.

This is a fascinating subject to me. I love toy play, but I think this study reminds us that there are so many other fun and effective ways to interact with children that have nothing to do with batteries or lights and sounds. Sometimes parents need that reminder, and sometimes early interventionists do too.

Okay, now I am officially stepping down off of my soapbox, dismounting from my high horse. 🙂

What are your thoughts about electronic toys and infant/toddler development?

What do you do in a home full of electronic toys?

Share your thoughts and ideas in the comments below!


Sosa, A. V. (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.

12 comments on “The Challenge of Electronic Toys on Visits

  • Becky Shults says:

    This is a great article to distribute to families when the challenge of communication topics arise. I have related this same information to families many times when they were having problems understanding why their child will not communicate with them, and the child is spending a lot of time with electronic toys such as IPADS and Phones, and books that have lights and make sounds.

    • I’m glad you found it useful, Becky! What do parents say when you share this kind of info with them? It’s been my experience that sometimes parents are surprised because they thought that these high tech toys were good for their children because that’s what it said on the box. It’s not easy for parents to weed through the advertisements to figure out which toys and books really are beneficial.

  • Michelle says:

    I now asked families at intake how much screen time their child have with electronics and TV. Some families are surprised by the question. If there is a significant usage of screen time with a child who has language delays I encourage and provide the parent with ideas/activities they can do with their child instead to increase the language development.

    • That’s so interesting, Michelle. Do you hear from families that they have made changes based on the info you provided? Lots of screen time can be a hard habit to break. I remember having that discussion with a family once and when the mother added up all of her toddler’s screen time, she was shocked. She hadn’t really thought about it before so it seemed to be a really useful discussion for her. She was very open to the information.

  • Michelle says:

    Sometimes when families return for their assessment they will state they have decrease the electronic usage and toys. Also I forgot to mention during the intake I ask the families to write down and bring in a list of words or sounds that the child is using once they have decrease the electronics. Most parents come with a list at assessment for the speech therapist and will state they are amazed how much language their child has and they did not realize how much screen time impacts the language. Some parents have asked the team what activities that they can do with their child that does not include electronics to continue the language growth. It is wonderful when I see a parent that is proactive in making positive changes and asking for the support.

    • That’s exciting! I love how you ask families to bring a list of their child’s words. That invites their active participation and places value on their observations right from the beginning. Well done, Michelle!

  • Sarah Meagher says:

    When a family has lots of electronic toys and either the parents are not inclined to try something else, find other toys or perhaps would like to get new toys but can’t afford it. Or the child is so attached to it that removing can be be hard. ( I usually suggest to gradually make the toy disappear if possible). Anyway in any of those situations I suggest that the parent turn the switch for the toy (at least for the younger ones who don’t have the fine motor skill to turn it on) so at least the child is coming to the parent to have the toy on. I also am pretty straight forward that the toys probably won’t help the child learn their letters, colors or numbers or whatever it is teaching. They can play with it but the parent should at least try to engage with the child while the child is playing with it.I

    I also tell parents that some toys…I think there are some fisher price farm toys that have animals that make the sounds can help, but the parents has to encourage the sounds as long as they encourage the sounds with things like songs and such. There also toys that make okay sounds, or music. I like the Baby Mozart Cube, and there is a playskool toy with ball that when you push the button start a fan that blows the balls around and around. If find you can use words like ‘push’, ‘ball’, ‘catch’ and other things with them. I don’t like them either, but I try to do my best with what I have. I just recently had a lot of success with one of those Melissa and Doug Puzzles that make noises when you put the pieces down (or when the lights turn off, or it moves). We were working on making choices though, not words. Once the child became more interested in the sounds and not putting the pieces in, mom took away the puzzle (and planned to take the batteries out).

    In the end I suppose I try to make the most of it and try to suggest that the child can use things like pots and pans and old cereal box as toys. If the family drinks that comes in cans, i show them how to make a piggy bank out of it. I emphasis parent engagement playing games like chase, tickling and things like that.

    • These are fantastic examples of strategies that interventionist can use to help families facilitate communication WITH electronic toys! You are so right, Sarah, you have to work with what you’ve got and if you’re creative, you can do a lot. Not all electronic toys are no-nos – it’s how they are used (or not used) to engage children that counts. Thanks so much for adding these rich, practical strategies to the blog post!

  • Gabrielle says:

    Everything you say her is so GOOD! It is so important to remember that 50 or 100 years ago people did not have containers (pumpkin seat, swing, etc.) or electronic toys, or many toys at all for that matter and they grew up and survived.

    I am not advocating a dark ages mentality, toys are so good! I have been known to play with them even when children are not present :). However, as my coworker pointed out the other day branded toys, like a Lighting McQueen car can only be a Lightning McQueen car. A generic car can be a race car, an ambulance, a police car, etc. I love CARS the movie, don’t get me wrong but non-electronic and non-branded items can really open up a plethora of other options.

    The other thing I think about was from in a comment you responded to, ” It’s not easy for parents to weed through the advertisements to figure out which toys and books really are beneficial.” This is a problem that we created. Psychologists and folks who began the work of focusing on the mind and body and how it develops and how that affects social aspects as well as other things, CREATED advertising. Whether you want to acknowledge it as directly or indirectly. A psychologist was the one to help the advertising industry understand how to “market” products to certain demographics. Because of this we have this duality between what “experts” on the packaging say and what the scientific research says.

    It is truly very difficult to help parents understand the difference. And I have yet to come up with a solid one size fits all approach to this explanation. You just have to educate families, just like how you mentioned, in a positive coaching manner. Being sure not to say “You bought the wrong toy” but instead helping them see what fun and effect they can have on their child. Everything in moderation 🙂

    • Thanks Gabrielle! You make some great points too. We are the products of our own knowledge and inventions, aren’t we? I think the challenge comes with trying to balance all of the information, the technology, and the interactions. All three are tools that can be used to make wonderful things happen with young children and their families…it just all depends on how they are used. Thanks for joining the conversation!

  • Michelle says:

    Check out WSLS10 there is an article called “Are tablets a good learning device for children? Research is from the Kansas State University. You need to scroll midway down the page to the see the article. I try to link it but not tech savy.


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