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Traditional toys and caring adult interactions are best for young kids’ learning

Globe-Miami-Payson, November 2016– When it comes to promoting learning for children 5 and younger, basic toys and quality time with adults are the best gifts an infant, toddler or preschooler can receive.

But what about all those flashy, electronic toys with lights and sounds that we see advertised so much this season? One Northern Arizona University researcher has studied whether they provide an advantage to a young child’s learning.

Anna Sosa, director of the NAU Child Speech and Language Lab in Flagstaff, set out to see which everyday activities promote the best environment for babies and toddlers to learn language.

Early language development is critical to a child’s learning. And babies, toddlers and preschoolers need to hear a lot of language in order to best learn how to speak and eventually transfer those skills into reading and writing.

Turns out, parents and family members talk the most to babies when they are engaging their child with books and traditional toys, rather than electronic toys that claim to promote language development.

“Young children learn through play, through experimenting with the world around them and through interaction with other kids and adults,” said Ginger Sandweg, First Things First Senior Director for Early Learning.

Sosa’s study confirmed that. The study, published earlier this year in the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) Pediatrics, showed that parents used fewer words and interacted less with the child when they were playing with an electronic toy, which was designed to draw out answers such as animal names, shapes or colors. Books and traditional toys, which centered on the same themes of animals, shapes and colors promoted the most language.

“Parents talked the most to their child when they were looking at books or playing with traditional toys, such as helping their child put together a farm animal puzzle,” Sosa said. “Overall, the most ideal situation would be a parent spending 15 minutes of undivided attention, sitting on the floor reading or playing with them, but even in that ideal situation, just having an electronic toy in the mix, impacts what the baby is hearing.”

First Things First has compiled some suggested toys by age and stage that promote learning and language development. 

Books are one of the best gifts for all ages. Daily reading has been shown to help young children develop language skills and increase vocabulary – both crucial if they are going to be good readers in the future. Other good choices for different age groups include:

Infants (under 1 year old) – Babies are fascinated by their surroundings, especially faces and bright colors. Toys that stimulate that initial curiosity include:

board books

safe, chewable toys

toys with mirrors

Toddlers (1-3 years old) – Toys that encourage imagination and problem-solving include:

pretend versions of everyday objects

toys to ride on or climb on

balls to roll or catch

building-type toys, including fill and dump varieties.

matching and sorting toys

large crayons or markers with plain paper

simple puzzles

Preschoolers (3-5 years old) – Toys that help preschoolers relate to each other and the world around them include:

dress-up clothes and kid-size furniture

simple board games

counting and letter games

sports equipment suitable to their size

musical instruments

art supplies such as play dough, safety scissors, glue, etc.




About First Things First – First Things First is a voter-created, statewide organization that funds early education and health programs to help kids be successful once they enter kindergarten. Decisions about how those funds are spent are made by local councils staffed by community volunteers. To learn more, visit FirstThingsFirst.org.

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One comment

  1. This is such a great article! Parents need to realize that the toy companies are a business and not out there for their child’s best interest! Thanks for sharing.

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