Language is the foundation of communication with others, providing an important means for acquiring and sharing information. Language skills develop from early infancy on.

Long before babies and toddlers can speak clearly, they are practicing using a variety of sounds and gestures to reach out to those around them. By the time their first words are uttered, infants have already mastered quite a few communication skills.

Are talking educational toys worth the extra money?

Parents and caregivers are very important in helping infants and young children acquire these skills. The language children hear around them and the way in which words are used strongly influence how easily and well children begin to use language.

Helping Language Bloom

Language skills blossom when babies have frequent language-rich interactions with adults. Research shows that the quantity and quality of interaction between parents and children makes a big difference in a child's language learning and development.

Long before babies and toddlers can speak clearly, they are absorbing, sounds, words, and rules of their language.

So it would seem that the many talking educational toys currently marketed to parents as a way to help children learn are a great resource. These often-electronic devices produce sounds, words, and phrases by the push of a button or a tap on a screen.

While they appear to be highly stimulating, do talking toys really promote language development? Are they worth the extra money? And perhaps most concerning, do they do more harm than good by replacing meaningful adult interaction time?

Parents and Babies Playing with Toys
Researcher Anna Sosa of Northern Arizona University designed a study to see how different toys affected parent-child communication. She gave parents and children play materials and monitored the types of language interactions that took place as parents and their children were playing — with electronic devices, traditional toys, and books.

Twenty-six pairs of infants, ages 10-16 months, and one of their parents played together with each set of toys for two 15-minute play periods over a three-day period. Parents and children could play at their convenience but were given a daily log with the order of play. The sessions were recorded and were then transcribed and coded for the types and quantities of language interactions observed.

There were three types of play materials: electronic toys including a baby laptop, a talking farm, and a baby cell phone; non-electronic traditional toys such as a farm animal puzzle, a shape sorter and a set of picture covered blocks; and five board books with animal, shape and color themes.

The Best Toys
The type of toy parents and children used made a difference in the type of language interactions they had.

The electronic toys did not perform well.

When electronic toys were used, parents tended to let the toys do the talking for them. There were fewer words said, fewer conversational turns, fewer responses and fewer content-specific words (“Where's the black dog?”). Children also vocalized less during electronic play.

Books were better than electronic toys in encouraging communication interactions. Traditional toys and book reading were similar in the number of conversational turns and parental responses each stimulated, but parents produced more content specific words during play with books.

Traditional toys were better than electronic toys in both the kinds of lively interactions they helped stimulate and the number of words parents produced when using them.

The Takeaway for Parents

The study shows parents that there really are meaningful differences in the kinds of communication-interactions that occur during play, depending on whether a child is playing with electronic toys, books, and traditional toys. These differences impact the quality and quantity of language infants experience and have the potential to influence their language development.

When playing with your children or those in your care, keep reliance on electronic toys and media to a minimum, despite the advertising hype.

Electronic toys were shown to significantly decrease meaningful language interactions, while books and traditional toys encouraged the types of interactions — through words, gestures and actions that are known to advance language development.

When playing with your children or those in your care, try to keep reliance on electronic toys and media to a minimum, despite the advertising hype. Read books aloud, or emphasize play with traditional toys — like blocks, stacking toys, puzzles, dolls, or pretend play.

For many families, playtime is limited. Parents' jobs, family stresses, or caring for aging grandparents can all eat up the amount of time and energy parents have to spend with their infants. Using books and traditional toys rather than electronics during whatever time you do have for play with your children is the best way to make sure your son or daughter is getting the best kind of exposure to language and human communication.

The study is published in Pediatrics.