Do Tech Toys Hurt Baby's Language Development?

It might be time to put down the "smart" toys and get back to the wooden blocks.

toddler with tablet sitting in front of jumble of letters
Photo illustration by Sarina Finkelstein; Getty Images (2).

As overwhelmed and sleep-deprived parents know, giving your baby a screen is an easy way to secure 10 minutes of quiet time. But a study in the journal JAMA Pediatrics found that infants who play with tech toys featuring flashing lights and computerized talking and music—instead of traditional wooden playthings—tend to have a decreased quality and quantity of language. Are these claims true? We spoke with two behavioral pediatricians to find out.

The Benefits of Play

For babies and toddlers, the benefits of play are widespread. “Play presents an opportunity to develop cognitive skills, social skills, abstract thinking, motor skills, and much more. It helps your child move forward,” says Heidi Feldman, M.D., Ph.D., the division chief of developmental-behavioral pediatrics at the Stanford University School of Medicine. And when it comes to your child’s development, she says certain toys are better than others—specifically traditional, simple toys that allow your child to exercise their creativity.

“Imaginative play helps babies with new ideas,” says Laura Phillips, PsyD, ABPdN, a clinical neuropsychologist at the Child Mind Institute. She mentions one of the best types of toys for brain development: wooden blocks. Not only do blocks improve fine motor skills, but they also encourage your child to problem-solve and use their imagination.

Other noteworthy toy options include stacking cups, coloring books, and spoons.

“There's something to be said in toys that are simple and let the child put meaning into them,” explains Dr. Feldman. “There's no reason you can't take wooden spoons from your kitchen and give them to your child for play.”

Tech Toys: Are They Good or Bad?

For the study in JAMA Pediatrics, researchers looked at parents and their babies (aged 10 and 16 months) playing at home. They noticed less verbal interaction between parents and children when an electronic toy was involved. Babies who played with books and more traditional items, like wooden blocks, tended to exhibit more back-and-forth "chatter" with their parents.

Dr. Phillips backs this up: "Emerging research suggests that language develops optimally in an interpersonal context," she says. "There are studies showing that children acquire more vocabulary terms when talking with parents than listening to ebooks or TV shows." Little kids learn best from human interaction, not with iPads, video games, and other flashy technology objects.

Analog toys require interaction

Tech toys don't have the same developmental benefits as traditional old-school playthings. "It takes a lot more effort and fine motor control to drag a crayon across a coloring page than drag a finger across a tablet," says Dr. Philips. Technology-based toys also limit creativity since they don't inspire kids to use their imaginations.

Giving your child wooden blocks or other analog toys requires them to interact using their senses and imagination. Any chance to stretch that imagination is also a chance to learn, and the more your child plays with their imagination, the better they get at it.

Watching a video won't teach them, for example, how to problem solve, accept failure, and understand cause-effect relationships in the same way building blocks can. Another downside of tech toys is that children might get so accustomed to the stimuli that they'll find simpler toys less appealing, which could lead to attention span issues down the road.

Balancing screens with analog activities

Parents don't need to prevent their children from using tech toys despite this information. Instead, they should vary the types of toys their children play with. "Tech toys aren't dangerous to an infant's cognitive development, but they might replace activities that are helpful," summarizes Dr. Phillips. "Children will be drawn to stimulating flashy toys, but there needs to be variety, and kids should be exposed to simpler toys also." So go ahead and let your child spend a few minutes on the screen—then follow up with some quality parent-child bonding time with books and wooden blocks.

Games To Try with Your Baby

You may wonder what activities you can try at home to help your baby develop language skills. The good news is you don't have to spend a penny or plan elaborate activities; you can do lots of fun, simple things right now.

Pots and Pans

Pull out some pots and pans turn them over, bottom-side up. Get on the floor with your baby and watch them light up when you show them how to make sounds by hitting the bottoms of the pans like drums. Try handing your baby some wooden spoons or rubber spatulas to test out different sounds.

Stacking stuff

You can use almost anything for a stacking game; plastic cups, wooden blocks, empty cereal boxes, or whatever you have on hand that is safe to fall over. Hand your baby objects and see how tall you get your stacked tower of stuff.

Silly read-aloud

Level up your read-aloud time by using silly voices, sock puppets, or even a beloved stuffy to bring the story to life. Help your baby to turn the page, point to objects in the pictures, and even say some of the words to bring them into the fun.

Funny faces

Hold your baby in front of you and look into a mirror together to make funny faces. Copy what your baby does (and watch them giggle!). As you play together, point out different things like parts of your face or big happy smiles.

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