We are pleased to bring you the first post in a series Digital media and children under 3 years old. This series is brought to you with the cooperation of the magazine, Infant behavior and development. In the coming weeks, the posts in this series will highlight research a special edition which focused on how young children interact with technology and ways parents can facilitate media engagement to promote positive development.
Key takeaways for healthcare providers
- Playing with toys is an important activity for caregivers and babies to do together to support healthy development.
- When caregivers read manufacturers’ descriptions of toys, they were more likely to choose technology toys, but research shows that these toys can have significant drawbacks, such as reduced engagement between caregivers and infants and less language during play.
- Reading toy descriptions with a critical eye is a good way to buy high quality toys for babies.
Definitely choose toys can positively influence the development of children
Many parents, caregivers and relatives face the challenge of choosing a toy as a gift for a child. What will they like? What do they already own? Which toys are best for them? And most confusingly, how do I select which toy from what seems like hundreds and hundreds of options? No wonder the choice feels so overwhelming: toys are big business $40 billion dollars industry in the United States in 2022.
However, beyond their role in the marketplace, toys are important to infant development as they play a vital role in supporting and stimulating play. Toys can encourage physical activity, such as throwing and catching a ball or pushing a toy train across a room. They can also provide a starting point for promoting social interactions between individuals, for example when two children share and play with toys together.
Toys can also expand children’s thinking as they use them to represent other objects, such as a toy phone instead of a smartphone. And they can also support the expression of creativity, as happens when children use blocks to build a structure.
Playing with toys is not only about the toys themselves, but also about how individuals interact with each other while they play.
The importance of playing with toys for baby’s development is well known. But another important factor is critical to consider: the idea that interactions between caregivers and infants during play (with and without toys) help support infants’ cognitive and social development.
For example, when caregivers and infants engage in back-and-forth interactions focused on the same topic or area of interest, infants can learn new words and understand how to take turns in conversation. In other words, playing with toys is not just about the toys themselves, but also about how individuals interact with each other while they play.
Choosing technological toys can negatively affect children’s development
Toys are a powerful developmental tool and can support important interactions between caregiver and child. But are all toys created equal in terms of their potential to foster quality interactions?
In short, probably not. In particular, research suggests that technological or electronic toys – toys that require batteries to operate – can have a negative effect on the way caregivers and babies play and talk together during their playful interactions. For example, when using electronic toys, caregivers can talk more about how to make the toy work (e.g. using more commands such as “Press the button”) rather than letting the infants direct the interaction or ask open-ended questions.
How do caregivers approach decisions about buying toys?
Since toys are important tools for supporting cognitive and social development, and the types of toys that caregivers and children play with can affect important interactions in different ways, we need to better understand how caregivers approach buying toys for their babies .
To investigate this matter, we conducted a study with caregivers. We asked how they approached buying toys for their babies. We also examined whether and how manufacturers’ claims about the specific developmental benefits of toys influenced healthcare providers’ purchasing decisions. In our research, we examined three questions:
- What kind of toys do babies and caregivers play with?
- What are caregiver preferences for electronic versus traditional toys?
- How do advertisements about the developmental characteristics of toys affect caregivers’ toy choices?
Exploring how and what caregivers think about toys
Sixty-three primary caregivers of infants (0-24 months) in the United States participated in the study. Most caregivers were white (78%), 3% were black, 5% were Asian, 13% were Latinx, and 1% were of another ethnicity. The highest educational level of the caregivers ranged from a high school diploma (3%) to a graduate degree (79%).
In our study, caregivers were asked to report how often their baby engaged in playing with blocks, dolls or stuffed animals, electronic toys (ie, battery-operated toys), electronic and non-electronic books, electronic and non-electronic puzzles, and other toys.
Next, caregivers viewed eight images of baby toys with no description. Four of the eight toys were electronic, with functions such as lights and sounds, and required batteries. The other four toys were traditionally or otherwise identified as non-electronic toys (e.g. shape sorters, stacking blocks, puzzles). Caregivers were asked to identify four toys they would like to purchase.
Next, caregivers answered questions about their toy purchasing behavior and opinions about toy marketing. Then the same eight toys were shown again (in a different order), this time with descriptions from the manufacturer. The descriptions listed the toy’s developmental benefits (for example, promoting fine motor skills, understanding cause and effect, or counting skills), and whether or not the toy was electronic. Finally, the caretakers were again asked to select four toys they would be interested in buying and answered the same set of questions about buying toys.
Healthcare providers should ask themselves whether manufacturers’ claims about toys are supported by research or whether they are just buzzwords to sell the product.
What kind of toys do caregivers and babies play with?
The youngest babies (0-6 months) used electronic toys most often (88% used them at least once a day), while less than 70% of babies used traditional toys at least once a day. This indicates that technological toys are already part of the daily routine of babies, even at a very young age. Depending on age, between 33% and 46% of older babies (7-24 months) also used electronic toys at least once a day.
What are caregivers’ preferences when choosing between electronic and traditional toys?
Before being exposed to the toy descriptions, caregivers were significantly more likely to choose traditional than non-traditional toys for their infants. But after reading the descriptions, there was no difference between their selections of traditional and technological toys. That is, they were equally likely to choose either toy when descriptions were given.
This indicates that caregivers were likely influenced by the presence of descriptions when making their selections and that reading these descriptions tended to entice them to select more electronic toys, compared to when they were not given descriptions to read.
How do advertisements about the developmental characteristics of toys affect caregivers’ toy choices?
Caregivers were more likely to agree with the following statements after reading the toy descriptions than before reading them: “Toy descriptions are accurate representations of toys”, “My toy purchasing decisions are influenced by the developmental benefits of toys” and “Toys have a positive impact on cognitive development of infants.” This suggests that the descriptions influenced how caregivers perceived the toy’s ability to influence the child’s development.
Recommendations for caregivers when buying toys
The findings of our research suggest that it may be helpful for caregivers to be discerning consumers of manufacturers’ toy descriptions. Additional research is needed to determine how these findings generalize to other contexts, such as different toys, toys for different age groups and for different demographics, and actual toy purchasing decisions. Understanding the power of toy descriptions for technological toys in particular is important as the market for these types of toys is growing rapidly worldwide and expected to grow another 16% between 2019 and 2025.
Healthcare providers should ask themselves whether manufacturers’ claims about toys are supported by research or whether they are just buzzwords to sell the product. It can be difficult to know whether claims are reliable, so caregivers may want to consider whether the toys support back-and-forth interactions and conversations between caregiver and child or between children.
Toys can be especially useful if they have the potential to spark social interactions, imagination and creativity, or if they promote learning about concepts such as math, spatial skills or new vocabulary. Caregivers may also want to consider whether additional toy features support these high-value interactions rather than merely superficially distracting them.
Finally, it’s important to remember that supporting children’s healthy development doesn’t require buying a toy at all! Caregivers can engage in the kind of back-and-forth interactions that support learning and social interaction through other types of play, such as playing with everyday objects such as pans or boxes, as well as everyday conversation.