On her first birthday, my younger daughter and I went to a toy store to pick out a present. With nonstop grabs and insistent squeals, my daughter wasn’t choosy. But I had some reluctance as we stared down an aisle crammed with big, bright, noisy things. Life with two little kids is loud enough without buying more decibels for the living room.
The store clerk hid his eye rolls as he pointed us to the nook that held batteryless toys, where we found some balls that fall through holes onto a xylophone (a hit, it turns out).
In that instance, my decision to avoid an electronic toy was 100 percent curmudgeon. But a new study gives me and other auditorily assaulted parents an even better reason to reject battery-operated toys: Electronic toys mute the conversations between parents and babies that are so important for language development.
“When there’s something already making noise and talking, parents may be taking a backseat or more on the sidelines, letting the toys do the talking as opposed to talking over the toy,” says researcher and speech-language pathologist Anna Sosa of Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.
Sosa eavesdropped on conversations between 26 Flagstaff babies and their parents with audio-recording devices tucked into the babies’ pockets. Sosa provided three kinds of toys: electronic toys that included a baby laptop, cellphone and talking farm; traditional toys that included wooden puzzle, a shape-sorter and rubber blocks; and five board books. She wanted to see if the type of toy made a difference to the language she’d pick up. Turns out, it did.
During 15-minute play sessions with electronic toys, parents said about 40 words per minute on average. Parents’ word count jumped to about 56 words per minute for traditional toys. And books prompted even more language, with parents saying about 67 words per minute.
Between 10 and 16 months old, these babies were just on the cusp of speaking. Their languagelike sounds showed similar patterns to those of their parents, with electronic toys eliciting the fewest sounds and books eliciting the most.
Overall quantity wasn’t the only thing that changed. The quality of conversations, measured by the number of turn-taking, parent responsiveness and content-specific words (“piggy” while playing with the talking barn, for instance), was lower for electronic toys than for traditional toys and books, Sosa found. “I found that the types of toy really do have a big impact on what the parents do,” she says.
Another recent study highlights how reading time is packed full of language. Twelve-month-old babies made more wordlike sounds (“ba” or “ma”) while reading a book with their moms than while playing with puppets or toys. And during book time, mothers responded to their babies’ wordlike sounds more than vowel sounds (“aaah”).
In a sense, book reading may prompt parents to tune in more to babies’ verbal attempts. While reading, “the mothers are picking up on ‘Hey, that sounds like you’re trying to say a word,’” says study coauthor Julie Gros-Louis, a developmental psychologist at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. “It’s almost like an expectation,” she says. “And I don’t think it’s conscious.”
These studies suggest that one of the best ways to have a language-friendly home is to design it with that goal in mind. That means lots of books and blocks and puzzles, and fewer noise-makers that often promise to boost learning, but in fact do the opposite.
I think an outright ban on electronic toys is too harsh, not to mention unrealistic. Right now, my kids are obsessed with a dancing robot. And while he’s grooving and singing, my daughters aren’t learning language (though they have leveled up their dance moves). But he sure is a blast, if you’re into that kind of thing.
Sosa recommends viewing these toys as the electronic candy they are. “That’s entertainment,” she says. “That’s something the child might like to do for a few minutes.” But a cute little robot voice shouldn’t be the only one a baby hears.