Before the proliferation of television sets in the 1950s, followed by the ongoing development of interactive electronic gizmos that beep, flash, and talk, a play session would comprise of an activity such as constructing a castle or fort from blocks, and an interactive session would comprise a parent plopping a child on his or her lap and reading a book. The electronic devices available today can entertain children for countless hours, but is that a good thing? A new study evaluated traditional activities compared to electronic devices in the realm of childhood language development. The findings were published online on December 23 in the journal JAMA Pediatrics by researchers at the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff.
The study authors note that variation in early language development is in part determined by a child’s language environment. The magnitude of language input received from caregivers during the first few years is positively associated with a child’s language accomplishments and this activity can have long-lasting implications for overall academic success. Television exposure, book reading, as well as independent and guided play are activities that have been investigated. Television exposure has been reported to be associated with decreased quantity and quality of parental language input, and media viewing by children younger than two years has been shown to negatively affect language development, probably because media use displaces other more beneficial language-promoting activities. Conversely, book reading and playing together with young children are often recommended as activities that promote language development.
In view of the foregoing, the researchers conducted a study to determine whether the type of toy used during parent-child play time influences the quantity and quality of the communicative interaction in ways that are known to be associated with better language development. They explain that the early language environment of a child influences language outcome, which in turn affects reading and academic success. However, it is currently unknown which types of everyday activities promote the best language environment for children.
The study group was comprised of 26 parent-infant (aged 10-16 months) pairs. Participant enrolment and data collection were conducted from February 1, 2013 through June 30, 2014. The parent-child pairs participated in 15-minute in-home parent-infant play sessions with electronic toys, traditional toys, and books. The main outcome measurements were the numbers of adult words, child vocalizations, conversational turns, parent verbal responses to child statements, and words produced by parents in three different categories (content-specific words) per minute during play sessions.
The investigators found that, among the 26 parent-infant pairs, toy type was associated with all outcome measurements. During play with electronic toys, there were fewer adult words (average: 39.62), fewer conversational turns (average: 1.64), fewer parental responses (average 1.31, and fewer productions of content-specific words (average: 1.89) than during play with traditional toys or books. Children vocalized less during play with electronic toys (average per minute: 2.9) than during play with books (average per minute: 3.91). Parents produced fewer words during play with traditional toys (average: 55.56) than during play with books (average per minute: 66.89). In addition, use of content-specific words was lower during play with traditional toys (average per minute: 4.09) than during play with books (average per minute).
The authors concluded that, compared to play with books or traditional toys, play with electronic toys is associated with decreased quantity and quality of language input. They recommended that to promote early language development, play with electronic toys should be discouraged. The researchers also suggested that traditional toys may be a valuable alternative for parent-infant play time if book reading is not a preferred activity.