Flashy digital toys provide intense stimulation for young children, but they cannot match the developmental benefits offered by traditional toys like boxes and blocks, according to a report released this week by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
"A great deal of marketing in both traditional and new media is used to encourage caregivers to view technologically driven toys as critical for development,” the report says, but those “claims are largely unsubstantiated by credible studies.”
Melanie Conolly sees the results of those claims often in her practice as a family medicine doctor with Rochester Regional Health in Spencerport. Digital games are common in her waiting room, she said.
“I’ll even have patients that will bring in their tablet and the children are playing on the tablet while they’re waiting for the appointment to start," she said. "Sometimes they’re even playing while we’re talking.”
When that happens, Conolly said, she asks the children and their caregivers to put the devices down.
“‘Can we turn this off? We need to have a conversation. We need to talk.’ And the parents will understand that,” she said.
Conolly’s view is bolstered by the report from the pediatric group, which found the stimulation provided by the lights and sounds of electronic toys detracts from social engagement and diverts children’s attention from facial expressions and communication.
Debbie McCoy, the National Museum of Play’s vice president of education, said she can see why those toys are popular.
“There’s been some confusion on the part of parents — and maybe this is driven by marketing — that in order to be educational, a toy needs to light up and make noises,” McCoy said.
But a good old-fashioned cardboard box can still do wonders for developing minds, said McCoy. “It could be a vehicle for imaginative play. It could be something children would use crayons on and create. It has all kinds of possibilities for symbolic play and for language.”
The problems McCoy sees with electronic toys are mostly about lost chances for imaginative play.
“It’s not about what they are doing, but about what they might not be doing,” she said. “If they’re not adding a lot of opportunity for children to play, and they’re not moving, and they’re not interacting with each other, that might be a potential harm.”
Conolly’s advice for people looking for a good children’s present this year is simple: “It shouldn’t have batteries and it shouldn’t have a cord.”