A child’s playtime at home gives parents an opportunity to fully engage with their child in ways that contributes to and nurtures their happiness, development, and education.

However, the reality for many families of young children is that these opportunities for direct parent-child playtime — which can also promote language development — can be short-lived. That means it's crucial that parents and children alike are making the most out of their playtime. Whether or not that happens though, may depend on the type of toys children are playing with, new research published in JAMA Pediatrics suggests.

Researchers led by Dr. Anna Sosa of Northern Arizona University found that electronic toys that produce lights, words and songs were associated with decreased quantity and quality of language in infants compared to playing with books or traditional toys such as a wooden puzzle, a shape-sorter, and assorted rubber blocks with pictures.

“At the same time parents are being encouraged to read to their young children and engage in direct infant play, they are also bombarded with advertisements for ‘educational’ toys that claim to promote language development in very young children, including infants,” Dr. Sosa and her colleagues wrote in the study.

Contrary to what these toy manufacturers adverstise, however, their newfangled gizmos may actually hurt language development, accoridng to the study.

Researchers collected data from 26 parent-infant pairs with children aged 10 to 16 months. For playtime, participants were given three sets of toys: electronic toys, traditional toys, and five board books with farm animal, shape or color themes. Researchers couldn't directly observe parent-infant playtime because it was conducted in participants' homes, but they were able to listen in on their interactions thanks to audio recording equipment.

There was a decreased quantity and quality of language input when children played with electronic toys — a baby laptop, a talking farm and a baby cell phone. Researchers observed fewer adult words, fewer conversational turns with verbal back-and-forth, fewer parental responses, and less production of content-specific words than when playing with traditional toys or books. Although it was more productive than electronic toys, traditional toys produced fewer words during play than board books. However, these toys may still be a valuable alternative for parent-infant playtime if book reading isn't a preferred activity.

"These results provide a basis for discouraging the purchase of electronic toys that are promoted as educational and are often quite expensive,” the study authors concluded. “These results add to the large body of evidence supporting the potential benefits of book reading with very young children.”

Based on previous findings that link books to improved language ability, and a variety of different play activities, including early symbolic play and block play, to better language ability in toddlers, the American Academy of Pediatrics discourages media use by children younger than 2 years and emphasizes the importance of book reading and other types of parent-child play time.

Sosa and her team do caution that their study has limitations, including its small sample size and the similarity of the participants by race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status.

Source: Sosa A, et al. Association of the Type of Toy Used During Play with the Quantity and Quality of Parent-Infant Communication. JAMA Pediatrics. 2015.