Taking the low-tech road may be better when it comes to toys

December 13, 2018
boy and younger child playing with train
Do kids' brains develop better with this kind of play or media-driven activities?

Which is a better gift for a young child when it comes to brain development?

  • A bag of old-fashioned building blocks made out of wood.
  • An electronic device that lets the child put together colorful virtual blocks with a swipe of the finger and makes fun noises. 

They may not sound like as much fun, but the old-school wooden blocks may be the smarter buy. That’s according to researchers in a new report in the American Academy of Pediatrics’ journal “Pediatrics.”

MUSC Children’s Health pediatric critical care specialist Elizabeth Mack is a spokeswoman for the AAP. “Select a toy or gift that promotes interaction with other children or parents, that leads to joint attention.”

Joint attention, when two people are focusing on the same thing and interacting with each other, starts to develop when a baby is 5 months old. Areas all over the brain are involved as the child begins to understand how to control his or her attention and actions and what others are doing during their social interactions. Problems with joint attention are linked to neurodevelopmental disorders. 

Mack says it’s something to think about as you shop for toys this holiday season. “Making the child feel loved, appreciated and understood is very important. Toys that lead to in-person human interaction foster these important connections. This starts at a far younger age than we ever imagined before.”

The AAP report, “Selecting appropriate toys for young children in the digital era,” has some other key information for parents.

  • Virtual toys are sometimes marketed as educational when there’s little or no evidence to back that up.
  • The line between traditional and virtual toys has blurred. Toys can now do things humans would normally do, like read stories aloud.
  • Screen time means less time for active play and may mean a higher risk for obesity.
  • Right now, there’s no evidence showing interactive media are as good for kids as active, creative, hands-on play with traditional toys.
  • There are smartphone apps designed to increase social and physical interaction, but we need long-term studies to look at what effect they have.

So what toys are scientifically shown to be good for young children when it comes to development?

  • Toys that help them with language and storytelling, such as dolls and cars.
  • Toys that help them work on fine motor skills. This includes puzzles, blocks and trains.
  • Art supplies, such as clay and crayons.
  • Toys that get them up and moving, including large cars, tricycles and pull toys.

As children get older, their developmental needs change. Screen time is part of most schools’ curriculum now, with kids using technology in the classroom and for homework. But Mack says parents still need to keep an eye on things. 

“When you look at a child engrossed in electronics, it’s as if nothing could distract them. That is a testament to how much our brains are really engaged with electronic devices. What would they be doing if they weren’t watching a movie or playing a game on a phone? Would they be looking at nature or reading a book or something that’s healthier for brain development?”

About the Author

Helen Adams

Keywords: Pediatrics