Reading with your child trumps playing with toys, especially electronic toys

Isaac holding his brand spanking new book, earned through his own efforts both inside and outside our centre.

Today, we’re going to briefly discuss some intriguing research conducted by Dr. Anna V. Sosa at Northern Arizona University in the United States. Second grader Isaac (shown above proudly holding the latest addition to his personal library), is significantly older than the subjects of Dr. Sosa’s study, who averaged a little over thirteen months of age, but he and the other young people with whom we work at Accella were babies once and their language aptitude today has its roots in that phase of their development. The results of the NAU study help to illuminate and quantify how an infant’s language environment may be affected by the choices that their parents make.

Sosa heads up NAU’s Child Speech and Language Lab and the research described in her new paper (Association of the Type of Toy Used During Play With the Quantity and Quality of Parent-Infant Communication), published earlier this month (February 2016) in JAMA Pediatrics, looked at parent-infant play and examined how language use by parents and their children was affected when parents either read aloud to their children or joined them in playing with toys.

It’s fascinating stuff. If you have journal access through your employer (or any other avenue), we encourage you to take the time to read it. That goes double if you have a young child or a bun in the proverbial oven. The role of play in language development is a major focus of the work being done at the CSLL and this study has received a fair amount of media attention. The headline from the New York Times article about this paper, linked on Sosa’s lab’s In the News page, should give you a hint as to how the study turned out: Traditional Toys May Beat Gadgets in Language Development. Even so, in our opinion, the NYT piece undersells the major finding: books beat toys hands down.

Here’s a quick rundown of the study methodology. Each parent-child pair who participated in Dr. Sosa’s research was given five board books (two about shapes, one about colors, and two that were farm-animal-themed) and two sets of toys: an old-school toy set (consisting of a wooden farm animal puzzle, a shape sorter, and a batch of colorful rubber blocks) and three noisy-blinky toys (a baby laptop, a baby mobile phone, and a “talking farm”). During a three-day period, each parent was asked to play with their child twice, for fifteen minutes each time, using either the books, the conventional toys, or the electronic toys. Each of the three options saw two sessions of play and the order in which they were used was predetermined by Dr. Sosa’s protocol to maximize the reliability of the study results. Meanwhile, audio was being recorded. Later, when researchers played back the tapes, the words used by the parents were counted, as were their children’s vocalizations (grunts, squeals, etc. weren’t tallied — only speech-like utterances consisting of at least one vowel sound) and the number of times that parents and their young ones passed the conversational baton back and forth. This summary necessarily omits a lot of details due to space and time constraints so, once again, we highly recommend that you try to access a copy of the paper itself.

Perhaps obviously, the parents in the study used quite a few more words, on average, while reading aloud to their children as they did while engaging them in toy-based play. That’s important because there’s no evidence yet that kids this young (just over a year old) acquire new words from other sources. Adult speech may be the main or even sole source of new vocabulary for children at their age. More tellingly, however, parents employed about half again as many words relating to the concepts (shapes, colors, the names of things like the farm animals featured) that the book authors and toy designers hoped to communicate through reading as they did during play with the traditional toys and more than three times as many as during play with the baby laptop and its ilk. The little ones vocalized significantly more and there was greater parent-child back-and-forth too!

The implications are crystal clear. Parents should begin reading to their children as early as possible. There is a role in every child’s development for toys, and at Accella we are huge fans of hands-on STEM toys in particular, but we hope that parents will keep low-level flashy-beepy trinkets (and, it goes without saying, passive screen-based games and apps) at arm’s length from young kids for as long as humanly possible.