Pediatricians say the best toys for tots are old-fashioned hands-on playthings that young children can enjoy with parents — things like blocks, puzzles — even throwaway cardboard boxes — that spark imagination and creativity.
The holiday shopping season is underway, and the nation’s pediatricians have some advice for the parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and others who plan to buy cutting-edge digital toys for the young children in their lives.
Don’t do it.
Sure, these toys may promise to boost a little one’s brain development, or to give them a head start in school. They may come in packages that feature endorsements from “experts.” In all likelihood, they come with a price tag that implies they are of great value.
But parents and other adults should not be fooled. Computer chips and interactive screens do not make a toy inherently educational, the pediatricians say. In fact, they may undermine a toy’s ability to help young children learn.
“Evidence suggests that core elements of such toys (e.g., lights and sounds emanating from a robot) detract from social engagement that might otherwise take place … and that may be important for social development,” according to a clinical report published Monday by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Pediatricians say the best toys for tots are old-fashioned hands-on playthings that young children can enjoy with parents — things like blocks, puzzles, even throwaway cardboard boxes — that spark imagination and creativity.
“A cardboard box can be used to draw on, or made into a house,” said Dr. Alan Mendelsohn. Mendelsohn is a pediatrician at NYU Langone Health in New York and co-author of a new report on selecting toys for young children, up to around age 5.
The report cites studies suggesting that heavy use of electronic media may interfere with children’s speech and language development, replace important playtime with parents and lead to obesity.
The best toys encourage children to spend quality time with their parents or other caregivers, giving kids a chance to stretch their horizons through play.
“High-quality toys facilitate child development when they lead to the engagement of caregivers in play-based interactions that are rich in language, pretending, problem-solving, reciprocity, cooperation and creativity,” the clinical report explains.
Although there are gizmos, gadgets and apps that purport to do all of these things, you can get the same — if not better — results with toys that don’t plug in or require batteries. Think of a board game, finger paints, a pile of Lego bricks, or a tea set for a make-believe tea party.
“High-quality toys need not be expensive,” the pediatricians emphasized.
But the doctors understand why some parents may have lost sight of that fact.
“Increased marketing of so-called ‘educational’ toys” and the proliferation of “digital media-based virtual ‘toys’ ” have fooled many parents into thinking that newer toys must be better, they wrote.
They aren’t. In research studies, children were less engaged with their caregivers when electronic toys were in the mix. That resulted in “reductions in cognitive and/or language and gross motor activities,” the pediatricians added.
Besides, experts think kids are spending too much time looking at screens already. A survey conducted in 2014 found that 97 percent of children under the age of 5 used devices like smartphones and tablets, with most of them starting before their first birthday.
The pediatricians’ group recommends no screen time for children up to age 2, and says total screen time including TV and computer use should be less than one hour daily for ages 2 and older.
“A little bit of screen time here and there is unlikely to have much harm if a child otherwise has other activity,” Mendelsohn said. But he added that screen time can overwhelm young children and is difficult to limit and control.
The academy’s website offers suggestions on ideal toys for young children, including balls, puzzles, coloring books and card games. The academy recommends the toy lists from Zero to Three (zerotothree.org) and the National Association for the Education of Young Children (naeyc.org).
Still not convinced? The button batteries and magnets inside so many electronic toys can cause serious damage if swallowed, the pediatricians noted.
Most of all, the report urges everyone to “keep in mind that toys are not a substitute for warm, loving, dependable relationships.”
Shopping recently at Dancing Bear Toys in Asheville, North Carolina, a store that doesn’t sell electronic toys, Leah Graham Stewart said she supports the academy’s advice even if avoiding digital toys and games is tough.
She said she’s noticed her two young boys tend to misbehave after playing on an iPad she typically reserves for long airplane rides.
“We try to keep it as minimal as possible,” Graham Stewart said. “I just tell them to go outside and play.”
Erika Evers, Dancing Bear’s co-owner, said the store’s mission is to give kids an alternative to tech toys.
“Not that video games and electronic toys don’t have their place — in moderation, in our opinion,” she said. “But we feel like kids really need opportunities to socialize and interact with their environment in a way that is hands-on and tangible.”