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Ask a Scientist: Are Blocks, Books, or Talking Toys Best for Learning Language?

AnnaSosa.pngTurns out, the toys you buy your kids can affect how well they learn language, but maybe not in the way you think.

Anna Sosa is an associate professor of communication sciences and disorders at Northern Arizona University. She also directs the Child Speech and Language Lab there. Her recent study, published this month in JAMA Pediatrics, found that the primary effect electronic "talking" toys have is to reduce the one ingredient that has been positively shown to improve babies' language acquisition: talking parents.

For this latest edition of our "Ask a  Scientist" series, Sosa joined us for a conversation about her findings. The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity. 

What is your primary research focus?

My research is in early child language development. I'm a practicing speech language pathologist as well as a researcher. I work with children with communication disorders, birth through 10, but mostly with younger kids.

I have two lines of research. One [focuses on] children who are having difficulty acquiring accurate production of language. My other line of research, which this study is related to, looks at things in a child's environment that may influence language development.

For this study you weren't necessarily looking at kids who had communication issues, right? This was a more general population study?

Yes, that's right. I mean they're very young, so it's hard to tell at this point what their language skill is going to be like. But this included primarily kids for whom the parents did not have concerns and there was no real reason to have concerns about their communication development.

Can you walk me through exactly what you did for the experiment?

We really wanted to see if the type of interaction that the parent and the child are engaged in influences the communication between parent and baby. [Note: All children in the study were between 10 months and 16 months old.] We know there are certain types of interactions that are more beneficial than others for language development, and so we were looking at whether the type of toy that the pair was playing with has an impact on the interaction between the parent and the baby.

We wanted to make it as natural as possible. Instead of bringing the parents and their babies into the lab and giving them a set of toys and saying, "Play with that for 15 minutes while we videotape you," we decided to do it in their homes. We delivered the toys and the [audio] recording devices to their home and had them engage in the play sessions over the course of three days at home.

What did you learn from the audio recording of the sessions?

The main thing we saw was that the type of toy they were playing with made a big difference in almost all of the measures we looked at. It had a big impact on what the parents were doing. We used three types of toys. We used traditional toys—non-electronic, non-battery powered toys including blocks, stacking blocks, a shape-sorting toy, and a chunky wooden puzzle that was designed for babies.

We also had a set of electronic toys—battery-operated toys that make noises and light up when you push buttons.

Then we had a set of books designed for kids in this age range. These aren't books that have a plot and a story that the parent actually reads. They're just a few pictures on each page and maybe as much as "What does a cow say?" as far as the text on each page.

And then you found that the parents interacted a lot more with the books and the non-electronic toys?

Well, in terms of quantity, the parents talked more with the books. They also talked more with the traditional toys just than they did with the electronic toys. Remember, the electronic toys are making noise, so when a child or the parent pushes a button it starts talking. I think the parents were letting the toy do the talking for them. Some parents actually expressed to me they felt a little uncomfortable talking over the toy because it was already talking.

They didn't want to interrupt the toy.

Yeah, so they were letting the toy do the talking and the interacting for them.

And do we know that the verbal interactions the child might get from a toy are qualitatively worse than the interactions they might get from a parent?

That's a great question because obviously we would interpret the results differently if we thought that the babies were actually learning language directly from the toy. But at this point we don't have any evidence that children in this age range can learn language from anything but a responsive human partner.

So there have been studies showing that the only way babies learn language is from humans, not from other things?

Exactly. Nobody has specifically investigated learning color names from one of these talking electronic toys. That study hasn't been done. But based on other research that shows how babies in this range do learn language, it's through the contingent responsiveness of the communication partner. So the baby looks at something and maybe vocalizes and then the partner says, "Yeah, that's a ball," when the child is engaged at looking at the ball. That's how babies learns language.

A toy like [the ones we studied] just can't know what the child is looking at or if they've moved on. So the studies that have shown this have come from video interactions. Babies [don't learn] the same things about language from videotape input that is not responsive to them.

What's the takeaway for parents or preschool teachers based on this finding?

My motivation for doing the study was parents of children with communication delays asking me whether I thought they should buy some of these [electronic] toys because some are marketed directly at parents. They say things like, "We'll help your child learn language or teach names of colors." And so parents had asked me whether I thought that would be helpful.

Knowing what we know about language development in general, I was pretty safe in saying, "He's probably not going to learn words through a toy."

And now that I see that the parents pretty consistently interact less, talk less, and are less responsive when these electronic toys are there, my advice at this point would be: "You probably don't need to buy [electronic toys]. Stick with books. Stick with traditional toys. Be as engaged in the interaction as possible."

Is there anything else you wanted to say about the study or wanted to make sure got included?

The focus has really been on the electronic toys versus the other things. But I think one of the results that was really very interesting to me was how playing with books compared with playing with traditional toys. The parents did talk more overall with the books than with the traditional toys, but they were just as responsive to their children when playing with traditional toys as they were when playing with books. So this leads me to believe that while reading with your babies is a wonderful activity for language development, playing with the traditional toys can be equally beneficial.

Got it. So, buy your baby blocks and books.

Exactly.

BONUS: Hear some of the audio from the experiment as well as more from Dr. Sosa, in this NPR radio story by Cory Turner.

Photo: Anna Sosa

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