It’s Time to Break-up with V-Tech: Junk Toys are Bad News for Development

Oh V-tech, it’s time… Things just aren’t working out. It’s not us, it’s you. You are not only contributing to our floaters and migraines, but you are holding us and our children back from meaningful and productive play interactions. We just can’t settle, we know there is something better out there. Something that was right in front of us all along.

As an early childhood specialist and mom, I’ve had a few persistent hunches over the years about battery-operated toys (aside form the fact that they are noisy, visually busy, and outright aggravating!):

  • they are sensory assassins, over-stimulating for children (and parents!)
  • they are falsely advertised as “educational”, missing the mark on developmentally appropriate concepts, themes, and skills
  • they are one-hit-wonders, limiting play interaction and boxing children in to simple, cause-effect play too often, and for far too long

My hunches have been gladly affirmed by a growing (albeit gradual) body of child development research on this issue, including an article I recently shared to our Facebook page discussing how electronic baby toys have been found to hinder language development in infants. This article highlights a few main findings that go along with my hunches around these junk toys:

  • while playing with their babies using electronic toys that produce lights, sounds, and songs, parents talked less to their children, reducing language models significantly compared to samples taken with traditional toys, such as blocks, wooden puzzles, and books
  • during electronic toy play, babies vocalized less than when playing with traditional toys with their parents

I conducted my own little experiment with this 10 month old cutie (bias alert, he’s mine). Check out the differences when thee toy is turned on versus off. How is the parent (me) interacting in each situation? What is the child looking at and touching when the toy is on? How about when it’s off?

10 month old baby playing with a junk toy

In a recent post, I talked about the strong link between play and language development and much of this link is rooted in the nature of the play partner and child interaction. In our busy days as clinicians or educators, in our busy lives as working parents with so many bricks of responsibility in our backpacks we can barely stand up straight, we cannot afford to have precious play time be anything but awesome when it comes to strengthening interaction with our kids and building valuable skills that last. Let’s ditch these junk toys, tell V-Tech and all of the other “educational”, electronic toy companies to hit the curb, and go back to the basics. Here are some simple tips to help you select toys that will best support interaction and development in your home, your therapy room, or your classroom:

  • Purge or re-purpose those electronic toys, ditch the batteries. Some might be worth keeping if turned to “off” or used with the batteries taken out. The ones worth keeping bring something else to the play experience and facilitate interactive play that can be expanded upon for babies and young children by adult play partners A few example of re-purposing :
    • Play sets like farms, houses, and jungles can be used for their landscape with no lights, sounds, or songs. Pair these with some props and figures and you have a whole story to build with your kids!
    • Every-day item “look-alikes”, such as toy cell phones or laptops, can be placed with other dramatic play props in the off position and used for make-believe play with toddlers and preschoolers ( old, real items work even better for this, safety in mind).
    • Traditional toys like pop up toys, ball ramps, ring stackers, and shape sorters, which offer great exploratory and cause-effect play opportunities for younger children without all the bells and whistles, can still be used for this purpose (filling, dumping, sorting, stacking). The play partner provides the enthusiasm with his or her language, facial expressions, and social sound effects and praise.
  • Select toys that are open-ended. Open-ended toys can be used in many ways (including as symbols for others things) and allow the child to determine the play, rather than the toy determining the play. Think about the difference between an electronic toy tablet, for example-where the child can only push buttons to get the toy to respond-and a set of rubber or wooden blocks. The blocks offer the same cause-effect appeal as the tablet-you can throw the block (gently, and not at someone!), knock a block tower down, make a cool bang sound in the bucket when you drop the block in-but the flexibility in this traditional toy is far greater. Some examples of great, open-ended toys that span several ages and stages include:
    • blocks
    • figures and play sets, like farms, houses, and car ramps
    • common object and “everyday routine” play sets, such as kitchen and picnic sets or other dramatic play props
    • fluid materials and raw materials (age and mouthing status permitting) like water, play doh, repurposed boxes and containers etc… when paired with tools and props and imaginative play partner to support the story.
  • Choose toys that can be used together. Along the same line as open-ended toys, investing in toys that can be combined in play offers many more opportunities for the child and play partner to expand on the play as interest demands and developmental stages shift. The toys mentioned in the bullet above, along with many others, can be combined in play in many ways.
  • Invest in toys that will grow with the child. Many junk toys center around concepts and themes- like numbers, letters, colors, and shapes- that are often well above the language and cognitive needs and expectations of the ages they claim to target. With these toys, you may find that once your child is old enough to actually learn these concepts, the toy is no longer interesting or appropriate. Choose traditional toys that can be used across the developmental continuum with some simple changes in presentation over time. Consider the skills and milestones your child or client/student should be working on and rather than buying a toy that claims to focus directly on that concept, think about how you could use a flexible and open-ended toy with some thoughtful partner strategies to work on that skill. Many of the traditional toys mentioned here, and others not mentioned, are timeless for a reason. Check out our Pinterest Boards for some additional toy suggestions and clever play ideas that make the most of traditional toys to support skill development.

Want to learn more about harnessing the Power of Play in your family, practice, or classroom? Check out our webinar:

What are some of your gems in the toy box? Share with the group in comments!