Which toy to choose? Appropriate toys in a digital world
Playgroup Australia 15 January 2019










There is a dazzling array of toys for children and a major challenge for parents and caregivers is deciding what type of toy is most appropriate for children, particularly when many traditional toys are now being reinvented as electronic and digital toys.

Recent research published in January 2019 from the American Academy of Paediatrics: Selecting Appropriate Toys for Young Children in the Digital Era used an evidence-based approach to consider the potential benefits and possible harmful effects of toy choices on child development.

The research looked at how toys bring benefits in language development, problem solving and creativity. It also explored the evolution of many traditional toys into digital, media-based virtual toys and the lack of current evidence for similar benefits for child development. Most of the studies that the research examined looked at the developmental role of toy-based activities involving children playing with caregivers rather than alone.

Overall the research found that the most significant purpose of play with toys in childhood, and especially infancy, is not educational; rather it is encouraging positive and supportive relationships in young children’s lives. It found that the fewer ‘bells and whistles’ a toy comes with, the more it encourages creative and imaginative play.

Building blocks: traditional toys
Traditional toys such as blocks and puzzle can assist children develop fine motor skills; language; and supporting spatial and mathematical skills. Other toys such as balls encourage children to move and develop gross-motor skills. For older children they also encourage social and negotiation skills as they work together to develop “rules” of games.

Enjoyment and toys
Toys which are enjoyable and fun and encourage the child and their caregiver to play together were found to be more likely to help with child development because these toys are more likely to lead to more conversation and interaction between the child and caregiver.

Problem solving and imagination
The research showed that toys using imaginative play and problem solving are more likely to encourage the child and caregiver to engage with each other and strengthen the child’s learning, conversations and focus.

Electronic media use doubled
A 2013 study showed that 38% of US children aged under 2 years and 80% of 2 to 4 year-old children have used a mobile electronic media device. This use has more than doubled when compared with data collected just two years earlier, in 2011.
More recent data from 2015 suggests that 96.9% of children have used mobile device and most started using them before one year of age.
For young children, research shows the increase in screen time has resulted in a decrease in play including active play and play with toys. Screen time is found to interfere with interaction between parents and children as well as play activities.

“It is ironic that at a time when psychologists and other developmental scientists are recognising the roles of the body in learning, toys for children are becoming increasingly two-dimensional.”

Importantly, the research shows that there is presently no evidence to suggest that “possible benefits of interactive media match those of active, creative, hands-on, and pretend play with more traditional toys…children need to use their hands to explore and manipulate to strengthen those areas in the brain associated with spatial and mathematical learning.” (Greaves et al, 2012).

Recent investigations revealed that when children play with electronic toys there were fewer adult words, fewer conversational turns, fewer responses from parents and fewer uses of content-specific words than during play with traditional toys or books. Newer Smartphone apps focus on addressing social and physical interactions have not yet been the subject of long-term risk and benefit studies to help us understand their impacts.

Advice for parents

On the basis of this study the researchers recommend:
• One of the most important purposes of play with toys, especially with infants, is building supportive and warm relationships between children and their parents or caregivers.
• Provide children with safe, affordable toys that encourage growth and learning in all areas of development.
• Seek out toys which encourage children to be both mentally and physically active.
• Choose toys that are not overstimulating and encourage children to use their imagination.
• Books can develop ideas for pretending together when playing with toys.
• Be aware of potential for toys to encourage race or gender based stereotypes.
• Limit video game and computer game use. Total screen time including television and computer use should be less than 1 hour per day for children 2 years and over and avoided in children younger than two.
• Children younger than 5 years should play with computer or video games only if they are developmentally appropriate and should be accompanied by the parent.

More information
Read the research
Zero to Three ‘Tips for Choosing Toys for Toddlers
Too Small to Fail
The National Association for the Education for Young People