The team at learning toy company Click-A-Brick says the results of a new study done by researchers from Penn State University, Temple University and Delaware University are worrying. The study found that when parents play with their children using electronic toys that talk, parents are less responsive to children than when playing with traditional toys and let the talking toys take over important language rather than using it themselves.
Researchers Jennifer Zosh, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff said in an article published on the Brookings Institution website that they observed parents playing with their children with a traditional shape sorting toy (where children put square blocks in a square hole and round blocks in a round hole, etc) and observed those same parents playing with their kids using electronic versions of the same toy that spoke, saying geometric and spatial words related to the activity.
The researchers found that when the parents played with their kids using the electronic toys that spoke, they used less spatial and geometric language themselves (words related to the shapes and what to do with them) than when they played with the traditional toy. They also observed that the traditional toys also sparked higher quality conversations between parents and children.
The significance of the findings is that decades of research has shown that children benefit from both the amount of language they hear and the quality of conversations they have with their parents or caregivers while playing. Traditional shape sorting toys like the ones used in the study will prompt parents to use spatial words like “in,” “around,” “on top of,” and “under,” as well as words related to the geometric shapes themselves. This type of conversation between parents and children is related to language growth and to later learning in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), the researchers say.
When playing together with the electronic version of the toy, parents essentially let the toy take over the important speaking role they were fulfilling when using the traditional toy.
“Though much more research needs to be done, this collective work raises a cautionary flag,” the researchers wrote in their Brookings article. “At least for young children, e-toys might not offer the educational punch available in the old-fashioned versions of the same toy. Given recent findings that children from lower-income families play more frequently with sound-producing toys, this finding can be of major consequence. ... Play that is 90 percent toy and 10 percent parent-child is not as ‘educational’ as play that is 90 percent parent-child and 10 percent toy.”
Click-A-Brick Co-Founders Jason Smith and Georg de Gorostiza say this points to potentially worrying trend in toys, as talking toys that are able to converse with children increase in popularity.
“Many new toys have a talking element to them and as artificial intelligence continues to advance, toys will be able to interact with kids like never before,” Smith said. “The danger is that parents will just rely on the toys to take over the important language that they themselves should be using with their kids. As we see from the study, parents did just that, letting the toys handle the important language. Even as toys become more advanced and are able to offer so much more for kids, we believe parents shouldn’t come to rely on just the toys to handle the important educational aspects of play, but use the toy as a tool while remembering the importance of interaction and talking with them to make it a truly educational experience for kids.”
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