Building Early Social Language Through Play – When Choosing Toys, Keep it Simple

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The topic of today’s blog post is related to Autism, as promised for an April series of posts during Autism Awareness Month, but it also is relevant for parents or professionals working with any young child.

Fancy, electronic toys often boast they promote learning for young children, including fine motor skills, gross motor skills, cognitive development, vocabulary growth, language skills – sounds great, right?! But actually, research shows that electronic toys – those with lights, sounds, music – result in less language modeling by parents and less vocalizations by young children than when playing with simple toys and books. 

The study linked above concludes that play with electronic toys should be discouraged. However, my message here is not ban electronic toys or that electronic toys are bad. We know these toys are motivating for kids and when children need to occupy themselves, these toys are a good option to keep them busy and out of trouble. However, playing with puzzles, wooden toys, books, and other simple toys should also be a part of a child’s day, a bigger part of a child’s day than they spend playing with electronic toys or screens. These kind of interactions promote more language and social growth than interactions around electronic toys. Time for parent-child interaction is limited for so many families and it is important to make the time spent playing with your child as beneficial as possible.

This research has additional implications for children with limited social interaction and communication skills, two of the hallmark traits of Autism Spectrum Disorder. While toys with lots of sensory stimulation (lights, music, sounds, movement, etc) may succeed at getting a child’s attention more easily than simpler toys, it also may hinder the social and communication aspects of the interaction. Joint attention is the ability to share your attention with another person and a common focus. Today, the focus we’re talking about is a toy. Joint attention requires the ability to gain, maintain, and shift attention and it is a fundamental skill for social and communicative interactions. Research shows, and based on my experience, I agree, it is much easier to facilitate joint attention skills with traditional toys. Electronic toys with high sensory output can be too distracting, resulting in the child giving all of their attention to the toy instead of sharing their attention between you and the toy. Sharing attention promotes shared emotion and interaction, laying the groundwork for developing perspective-taking and other social/emotional skills. Joint attention is SO important for communication development, too- it is fundamental to turn-taking, the basis of all communication interaction. All children need practice and experience to develop joint attention, and children with Autism may need much more explicit practice and reinforcement to learn this skill. The take-home message is traditional toys and books are much better for promoting social and communication skills than fancy, electronic ones. All young children, especially those with delayed social and communication skills, should be given opportunities to play with these toys and other people to develop these critical skills.

Examples of traditional toys for building language and social skills:

  • Books (board books are great for young children’s fine motor skills, and I LOVE Indestructibles by Kate Merritt – Chew proof, rip proof, nontoxic, and 100% washable!!)
  • Toys for pretend play (cars, play food, animals, baby/doll house, doctor toys, etc)
  • Puzzles
  • Stackable cups/rings,
  • Shape sorter
  • Blocks
  • Ball tower

How do you feel about electronic toys? What are your favorite toys to promote language development? Leave me a comment!

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2 thoughts on “Building Early Social Language Through Play – When Choosing Toys, Keep it Simple

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