Don't be fooled by all those "educational" electronics in stores. What's best for your kids, pediatricians say, are old-fashioned toys that require you to actually interact with them.
Play is important for child development, but children learn best from adults. They get language skills, learn about how the world works, and get feedback that can reinforce learning and positive behavior, the American Academy of Pediatrics says in new guidelines for people buying toys for kids.
“We are inundated with all kinds of sensory-stimulating noise and light toys, and digital media-based platforms with child-oriented software and apps,” the Academy said on its website.
And new parents, especially, may be eager to buy the best products for their kids. But a little common sense goes a long way, the AAP says in its reminders. Kids need to use their imaginations, they need to move both their hands and their bodies and they need to express creativity.
Simple toys such as blocks, crayons and card games can fill these needs better than the flashiest video game.
“Use caution when you see ‘educational’ on the label,” the AAP advises.
“The truth is most tablets, computer games, and apps advertised as ‘educational’ aren't. Most ‘educational’ apps target memory skills, such as ABCs and shapes,” the guidelines read.
“These skills are only one part of school readiness. The skills young children really need to learn for success in school (and life) include impulse control, managing emotions, and creative, flexible thinking. These are best learned through unstructured and social play with family and friends.”
So-called educational games and apps on digital media may, in fact, delay social development, especially for young children, because it interferes with their learning about real-life facial expressions and gestures.
Parents also need to remember to limit kids’ use of video and computer games, the AAP says. “Total screen time, including television and computer use, should be less than one hour per day for children 2 years or older and avoided for those younger than 2 years of age,” the guidelines point out. Studies suggest virtually every American kid has used a mobile device at least once, with most starting before they are even a year old, the AAP noted. But just because everybody is doing it doesn’t mean they should be doing it.
“Children younger than 5 years should only be allowed to play with developmentally appropriate computer or video games, ideally accompanied by the parent or caregiver,’ the AAP advises.
Some products may be marketed in a way that makes parents feel their kids are missing out if they don’t get them. Don’t fall for it, the AAP says.
“A certain toy is not necessary for your child to reach his or her next developmental milestone. There is no one app that will teach your child to read. While it's easy to fall victim to the marketing, you are your child's best teacher.”
Here’s a list of toys the AAP recommends:
Dolls, animals, action figures, play food and kitchens, toy cars and airplanes can all help children imitate and practice real-life situations. “Imaginary play is a large part of a child's social and emotional development,” the AAP says.
“Children can learn problem solving skills with the traditional favorites like blocks, shapes, puzzles, and trains,” the AAP says. “These types of toys support fine motor skills and can improve language and brain development. Some of these toys also build early math skills, as well.”
What kid doesn’t like crayons or markers and a blank sheet of paper? “High quality does not mean expensive. Things as simple as cardboard boxes or pads of paper still make little ones happy. Coloring books, crayons, markers, clay, stickers all make great gifts, build creativity, and help improve fine motor skills,” the AAP says.
Yes, you can buy fancy apps that read to kids. “But actual human interactions are essential for a child's growth and development. Digital toys should never take the place of real, face-to-face play,” the AAP said. Board games, card games and toy letters, along, of course, with books, help kids learn while interacting with other human beings.
Too many kids are obese, and toys that encourage physical movement help kids stay healthy while having fun, the AAP said. Balls, tricycles and push toys help physical development and help kids learn how to socialize.
Another caveat: Toys can be used for marketing. “Many fast food restaurants offer a toy incentive with particular meal purchases (many of which are energy dense and nutrient poor) to increase sales; such incentives are thought to have contributed to childhood obesity,” the AAP notes.