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The Best Kids’ Toys May Not Be What You Think

As we get closer to the holidays, you may be scrambling to fill out your child’s wish list for Santa. So your concierge doctors at MD 2.0 in Jupiter, Florida, would like to offer you some food for thought, courtesy of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Last week, the AAP released a report suggesting that parents skip the pricey electronics in favor of the old-fashioned toys: blocks, puzzles, even empty boxes.

“Toys have evolved over the years, and advertisements may leave parents with the impression that toys with a ‘virtual’ or digital-based platform are more educational,” said Aleeya Healey, FAAP, a lead author of the clinical report. But, she added, “Research tells us that the best toys need not be flashy or expensive or come with an app. Simple, in this case, really is better.”

Go low-tech

The report, which focused on children from birth through school age, concluded that the best toys for children are those that stimulate the imagination and encourage them to interact with others, especially their parents, which doesn’t happen when their only engagement is with a screen.

The best toys will match a child’s developmental abilities and stimulate the formation as well as promote the growth of new skills, the AAP said. This does not tend to happen with electronic toys, in which play is preprogrammed, leaving the child a passive observer of what happens on the screen.

Beware of ads

The AAP also called into question the advertising claims about the new “interactive” media, including videos, computer programs, and books offering voice-recorded reading. Calling the claims that these toys are educational “unsubstantiated,” the report cautioned that such toys “do not provide children with the interaction and parental engagement that is critical to healthy development.”

The main problem with the marketing involving these toys is the way they induce parents to spend more money in the misguided belief that they will aid their child’s development and stimulate their brains, said Alan Mendelsohn, MD, FAAP, and co-author of the report.

Ideal toys are those that match a child’s developmental abilities while encouraging the growth of new skills, the report found. The more old-fashioned kinds of toys are critical to developing children’s brains, language interactions, symbolic and pretend play, problem-solving skills, social interactions and physical activity, the AAP said, especially as the child moves from infancy to toddlerhood.

The joy of free play

“The best toys are those that support parents and children playing, pretending, and interacting together,” Mendelsohn said. “And when children play with parents, the real magic happens, whether they are pretending with toy characters or building blocks or puzzles together.” He offered the example of an empty box. “A cardboard box can be used to draw on or made into a house.”

Mendelsohn, an associate professor in the Departments of Pediatrics and Population Health at NYU Langone Health, described the misguided idea that parents can get from the marketing of these toys: “The toy that is best is the one that is the most expensive or has the most bells and whistles or is the most expensive.”

Just the opposite is true, according to the report. It found that excessive use of these electronic media could delay children’s speech and language development, interfere with important and necessary playtime with parents, and lead to obesity as children reject physical activity in favor of screen time.

AAP recommendations

Here are the main recommendations the report offered for parents and caregivers:

  • Recognize that one of the most important purposes of play with toys, especially in infancy, is not educational but rather to facilitate warm, supportive interactions and relationships.
  • Understand the most educational toy is one that fosters interactions between caregivers and children in supportive, unconditional play.
  • Choose toys that are not overstimulating and encourage children to use their imaginations.
  • Use children’s books to develop ideas for pretending together while playing with toys.
  • Limit video game and computer game use by young children. Total screen time, including television and computer use, should be less than one hour per day for children two years or older, and avoided in those younger than 18-24 months.
  • Children younger than five should play with computer or video games only if they are developmentally appropriate, and they should be accompanied by the parent or caregiver.

We support these recommendations and encourage you to talk to us with any questions you may have about this important topic.

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