Well here we are in the holiday season again! Seems to me every December kind of sneaks up on parents and before we know it we are crowding the streets and malls looking for the perfect presents for our kiddies. As I began my own Christmas hunt this year, I was blown away at what my kids were asking for! At 4 and 2 years old, I couldn’t believe how many electronic and tech items were their most favourite.
As a speech-language pathologist I always try to find toys that sneak a little language learning into the fun. That’s because I know that the first 5 years are a critical period for language development and children do so much language learning in play!
Research tells us that:
- Children learn language through the back and forth interactions with adults
- Young children learn more efficiently through active, multi-sensory exploration of the three-dimensional world
Tech toys (e.g., tablets, gaming systems, electronic toys) typically don’t offer a lot of these properties, making them one of my least favourite language learning items for young kids. However, technology is here to stay and even I will put tech toys under our tree this year. Firstly, because there are finally some companies out there making truly fun and educational tech toys for kids. Secondly, because I believe it is my job to help my kids navigate a healthy balance of technology in their lives, not hide them from it. Therefore after much research regarding technology and language development, here is what I will be looking for in tech toys for my kids under 5.
Open-ended and exploratory
Open-ended toys are those that have no specific beginning or end and can be played with in any way. Most of the apps I see out there labeled “educational” focus on a very specific way to play, generally with right and wrong answers. Choose the right letter, put the right puzzle piece in, touch the right animal, and so on. Although there is a place for these apps when they challenge children to actively think, it is important to balance these with apps that allow children to investigate and discover for themselves. For example, interactive cities or pictures for them to create, apps that let you build your own story, or drawing, painting and other artistic games.
Focus on a broad range of skills and concepts
Although it may take a little more time to find, the best tech toys are those that focus on more than one skill and support meaningful learning. Meaningful learning is when children purposefully learn new, personally relevant material and link new learning to pre-existing knowledge. Although learning letters, colours, numbers and shapes are great, you should expect more from a tech toy. For younger ones this could include learning animal or environmental noises, following directions with simple verbs like jump, clap or wave, or classifying items based on categories. For older kids it could include pre-reading skills like rhyming, blending sounds or finding syllables, learning new vocabulary words or fostering critical thinking skills by asking “why” questions.
Encourages imagination and talking on and off the screen
The best tech toys are the ones that encourage children to use their voice! Whether it is singing along with a talking stuffed animal friend or recreating something learned on the screen in pretend play, a tech toy should always inspire your child to want to communicate both on and off the screen. The best way to ensure this is to know what your children are doing with their tech and help them find ways to bring their fave tech to life through three-dimensional play.
Here is the tricky thing about kids; they are all soooo different! Just because one 2.5 year old is using a story-building app does not mean another 2.5 year old could do the same thing, and this is ok! Since there is such a wide range of normal when it comes to young children’s language development, it can be tricky for parents to find something that is right for their child’s language level. The first step to choosing an age appropriate tech toy or app is to read the recommended age range. The next step is to try it with your kiddo and see if it works for them. The directions given by the toy should be easy for your child to understand independently, yet still offer new words and phrases for them to learn. You will know it is age appropriate because children should be able to use the toy or app easily and correctly with minimal teaching from you. If they can’t, it is likely this is not age appropriate and you should save it for when they are a bit older.
Interactions with another person
For as wonderful as these tech toys are, they can be very solitary by nature. Engaging with another person is the single best thing for a child’s language development. NOTHING will ever replace this! If possible, choose toys and games that easily allow you to play with your child. Engage with them while using these toys. Encourage back and forth conversation about what you are seeing on the screen, offer new vocabulary and challenge critical thinking skills.
I hope this blog gives parents out there a little more insight and guidance in buying tech toys for their kiddos this holiday season. I also recommend parents check out the 2015 updated screen time recommendations put out by the American Academy of Peadiatrics to ensure a safe and healthy screen time experience for all kiddos this season.
American Academy of Paediatrics. (2015) Children and Media: Tips For Parents. Retrieved online on December 2, 2015 at https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/Pages/Children-And-Media-Tips-For-Parents.aspx
Hirsh-Pasek, K., Zosh, J., Michnick Golinkoff, R., Gray, J., Robb, M. & Kaufman, J., (2015). Putting education in “educational” apps: lessons from the science of learning. Association for Psychological Science, 16(1), 3-34.
Schwartz, S. & Heller Miller, J. (1996). The New Language Of Toys. Bethesda, MD: Woodbine House.
Zero to Three. Screen Sense: Setting The Record Straight. (2014) Retrieved online on December 2, 2015 at http://www.zerotothree.org/parenting-resources/screen-sense/