Bust out the wooden blocks. Set out the toy train. Pediatricians say that old-fashioned toys are better for small children than high-tech gadgets, says a new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Pediatricians say that hands-on gifts, like old-school jigsaw puzzles — and even the cardboard boxes they come in — spark imagination and creativity better than the electronic devices that parents often feel pressured to buy at the holidays. The doctors advise parents to ignore the flashing screens, which have become ubiquitous in our digital age, and get back to the basics. A cardboard box, for instance, can be transformed into a house or a cash register by the child, which engages their brain while they play.
“The best toys are those that support parents and children playing, pretending and interacting together,” said Alan Mendelsohn, MD, FAAP, co-author of the report and associate professor in the Departments of Pediatrics and Population Health at NYU Langone Health. “You just don’t reap the same rewards from a tablet or screen. And when children play with parents – the real magic happens, whether they are pretending with toy characters or building blocks or puzzles together.”
The best toys are those that match children’s developmental abilities, while encouraging the growth of new skills, according to the AAP. Toys are key to developing children’s brains, language interactions and social interactions and physical activity, particularly as they move out of toddlerhood. Without the right toys, it’s easy for kids to become passive and let the gadgets do all of the work while they play.
Doctors also warn that while many electronic devices are billed as educational, that is not always the case. Much “interactive” media, such as videos, computer programs and specialized books with voice-recorded reading, make claims about educational benefits in advertisements that are unsubstantiated, according to AAP.
“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, MD, FAAP, a lead author of the report. “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.”
Pediatricians have long advised that video game and computer use for kids be limited. Total screen time, including television and computer use, should be less than 1 hour per day for children 2 years or older, and completely avoided in those younger than 18-24 months. However, most children under 9 now spend about two hours a day in front of computer, phone or television screens, according to Common Sense Media.
“The more we know about early brain development, the more we understand the need for play that is based on human interaction,” Dr. Healey said. “There is no screen, video game or app that can replace the relationships built over toys.”
Perhaps even scarier is that the more kids use screens, the more they want to use them, until trying to limit use of the devices becomes a battle between parent and child.
“It’s addictive,” says David Wanderman, a pediatrician with Stanford Children’s Health. “Anything that gives you a dopamine hit makes you feel good so that it makes you want to do it again and again.”
Old school toys vs high-tech gifts: Pediatricians make their pick