Toy Talk: How Toys Impact Language Development in Toddlers

Many parents wonder which toys will best help their toddlers learn to talk. Before answering this question, it’s important to remember that toddler language develops across a wide range of daily activities and routines. In fact, we don’t have to use toys at all!  Daily, routine activities such as meal times, bedtime, diaper changes, and car rides can all offer up powerful and repeated opportunities for learning language (Brown & Woods, 2015).   But, if we do use to use toys to help children learn to talk, there are some important things to consider. 

First, it’s easy to believe that the flashier the toy, the better.  Walk down any toy aisle in any store, and you’ll be quickly surrounded by fancy toys that light up and talk and dance and sing.  Although these toys seem like obvious choices for helping a toddler learn language (after all, the toys themselves are using language), these toys might not be the best choice after all. 

One recent study found that play with traditional, non-electronic toys such as blocks, puzzles, stacking cups, dolls & tea sets was better at promoting language-rich interactions than was play with battery-operated electronic toys (Sosa, 2016).  When children in this study played with traditional, non-electronic toys, parent used more words and took more turns in the conversation and children vocalized more frequently.

This is really important because a recent study from MIT found that the longer parents engaged in back-and-forth conversations with their children, the stronger the children’s “language centers” in their brains were and the better children did on tests of language (Trafton, 2018).  So, while electronic toys are fun, they just don’t appear to be the best at promoting the type of back-and-forth conversations that are so crucial to language development. 

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Second, many people also believe that that more toys are better than fewer toys.  A child who has many toys has many opportunities for language, right? Maybe not. At least one study has shown that too many toys out at one time can lead to decreased attention and creativity in play (Dauch, Imwalle, Ocasio & Metz, 2018).

Toddlers in this study used toys more creatively and spent more time in play when they had 4 toys out at one time as compared to when they had 16 toys out at one time.  Because we know that play and language are related to each other, it may be important to think about limiting the number of toys we have out at any one time.  

Finally, it’s also important to note that not all electronics need to be avoided all the time.  Despite the above evidence suggesting that traditional toys are better than electronic toys, some studies have found that electronic books can be used promote language development in toddlers. Butler, Brown, & Woods (2014), for example, found that toddlers can learn new words while engaged in digital interactive story books. The key part about this study, though, is that each child was interacting with an adult who was using strategies to build language during the book reading.        

The bottom line, then, is this: Although choosing toys carefully may be important, the magic really isn’t in the toys at all. Instead, the real power to build language is found within the conversational interactions children have with the parents who play toys alongside them.   

Becca Jarzynski, M.S., CCC-SLP is a pediatric speech-language pathologist and a Clinical Instructor at UW- Eau Claire.  You can find more of her blog posts at www.talkingkids.org

Brown, J. and Woods, J. (2015).  Effects of a triadic parent-implemented home-based communication intervention for toddlers.  Journal of Early Intervention, 37 (1), 44-48. 

Butler, C. Brown, J. & Woods, J. (2014). Teaching at-risk toddlers new vocabulary using interactive digital storybooks.  Contemporary Issues in Communication Science and Disorders, 41, 155-168. 

Dauch, C., Imwalle, M., Ocasio, B., Metz, A. (2018). The influence on the number of toys in the environment on toddler’s play.  Infant Behavior and Development, 50, 78-87. 

Sosa, A. (2016).  Association of the type of toy used during play with the quantity and quality of parent-infant communication. JAMA Pediatrics, 170 (2), 132-137. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2015.3753

Trafton, A. (2018, February 13). Back-and-forth exchanges boost children’s brain response to language. MIT News. Retrieved from: http://news.mit.edu/2018/conversation-boost-childrens-brain-response-language-0214