Give the Gift of Health: Toys that Benefit Your Child’s Development

blocksEditor’s note: Dr. Dimitri Christakis, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute, offers parents the following advice when choosing toys for their children during the holiday season and throughout the year.

In the midst of the holiday shopping season, parents are faced with a plethora of toy options for their children. They must decide between the latest and greatest tech gadgets and old favorites that they may remember playing with as a child. Here are a few key principles for parents to keep in mind when considering what’s best for your child’s development.

Interaction is key

No matter what toy your child plays with, the best way to foster their development is to be an active participant in their play. Try to give your children toys that encourage interaction with other children or adult caregivers. Toys should not be viewed as a tool to occupy your child while he or she is left alone, but instead should provide opportunities for them to play with others.

You have to like it too

Give your child toys that make both of you happy and you will be more likely to play together. Avoid games with flashing lights or loud noises if you find them annoying. Instead, select toys you would enjoy playing with, such as your favorite children’s book or that barn toy you remember fondly. Your child will appreciate playing with you and their social skills will benefit from the interaction.

Old-fashioned toys are often best

Modern toys are typically electronic, with lots of bells and whistles. These leave little to your child’s imagination and can be overstimulating. On the other hand, traditional toys like blocks, dolls and books require your child to be more creative. Children can play with these simpler toys in a variety of ways, while more modern, electronic toys are typically one-trick ponies. A good rule of thumb: your child should bring more to the game than the toy does.

Your child may not learn from “educational” toys

Parents should be wary of toys that are marketed as “educational.” There is rarely evidence to support that claim. A 2007 study I led showed that children who watched “Baby Einstein” or “Baby Brain” videos actually learned fewer new vocabulary words than children who did not watch the videos. Instead, consider toys that have been proven to benefit a child’s development, like blocks.

Apps are better than television

If you would like to give your child a digital toy like an iPad, go for interactive, age-appropriate apps instead of television shows or movies. If you allow screen time for your child under 2, keep it to 30 to 60 minutes of interactive screen time. For older kids, aim for less than 2 hours a day of screen time. Apps that adapt to your child’s skill level and respond to their actions are likely more beneficial than passive mediums that require no reaction from the child.

Choose 3-D toys

While interactive apps and digital games are preferable to television, it’s important that young children have plenty of three-dimensional toys they can play with as well. Blocks, balls and stackable cups benefit a child’s motor skills, cognitive development and psychological health. A study I published in 2007 in the Journal of the American Medical Association determined that playing with toy blocks may lead to improved language development in children.

Avoid violent games

While violent games can be very popular among children, many studies have shown that playing violent video games or watching violent media can affect a child’s psychological development. Parents should be especially wary of first-person shooting games and any games rated “mature.”

Strive for a less electric holiday

Overall, children today are exposed to more than enough digital media in their everyday lives. They do not need more in their homes. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends parents limit children’s screen time, and my own research has demonstrated that children are less engaged when watching a DVD than when playing with blocks. This holiday season, strive for a less electric holiday, no matter what age your children are.