As technology gets more complex, so do children’s toys. Parents are always eager to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to getting the best for their children, and that means they’ve flocked to those increasingly elaborate and expensive children’s toys, believing them to be the most enriching toys they can select for their children. Science says that’s not necessarily the case.
Children have been learning from playtime for the entirety of our human development, and only in the past few decades or so have toys gotten as complex as they have, involving everything from gears and batteries to complex computers and even artificial intelligence, and promising to provide various forms of enrichment and learning for growing brains.
There has been a growing trend for companies to offer high tech toys which provide realistic simulations and even generate natural conversation to help children develop their reading and numeracy skills. However, behavioral scientists caution against spending all your money on the newest, most expensive toy available and expecting to automatically generate the best results.
Complex isn’t always best
Toys with computers, voices and motors have long appealed to both babies and parents who are fascinated by the cool features that it can provide. However, a toy becoming increasingly advanced in build and design does not necessarily mean it becomes increasingly advanced in purpose. Instead, high tech toys that simulate reality or provide a realistic copy for children end up removing one of the most crucial aspects of childhood development from the equation - imagination.
When children are given expensive mini model replicas of regular adult items and left to their own devices, they don’t learn how to behave like adults or generate particularly complex play - they just no longer have to use their own imagination to see what they would have previously represented with random blocks or found items.
Sometimes toys promise to be upgraded versions of your parent’s or grandparent’s toy, and they may be more complex in design or appearance - but not necessarily in terms of what they challenge a child to do. The most realistic stuffed animal plushie in the world, with hyper-realistic fur and moving eyes, will still be little more than a plushie.
Various apps and other children’s learning devices promise a lot with their technology, such as the baby with an AI-controlled voice, but in fact offer very little. Even the most complex AI today does not match the level of human intelligence provided by an actual human adult in conversation, and children can recognize quickly when something isn’t really responding to them, but is just generating automatic responses to certain behaviors.
Real human conversation is learned organically through listening to adults talk and through interaction, not through a toy that imitates human interaction. The most complex ties can provide a minimal level of response to a child’s input, but the level of complexity won’t be enough to replace a parent.
Parental involvement matters most
By far the best way to ensure a child is sufficiently enriched during playtime is to pay attention and play along. Children learn best with human interaction, and research shows that the presence of toys without parental involvement or assignment can do little to nothing to improve a child’s education.
Children can entertain themselves for hours on end with play, but their playtime and imagination is limited by what they’re exposed to and what they think about when they play. A parent engaging with them as they play, asking them to identify items, state purposes and explain rationale will allow a child to think with more complexity about their playtime than, say, an e-reader that croaks when your child clicks on a frog but does nothing else to discuss the nature of the frog. Personal growth and learning goes hand in hand with human interaction. While high tech toys provide ample entertainment for your child, educational toys that encourage social interaction and communication offer more opportunities for them to learn and grow into the best version of themselves. When parents are looking for the right toys for their kids, it’s important to not look only at a toy’s technological complexity and price tag. The latest high tech toy will do less for your child than a meaningful interaction or a visit to the park to explore the wildlife. Toys can help enrich your child’s development, but they cannot define it or provide it.