Mother-toddler play-time is more interactive and educational with old-fashioned toys

Attention toddlers of the world! The brightly coloured Cookie Shape Surprise toy from Fisher-Price promises a world of fun. Push the right shapes through the right holes and enjoy the reward of flashing lights, music and even the names of the shapes! The bad news? Well, frankly – with this toy, your mum’s play skills are likely to take a dive.

That’s the message from a new study by psychologists in Vancouver. Where other studies have focused on the potential adverse effects of young children and teenagers spending too much time staring at screens – a controversial issue – this new study by Michaela Woolridge and Jennifer Shapka is the first to examine how electronic toys affect the way mothers and toddlers play together, compared with how they play with traditional, tech-free toys.

Twenty-five highly-educated mothers and their toddlers (average age 20 months) were filmed playing for ten to fifteen minutes with three traditional toys – a board book; the Shape & Sort it toy; and a plastic farm set. And then they were filmed playing for the same length of time with three electronic versions of those kinds of toys – an electronic book, from Touch and Teach Busy Books; the Fisher-Price Cookie Shape Surprise; and the Funderful Roll Along Safari plastic toys with flashing lights, music and activating buttons. For half the mother-child pairs, it was the electronic toys that were played with first.

The videos were analysed by two independent coders who were trained to look for important aspects in the way mothers play with toddlers. The results showed that when mums played with a toddler with electronic toys, they were less responsive, less educational in their play style (for example, providing fewer labels, less often expanding children’s words etc), and slightly less encouraging.

In past research, these factors in mother and child playing style have been linked with later outcomes for the kids, for example in terms of language development. In the case of the poorer teaching scores when playing with electronic toys, the difference from the conventional toy play time was substantial and could “have very real implications,” the researchers said. In contrast, the type of toy – electronic or conventional – made no difference to the ratings of the mothers’ warmth whilst playing.

Woolridge and Shapka think that one reason mothers play differently with electronic toys is because they are noisy and so interrupt or deter mothers and children from communicating with each other. Another thing is that mothers seem to tend to try to use the electronic toys in the way they were designed, which constrains their play skills. They showed a lot more creative use of the conventional toys, initiating more make-believe play with them.

Rather than demonising electronic toys, it’s worth remembering that electronic toys might well have benefits of their own that were untapped by this research. Moreover, it might be productive to inform parents how to make the most of the new toy gadgets without completely forsaking their traditional pretend-play skills. As the researchers said – “perhaps parents can … be taught how to mediate manipulative and interactive products to more positively support their infants’ and toddlers’ development and learning.” It would also be interesting for future research to see if these findings replicate when fathers play with their toddlers.


Michaela B. Wooldridge, and Jennifer Shapka (2012). Playing with technology: Mother–toddler interaction scores lower during play with electronic toys. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.appdev.2012.05.005

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

4 thoughts on “Mother-toddler play-time is more interactive and educational with old-fashioned toys”

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  2. Our 16-month old learned lots of animal sounds by hearing them on different interactive iPhone apps – while sitting on our laps. But then we cut out pictures of those same animals from a toy catalog. He now sits on our laps and has us go through each picture over and over as he mimics the sounds. He seems to enjoy the “old school” pictures more than the iPhone apps. He can carry them around the house and lay them out out a table or look at them one at a time. He treats them like a precious baseball card collection. I think adult involvement and supervision is the big factor.

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