When a parent asks, “Is there a good toy I can buy to help with Timmy’s language development?” how do you typically answer that question? We already know that symbolic play is pretty important for language development, so we could go with an old TISLP favorite: pick toys that can “be” stuff rather than toys that “do” stuff.
But what other evidence-based suggestions can we give?
This study looked at whether the visual simplicity (or complexity) of a toy changed how parents talked to their toddlers during play. Researchers took visually “busy” ring-stackers and stacking blocks and simplified them by taking out some of the patterns and textures of the toys. Then they recorded the interactions between mothers and infant while playing with each type of toy. From the recordings, three kinds of parent comments were coded:
It turned out that moms offered more specific vocabulary to their toddlers (36% of utterances) while playing with the simple versions of the toys. While playing with visually busy toys, Moms only used more specific vocabulary in ~8% of their utterances.
How did this study come to be? You’ll probably relate to the authors pointing out how, you pick up a kind of ambiguous toy, try to name it, and think, “What is this?!?” There are times when even people with great vocabularies are at a loss for words, and that’s not a great thing to have happen when we’re working with a language-delayed toddler. Sometimes it’s hard to name parts of really busy toys (lots of bright and unique colors, many different parts and pictures, stuff like that). While this study doesn’t tell us that those award-winning educational toys are bad for language development, it does tell us that adults may not refer to these visually busy toys very specifically during play. So if you have a little one on your caseload who would benefit from repetition of more specific vocabulary—help the family pick out some of their more simple toys to use during play!
O’Neill, D. K., Deglint, T. J., McKinnon, A. M., Nyhout, A., & Scott, J. (2019). Busy toy designs reduce specificity of mothers’ references to toy parts during toy play with their toddlers. Canadian Journal of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology.