Ditch the Bells, Whistles, Flashing Lights, DVDs, & ABCs! Choosing Toys for Babies and Toddlers

As a pediatric speech-language pathologist, I am constantly on a quest for new toys to “WOW” my little friends and keep them engaged in play. My grown-up friends spend their free time getting massages, shopping for clothes in quaint boutiques, or scouring antique malls for deals to furnish and accessorize their fabulous homes. Not me. I spend most of my shopping time digging through bins in children’s consignment stores and on the toy aisles of the giant retailers.

Since I have been in private practice for the last 10 years, no one else buys my supplies, so consequently, I own lots of toys. A whole 10 x 15 storage room full of toys in addition to the ones that fill the back of my SUV at any given time. This makes me a toy expert of sorts since I have “field tested” many toy winners and losers while playing with my one- and two-year old friends. Their parents are often saddened that they are animated and talkative during our one hour speech therapy visits, and then they don’t say much at all when playing by themselves during the rest of the week. They question me asking, “What makes your toys so much more appealing than the hundred or so we already own?”

As I’ve stated many times here on this site, having a plugged-in, FUN adult sit down to play WITH a kid is much more exciting than playing alone with even the best toy. Often times the difference in a child’s affect and interaction is simply due to the fact that I am playing one-on-one with the toddler with no other distractions (other than a chatty mom or dad.) Sadly, that hour may be the only truly individual time that some of my little clients get in a week. What kids need more than a whole house full of toys is a caring, connected adult who revels in spending lots of time with them. A basement that resembles Toys R Us cannot replace the value of consistent, one-on-one play time with mommy and daddy. If you need more detailed information about interacting with your late-talking toddler, please read the “What Works” and “What Doesn’t Work” articles for further recommendations. Before you spend one more dime on toys, please make sure that you are carving out time EVERY DAY to play with your baby. There’s little chance that a toddler with developmental delays, including late talking, will catch up with his peers without parents who make individual play time a top priority.

Beyond this, there are some guidelines that parents should use when selecting toys. My first rule is stated in the title of this post, “No bells, whistles, flashing lights, DVDs & ABCs!” The toy manufacturers have it all wrong. They are not correctly utilizing the research we now have about brain development in infancy and through toddlerhood. They are marketing to parents who want to buy their children anything they can to ensure that they turn out to be smart and do well in school. Adults are often tricked into thinking that because a child needs to know his letters and numbers for kindergarten, we better start when he’s 3 months old. Better yet, let’s buy a toy that blinks and flashes letters so he’s sure to pay attention. Even though the flashing lights of a new toy may attract an infant or toddler, there’s often no value beyond initial attention.

Some children become so engrossed in sensory-seeking behaviors with light and sound toys that they miss out on the fun and benefits of more traditional play. All they want to do is find the buttons and press and press and press to the exclusion of interaction with real people or more challenging toys. If your child falls into this category and is already hooked, let the batteries run down and don’t replace them. Some parents don’t like to hear this advice. They struggle with taking away what their child seems to thrive on. It’s up to you, but if you want your child to learn to be more engaged with others, I’d ditch those kinds of toys today (or at least put them on the top shelf of the closet).

Many parents think of DVDs as “educational” playtime. “Edutainment” has become a $600 million dollar industry with $100 million of that from sales of DVDs for infants and toddlers. Cutting-edge research in brain development tells us that quickly changing visual stimuli may actually wire a child’s developing brain to “scan and shift.” One neuroscientist has hypothesized that habitual television and video viewing for infants and toddlers may be the reason for the surge in childhood ADD in our country. See the post titled “No Television” on this site for more information.

I blew this one with my own children. They are grown now, so we didn’t have access to this information then. Our oldest child was the only one who really begged to watch movies and television, so we let him. I’m embarrassed to say that as a young mother struggling through a masters degree with a two children under three, Disney movies and Nickelodeon frequently filled our tiny, married student housing apartment. Our younger two children watched for a few minutes here and there as they busied themselves with better play, but we still turned children’s television on as “background noise” often. Thankfully none of our children were diagnosed with ADD, but MILLIONS of other children have been.

If God ever chose to bless us with another child (after I first picked myself up off the floor from shock), I would stick with the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation for no television viewing or any other “screen time” for babies under 2, and I’d be mighty careful during the rest of their preschool years. The research is that impressive to me. If you too have really messed up with this one, you may find some consolation in my favorite quote from Maya Angelou. To paraphrase her, “When I knew better, I did better.” It’s not too late to kick or at least reduce this habit.

Lastly, I absolutely HATE toys for infants and toddlers with the main purpose of teaching the alphabet or numbers. If you’re a frequent visitor to this site, you’ve read my previous rants about this. This includes all of the computer-like toys and games and even the ones for the real computer for kids under 3. There is no reason you need to overtly teach numbers and letters to babies. Period. I can’t find one bit of credible research that supports this practice.

Literacy experts will not disagree on this point. Focusing on teaching the alphabet to your toddler is totally different from reading to him. You should introduce books and stories to your babies. Books with brightly colored photographs and simple story lines are highly recommended as activities to expand your baby’s language and attention skills. However, other kinds of ABC or reading toys are not required in order for your child to grow up to learn to read or to be “smart.” Most of the time, these kinds of toys aren’t? very interesting for babies.

A perfect example of the stupidity of this concept occurred just this past Christmas when I was shopping at Wal-Mart. Of course I was in the toy department shopping not for the young children in my own extended family, but checking out the sales for me! I noticed a mother holding up a stuffed dog with its body parts labeled with giant letters in front of her baby girl who was seated in the cart. Instead of talking to her daughter about the dog or better yet, pretending to bark or pant herself, she held up the dog’s ear which was clearly labeled E-A-R. It was as if the mother expected the baby to read it herself and blurt out, “Ear!” The little girl looked away. At this point I wanted to interject, “Ya’ know, she can’t read that yet,” but I didn’t. I continued to watch as the mother became almost a little agitated. She pursued her daughter’s attention by shaking the dog in front of her face and then very slowly pushed the dog’s nose. The toy’s very mechanical voice responded, “NOSE.”Again the mother said nothing. Consequently neither did the little girl. The baby looked down, grabbed the edge of the seat belt, and lifted it to her mouth to chew. The mother tried one more time to engage the little girl by calling her name and repeatedly shaking the dog right in front of her eyes. The little girl shut her eyes and rubbed her face. When her daughter looked away, the mother, now clearly exasperated, tossed the dog back on the shelf. I wanted to yell to the baby, “Good for you! You resisted the major advertising ploy of printing words on a toy that you can’t and shouldn’t be able to read! The toy almost sucked your mother in, but you showed her how boring and non-purposeful a toy like that it is! Good for you, you smart baby!” Kudos to the mother too because even though she did a poor job of interacting with her baby, she did not purchase a toy her child clearly showed no interest in.

By now you are probably wondering if there are any toys that I do like since I have bashed most of what Target, K-Mart, and all of the other huge retailers carry in their baby and toddler sections. I can definitively answer, “Yes!” There are many toys that are wonderful for stimulating little minds and facilitating language. My specific favorites will be listed in a later post. Until then clean out your toy boxes! Ditch the toys with bells & whistles along with the DVDs and ABCs! If your child could, he would thank you for it.

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Laura thank you so much. Btw, you have transformed my therapy- I have become such a competent and strong therapist after watching probably like 350 of your videos and podcasts over the past few years. And I am a seasoned therapist with almost 25 years experience. (Yes prob 350 episodes ha!) But there was still a lot I learned from you. I have such a thorough understanding of birth to 3 development and how to properly incorporate appropriate therapeutic goals, techniques and strategies now, thanks to you. Kelly

But I just keep watching and learning because we can always learn something new! 
Thanks for all you do! 

Hi Laura,I want to thank you so much for the resources you provide, my daughter has delayed speech and though she qualifies for CDS. Honestly the most progress she has made in her speech/language development has been after I implemented your 5 top strategies for delayed talkers! She is now almost 2.5 and her vocabulary is well over 75 (I haven’t counted recently, could be over 100) words when at 2 she barely had four words. Honestly the last few months have been a transformation for her.