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Which is best for kids – toys or video games?

Q: Are toys still important now that kids prefer video games?

A: Thanks for your question. In this season of gift giving, one does wonder whether the things that kids crave is really what is best to give them. Video games seem to be the favorite pastime for kids aged 9 and older. They come in all sorts of genres, all sorts of technical details and with animation so amazing that it really sucks one into an alternate world. I recall that feeling of escaping into another world from when I was young, but back then it was from books – “Anne of Green Gables,” “Junie B Jones,” “Ramona and Beezus,” “The Chronicles of Narnia,” the Nancy Drew mysteries … and much later, as an adult, the Harry Potter series. Flash forward 30 years and instead of book series, beloved video games are part of the lexicon of childhood fun – Angry Birds, Guitar Hero, Resident Evil 4, Gran Turismo 3, Minecraft, Grand Theft Auto.

Interestingly, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has just published a paper addressing this very question. Pediatricians still feel that play is essential to optimal child development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social and emotional well-being of children and youth. It also offers a significant opportunity for parents to engage with children using toys as an instrument of play and interaction. Our perception of toys has evolved from seeing them as children’s playthings to now seeing toys as facilitators of early brain and child development. This challenges caregivers to decide which toys are most appropriate for their children.

High-quality toys facilitate childhood development when they lead to the engagement of caregivers in certain types of play-based interactions. Play that is rich in language, pretending, problem-solving, reciprocity, cooperation and creativity is the best kind of play for child development. Electronic media in particular has been associated with a decrease in caregiver-child play-based interactions, which may in the long run lead to slower development of cognitive skills, language skills and gross motor skills. In addition, there is the connection between more screen time and less physical activity, which over time can increase the risk of childhood obesity. Of course, one cannot generalize in a way that applies to all situations. For example, for a child who is not getting any caregiver-child interaction to begin with might actually benefit from certain types of video games, which provide company, problem-solving and fun for the otherwise lonely child. But the best is really to use video games, or indeed any games a child enjoys, to supplement supportive and enjoyable interactions with caregivers and peers. As with sports, playing video games with your young ones can be a way to spend time together. However, limiting screen time is still a good idea for the developing brain and video games should only be one part of a well-balanced lifestyle for your child, not their sole recreational activity or their sole source of fun.

Many caregivers believe that expensive electronic toys with sensory-stimulating noise and lights are helpful for child development, especially for toddlers. However, research conducted in 0 to 3 year child development tells us just the opposite. The very lights and noises, which seem to engage the toddler are effectively detracting from social engagement, which might otherwise take place through facial expressions, gestures and vocalizations, and are thought to be important for social development.

Anjali Subbaswamy is a Pediatric Intensive Care Physician at UNM. Please send your questions to her at asubbaswamy@salud.unm.edu.

Picking the right toy

The AAP Clinical Report “Selecting Appropriate Toys for Young Children in the Digital Era” makes the following recommendations:

1. Recognize that the one of the most important purposes of play with toys throughout childhood, and especially in infancy, is to foster warm, supportive interactions and relationships.

2. The most educational toy is the one that facilitates interactions between caregivers and children through supportive, unconditional play.

3. Provide toys that are safe and affordable. Avoid toys that are over stimulating; instead, encourage the child to use their imagination.

4. For guidance on what toys are appropriate, refer to https://www.zerotothree.org/resources/1076-tips-for-choosing-toys-for-toddlers.

5. Use children’s books to develop ideas for pretending together while using toys. Use of the local library should be routine for all parents.

6. Limit screen time (TV + computer) to less than 1 hour per day for children 2 years and older. For younger children, between 18 and 24 months of age, screen time should be avoided.

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