How To Choose What Toys To Buy | Guide | Child & Family Blog
Photo: MART PRODUCTION. Pexels.

How do caregivers decide what toys to buy for infants?

By Brenna Hassinger-Das and , Jennifer M. Zosh and , | May 2023 

Manufacturers’ descriptions of toys can influence whether caregivers choose to purchase traditional or technological toys.

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We are pleased to bring you the first post in a series on Digital Media and Children Under 3. This series is brought to you with collaboration from the journal, Infant Behavior and Development. Over the coming weeks, the posts in this series will highlight research from a special issue that focused on how young children engage with technology and ways that parents can facilitate media engagement to promote positive development.

Key takeaways for caregivers

  • Playing with toys is an important activity for caregivers and infants to do together to support healthy development.
  • When caregivers read manufacturers’ descriptions of toys, they were more likely to choose technological toys, but research suggests that these toys may have significant drawbacks, such as decreased engagement between caregivers and infants and less language use while playing.
  • Reading toy descriptions with a critical eye is a good way to purchase high-quality toys for infants.

Choosing certain toys can positively affect child development

Many parents, caregivers, and family members face the challenge of selecting a toy as a gift for a child. What will they like? What do they already own? What toy will be best for them? And most confusing, how do I select which toy out of what seems like hundreds and hundreds of options? No wonder the choice feels so overwhelming: Toys are big business – a $40 billion dollar industry in the United States in 2022.

Beyond their role in the marketplace, though, toys are important for infants’ development because they play a critical role in supporting and encouraging play. Toys can encourage physical activity, such as tossing and catching a ball or pushing a toy train around a room. They can also provide a jumping off point for fostering social interactions between individuals, for example, when two children share and play with a toy together.

Toys can also expand children’s thinking as they use them to represent other objects, such as a toy phone in place of a smartphone. And they can also support the expression of creativity, as occurs when children use blocks to build a structure.

Playing with toys is not only about the toy itself, but also about how individuals interact with each other while they are playing.

The importance of playing with toys for infants’ development is well-established. But another important factor is critical to consider – the idea that interactions between caregivers and infants during play (with and without toys) help support babies’ cognitive and social development.

For instance, when caregivers and infants engage in back-and-forth interactions focused on the same topic or object of interest, infants can learn new words and develop an understanding of how to take turns in a conversation. In other words, playing with toys is not only about the toy itself, but also about how individuals interact with each other while they are playing.

Choosing technological toys may negatively affect children’s development

Toys are powerful tools for development and they can support important caregiver-child interactions. But are all toys created equal in terms of their potential to foster high-quality interactions?

In short, probably not. In particular, research suggests that technological or electronic toys – those that need batteries to operate – might have negative effects on how caregivers and infants play together and talk during their playful interactions. For example, when using electronic toys, caregivers might talk more about how to make the toy work (e.g., using more commands like, “Push the button”) instead of letting infants direct the interaction or asking open-ended questions.

How do caregivers approach decisions about buying toys?

Since toys are important tools for supporting cognitive and social development, and the types of toys caregivers and children play with may differentially affect important interactions, we need to better understand how caregivers approach purchasing toys for their infants.

To examine this matter, we conducted a study with caregivers. We asked how they approached purchasing toys for their infants. We also investigated whether and how manufacturers’ claims about the specific developmental benefits of toys affected caregivers’ purchasing decisions. In our study, we examined three questions:

  • What types of toys do infants and caregivers play with?
  • What are caregivers’ preferences for electronic versus traditional toys?
  • How do advertisements of the developmental features of toys affect caregivers’ toy selections?

Photo: Polesie Toys. Pexels.

Examining how and what caregivers think about toys

Sixty-three primary caregivers of infants (0-24 months) across the United States took part in the study. Most caregivers were White (78%), 3% were Black, 5% were Asian, 13% were Latinx, and 1% were of another ethnicity. Caregivers’ highest level of educational attainment ranged from a high school diploma (3%) to a graduate degree (79%).

In our survey, caregivers were asked to report how often their infant engaged in playing with blocks, dolls or stuffed animals, electronic toys (i.e., toys with batteries), electronic and non-electronic books, electronic and non-electronic puzzles, and other toys.

Next, caregivers viewed eight images of infant toys without descriptions. Four of the eight toys were electronic, with features including lights and sounds, and required batteries. The other four toys were traditional or otherwise identified as non-electronic toys (e.g., shape sorters, stacking blocks, puzzles). Caregivers were asked to identify four toys they would be interested in buying.

Next, caregivers answered questions about their toy purchasing behaviors and opinions about toy marketing. Then the same eight toys were shown again (in a different order), this time with manufacturers’ descriptions. The descriptions included the toys’ developmental benefits (e.g., fostering fine motor skills, an understanding of cause and effect, or counting skills), and disclosed whether or not the toys were electronic. Finally, caregivers were again asked to select four toys they would be interested in buying and answered the same set of questions about toy buying.

Caregivers should ask themselves whether manufacturers’ claims about toys are supported by research or if they just feature buzzwords to sell the product.

What types of toys do caregivers and infants play with?

The youngest infants (0-6 months) used electronic toys most frequently (88% used them at least once per day), while fewer than 70% of the infants used traditional toys at least once per day. This indicates that technological toys are already part of infants’ daily routines, even at very young ages. Depending on age, between 33% and 46% of older infants (7-24 months) also used electronic toys at least once per day.

What are caregivers’ preferences for choosing between electronic and traditional toys? 

Before being exposed to the toy descriptions, caregivers were significantly more likely to select traditional than non-traditional toys for their infants. But after reading the descriptions, there was no difference between their selections of traditional and technological toys. That is, they were equally likely to choose either type of toy when descriptions were provided.

This indicates that caregivers were likely influenced by the presence of descriptions when making their selections and that reading these descriptions tended to bias them toward selecting more electronic toys, relative to when they were not given descriptions to read.

How do advertisements of the developmental features of toys affect caregivers’ toy selections?

Caregivers more often agreed with the following statements after reading the toy descriptions than before they read them: “Toy descriptions are accurate representations of toys,” “My toy purchasing decisions are impacted by the developmental benefits of toys,” and “Toys positively impact the cognitive development of infants.” This suggests that the descriptions influenced how caregivers perceived the toys’ ability to affect infant development.

Photo: PNW Production. Pexels.

Recommendations for caregivers when buying toys

The findings from our study suggest that being critical consumers of manufacturers’ toy descriptions can be beneficial for caregivers. Additional research is needed to determine how these findings generalize to other contexts, such as different types of toys, toys for different age groups and for other demographic groups, and actual toy-buying decisions. Understanding the power of toy descriptions for technological toys, in particular, is important because the market for these types of toys is expanding rapidly globally and is expected to grow another 16% between 2019 and 2025.

Caregivers should ask themselves whether manufacturers’ claims about toys are supported by research or if they just feature buzzwords to sell the product. It can be hard to know if claims are trustworthy, so caregivers can consider whether the toy helps support back-and-forth interactions and conversations between caregiver and child or between children.

Toys can be especially beneficial if they have the potential to spark social interactions, imagination, and creativity, or if they foster learning about concepts like math, spatial skills, or new vocabulary words. Caregivers may also want to consider if any additional features of a toy support these high-quality interactions rather than just being superficially distracting.

Finally, it is important to remember that supporting children’s healthy development does not require purchasing toys at all! Caregivers can engage in the kinds of back-and-forth interactions that support learning and social interaction through other types of play, such as playing with everyday objects like pans or boxes, as well as everyday conversations.

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