The Trouble With Talking Toys : NPR Ed New research says some "educational" toys for infants actually get in the way of learning.

The Trouble With Talking Toys

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For young children who are learning to speak and read a language, they need to hear it - lots of it. Knowing that, there's now a whole industry built around talking toys. Some are marketed as being able to help babies and toddlers learn language. And so the question is, do they? From the NPR Ed team, Cory Turner reports on new research that says nope.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: We're talking about young kids between 10 and 16 months old. For this new study published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, researchers mic'ed up roughly two dozen children at home while they played with mom or dad.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yeah? You can get it. You can get it.

TURNER: That scratchiness is just the rustling of the little microphone in the baby's shirt. Researchers also provided the toys - three different kinds.

ANNA SOSA: Category one is what we called electronic toys.

TURNER: Professor Anna Sosa of Northern Arizona University led the study.

SOSA: We had a talking farm - animal names and things. We had a baby cell phone, and then we had a baby laptop. So you actually open the cover and start pushing buttons, and it tells you things.

TURNER: Things like...

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Let's explore. Bath time is fun. Oh, goodbye.

TURNER: There's one more thing you need to know. Sosa says she picked these toys...

SOSA: Because they are advertised as language promoters for babies in this age range.

TURNER: Language promoters - remember that. The other two kinds of toys Sosa provided were more straightforward, traditional toys like stacking blocks and a shape sorter and good old-fashioned books. Now, before I tell you what she heard, you need to know what she was listening for. As we said in the intro, babies learn language by hearing it, and research shows that interaction - the give-and-take between baby and parent - is key because early learning is intensely social like this.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yeah? Is that right? Can you tell me more?

TURNER: That's tape from one of the play sessions with books. Did you hear the difference? Again, here's that cut we heard earlier from an electronic toy session.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Let's explore. Bath time is fun. Oh, goodbye.

TURNER: Sosa says it's not what you hear there but what you don't hear - mom or baby.

SOSA: When there's something else that's doing some talking, the parents seem to be sitting on the sidelines and letting the toy talk for them and respond for them.

TURNER: And that's bad because at that age, the best way a toy can promote language is by promoting interaction between parent and child. There's simply no evidence that a child younger than 2 can learn language directly from a toy. It isn't social. As for toy makers' grand claims...

HEATHER KIRKORIAN: Personally, I think it's quite problematic, actually.

TURNER: Heather Kirkorian studies child development at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She wasn't part of the study but thinks researcher Anna Sosa has put her finger on a troubling trend.

KIRKORIAN: Toys and apps are particularly notorious for this, making all sorts of grand claims about motor development, cognitive development, social development without having the research to back it up.

TURNER: Kirkorian says technology can help teach older kids, but baby talk is best when it's human. Cory Turner, NPR News, Washington.

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