Top tot toys? Blocks, boxes backed over high-tech toys

Pediatricians say traditional toys are best for sparking imagination, creativity

By Colette DuChanois - Web producer, Lindsey Tanner, AP Medical Writer

Skip the costly electronic games and flashy digital gizmos. Pediatricians say the best toys for tots are old-fashioned hands-on playthings that young children can enjoy with parents -- things like blocks, puzzles, even throwaway cardboard boxes that spark imagination and creativity.

"A cardboard box can be used to draw on, or made into a house," said Dr. Alan Mendelsohn, co-author of a new report on selecting toys for young children, up to around age 5.

Many parents feel pressured by ads promoting tablet-based toys and games as educational and brain-stimulating but there's not much science to back up those claims, Mendelsohn said. Their main misconception: "The toy that is best is the one that is the most expensive or has the most bells and whistles or is the most technologically sophisticated."

Simpler, hands-on toys that parents and young children can play with together are preferable for healthy development, said Mendelsohn, a pediatrician at NYU Langone Health in New York.

The report published Monday by the American Academy of Pediatrics cites studies suggesting that heavy use of electronic media may interfere with children's speech and language development, replace important playtime with parents and lead to obesity.

Studies also have found that more than 90 percent of U.S. kids have used mobile devices and most started using them before age 1.

AAP report explained: Toy buying tips for babies and young children

The academy's website offers suggestions on ideal toys for young children, including balls, puzzles, coloring books and card games:

Symbolic/pretending: Dolls, action figures, stuff animals and toy objects -- such as cars, food and utensils -- help enhance social skills and emotional development. 

Fine-motor/adaptive/manipulative: Blocks, shapes and puzzles can help children learn problem-solving skills and strengthen language skills. 

Art: Coloring books, crayons, markers, clay and stickers build creativity.

Language/concepts: Traditional card games and board games create opportunities for parents and their child to interact and have fun together. According to the AAP, digital toys should never take the place of face-to-face play. 

Gross motor/physical: Toys that include physical activity -- such as push and pull toys, ride-on toys and tricycles -- help physical development and can improve peer-interaction because of the negotiations around rules that typically take place when kids play together.

Additionally, just in time for the holiday season, the AAP offered tips for parents when shopping for toys for the little ones:

Use caution when you see "educational" on the label. 

Be aware of the potential for toys to promote race or gender-based stereotypes.

Limit video game and computer game use. The pediatricians' group recommends no screen time for children up to age 2, and says total screen time including TV and computer use should be less than one hour daily for ages 2 and older.

"A little bit of screen time here and there is unlikely to have much harm if a child otherwise has other activity," Mendelsohn said. But he added that screen time can overwhelm young children and is difficult to limit and control.

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