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February 2016

Keeping Children’s Attention: The Problem With Bells and Whistles

Author Affiliations
  • 1Division of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, Department of Pediatrics, University of Michigan Medical School, Ann Arbor
  • 2Center for Child Health, Behavior, and Development, Seattle Children’s Hospital, Seattle, Washington
  • 3Associate Editor, JAMA Pediatrics
JAMA Pediatr. 2016;170(2):112-113. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2015.3877

The floor space of toy stores is quite telling. Most of the real estate is occupied by things that require electricity in some form. Traditional toys are frequently at the margins, and even those have often been “upgraded” for today’s digital shoppers: Monopoly (Hasbro) now has an electronic version, as do chess, checkers, and most recently Barbie (Mattel). Accordingly, even when they are not in front of screens, today’s children are still often “plugged in.”

Empirical studies of toys are rare, so most of our understanding about the effects of toy-based play on child outcomes is based on theoretical models of child development. However, one prior study found that block play improves language development,1 likely through the mechanism of increased parent-child interaction around unstructured block play, which provides an opportunity for what Vygotsky called parent scaffolding.2 Scaffolding occurs when an adult supports a child right on their learning edge: not letting them sink or swim but not doing everything for them either.2 It is a primary driver of how children develop cognitive, language, social-emotional, and higher-level thinking skills such as creativity, executive functions, and emotion regulation. The substrate of play (ie, toys, crayons, and outdoors) shapes play schemas and how individuals interact around them. In the block play example, a caregiver can support a child-led idea to physically build a house, while linking this play to the child’s understanding about actual houses, and a reciprocal narrative of what happens in houses can be visualized and articulated. Such physical, verbal, and knowledge-based facets of scaffolding exchanges are not the only source of benefit; in addition, the act of spending time following a child’s lead and being responsive to that child’s ideas provides implicit yet crucial social-emotional support.

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