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October 2020 | Vol. XIX - No. 10


Playing With Toys: How Much Better is it for Child Development Than Playing With iPad’s?

Follow up Article on Children’s Toys vs. iPad

It is always unclear what is best for young children (0 to 5 years of age), but many experts agree that playing with toys is much better for child development than playing with ipad’s or other forms of electronic media: “Free, unstructured play promotes interactions that boost vocabulary, nurture parent-child relationships, and encourage social skills and creativity. Play helps young brains develop,” says Jenny Radesky, M.D., a developmental behavioral pediatrician and researcher at Mott who is leading the AAP session.”[1]

Why Screen Time For Kids Needs To Be Controlled:


Technology is now a fact of life

However, it is simply a fact of life in the modern era that children will be exposed to electronic media, so it is important for parents to do their own research on the benefits and drawbacks of devices such as iPad’s: “But mobile devices are becoming an almost unavoidable part of children’s worlds. We hope to demystify the design differences between technology and classic toys and help parents increase open-ended play experiences for their children.”[2]

Educational tools or electronic babysitters?

There can be some positive aspects of children’s use of technology, particularly when an experience is shared with their parents, but it seems that some parents are using electronic devices as electronic baby sitters, leaving their children on devices alone for long periods of time. This is detrimental to childhood development and health: “Radesky says there are some benefits in “shared” technology experiences, such as watching a movie together as a family and discussing it or looking up new recipes to cook together. But children are increasingly on devices alone as parents see them as tools to pacify tantrums, keep children occupied during mealtime and even as a way to take a break from parenting.”[3]

Differences between electronic play and traditional play

Radesky identifies four major differences between traditional play with toys and electronic play. The first is the child’s autonomy. “In digital games, the app designer is in control, Radesky says. Many apps and games are simple, cause-and-effect puzzles or races with a design that constrains a child’s behavior. They have a “closed loop” design that decides for children what they are going to do next, rather than letting the child’s brain take the lead”. [4]

Toys teach self control

The second is self control, “Another part of autonomy is learning self-control. However, many parents are using mobile devices to keep children seated at the dinner table, calm on brief car rides or to settle them to bed. These habits may inhibit their ability to learn how to self-regulate emotions and be counter-productive when it comes to good sleep”. [5]

Kids and Screen Time: Mayo Clinic Radio:


Free unstructured play builds autonomy

Free unstructured play allows the child to remain in control of their playtime. “Unstructured play, on the other hand, puts the child in control. “Child autonomy and control is at the core of unstructured play. The child thinks up what to do, how to do it, and what to do when things don’t work out,” Radesky says. “This is where imagination really allows a child to push past old ideas and create new ones, handle strong feelings, and figure things out for themselves.” [6] 

Toys build social development

The fourth is social development, and electronic devices may inhibit this, “Most apps and games are designed in a way that assumes there will be only one user, and children tend to use tablets and smartphones with a body posture that can nudge out social interaction with others, Radesky says.” [7]

So while there are some benefits to electronic play, free unstructured play with toys such as blocks, action figures, or legos carries far more benefits and far less detriments. Playing with toys also creates bonding experiences between parents and children, because parents are most likely familiar with toys, since they grew up with them.[8]

The American Association of Pediatricians:

Blocks, dolls, board games

Basic toys such as blocks, dolls, balls, and board games are the best for kids, while electronic toys with screens, sound effects, and flickering lights are detrimental to early childhood development and should be largely avoided.[10]

Traditional toys are better for children

Studies have shown that traditional toys are better for our children, ““Research tells us that the best toys need not be flashy or expensive or come with an app. Simple, in this case, really is better.”[11]

Toys important to childhood development

The importance of more traditional toys to childhood development among younger children cannot be stressed enough: “When kids are young, they need toys that make them social and that encourage relationships. They also need toys that help their develop their language, their social skills, their physicality, and their problem solving. While simple toys like blocks, or a bat and ball, encourage all of these things, screens and digital toys can isolate kids and make them inactive”. [12]

The best toys allow children and parents to play together

According to Alan Mendelsohn, MD, FAAP, co-author of the report and associate professor in the Departments of Pediatrics and Population Health at NYU Langone Healh, the best toys should allow parents and children to play together, promoting interaction between them.[13] “You just don’t reap the same rewards from a tablet or screen. And when children play with parents – the real magic happens, whether they are pretending with toy characters or building blocks or puzzles together.”[14]

Not all electronic toys are educational

It can be confusing for parents to pick out the right toys for their children, as even those marketed as being educational are not always appropriate, the same way that some food products are advertised as being healthy really are not so. A parents best bet is to stay away from high-tech toys.[15]

AAP still recommends traditional toys

Toys like dolls and action figures, pretend cooking/food toys, toy cars, blocks, puzzles, trains, art supplies, card games, board games, toy letters, bikes, trikes, balls, and push and pull toys are still being recommended by the AAP for younger children to help boost childhood development.[16]

AAP recommends against tablets in most cases

The AAP recommended against “tablets, screens, electronic games, phones, laptops, toys with lights and sounds, and any toy that substitutes a human interaction, such as a bear that reads a story.”[17] The report still insists that children younger than two years old shouldn’t be using screens at all, and that children over two shouldn’t watch more than an hour a day, and even then only with parental supervision.[18]

Not everyone agrees on perils of screen time

However, not everyone agrees on the perils of screen time for children: “Research out of the University of Washington has highlighted some of the benefits of limited screen time, including teaching empathy, improving word learning, encouraging creativity, collaboration in family groups and the ability to transfer problem-solving skills learned to the physical world.”[19]

Screen time for younger kids can still be harmful

But even these studies have provided conflicting information, still indicating that screen time for young children can be harmful: “But some studies — the scary ones that have parents like me question whether we are doing a disservice to our kids — have shown excessive screen time can cause developmental delays around language, personal-social skills and gross-motor skills.”[20]

Everything in moderation

Experts emphasize moderation in relation to screen time for children: "You have to think about it like dessert," Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, president of the International Society for Infant Studies, told CNN Business. "It won't kill you, and you can have a nice relationship with strawberry ice cream, but you don't want to substitute it for dinner, or real interaction.”[21]

Not all apps are bad

Parents generally feel less guilt when allowing their kids to access apps that are interactive or educational, such as “Endless Alphabet” and “Smart Shapes”, but even then, some of these educational apps are not all they’re cracked up to be:[22] “"I have seen so many silly apps where the kid isn't accomplishing anything meaningful," said Hirsh-Pasek, who is also a professor of psychology at Temple University. "But there are some options where children can become musical composers, artists and designers and write your own narrative. How wonderful is it to let them be creative and explorers? It's meaningful to kids because it lets them have their own voice.”[23]

Most parents use tablets as electronic babysitters

The University of Washington Study also found that parents were using devices as electronic babysitters to occupy their children so that they could pay attention to their own activities, a stereotype about kids and iPads that is apparently true.[24]

Parents need to do their own research

Some argue that there is no set standard for how much screen time is healthy, and urge parents to do their own research and set their own boundaries: "Families should set aside other people's ideas about how much is too much and try to figure out what works best for their own," said Alexis Hiniker, an assistant professor of human computer interaction at the University of Washington.”[25]

Tablets or tantrums?

The bottom line is that technology is now a major part of our society, and everyone, including our children are actively engaged with it. “For every judgmental restaurant stare we get when he's on an iPad, we'd get an equal one if he was making a lot of noise at (or under) the table. When all's said and done, strangers will question your parenting strategies with or without a tablet in hand.”[26]

Will tablets completely replace toys?

Many have wondered if devices could ever completely replace toys, and some fear that they might: “Could tablets like the iPad ever replace toys like LEGOs, Erector Sets and crayons? Probably not, but startup Launchpad Toys thinks the iPad (and presumably tablets in general) has the potential to.”[27]

Tablets allow children to access favorite franchises

Tablets and devices allow children access to all of their favorite franchises, such as Barbie and G.I. Joe, and generally offer forms of such classic children’s games as battleship, Simon, and Light Brite.[28]

Not all toys can translate to digital media

Some toys, such as Lego and Slinky’s cannot possibly translate to digital media, but children’s app creators are getting creative, offering games where children can create their own characters and story lines like “Toontastic”.[29]

Tablets cannot substitute all experiences

While apps and iPads can provide an additional source of entertainment for children, it is agreed that they still cannot completely replace toys. There is something tangible about playing with dolls and action figures, feeling play dough in your hands, watching a slinky go down the stairs, etc.[30]

72% of children use smartphones, iPads

72 percent of children use smartphone’s, tablets, or other devices by the age of eight.[31]

One parent expresses her disapproval for device use among children, “She’s totally unresponsive when she’s on the iPad. It’s as if she leaves us for another planet,” she says.[32]

The ultimate child distractor

While some believe that devices are being used as educational devices for children, in reality most parents are just using them as electronic baby sitters to distract the child. “The reality is that when you ask parents how the devices are being used, it is mostly to occupy or distract the child,” she says.[33]

She expresses concern that devices are replacing real experiences, ““These devices are not benign,” she adds. “No technology is benign.” What niggles at many of us is the idea that the iPad is somehow replacing a richer experience for our children, like playing chess, climbing a tree or having a meaningful conversation with a parent. Is children’s creativity being sapped, much too soon, by video games and virtual worlds?”[34] “Do you have fond childhood memories of daydreaming as you gaze out the window of the family station wagon during long road trips? It’s possible that your kids may not — because they’re watching TV or playing on the iPad in the backseat instead.” [35]

Toys continue to stick around

Fortunately, it seems that toys are sticking around, at least for now:  “Amid all the handwringing about screen time—plus the demise of Toys "R" Us—one could easily imagine that kids have lost interest in toys. But they haven’t.”[36] 

Toys still popular among tweens

Toys are still fairly popular among tweens: “Traditional toys, including board games and constructions sets, are still big among tweens, according to Michael Baer, senior vice president for brand and marketing at Ipsos Media Development”[37]

2018 saw growth in the toy industry

In 2018, the toy industry brought in a total of $21.6 billion, which was down 2% from the previous year but slightly higher than 2016’s total. 2018’s categories that brought in more than 2017 were action figures and accessories, which were up by 10%, and dolls which were up by 7%. Plush toys and vehicles were down by 10%.[38]

Kids four to fourteen still wanted toys

Toys do seem to hold a place in children’s hearts, according to the 2019 edition of the RoosterMoney report US kids and teens aged 4 to 14 were asked what they were saving their money for, and Lego was at the top of the list, while dolls came in at number five.[39]

Indoor culture

However, exercise and outdoor activities seem to be threatened, as fewer kids are desiring bicycles. 75% of parents say that their children are not getting enough active play: ““I do think there’s a sense of a growing indoor culture, compared with how kids used to go out and find their people,” said Michael Preston, executive director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. “Now they can quickly find them online, or they’re for any number of reasons not going outside, for better or worse.””[40]

73% of kids have smart phones

About 11.9% of kids 11 and younger have a smartphone, and 73% of kids 11-13 years old own one. A very high rate of smartphone ownership, but still lower than older teens and adults. Nearly half of kids 11 and younger use tablets.[41]




Mostafavi, Beata. “Gamified Childhood: Are Digital Devices Replacing Traditional Playtime?” October 24, 2019 (Accessed September 3, 2020).

Aswell, Sarah. “Pediatricians Say Kid Need Simple Toys, not iPads and Electronics” December 5, 2018. (Accessed September 3, 2020).

Murphy Kelly, Samantha. “Experts Say iPad Screen time is bad for kids. Here’s why I’m ignoring them” April 27, 2019. (Accessed September 3, 2020).

Peckham, Matt. “The Future of Toys Is…Apple’s iPad?” August 30, 2011. (Accessed September 3, 2020).

Tsavliris, Athena. “Is using an iPad to keep your kid occupied lazy parenting?” May 26, 2016. (Accessed September 3, 2020).

emarketer editors. “Toys are Still Prevalent for Many Kids Today” January 13, 2020. (Accessed September 16, 2020).

Dolliver, Mark. “US Kids 2020 Still growing into their ‘Digital Natives’ Label”. January 13, 2020. (Accessed September 16, 2020) .


[1] Mostafavi, Beata, “Gamified Childhood: Are Digital Devices Replacing Traditional Playtime?” (October 24, 2019).

[2] Mostafavi, “Gamified Childhood”

[3] Mostafavi, “Gamified Childhood”

[4] Mostafavi, “Gamified Childhood”

[5] Mostafavi, “Gamified Childhood”

[6] Mostafavi, “Gamified Childhood”

[7] Mostafavi, “Gamified Childhood”

[8] Mostafavi, “Gamified Childhood”

[9] Aswell, Sarah, “Pediatricians Say Kid Need Simple Toys, not iPads and Electronics” (December 5, 2018).

[10] Aswell, “Pediatricians”

[11] Aswell, “Pediatricians” 

[12] Aswell, “Pediatricians”

[13] Aswell, “Pediatricians”

[14] Aswell, “Pediatricians”

[15] Aswell, “Pediatricians”

[16] Aswell, “Pediatricians”

[17] Aswell, “Pediatricians”

[18] Aswell, “Pediatricians”

[19] Murphy Kelly, “Experts Say iPad Screen time is bad for kids. Here’s why I’m ignoring them” (April 27, 2019).

[20] Murphy Kelly, “Experts”

[21] Murphy Kelly, “Experts”

[22] Murphy Kelly, “Experts”

[23] Murphy Kelly, “Experts”

[24] Murphy Kelly, “Experts”

[25] Murphy Kelly, “Experts”

[26] Murphy Kelly, “Experts”

[27] Peckham, “The Future of Toys Is…Apple’s iPad?” (August 30, 2011).

[28] Peckham, “The Future of Toys”

[29] Peckham, “The Future of Toys”

[30] Peckham, “The Future of Toys”

[31] Tsavliris, “Is using an iPad to keep your kid occupied lazy parenting?” (May 26, 2016).

[32] Tsavliris, “Lazy Parenting”

[33] Tsavliris, “Lazy Parenting”

[34] Tsavliris, “Lazy Parenting”

[35] Tsavliris, “Lazy Parenting”

[36] Emarketer, “Toys are Still Prevalent for Many Kids Today” (January 13, 2020).

[37] Emarketer, “Toys”

[38] Emarketer, “Toys”

[39] Emarketer, “Toys”

[40] Emarketer, “Toys”

[41] Dolliver, “US Kids 2020 Still growing into their ‘Digital Natives’ Label”. (January 13, 2020).

Media and Young Minds


Pediatrics November 2016, 138 (5) e20162591; DOI:


Infants, toddlers, and preschoolers are now growing up in environments saturated with a variety of traditional and new technologies, which they are adopting at increasing rates. Although there has been much hope for the educational potential of interactive media for young children, accompanied by fears about their overuse during this crucial period of rapid brain development, research in this area still remains limited. This policy statement reviews the existing literature on television, videos, and mobile/interactive technologies; their potential for educational benefit; and related health concerns for young children (0 to 5 years of age). The statement also highlights areas in which pediatric providers can offer specific guidance to families in managing their young children’s media use, not only in terms of content or time limits, but also emphasizing the importance of parent–child shared media use and allowing the child time to take part in other developmentally healthy activities.


Writer's Bio: A recent college graduate in English Literature. He is a talented researcher and technical writer. Read more articles by this author


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