The Best Gift to Give a Kid for Christmas

A growing body of research shows that when it comes to keeping a child engaged, the play environment matters more than the toy itself

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As children pine for toys they see in store circulars and on TV, parents want to please. But they also wonder: will this toy keep my child occupied or get tossed in the back of the closet after 10 minutes? One piece of information that might help has less to do with the toy itself and more to do with what’s happening around it.

There is growing concern in child development about the impact of having a TV on in the background — a common phenomenon in American households. Children under eight are exposed to four hours of background TV on a typical day, and those under 2 are getting an average of five and a half, according to a recent issue of Pediatrics. In USA TODAY, scientists dubbed this “second-hand TV”. Several recent studies show that the more young children are exposed to a TV showing programs for adults, the lower the children’s language and thinking skills.

(MORE: What the U.S. Can Learn From European Children’s TV)

Several years ago, research conducted at the University of Massachusetts illuminated one reason why. In the study, researchers brought toddlers and their parents into a room with a television, coffee table, couch and shelf of toys, including a Fisher-Price school bus with Little People, stacking cups, dolls, and a children’s broom and dustpan set. Using video, researchers documented how deeply and for how long these children — ages 1, 2 and 3 — played with toys under two conditions: 30 minutes with the TV on and 30 minutes with it TV off. Parents were in the room too, but researchers urged them not to direct their children’s behavior or get overly involved in their play. Instead, parents watched Jeopardy, the program emanating from the TV set or read magazines left on the coffee table.

At first, the toddlers paid little attention to the TV and went straight to the toys. “They would just glance at the screen and look away again,” says Heather Kirkorian, one of the researchers, now an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “It wasn’t as if these kids stopped playing.”

But significant differences showed up once researchers analyzed the video and examined, minute by minute, how the children were playing. When the TV was on, the children played less overall, the length of play episodes with each toy was shorter, and the depth of their play was reduced. (Depth of play was coded according to definitions of “mature” play determined by child development experts, ranging from putting toys in the mouth or banging them around to imagining scenarios and assigning roles to objects.) With the TV on, children were essentially bopping from one toy to another. It didn’t matter if the first 30 minutes of the experiment started with the set on or off. Either way, the same children were more deeply occupied with the toys when Jeopardy wasn’t competing for their attention.

“Just because your child is not staring at the TV, mouth open with toy dropped, that doesn’t mean it isn’t affecting how deeply they are playing,” says Marie Evans Schmidt, first author on the article in Child Development that reported the findings. Why does this matter? Research shows that enabling children the time and space to get lost in play is linked to healthy development of the human mind. Take puzzle play, for example. Anthony Pellegrini, a play expert and professor at the University of Minnesota, started his career with experiments showing the benefits of preschoolers talking to themselves while figuring out puzzles.

(MOREWhy E-Reading With Your Kid Can Impede Learning)

That helpful “self-talk” may get sidelined, though, when children have audiovisual distractions around them. And these days, those distractions are many. Whether it’s mom’s own iPad or the DVD playing in the pediatrician’s room, it can be hard to find places where children don’t face some sort of TV or electronic media. Of course, households are busy places, but we parents should at least be aware of some unintended consequences of our own screen time. So instead of letting the TV run in the background after the kids open their toys this holiday, let’s give another, less expensive gift: some uninterrupted time to play with them.


Fantastic article. Well written and researched. 

Kids are distractible by design. As a parent, I often "steal" my child's focus, pointing him to activities or observations that I believe will enrich him.  I don't like it when strangers steal his focus, and certainly don't like it when the television steals it! Give them 20 quiet, unbiased, unencumbered minutes. And just when you think you know your child, you'll see something novel.

A recent New York Times article about Melissa & Doug discussed how their toys lack a certain element in playtime, and that the child was meant to bring that extra element. I'd be interested to see a study that varies the types of toys.  Here we have:

Fisher-Price school bus with Little People

Stacking cups


Children's broom and dustpan set

This is not a typical living room. There are no 1) action figures (the largest segment of the toy market), 2) familiar toys (specific toys the child has played with recently), or 3) noise-making toys. 


Well I am not too sure if your observation, or should I say the observation of the researchers is entirely something that one should go by. We create toys for children everyday and spend a great deal of time researching their behavior. What we have found in our most recent study of children aged 2 thru 10 (465 kids) is that depth of interest in the toy is based on the perception of that toy. In other words focus is based on how their imagination interacts with the toy. 

If there is a deep grounded "want" for the toy then they tend not to refocus on other environmental concerns. Also interaction of the children, for example if it is a group activity as opposed to individual. 

If the child had created a bond with the toy, this was strongest when that toy interacted with their imagination (role play), then the TV did little to distract them. If the group playing could place themselves together in an interacting role, then again the TV had limited effect. 

An example, DP and his friends are our characters and often parents buy them for birthdays, Christmas etc. They are actually cartoon like characters which are on our products but are bought to life when viewed on the TV. Most children who had these as presents prior to the research would often go to sleep with the characters singing them to sleep, nap etc. So when we placed these toys in front of children who already had a bond, it was highly probable that they did not focus on the TV.

 My point is that TV is not the main reason why children are not interacting. It is more on the focus of what toys that are present to them to play with and how well they are "bonded" to those toys. The standard puzzle for example found at a pediatrics may have been what children would run to 20 years ago but now it is all about digital interaction, more things are possible.

Well done Lisa and so true. I do not have children, but live in a neighborhood (your neighborhood) of many families with young children and often have the opportunity to observe parents out with their children. It is very upsetting to see a parent sitting at the playground while their child pretend plays, if there are no other children there, as mom or dad is on their i-phone. Or going into Chicken Out and observing a father sitting with his 4 year old son. Not saying a word to him as his son sits there looking at dad while dad is on his i-phone. So many times I have wanted to say something to the parent, but do not. Should I?


Never ceases to amaze me what people "discover" during these studies.   Most of what's published lately is totally common sense, or already known to an awful lot of people outside these bastions of greater thinking.

C'mon guys, surprise us once in a while with something really new and relevant.


When I worked for agencies that sent me out to observe child care centers and family home child care providers, I found that far too many had TV playing in the background.  Many times, it was some "educational" program - but the effects I observed were the same as what's being described here.  This is no joke. Thanks, Lisa, for highlighting this key point.  I'll add another concern.  Adults are not as likely to engage in conversation with the children when they have a TV to stare at - and conversation is probably one of the most important learning activities that can happen to young children. Wake up call!