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.