How traditional toys like building blocks, dolls, and action figures help children develop in ways video games can’t.

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Traditional toys help encourage positive emotional, mental, and creative development in kids. Getty Images

It’s that time of year again, when parents are scrambling to get their kids the hottest gifts.

This year, Fingerlings, Hatchimals, and Let’s Dance Elmo top that list.

But it turns out, the hottest gifts of the year may not actually be the best gifts for your child’s development.

On December 3, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) sent out a media release ahead of a clinical report that will be published in the January 2019 issue of Pediatrics.

The release titled “Ignore the Flashing Screens: The Best Toys Go Back to the Basics” implores parents to think about the type of toys they give their children this holiday season, and all year long.

According to the research, simple, traditional toys are better than the flashy electronic toys many kids have on their wish lists.

That means blocks are better than iPads. Books are better than computer games. And puzzles win out over that LeapPad.

Pediatrician Dr. Aleeya Healey, one of the lead authors on the report, told Healthline that the motivation to release this report came down to helping parents attain physical, mental, and social well-being for all infants, children and youth.

“Toys and play are the tools in this endeavor, so I think it was important for the AAP to help guide parents and caregivers in choosing toys in early childhood that have research evidence of supporting child development,” she said.

Research surrounding toys and development over the last 30 years has been extensive.

A study published in Infant Behavior Developmentin February of 2018 found that providing kids with fewer toys actually produced higher quality play, concluding that fewer toys might result in more focus and creativity.

A February 2016 study in JAMA Pediatrics found that traditional toys like puzzles, shape sorters, and blocks helped promote language development for children better than electronic toys.

Study author Anna Sosa, PhD, even expanded on this research on the Academic Minute podcast.

According to the research, less is more when it comes to toys.

Healey warns parents not to be enticed by the latest and greatest technology when it comes to toys.

“Traditional toys tend to have less of an electronic/digital or media-based background that can detract from promoting the use of a child’s own creativity and imagination,” she said.

Additionally, she explained that the lack of so-called ‘bells and whistles’ associated with more traditional toys seems to better encourage interaction with a caregiver, whether it be as a playmate or instructor.

So what kind of traditional toys are we talking about? Healey says the best choices are simple toys such as:

  • blocks
  • paper
  • crayons
  • paint
  • dolls
  • action figures
  • balls
  • books

Parents should be looking for “toys that will foster interaction with the caregiver,” she explained. “Simple board games and card games are a great tool to work on development of turn-taking and self-regulation in a fun way.”

Nevertheless, she also acknowledged that all children are different and it’s important to keep the individual child’s likes and interests in mind.

Licensed psychologist Elaine Ducharme, PhD, is glad the AAP chose now to release this information.

“We should probably be talking about this every year around the holidays,” she told Healthline. “The holiday season has become so crazy, all about toys and shopping and parents trying to outdo each other. So this is probably a good reminder this time of year.”

When talking about traditional toys versus electronic ones, she mentioned how even traditional toys have started to strip the creativity out of playtime, using Legos as an example. “It used to be that kids would get a box of Legos and would spend hours building whatever their minds could come up with. Now, they get a box with the exact number of pieces and specific instructions to build something someone else thought of.”

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Playing with traditional toys also encourages better interaction with others and lays the foundation for stronger future social skills. Getty Images

Ducharme talked about the importance of allowing kids to explore and play creatively, and how important the building of social skills during playtime can be.

“When kids are playing with regular toys, as opposed to electronics, it’s easier for the adult to interact as well. They learn to share and read body language and cooperate — things that just can’t be accomplished with screens and video games,” she said.

When asked about the educational benefits many parents claim those electronic toys provide, Ducharme added, “If you say your child is learning to read with this game and they only get 20 minutes as they learn to read the letters that light up, that’s not all bad. It’s more about balance.”

Her concern is about what happens when that balance is lost.

“We don’t want kids losing those interpersonal or social skills. To be honest, I think one of the things we see with a lot of the electronics for older kids is it’s leading to a lot of tension and anxiety,” she said.

Ducharme talked about how common it is now to see groups of kids hanging out together but not engaging with one another. They’re too busy staring at their screens or updating their Instagram accounts.

“I even see some parents thinking that because some of these games allow kids to talk to each other while playing, the social interaction is happening. But they don’t realize it’s a very different type of social interaction than making eye contact and learning to share,” she said.

That’s where she sees the value in traditional toys, helping kids learn how to be present and learn alongside one another.

Still, neither Healey nor Ducharme wanted to give the impression that electronic toys are all bad.

“It’s interesting, because if we look at electronics and we say they are all bad, we’re really messing things up.” Ducharme explained. “Think about ‘Sesame Street.’ How many kids have learned their letters from ‘Sesame Street’ and had fun doing it?”

She also pointed to research about how computer gaming can actually improve math scores.

Healey added, “In our review of existing literature, the common trend in toys that had the most optimal impact on development was the caregiver accompaniment in play. Thus it would suppose that the same effect happens when caregivers accompany play with electronic toys.”

However, she pointed out that traditional toys do still allow more room for creativity and imagination.

“Toys are meant to help kids learn about the world,” Ducharme added. “It’s about being curious. It’s about learning. And when you put a kid in front of an electronic, you don’t have to be creative. You don’t have to give them your time.”

The result, she explained, is kids losing those all-too-important interpersonal skills. “I keep going back to that. We’re seeing way more anxiety disorders. College campuses can’t keep up with the anxiety and depression. Kids aren’t learning how to manage their anxiety. They aren’t learning how to cope and self-soothe.”

That’s the area in which she sees simple toys being of the greatest value to child development.

“Traditional toys can be a great way for kids to figure things out and learn those skills, versus an electronic game that will figure it out for them.”

One or two electronic toys on your Christmas list isn’t a bad thing. But balancing those gifts with a few traditional toys under the tree as well will help encourage positive emotional, mental, and creative development.

Also, taking the time to play alongside your kids long after the holidays have wrapped up can help them improve interpersonal skills and lay a strong foundation for their social development, too.