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Classic building blocks beat media toys
Toddlers show improved language skills, study finds

By Sarah Schmidt
Winnipeg Free Press

Nov 10 2006

OTTAWA -- Forget all the media products for babies on the market and go for the classic building blocks, suggests a new study linking playing with blocks with improved language acquisition in toddlers.
The Child Health Institute at the University of Washington released results Thursday from a six-month clinical trial showing middle- and lower-income children 1.5 to 2.5 years of age who engage in block play scored significantly higher on an internationally recognized scale measuring toddlers' language development.

The team of researchers, led by pediatrician Dr. Dimitri Christakis, also found on any given day these children were more than 80 per cent less likely to watch television than children in the control group, who did not receive blocks.

Noting "an increasing number of media-based products are making unsubstantiated claims they can make children smarter, more literate, or more musical," the study takes direct aim at companies like Walt Disney's Baby Einstein Co., which markets a line of DVDs for newborns and toddlers.

"It's a critical period in a young child's development, and everybody is trying to optimize that development," Christakis said in an interview.

"Parents are inundated with messages that are totally unsubstantiated and totally ungrounded in cognitive theory. This study tried to demonstrate experimentally that there are particular toys that do help cognitive development. The burden should be on toy manufacturers to prove their claims."
The study included toddlers from 175 English-speaking homes. They were divided into two groups. The first group received two sets of building blocks, a pack of 80 blocks and a pack of specialty blocks that included people and cars. Their parents received suggestions of things to do with their child and blocks, such as sorting by colour and stacking them.

The parents completed diaries over the six-month period to keep track of the frequency with which their children played with the blocks, engaged in other types of play and watched television.

Montreal-based MEGA Brands provided the blocks and funded the study; the company was not involved in its design or analysis of the data.

"We want to make sure there's authentic research and supporting data about developmental play. The claims that are made on some of these products, it's too much," said Vic Bertrand, executive vice-president and chief operating officer for MEGA Brands.

Children in the control group did not receive blocks, although some already had them in their home. Fifty-seven per cent of children in the intervention group had block play reported in their diaries, compared to 12 per cent in the control group.

The key finding indicates playing with blocks leads to a statistically and clinically significant increase in language acquisition. The study found the children from middle- and lower-income families in the intervention group scored 15 percentage points higher on the MacArthur-Bates Communicative Development Inventories, which measures toddlers' language development.

The study's television viewing results were also good news, said Christakis, whose previous research on watching TV in early childhood associated it with language and cognitive delay as well as attention problems.

"I'm not anti-TV, I'm pro-child development. Television can be a good thing if used appropriately. But at this age, there really is no benefit," said Christakis, co-author of Elephant in the Living Room: From Toddlers to Teens, What the Latest Science Tells us About the Effects of Television on Our Children's Development. His position is consistent with the American Academy of Pediatrics, which recommends no television for children under the age of two. (The Canadian Paediatrics Society does not make any recommendation related to age and television.)

Mary Frances MacLellan-Wright said she doesn't believe the marketing pitch by companies such as Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby, which claim their DVDs can stimulate cognitive development. And as a big fan of blocks for her three-year old son, Alistair, she finds the new study's results interesting.

But the Edmonton mother also introduced baby videos to her son when he was about nine months old.

"It isn't helpful for kids, but it gives mothers a 30-minute break," said MacLellan-Wright.

As a toddler, her son watched the occasional video -- slow moving and not over-stimulating.

"It lets him just chill out. His day care is just so stimulating, he needs some down time. It's not going to change his life academically and it's not going to hurt him."

With the completion of the language acquisition study, MEGA Brands plans to commission a national study looking at block play, special reasoning and kids' attention spans


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