For Parents

For Parents

The Story on Toys: Buzz Lightyear vs. Mr. Potato Head

A new research study takes a closer look at parent and child communication when playing with different types of toys.


Does Toy Type Change How We Talk and Play?

Engaging with their caregivers is one of the best ways that children begin to learn language, but many factors can influence these interactions.  Jennifer Miller from the Illinois Institute of Technology led a research study to help us understand how different types of toys can influence the interactions children have with their caregivers, and thus their language development.  With toy manufacturers always claiming their toys are educational and help with language growth, this is important information to know!


Finding Out if the Latest is Always the Greatest

Miller and her team were interested in how different types of toys affected parent and child communication.They divided toys into two groups: traditional toys (such as nesting blocks, ring towers and Mr. Potato Head) and newer feedback toys which have sound, music, and lights (such as Buzz Lightyear). The researchers videotaped fifty, 9-12 month old children and their parents playing with both types of toys. They rated how often the child communicated with their parent, how long the child played with the toy, and what kind of language the parent used (labels, directions, responses, etc.). An older study examined parent and child interactions with different toy types, but this one took a more detailed look into parent and child behaviors.


Toy Type Does Make a Difference

Miller found that toy type influenced how often parents and children interacted with each other as well as the type of communication used.  These results were seen in different ways.  First, toddlers made more sounds and gestured more towards their parents when interacting with traditional toys than with feedback toys.  Additionally, parents responded to their children’s sounds with more related language when they were using traditional toys. Related language means the parents responded to their child’s communication based on their child’s focus. By responding more and responding based on what the child was likely communicating about, the parents created more opportunities for their children to learn words. Although the feedback toys kept children’s attention for longer periods of time, children communicated more and parents communicated better when playing with traditional toys.


To Infinity and Beyond With Buzz Lightyear?

While Buzz is an endearing toy character in the great series of “Toy Story” movies, your child will probably develop language skills more quickly playing with you and more traditional toys that do not make sounds such as Mr. Potato Head.


Here are some tips for playing with toys with your child:

  • As a rule, choose traditional toys over electronic toys.  Research is showing that parents and children are more engaged and talkative when playing with traditional toys.
  • Respond to your child’s vocalizations, gestures, and words all throughout the day instead of asking questions and giving directions to help encourage language growth.
  • Have fun while playing and interacting with your child. Your child will learn words best during fun and engaging activities with you!
  • Check out our toy recommendations page for traditional toy ideas and descriptions of how to play with them!


Miller, J. L., Lossia, A., Suarez-Rivera, C., & Gros-Louis, J. (2017). Toys that squeak: Toy type impacts quality and quantity of parent-child interactions. First Language, 1-18.