Technological toys facilitate children’s learning
Childhood play is a critical component that contributes to the language competences of children. Developmental theory highlights the importance of social interactions during caregiver-child play in fostering language acquisition of children (Vygotsky, 1978). The inclusions of conventional toys, such as blocks and puzzles, have been accredited to promoting language development in children by encouraging the use of scaffolding techniques by the caregiver (Wood, Bruner, & Ross, 1976 ). However, as society places more emphasis on technology in all aspects of life, the incorporation of technological toys as a learning medium remains inconclusive. The purpose of this study was to investigate the use of the VINCI tablet on language acquisition of children in order to assess (1) whether there are differences in caregiver speech when either a traditional or technological toy is used during play and (2) what aspects of caregiver speech vary. We found that the use of the VINCI tablet resulted in higher Preschool Learning Scales Fifth Edition (PLS-5) post-test scores in comparison to the use of traditional toys. Furthermore caregivers provided significantly more affirmations when a technological toy was incorporated during play compared to a traditional toy, and that the use of directive speech was associated with lower PLS-5 post-test scores. The findings propose that technological toys provide the affordance of immediate feedback that is absent in traditional toys, and this affordance may account for better learning outcomes via reinforcement. Implications for early childhood education are discussed.
Importance of childhood play
Before children are able to independently communicate with their peers and socialize outside the home, their caregivers are the main source of communication. Verbal input is most often provided during caregiver-child play via interaction with toys. Scientific literature has suggested that play during early childhood is linked to healthy cognitive, social, and language development (Ginsburg, 2007). Such benefits can be attributed to the affordance of new experiences that children encounter, whereby existing memory structures are constantly being reshaped; that is, learning is not the product of development, but development itself (Ginsburg, 2007; Johnson, 2003). Children who engage in play with their caregivers are considered to be supplementing their opportunities for language acquisition by socializing, which is a reflection of their cognitive functioning (Sachs, 1980).
The theory of cognitive play by Piaget (1973) advocates the belief that different forms of play have constitutive impacts on the cognition of a developing child from infancy to mid-childhood. The first, and least intellectually challenging, involves functional play. During functional play, the child engages in simple and repetitive movements that have no symbolic meaning to reality (PsyEd, 2014; Ruff & Lawson, 1990). According to the theory, a toddler who is laughing as he/she throws objects around is participating in functional play and deriving pleasure from doing so. Following the first type of play, constructive play involves the manipulation of physical objects as an attempt to build something, such as using toy blocks to construct a tower (PsyEd, 2014; Ruff & Lawson, 1990). Constructive play may involve another person, such as a caregiver, but its importance lies in teaching the child the ability to overcome a challenge. The next type of play is pretend play, which is the product of a child acquiring figurative thought by substituting imaginary situations in place of real ones (PsyEd, 2014). Also referred to as fantasy play, engaging in pretend play allows for experimentation with language in order to express new words and thoughts in a risk-free environment (PsyEd, 2014; Ruff & Lawson, 1990). The last type of play marks the beginning of logical or operational thought, known as rule-governed play, and entails the understanding of rules and logic (PsyEd, 2014; Ruff & Lawson, 1990). For instance, the building of a puzzle during play requires connecting the correct pieces to each other and may involve taking turns with a partner. More importantly, this last type of play is no longer an individual process, but a collective one that relies on socializing to complete a task (Ruff & Lawson, 1990).
Childhood play affords opportunities for caregivers to interact with their children and establish strong parent-child bonds, such as security and attachment (Ruff & Lawson, 1990). Researchers agree that systematic and tailored verbal inputs that consist of short utterances separated by pauses are beneficial to language acquisition by the young child during play (Brent & Siskind, 2001; Hart & Risley, 1995; McCartney, 1984). Interactions of this nature during the first three years of life have been associated with facilitating greater amounts of utterances that are rich in verbal input, going on to predict academic achievement later in life (Hohm et al., 2007; McCartney, 1984). This is in line with research that positively correlates initial academic skills with the literacy environment of the home and subsequent educational success (Aikens & Barbarin, 2008). Education level is used as one of the indicators that linearly correlates with socioeconomic status (SES), both of which are known to be associated with health outcomes (Gimbert, Bol, & Wallace, 2007).
A systematic review by DeWalt and Hink (2009) notes the relationship between low literacy skills and poor health outcomes of children, adolescents, and adults. Their review suggests the importance of language development and its effects on the life trajectory from childhood, and the implications it has on their future health status. Studies that evaluated the relationship between literacy and smoking found a significant relationship between low literacy and the likelihood of smoking of young adolescent boys and girls (DeWalk & Hink, 2009; Fredrickson et al., 1995; Hawthorne, 1996). Behaviour that is related with poor health outcomes was also noted in children with lower-than-average vocabularies and literacy skills. As these children progressed into adolescence, they were more likely to engage in risk-taking or violent behaviours if their vocabularies and literacy skills were still lower-than-average (DeWalt & Hink, 2009). The relationship between childhood literacy and future health outcomes is rooted in the belief that caregiver language input is an influential factor in the early stages of life for language acquisition. Huttenlocher, Haight, Bryk, Seltzer, and Lyons (1991) examined the role of exposure to caregiver speech in children’s early vocabulary growth from 14 to 26 months. The findings highlight that overall parental speech input at 16 months accounts for a significant amount of variation among children in their acceleration of vocabulary growth. The authors were able to link to their results to a similar study that assessed the verbal intelligence quotient (IQ) of children as a product of mother speech input (Cohler et al., 1977). The researchers found that depressed mothers spoke less than non-depressed mothers to their children. This difference resulted in children of depressed mothers having lower verbal IQs in comparison to other children (Breznitz & Sherman, 1987, Cohler et al., 1977). With that said, language input by a caregiver and its relationship to the vocabulary growth of a child are positively correlated, allowing researchers to conclude that caregiver input has significant effects on the child language development (Breznitz & Sherman, 1987; Huttenlocher et al., 1991).
Caregiver speech input
The role of a caregiver is fundamental during a child’s play experience. More importantly, the quality of the interactions the child has during play with the caregiver is a fundamental aspect of playtime (Brazelton & Greenspan, 2000). For instance, the skill level of a caregiver with the associated toy during play is linked to positive child development outcomes (Woolridge & Shapka, 2012).
Of particular interest is how caregiver responsiveness and autonomy support promotes child language development. In a study by Sorce and Emde (1981), the researchers noticed how toddlers demonstrated greater exploration when mothers demonstrated responsiveness compared to mother who were physically nearby but preoccupied; that is, the when caregiver is adapting to the needs of the child and responding to the child’s actions they are being responsive. Other literature has found that engaging in the interests of the child enhances cognitive growth, such as cause-and-effect understanding, language, and learning (Baumwell, Tamis-LeMonda, & Bornstein, 1997; Bernier, Carlson, & Whipple, 2010). On the other hand, when the caregiver uses directive statements and prohibitions, the child will communicate less and have vocabularies that are less enriched than caregivers who engage in language-promoting speech (Hart & Risely, 1995). As such, it is important to foster an environment that allows the child to explore and learn without the constant aid of a caregiver, unless when called upon by the child.
The avoidance of controlling language and behaviour predicts attachment between the caregiver and the child, while also supporting cognitive-language outcomes (Landry, Smith, Miller-Loncar, & Swank, 1997). Moreover, autonomous support is characterized by engaging in language that is a source of encouragement for the child. Studies have demonstrated that the use of encouraging language is associated with exploration, motivation, and task persistence (Kelly, Brownell, & Campbell, 2000;Whipple, Bernier, & Mageau, 2011).
The sequence of child-action and caregiver-responses while interacting during playtime should focus on joint attention in order to provide a strong foundation for optimal learning during child language development. For instance, young children best acquire new linguistic information when they are engaged in joint activities with a more developed language partner (Moore & Dunham, 1995). However, literature has not differentiated whether traditional or technological toys influence caregiver speech during joint attention tasks at playtime; these interactions are reported to affect the quality of play and fostering of language skills by the child.
Child language acquisition and the role of scaffolding
Children follow predictable sequences as they begin to develop language. At around 12 months of age, they begin to produce their first words, and by 24 months they begin to use 50 or more words to express themselves (Krcmar, Grela, & Lin, 2007). Around this age, toddlers undergo a vocabulary spurt, whereby word acquisition accelerates rapidly. The linguistic environment of the child contributes to their language acquisition and plays a central role in language development. In regards to the linguistic environment and subsequent language acquisition, Weizman and Snow (2001) examined how lexical input by mothers influenced the vocabulary acquisition of their children. The children were five years old and exposed to multiple settings (play, mealtime, and book reading) and their ability to understand common English words were assessed. The data suggested that mealtime and playtime environments expose children to more lexically rich vocabulary that translated to significant language acquisition. Additionally, mothers who exposed their children to rich vocabulary use earlier in the child’s life further promoted greater language acquisition in comparison to mothers who did not. More importantly, the researchers conclude that scaffolding expedites the learning process for the child’s ability to acquire sophisticated words and that social interaction was a key process in facilitating this (Weizman and Snow, 2001).
Maternal speech provides a rich source of verbal input that in turn can influence their child’s language development. Home literacy activities have been associated with optimal development of early literacy and subsequent reading skills (Evans, Shaw, & Bell, 2000). Activities such as shared book reading, playing with alphabet toys (e.g. blocks with letters), and storytelling afford verbal scaffolding by the caregiver that aids child language development. Scaffolding is a process that enables the child to carry out tasks that would be beyond their capabilities unless assisted (Wood, Bruner, & Ross, 1976). Additionally, the process of scaffolding involves providing support that is responsive to the needs of the child and may involve corrective feedback, paraphrasing, songs, and rhymes by the caregiver.
The role of scaffolding is accredited to Vygotsky’s (1978) theory of development. The theory argues that a more knowledgeable partner (such as a caregiver) can assist the cognitive development of a less knowledgeable one (such as a child). According to the theory, such interactions gradually foster the development of successful and independent task performance by the previously less knowledgeable partner. Emphasis is placed on the belief that interactions with others will lead to internalization of cognitive processes that can initially be achieved within a social context (Pempek et al., 2011). With this in mind, it is believed amongst researchers that scaffolding by a caregiver during playtime with a child facilitates child language development (Pempek et al., 2011; Wood, Bruner, & Ross, 1976).
A study conducted by Dieterich, Assel, Swank, Smith, and Landy (2006) examined the developmental pathways of mothers’ language that was used to scaffold their children’s language learning. Their results demonstrated that when the mother provided verbal scaffolding during daily interactions, their children benefitted from information that relates objects and actions. The findings support the belief that general language input that is rich in information and occurs on a daily basis has the ability to promote reading competence in children (Dieterich et al., 2006). The input that a child receives from his/her mother during interaction affords verbal scaffolding that is necessary for affording the basic tools for later success in reading comprehension. Scaffolding techniques during play included the use of cognates as a method of connecting ideas, paraphrasing of complex words, reinforcement of contextual definitions, and using “think-alouds” as method of promoting child speech (Dieterich et al., 2006). Moreover, the implications of the findings from Dieterich et al. (2006) suggest how scaffolding techniques by the caregiver can set a positive life trajectory into motion for the child in their future academic endeavors.
Childhood play with traditional toys
Infants and toddlers are dependent on their caregivers to learn social interaction and language development. Parents and caregivers are preferred play partners for toddlers, even when other siblings are available (Haight & Miller, 1993). Specifically speaking, mothers scaffold their speech during play in ways to foster the child’s language acquisition (Haight & Miller, 1993; Vygotsky, 1978).
During playtime, caregiver-child interactions often involve toys and objects that serve as a focus for joint attention for both the caregiver and the child (Wooldridge & Shapka, 2012). More importantly, traditional toys afford children the opportunity to explore and develop skills that aid in the learning of concepts (Bjorklund, 2007). The physical ability to manipulate toys and the level of control a child has over the material has been positively associated to the amount of learning that the child is able to engage in (Buckleitner, 2006). Such learning outcomes are accomplished when the caregiver is able to convey the features of the toy and its role in play, in addition to providing a social co-construction of knowledge during play (Bornstein, Haynes, Pascual, Painter, & Galperin, 1999; Rakoczy & Tomasello, 2005).
Research conducted by Hron-Steward, Lefever, and Weintraub (1990) examined dyadic play scenarios between infants and their mothers to assess the effects the interaction had on child learning. The researchers found that when mothers were highly interactive with their children when using a traditional toy, their child scored higher in problem-solving scores. Accordingly, these findings are in support of literature that further illustrates the beneficial influences of caregiver-child interaction during traditional play. For instance, a study by Estrda, Arsenio, Hess, and Holloway (1987) was able to demonstrate how a positive and affectionate relationship between mothers and their children during play are correlated with child mental ability and school readiness at age four, IQ scores at age six, and academic achievement by age 12. The study was longitudinal in design, where children were in preschool during the beginning of the study, assessed at ages 4, 5,6 and followed-up on when they were 12 years old. During assessment, the children were tested for general mental ability by using various vocabulary tests like the Palmer’s Concept Familiarity Index, Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test, Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children, and the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, respectively. Signs of affection were rated when mothers demonstrated responsiveness to their child’s needs, emotional displays of affect, and punitive reactions during unstructured play using traditional toys. However, the dyads were observed in a clinical setting outside their home for only 10 minutes on two occasions at each age. Nevertheless, the results of Estrda et al. (1987) highlight that affectionate behaviour by a caregiver is complementary to child language acquisition during play.
The use of traditional toys has been associated with verbal scaffolding by the caregiver that, in turn, relates to language acquisition and development of the child. The associated scaffolding techniques and behaviours that accompany caregiver-child play with traditional toys have also been demonstrated to influence child language development. However, it is difficult to ignore the increasing shift from traditional toys to electronic toys during caregiver-child play. To date, literature surrounding the effects of a technological toy on caregiver-child interactions has been limited but suggests an inverse correlation between the amount of screen media present in a child’s environment and positive caregiver-child interactions (Estrada et al., 1987).
Childhood play with technological toys
Technologically enhanced toys have witnessed an exponential growth in the production of hardware and software that is intended for children under three years of age (Garrison & Christakis, 2005). Specifically speaking, the saturation of screen media technologies has raised concern regarding its influence on child development. Pepek, Demers, Hanson, Kirkorian, and Anderson (2010) investigated whether infant-directed videos that are designed for the purpose of promoting caregiver-child interactions do so. The videos used in the study included Sesame Beginnings and Baby Einstein DVDs, in addition to a control group that did not receive any DVD to view. The researchers found that during viewing, parent-child interactions decreased in quantity and quality across both groups; however, parents used the video content as a basis for interaction (Pepek et al., 2010). Results of the study suggest that co-viewing between the parent and the child may, in theory, facilitate learning because the parent and child can watch and learn together. The rationale that the researchers propose is that co-viewing of infant-directed videos provides the opportunity for parents to gain knowledge and extrapolate the knowledge to their own infant via extension of the topics shown on screen (Pepek et al., 2010). Consequentially, the use of screen media may indirectly promote caregiver-child interactions and child language development if co-viewing is effectively established. On the other end of the spectrum, it is also likely that the use of screen media may directly hinder social interaction between the caregiver and the child; however, this may be a reflection of the quality of caregiver input.
Another limitation of screen media as an educational tool for child language development is the concept of the video deficit. Literature has demonstrated that infants and toddlers up to age three learn better from real-life experiences in comparison to videos (Anderson & Pempek, 2005). Support for the video deficit hypothesis is further demonstrated from studies that investigate the ability of toddlers to imitate specific actions from watching a live demonstration in comparison to a pre-recorded one. Barr and Hayne (1999) report that infants were more likely to perform a specific behaviour after viewing the live model in comparison to the video model. These findings are supported by similar research by Hayne, Herbet, and Simcock (2003) who report that toddlers also are better able to imitate specific behaviours from a live demonstration in comparison to a video model; however, once a child reaches preschool-age, they can readily imitate behaviours on the video (Bandura, Ross, & Ross, 1963). Troseth and DeLoache (2006) attribute the deficit to be an outcome of poor understanding of symbolic representations by the child. In spite of this, the researchers claim that infants and toddlers may overcome the video deficit if there is an interactive component associated with the task (Troseth & DeLoache, 2006).
Lacking in scientific literature is research exploring if manipulative technologies influence the quality of caregiver-child interactions and subsequent child language development, as demonstrated by traditional toys. Interactive technologies may foster a partnership role between the caregiver and the child, an approach that is utilized by many programs that promote learning (Luckin, et al., 2003). The incorporation of technologically enhanced toys that utilize educational software encourages basic language and number skills can provide feedback to the child (Luckin et al., 2003). Thus, the toy is able to directly mediate the actions of the child and influence his or her learning. However, if a child encounters difficulties, he/she is able to seek assistance from a more able partner, such as their caregiver. The nature of the software of the toy has the ability to impact a child’s help seeking behaviour, as demonstrated by Luckin, Connolly, Plowman, and Airey (2003). In their study, the researchers noted that children were more likely to seek help from a human companion when interacting with digital toy technology since the children appeared to ignore clues given by the toy itself. The lack of ability to follow the advice given by the digital toy may be attributed to the video deficit theory, but the gap narrows when the caregiver assists the child via scaffolding speech. Ultimately, Luckin et al. (2003) assert that technology can have a positive influence on child play and learning by providing scaffolding support when engaging in a collaborative partnership role with a more able partner.
The effects of caregiver-child play with a technologically enhanced toy and its associated affordances (transparency, challenge, accessibility) were investigated by Bergen, Hutchinson, Nolan, and Weber (2009). The study focused on the types of play and communicative interactions that the Fischer Price Laugh & Learn Learning Home toy afforded. The toy was analyzed for providing the aforementioned affordance features that would elicit humour expression. Results of the study revealed that interactions between parents and their children during the incorporation of the technological toy witnessed an increase in morpheme complexity by the child, to which the parents were able to adjust to (Bergen et al., 2009). Additionally, parents facilitated joint attention by providing affirmations to their child’s actions during play with the toy, which was attributed to the toy’s affordances (Bergen et al., 2009). For instance, the toy provided transparency via immediate feedback, was easy to use and age-appropriate for the child, and supported social interaction. The outcomes of the affordances that a technological toy provides included the elicitation of child-parent communication, exploration, and practice play that subsequently enhance a child’s development of concepts and language (Bergen et al., 2009). Moreover, the advantage of incorporating a technologically enhanced toy lies in its ability to promote benefits of a typical toy while adding salient features that promote higher levels of play, learning, and adult-child interaction.
Technological toys are available in multiple forms, such as educational DVDs, computer software games, and traditional toys with a technology enhancement. Of growing interest is the role of personal mobile technologies, like tablets, on teaching and learning (Shohel & Power, 2010). Despite the popularity of tablets and their unique feature of allowing various educational applications to be downloaded, there is still limited research regarding its effects on child learning. Ciampa and Gallagher (2013) observed how the use of an iPod Touch influenced the learning of students from junior kindergarten through grade school by conducting case studies. Input from both parents and teachers highlighted that the use of an iPod Touch facilitated peer mentoring and enhanced engagement when children used various iPod Touch apps in place of books (Ciampa & Gallagher, 2013). Of particular interest was the ability to customize learning content to specific needs, a feature that allows learning to be self-directed. These results are in agreement with previous findings of a study that was conducted with iPod Touch devices amongst children aged three to seven; it was found that children made improvements in their vocabulary skills (Chlong & Shuler, 2010).
The use of technology in classrooms has shed light on its ability to facilitate language development; however, the affordances of manipulative technological toys on language development during dyadic play are inconclusive. In spite of the dearth of information surrounding whether technological toys can facilitate language development in children during playtime, researchers note that the type of toy used during caregiver-child play influences caregiver speech (O’Brien & Nagel, 1987). Within this context, optimal language learning occurs when the caregiver’s speech is relevant and focused on the child and toy of interest during play.
The purpose of this present study is to investigate if using the VINCI tablet during playtime can contribute to child language development in order to answer whether (1) caregiver speech during play is different when technological toys are used compared to traditional ones, and (2) what aspects of caregiver speech are different during play with both types of toys.
Participants were recruited from the Kitchener-Waterloo area through word of mouth, Kijiji and the Child Math and Language Lab database. A total of 30 English-speaking caregiver-child dyads were included in the sample study. Twenty-nine of the dyads consisted of mother-child observations while one of the dyads was a father-child observation. The children in this study consisted of 14 girls and 16 boys, each randomly assigned to either the traditional toy group or the tablet group that included the use of VINCI (technological toy). The average age of the children at the beginning of this 2-month study was 26.69 months (range= 21-33 months, SD =3.30) and 28.41 months (range=23-35 months, SD =3.29) at the end of the study.
Socio-economic status (SES) of the participating families was measured by the highest level of education attained by the mother, ranking from 1 (high school) to 4 (graduate school or professional). Given that the SES of a father is not associated with health outcomes of a child, data regarding the father’s education level was omitted (Currie et al., 1997). The average education level of the mothers was 2.66 (SD =0.857), with 58.62% of the mothers having a university degree, 17.24% with college/trade degrees, 13.79% with a high school diploma, and 10.34% with graduate/professional degrees. Each dyad in the tablet group received a VINCI tablet at the beginning of the study, while those in the traditional toy group received the tablet at the completion of the study.
The study took place over a eight-week period, whereby children completed a pre-test at week one and a post-test at week nine using the Preschool Language Scale Fifth Edition (PLS-5) as a measure of language comprehension (McDermott, Leigh, & Perry, 2002). The dyads were randomly assigned to either the tablet group that used the VINCI tablet during play or the traditional toy group that used already-owned traditional toys, such as puzzles or blocks, during play. Two home visits, each 30 minutes in length, were recorded under naturalistic conditions in order to observe the caregiver-child interactions during the third and sixth week of the study. The caregivers were autonomous in choosing the play space in their homes where the play sessions were being recorded. In order to preserve the natural environment during playtime, other family members were allowed to be present during the sessions; however, only the caregiver of interest and their child were wearing microphones during recording.
Each play session (n=60) was videotaped, transcribed, and coded using the Observer XT 8.0 program. Test results of PLS-5 at both pre-test and post-test were withheld until the transcribed home videos were coded using Observer XT and analyzed using SPSS.
Caregiver speech variables were coded as being directive, making requests, making a statement, using cause-and-effect relationships, use of affirmation, question asking, and use of expansions (see Table 1). These speech variables have been previously used by other studies that coded for adult language input during child playtime (Bergen, Hutchinson, Nolan & Weber, 2009; Dieterich, Assel, Swank, Smith, & Landry, 2006; Marinac, Ozanne, & Woodyatt 2004).
Directive speech was coded when the caregiver gave an instruction to the child during play, in which the child was to respond in an expected way; examples of directive speech include “put,” “give,” “hold.” When the caregiver invited a response or an answer from the child that incorporated the thoughts of the child, the speech was coded as a request on behalf of the caregiver. For instance, “what do you think,” is an example of caregiver speech that would be coded as a request. Caregiver speech was coded as a statement (i.e., “This is a…”) when the speech did not invite an answer or provide instructions to the child during play. When the caregiver used words such as “if,” and “what happens when”, the speech was coded as cause-and-effect, whereby the caregiver would demonstrate how an action has a subsequent reaction. Affirmative speech such as “good job”, “that’s right,” “perfect,” were coded when the caregiver provided a response to an action by the child, often serving as a method of positive reinforcement. If the caregiver related an idea or an object to a greater concept, the speech was coded as an expansion variable; examples include “what else,” “where else.” Lastly, the use of question asking was also coded for, whereby the caregiver would expect a response back from the child.
The VINCI tablet is an interactive technology-toy where learning is the goal that is based on a curriculum categorized by age range (Rullingnet Corporation, 2013). The touchscreen feature allows for children to manipulate icons on the screen. Different applications can be downloaded, whereby each application is in the form of an interactive game that the child can play. The applications on VINCI are categorized into three sections: games, music videos, and storybooks. Under the games section, there are two subsections known as “explorations,” whereby the child learns basic words as they tap and touch the tablet screen; and “the world,” which is more difficult in nature as the child must play mini-games while traveling around the world. The music video sections involves sing-and-dance-along songs that the dyads can follow along with; the storybook section focuses specifically on developing language and literacy via interactive features. The different applications cover vast aspects of child development: thinking skills; emotional and social skills; language and literacy; math and logical reasoning; general knowledge; and science (Rullingnet Corporation, 2013). In addition, there are three levels in terms of difficulty that are available; however, for the purpose of this study, the dyads had only levels 1 and 2 downloaded on their tablets. The use of animations and bright colours allow the games to be more engaging and attractive to the child during play (Rullingnet Corporation, 2013).
Preschool Language Scales (PLS-5)
The PLS-5 is a standardized assessment that measures expressive language abilities of the child and provides information about a child’s language skills based on age (Zimmerman, Steiner, & Pond, 2012). With that said, the PLS-5 is designed for testing with children aged birth to 7;11 in order to assess key skills that are considered important for language development(Zimmerman, Steiner, & Pond, 2012). Additionally, the two scales that are utilized in the PLS-5 include auditory comprehension (AC) and expressive communication (EC), both of which are used to evaluate the child’s comprehension of language and how well a child communicates with others, respectively. Administrative time is dependent on the age of the child, whereby children aged birth through 11 months are allotted 25-35 minutes of testing time and children over the age of one receive 45-60 minutes (Zimmerman, Steiner, & Pond, 2012). There are a total of 67 items that are categorized by age, and children begin testing at the appropriate item that is considered an entry point for that age on the scale (Florida Institute of Education, 2004). During the one-on-one testing, children engage in interactive activities and respond to questions about the activity they are engaged in. When a child consecutively answers six questions incorrectly, the testing stops. The raw score is calculated by subtracting the number of “no score” a child receives from the last Expressive Communication score that was previously administered. A standardized score is then attained that is reflective of the child’s language abilities.
In order to answer the first questionwhether there were any significant differences in the use of speech variables during play between tablet group and traditional toy groups, a two-tailed t-test was conducted. The number affirmations in caregiver speech during both home visits was found to be significantly different, between caregivers in the tablet and traditional toy groups, t (58)= 4.3, p= 0.047 . Specifically, caregivers in the tablet group provided an average of 13.1 (SD =9.0) affirmations to their child during playtime in comparison to an average of 8.8 (SD =40.3) provided by those in the traditional toy group.
No other significant differences were found in caregiver speech during caregiver-child playtime, regardless of the gender of the children (see Table 2). The aspects of caregiver speech that were different during play with both types of toys, albeit not statistically significant included less amounts of question asking by the caregivers in the tablet group (Mdif f= -2.83) in comparison to the traditional group; less amounts of statements made by the caregiver in the tablet group (Mdif = -1.93); less amounts of directive speech (Mdif = -1.43); less amounts of in the user of expansions (Mdif = -0.26); and less amounts of requests were made (Mdif = -0.67). The number of times a caregiver provided affirmations (Mdi = 4.30) and cause-and-effect comparisons (Mdif =0.46) was greater in the tablet group in comparison to caregivers who used traditional toys during playtime (refer to Table 2).
In terms of the children’s expressive language abilities, the average standard PLS-5 pre-test score was 114.53 (SD =12.11) for the children in the tablet group and 108.9 (SD =14.4) for those in the traditional toy group. After the eight-week period, the average standard PLS-5 post-test score was 121.8 (SD =12.6) for children in the tablet group and 111.6 (SD =9.3) for children in the traditional toy group. The standard PLS-5 pre-test score was used as a covariate to provide a baseline of child’s language skills prior to the study period, where the independent variables included both test groups (tablet and traditional), all the speech variables of interest, and gender; the children’s standard PLS-5 post-score test was used as the dependent variable. A regression analysis revealed that when the caregiver in both the VINCI tablet group or the traditional toy group used directive statements when communicating with the child during playtime, its use was significantly negatively correlated, b= -0.39, t(58)= 2.12, p= 0.046, with the PLS-5 post-test standard scores. However, no significant relationship was found between the use of affirmations and higher PLS-5 post-test scores for both the tablet and traditional toy groups when a regression analysis was conducted (see Table 3).
The purpose of this study was to assess whether the use of the VINCI tablet influences the nature of caregiver speech during caregiver-child playtime, and subsequently influences children’s expressive language abilities. Our findings indicate that the most significant difference of caregiver speech between the two groups was the use of affirmations by caregivers in the tablet group. Caregivers in this group provided more affirmations during the two home visits, whereas caregivers in the traditional group provided less. Children in the tablet group, on average, performed higher to those in the, providing support that the use of the VINCI tablet during playtime contributes to language development. However, the use of affirmations in either group was not significantly correlated with higher PLS-5 post-test scores. This was demonstrated by the regression analysis when the speech variables in both groups were assessed relative to PLS-5 post-test scores. What this suggests is that there must be an affordance that the VINCI tablet provides that presents opportunities for caregivers to provide affirmations, but that affirmations themselves do not result in better learning outcomes; that is, affirmations in the tablet group have an effect on learning motivations of children but hearing affirmations do not translate into better learning outcomes. Ultimately, the use of affirmations has a residual effect that is absent during play with traditional toys, which may account for why children in the tablet group had higher PLS-5 post-test scores even though children in both groups heard affirmations; the number of affirmations provided are not correlated with better PLS-5 post-test scores, but it is how the affirmations are interpreted by the child. In contrast, it was found that the use of directives by caregivers in both the tablet and traditional groups were significantly correlated with lower PLS-5 standard scores, implying that the use of directive speech can hinder child learning. This finding is supported by previous research that found a negative correlation between the frequent use of directive speech and child language outcomes (Nelson, 1973). This particular study was longitudinal in design and measured the acquisition of words by children between one and two years of age based on various interactions models, which, ultimately, demonstrated that directive speech rich in imperatives during play was detrimental to child language acquisition. Similarly, Prizant, Wetherby, and Roberts (1993) attribute the use of directives to poor language acquisition because of its association with less caregiver responsiveness towards the child. These findings may help explain why the use of affirmations by caregivers in tablet group resulted in higher PLS-5 post-test scores but that affirmations themselves did not result in higher test scores for children in both toy conditions: the tablet promoted positive interactions between the dyads in the tablet group by providing cues to the caregiver to provide an affirmation as reinforcement.
The social-interactive basis of early child language acquisition has been rooted in how responsive a caregiver is during joint attention play (Moore & Dunham, 1995). The capacity of a caregiver to be responsive during playtime interactions has been thought to promote self-efficacy, motivation, and security of attachment in the child (Skinner, 1986). The use of affirmations by a caregiver during play is a form of responsiveness that perhaps serves as a source of motivation for the child to continue focusing their attention to the task at hand. This appeared to be the case in the dyads of our current study where the use of affirmations by the caregiver served as a form of reinforcement that would encourage the child to continue playing VINCI, thus increasing opportunities for learning. A similar finding by Noll and Harding (2003) was inferred when they noted that when a mother affirms her child’s behaviour, it would encourage her child to repeat or extend the act. Within the context of the present study, the findings by Noll and Harding (2003) lend support that use of VINCI was able to contribute to child language acquisition by facilitating an environment that would promote affectionate interactions between the caregiver and the child that may establish learning motivations.
If there was a difference in caregiver speech affirmations that were attributed to the type of toy used during play, then it begs the question as to what feature of VINCI makes it unique in comparison to traditional toys (puzzles, dolls, blocks) to account for this difference. Similar to other tablet technology, VINCI provides automatic feedback that may function as a cue for the caregiver to provide an affirmation that is absent in traditional non-technological toys. It appears that this unique feature is what may facilitate caregiver speech in order to establish motivations in the child to continue the task, thus promoting social interactions and language acquisition in young children.
Although the findings of this study suggest that affirmations may be associated with better learning outcomes, this does not suggest causation. The present study demonstrated that caregiver speech varies when either a technological or traditional toy is incorporated during play. However, the use of affirmations during the two home visits for both groups was not significantly correlated with higher PLS-5 post-test scores. Confounding variables may account for this. For instance, it may be that caregivers in the tablet group provided more affirmations in-between the two home visits that were not accounted for in the data, which would explain why children in the tablet group scored higher on the PLS-5 post-test in comparison to children in the traditional group; that is, previous reinforcements may have encouraged learning-seeking behaviour by the child, thus increasing their opportunities for learning. Another confounder may be that children in the tablet group may have spent more time playing with VINCI independently since the toy was a new item, creating more opportunities for learning that would otherwise not be possible if a child was playing independently with a traditional toy such as blocks. Future studies in this area should focus on how technological toys are able to influence caregiver speech and consequent child language acquisition. Additionally, research studies should investigate how the immediate feedback feature of technological toys can influence learning, as this may have real-world applications for not only children, but the general population too.
A major limitation of this study included the absence of a secondary coder in order to establish a high inter-reliability rating of the coded speech variables. In order to mitigate this, each video was coded multiple times by a single-rater to ensure consistency in the coding of the speech variables. Nevertheless, evidence from this study supports that the type of toy being used during caregiver-child playtime interactions can influence the speech of the caregiver, which subsequently can influence learning outcomes of the child.
According to behaviour paradigms, learning is best facilitated through reinforcement of an association between a particular stimulus and a response (Naismith et al., 2004). Assuming that technological toys, like tablets, are able to present a problem (stimulus), followed by the learner attempting to find a solution (response), then the feedback feature must provide the reinforcement to encourage play and subsequent learning. Applying this concept to the education system may perhaps improve the way younger students learn when in the classroom. A study by Primavera, Wiederlight, and DiGiacomo (2001) examined how the use of technological toys (computers, tablets) influenced the learning process of children in preschools. In doing so, the researchers observed that the children had more control over their learning environment, as demonstrated by their ability to control the content, difficulty level, and pace of the skills they were attempting to master (Primavera et al., 2001). More importantly, the results suggest that technological toys have an “equalizing” effect because equal opportunities for learning are available to all the children. As such, children from lower SES backgrounds that would otherwise not be able to benefit from technological toys would be permitted to do so and not be at a disadvantage in comparison to their peers. Consequently, this would improve children’s school readiness skills in the future.
The implications of this study lend support to improving learning techniques. For instance, the affordance of immediate feedback of a technological toy may be key in keeping children interested in the present task by providing reinforcement of knowledge through the use of cue-assisted affirmations. Educational applications are possible when considering that technological toys’ affordances can promote language development for young children who are not exposed to a rich vocabulary at home. Thus, integration of technological toys and education may promote better learning outcomes and subsequent health outcomes for children, reducing the health disparities that are associated with poor academic achievement. Furthermore, the implications of this study contribute to the dearth of information regarding (1) what aspects of caregiver speech vary depending on the type of toy used during play, and (2) whether technological toys can promote learning during playtime, as it was demonstrated that such toys facilitate language development via technological affordances of positive reinforcement.
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Table 1. Coding scheme of caregiver speech variables
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Table 2. Statistical results of all coded speech variables
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Table 3. Regression analysis results of speech variables on PLS-5 post-test scores
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