If there’s a youngster in your life, you’ve likely encountered the seemingly endless shelves of bright colours and bold patterns in today’s toy stores — but do the toys really live up to their claims of “educational” and “stimulating”? While you might think the toys with a busy design lead to better interactions, recent research suggests the opposite is true. Children are exposed to more diverse and informative vocabulary when playing with their parents with toys with a simple visual design compared to toys with a busy visual design.

“Our results show that the visual design of toys affects how parents talk about the toy to their child, which can offer more opportunities for children to build their vocabulary,” said Daniela O’Neill, professor of developmental psychology and director of the Centre for Child Studies at Waterloo.

The idea for the study came from O’Neill’s personal experience. While visiting a friend, she wanted to engage the toddler-aged son in conversation about his toy, but the unusual colours and shapes of the parts of the toy left her at a loss for words. An expert on child language development, O’Neill knows how important play is for fostering language development.

Soon, O’Neill and collaborators Taylor J. Deglint, Ashley M. McKinnon, Angela Nyhout and Julianne Scott were adapting toys currently available on the market. Previous research on toy design focused on toys that make noise, but this is one of the first studies to consider the visual design.

Why simpler toy designs may be better

For the study, the team observed mothers playing with their toddlers using toys with busy designs and toys that were modified to have a simple visual design — think solid colours rather than multi-patterns. The toys had multiple parts, and the toy’s intended purpose was to use those parts to complete certain steps — such as stacking a set of rings or nesting blocks from largest to smallest. Being able to effectively communicate about the toy parts is important for accomplishing this goal. Researchers recorded and analyzed mothers’ references to the parts of the toy, and looked at how frequent and how specific those references were.

plush toy with lots of different patterns

Commercial version of the Nooboo Symphonic StackerTM (Manhattan Toy) and its stacking rings used as the busy stacking toy in this study.

Plush toy with solid colours

Modified Nooboo Symphonic StackerTM (Manhattan Toy) used as the simple stacking toy in this study. The tops of its stacking rings were changed to a solid colour to match their original solid bottom colour.


The results showed that most of the specific references (82 per cent) — and nearly two thirds of all references — to the toy’s parts happened during play with the simple toy.

In contrast, the busy toys’ parts proved more difficult to talk about. The mothers found the patterns on the parts difficult to name, and some even struggled to describe unfamiliar elements such as cartoon faces. Playing with these toys reduced children’s exposure to vocabulary such as words for colours.

“Mothers used more specific and descriptive language such as ‘the yellow ring’ when playing with a toy with a simpler visual design with their children,” said O’Neill. “When it was a toy with a busier visual design, all moms resorted to using more vague descriptions like ‘this one’ and ‘that one.’”

It’s not the first study to suggest that simpler can be better. O’Neill’s previous research looked at how wordless story picture books expose children to richer language than vocabulary picture books more likely to be marketed as having educational value.

What to look for at the toy store

Researchers note it’s important to consider toys’ visual design, especially where the goal is to help children build an information-rich vocabulary through play.

“If it’s a toy that parents and children play with together, you want to have features that make that interaction fun and easy-going,” said O’Neill. “It’s going to be harder to stack rings on a toy if it’s difficult to name them and harder for you both to know what each other means.

“When you’re choosing toys to play with together, look at the design and think about how easily you’re going to be able to chat about it while you play.”

The findings are useful for more than parents — they can have important implications for professionals who work with young children and their families to help develop children’s language abilities, such as speech-language pathologists.

The study “Busy toy designs reduce the specificity of mothers’ references to toy parts during play with their toddlers" appeared in the Canadian Journal of Speech-Language and Audiology (CJSLPA).