Future Reflections         Fall 2008

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Sound-Producing Toys--
Too Much of a “Good” Thing?

by Jacki Harth, MS, LPP, BCBA

When my two oldest kids were young (in the early 80’s), there were plenty of toys and activities that produced sounds. Squeak toys squeaked when you squeezed them, a bell rang when you pushed a lever, a Jack-the-box tinkled out a tune when you turned the crank, rattles rattled, jingle bells jingled, and pots and pans rattled and clanged when hit with a wooden spoon. But as kids played, they themselves provided the sound effects for most of their toys: yelling out “vroom, vroom” while racing their little cars, making animal sounds when playing with their stuffed animals, huffing “chug-a-chug-a-choo-choo” when playing with train sets, singing songs to their dollies, and shouting “hooray” when they won a board game.

When our youngest son Tyler was diagnosed with congenital blindness, we increased the number of toys and activities with sound effects in our toy boxes; some we bought, some we modified. We attached bells of all kinds to elastic and then attached them to toys so he could easily find his favorites. We stuffed toys with crinkly plastic bags, and strung metal canning rings on a string to provide more sounds and activities. We also searched the stores for even more toys to provide auditory enjoyment. The technology of sound-producing toys seemed to be expanding at that time. We found a small cassette player, an electronic keyboard, and stuffed animals with sewn-in buttons that produced high pitched electronic music when you squeezed them. A combination of new toys, old favorites, modified toys, and a few inventions he made himself provided hours of enjoyment and learning.

Fast-forward twenty-some years with the arrival of our grandson. I have thoroughly enjoyed introducing him to these old favorite sound-producing toys (canning rings and pots and pans), and I love to watch him make his own joyful noises. However, I cannot believe how the most popular toys now have a virtual plethora of sound effects, commentaries, songs, or wise cracks to accompany almost every single toy.

Walking down the toy aisles in a store, we are hard pressed to find any toy that doesn’t make some kind of sound, statement, or song. Books don’t have to be read to children by adults anymore because the books read themselves! Stuffed animals sing tunes by a variety of classical composers (Is it that important that a nine-month-old knows that the song played is by Vivaldi?) Rattles sing long alphabet and counting songs, trains make annoying realistic engine sounds, and what was once my favorite Sesame Street character does everything from giggle, tells kids he loooooves them, to break-dance to hip hop music (sorry Elmo).

Oftentimes, it only takes a press of a button, a gentle touch, or even just a mere motion to activate this cacophony of sounds. These toys become activated when you try to put them away in the toy box, take them out of the toy box, when you walk by the toy box--even in the middle of the night, when you are nowhere near the toy box.

Most typically developing children learn and develop play skills despite this onslaught of extraneous noise, but I seriously wonder if this fanfare is necessary for children to engage in the most important job of their young lives--play.

For parents of kids with special needs, these high-tech toys can be both a help and a hindrance. While the sound effects and noises can motivate a child to press a button, move toward an object, or complete a task, a toy with additional noises and sounds can make the child vulnerable to activities that can quickly evolve into non-functional repetitive (stereotypic) actions.
A child who is blind may get much enjoyment out of a teapot set that sings “I’m a little teapot” when the pot is tilted a certain way, but may miss out on the intended use of the toy, which is to facilitate pretend play. Instead of setting out tea cups and pouring a pretend cup of tea for each of her dollies, that child may repeatedly tilt the teapot to play the song over and over. A toy ambulance that cries out with a wonky siren when dropped or thrown may be great fun, but it is intended to be a part of a pretend script. Like the tea pot, this toy can unintentionally stimulate and reinforce stereotypic behavior that is harmful to the child’s development; exactly the opposite of what you wanted the toy to do.

A child with autism may discover that different animal sounds are activated when he or she opens the fences on a toy barn. This toy is intended to promote pretend barnyard play--putting the animals inside the barn, taking them out to eat, etc. But does it? While this is a wonderful opportunity to learn animal sounds, the sounds are not made by the animal figure themselves, and opening and closing the fences may become a repetitive act that is hard to interrupt when an adult intervenes to show the child how to play appropriately with the toy. A stacking toy that provides a magical sound when the rings are placed on a spindle could also be sabotaged when the child discovers the little button to activate the sound. Once that happens, there may not be enough motivation to play with the toy appropriately, because it is easier just to activate the button.

Now I’m not suggesting a boycott of buying toys with sound effects, just some caution. If you have a child with special needs, look at his or her history with other toys. Does he or she often get stuck or hung up on repetitive activities that keep them from playing with toys appropriately? If so, then take the batteries out (or never put them in). Set up learning times to directly teach your child how to play with toys appropriately. The time spent preparing toys and teaching your child can add to his or her repertoire of play skills. Appropriate play skills not only facilitate physical and cognitive development but will also increase your child’s sociability.

So, set up a tea party with a silent teapot, “zoom” and “vroom” toy trucks and cars, shout “hooray” when you win a game, and show your child that making your own sound effects can be fun too.

Author’s Note: Almost twenty years ago, I was soaking up information on how to teach my congenitally blind son Tyler and came across great articles in the NFB newsletter. Wanting to make a contribution myself, I wrote an article about the benefits of encouraging our blind kids to play with pots and pans. As I said, that was two decades ago. I had forgotten about the article until my daughter Googled me while doing research for a college paper and discovered several Web sites containing reprints of this article. Flattered by the fact that she could Google me and come up with anything, I started to think that there may be a need for more articles that contained some good, old-fashioned ideas that parents could easily apply. Sadly, our Tyler passed away a few years after I wrote the pots and pans article, but my interest in teaching children with disabilities led me to go back to school and obtain my undergraduate and graduate degrees in applied behavior analysis (ABA). Currently, I am the clinical director for a home-based ABA program in Minnesota and I thoroughly enjoy providing quality services for children and their families. With my background as a mother of typical kids, a special needs child, and a grandma of two little ones, I’m thinking that my opinions, ideas, and suggestions could be of benefit to others--or at least food for thought. I hope you think so too.

Jacki Harth, MS, LPP, BCBA
Clinical Director
Behavioral Dimensions, Inc.
Phone: (651) 271-8084
E-mail: jharth@behavioraldimensions.com

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