baby play time, naming baby toys

Why you should name your child’s toys

Every parent has done it: personalising or anthropomorphising children’s toys by giving them distinct names – a teddy bear called Matilda, a toy truck called Mr Beep.

However, any parent who has ever felt silly or trivial doing this need not worry; a new piece of research from Northwestern University in Illinois, USA, has found that this approach to naming toys and objects helps children’s linguistic and cognitive development. The study looked at 77 infants from Chicago aged between 11.5 and 12.5 months.

Quite simply, if toys are given unique names, children are better able to remember them compared to children who were shown the same toys but without any naming involved. It may seem like a small matter, but it is important to remember that what seems simple to an adult can be a huge and significant developmental milestone for a child and there are few tasks as important to human cognition as enshrining objects in memory and later being able to recall them; in many ways it is fundamental to learning.

So, if you give your child toys, it can be really useful to continually name them as you play with them as this will not only help them remember the object, it will also stimulate their linguistic and cognitive development.

Furthermore, it is not just useful for objects to be remembered in isolation; the researchers found there is further value to be found in naming and remembering an object or toy as a member of a category. For example, a favourite toy such as a soft blue monkey could be identified by the word “monkey”, by the words “blue monkey” or by its name.

The experiments looked at two phases – one called the “training phase” and the other called the “test phase”. During the training phase, the babies were shown four cuddly toys – a cat, a chick, a panda and a pig. Each toy was then either given an individual “distinct name” or a “consistent name” (i.e. it did not vary from animal to animal).

During the test phase the babies from both the distinct and consistent name groups were shown the training animal alongside another animal they had not previously been shown. This was done in silence, with the researchers recording how long each baby looked at the two animals.

“In infant research, we use infants’ looking time to the two test objects as an index of whether they recognise that one is familiar – that is, that they have seen it before,” one of the study’s authors, Professor Waxman, told a newspaper. “If they see one as familiar, they should look longer to the new one.”

This idea, known as the “novelty preference” is an established scientific principle when working with infants and this new piece of research gives weight to the idea that the naming of objects helps children to remember them and their distinct features.

The study was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.