Parents who spend hundreds of pounds on toys, books and gadgets for toddlers may be wasting their money, according to a Government-backed study.

One-to-one interaction and outings to the shops or park have more impact on development than gifts, it is claimed.

Researchers from the Institute of Education in London studied the way parents treated their children and assessed its effect on the way youngsters grow up. In a report yesterday, academics said a home packed with toys, books and other interesting objects stimulated children when they were very young but the effects did not last.

Devices such as pre-school computers and electronic activity boards, which connect to a television and teach toddlers numbers, shapes, colours and language, are among the fastest selling gadgets for young children. But researchers found they were largely unnecessary and said children craved personal attention.

Dr Leslie Gutman, the report’s lead author, said: “Toys and books have their place and do help children develop but what is important is having the parents interact with the child. To have parents read to their children is much more important than having a hundred books – that’s great, but if you are not reading to your child, that is not engaging with the child.

The research forms part of a long-term study into the development of 12,500 children born between 1991 and 1992. Children’s behaviour and that of parents was examined when the child was aged six months, 18 months, 30 months and 42 months. Academics found that children whose mothers took them to the shops, park or on other outings had substantially better social skills and were better at activities such as using a pencil, knife and fork or tying shoe-laces.

The report also said that mothers who were themselves better educated and had more family income interacted more with their children.

Middle-class mothers took part in more of these outside activities and provided “more stimulation and teaching in the home environment”. The study recommended that the Government target resources on mothers without a good education, helping them to raise their children.

Dr Gutman said: “If you look at the figures for mother-child interaction, the difference according to education is really greatest at six months. Probably the higher educated mothers are the ones that are reading books to their children at six months, playing with their children at six months. The early experiences are very important.”

The findings reflect recent Government policies which have focused on improving parenting to crack down on out-of-control children.

Earlier this week, the Department for Education and Skills unveiled plans for a national “parenting academy” to lead research into the best ways to bring up children.

The Institute of Education study contradicts research by Judith Rich Harris, revealed in The Daily Telegraph yesterday, that parents who heap attention on children and spend time playing with them have no effect. It said that peer pressure has more impact on how children grow up.