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Play it Safe: Choose the Right Toy for Your Child
By Karen DeBord, Ph.D.

Toys are an important part of a child's world. Children can turn anything - cardboard boxes, pots and pans, magazines, fuzzy dandelions, and plain old dirt into creative playthings.

Children need toys to help them develop physically and mentally. And by carefully selecting the toys you buy, you can give children safe, fun "tools" to help them do their work of growing up.

What makes a "good" toy?

A good starting point for choosing a toy, is the child's age. Although all children develop at a different rate, there are some age-related guidelines that you can follow.

Also, consider the durability of the toy, the amount of time you think it will hold children's interest, the level of creativity or challenge, and whether children can find new uses for it as they develop new skills. Examples of multiple-use toys that grow with a child are blocks, puzzles and puppets.

Good toys for children are attractive, well- constructed, durable and safe. They are matched to children's abilities, good for children of different ages, and useful in various ways.

Too many toys at one time can overwhelm children and make it hard for them to choose something interesting.

Toys affect what children think and learn about themselves and their world. Carefully selected toys allow children to feel successful and powerful, while encouraging them to use their imagination.

When selecting toys and books that represent human images, ensure that children can relate to the image, but also include different skin colors, gender and abilities.

Messages in books and stories also should be read before purchase. How are problems solved and by whom? Are stereotypes absent? Are images of different types of people in the story? Is there violence?

Toy safety

Be cautious when you choose toys. Toys that are safe for very young children are well-made with no sharp parts, splinters or parts that will pinch.

They should be strong enough to hold a child's weight and painted with nontoxic, lead-free paint.

Non-electric, shatter-proof and easily cleaned toys are good selections for young children.

Make sure the toy fits the hand but will not fit into the mouth.

There are federal safety regulations for toys. The United States Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) has information about toys that are most often involved in child injury.

The government requires that electrical toys have no shock or heat hazards, very little lead in toy paints, and no toxic materials in toys for children of all ages.

For children younger than 3, the government requires toys to be unbreakable (able to withstand uses and abuses), with no small parts or pieces that could be caught in the throat.

Infant rattles must be large enough not to be caught in the throat and made so as not to separate into small pieces. For children younger than 8, the government does not allow electrically operated toys with heating elements and sharp edges or points on toys.

The CPSC can remove toys from the marketplace even for hazards not covered by the regulations. In addition, the Toy Manufacturer's Association has set up voluntary safety standards that most toy companies follow.

These include:

Age and safety labels on toys;
Warning labels on crib gyms advising that they be removed from the crib when babies can get up on hands and knees (to prevent strangling);
Recommendations that squeeze toys and teethers be made large enough so as not to become lodged in an infant's throat;
Safety hinges on toy chest lids so that the lid will stay open in any raised position and not fall on a child:
Recommendations that strings on crib and playpen toys be no longer than 12 inches so that the cords cannot become wrapped around children's necks.
Many toys have suggested age levels on their packages. These age levels take into account a child's age, physical size, skill level and safety concerns.

Keep in mind, however, that these are only guidelines. By knowing your child, you can match toys to his or her skills and also provide challenges as the child develops.

To select a suitable toy for children, parents can look for and read age and safety labels on toys, explain and/or show children how to use toys properly and safely, and keep toys for older children away from young children who can be injured.

Check all toys periodically for breakage and possible hazards - throw away or repair damaged or dangerous toys immediately. Clean toys regularly to cut down on germs.

Store toys safely. Teach children to put toys away so that the toys do not become tripping hazards, and check toy boxes and shelves for safety.

In selecting toys, keep in mind the safety of the toy and whether it is geared to the child's age and skill level. Teaching children how to play with toys safely is important.

For further information on safe toys, write to the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission in Washington, D.C. 20207, or call the toll-free hotline: 1-800-638-CPSC (2772), or on the www at: http://www.cpsc.gov

Pointers for choosing toys

Birth to 6 months

Infants and young toddlers learn about the world through their senses. They are interested in the sight, sound, smell, texture and taste of things. Infants bat at, grasp, bang and drop their toys. Infants use their hands and eyes to play. A good choice is something that is bright and safe to hold that also can be hooked to the crib so it won't fall. Mobiles and "crib games" that attach safely to the sides of cribs and that are large enough to grip without swallowing fit the category, as do soft toys and fabric books.

6 to 12 months

Older babies begin to move and crawl and are interested in toys that let them try out their new, large-muscle skills. These babies enjoy jumping the sling seats and grasping for brightly colored objects.

"Childproofing" is a must for children this age. Remove as many dangers as you can, such as sharp or breakable objects and poisons, so that children can explore freely without fear of being scolded. Children who are always being scolded may begin to feel insecure and unsafe; they will soon pull back rather than freely explore, and you will be exhausted from constant worry. Children this age taste, chew or suck on many toys. It is part of learning, exploring and teething! Wash toys often.

Playpens or play yards are too confining during this stage, although they may sometimes be necessary for safety reasons.

Infants of this age enjoy stacking and nesting toys. Brightly colored rings and blocks, measuring cups, and pots and pans fit this stacking and sorting need.

Generally safe toys

Unbreakable, large-end rattles
Squeak toys with molded-in noise makers
Washable dolls and stuffed animals with bright, embroided features
Brightly colored objects hanging in view (mobiles, for instance), but out of reach, with cords less than 12 inches long
Brightly colored cloth or rubber balls with textured surfaces to grasp
Unbreakable cups and smooth objects that can be chewed
Potentially dangerous toys

Rattles with ends smaller that 1-3/8 inches in diameter
Toys with easily removable parts that are small enough to swallow or that are sharp
Toys made with lead paint, or with cords more than 12 inches long
Stuffed animals with glass or button eyes
Ages 1 and 2

Give a toddler an expensive toy and chances are more interest will be shown in the packaging and box. Toddlers enjoy crawling inside big boxes. At the other end of the size scale, smaller objects (but not smaller than 1-3/8 inches) are often favorites, because the child can now pick things up with thumb and forefinger.

Toddlers like balls, dolls, plastic figures and toys with wheels. Push toys (toy carts, mowers, strollers) are more entertaining than pull toys, because the child can see the object while it moves and practices walking while pushing.

Near the end of the second year, a child can usually handle a big crayon or pencil and may enjoy "drawing." Praise your toddler's efforts and encourage him/her to create more "masterpieces" (as long as they're not on the walls).

Toddlers also enjoy shape sorters, wind-up radios and large climbing toys.

Generally safe toys

Blocks with rounded corners
Push-pull toys
Books with cloth or stiff, pasteboard pages
Non-glass mirrors
Take-apart toys with large pieces
Shape sorters
Potentially dangerous toys

Same as for "Birth to 12 months" category, plus toys for older children that are within the toddler's reach
Toys with strings more that 12 inches long
Ages 2 and 3

Preschool children like learning with their hands. At 2 and 3 years of age, a child's eye-hand coordination is better, and he or she will like building towns and towers with blocks. Puzzles, large beads, pegboard and lotto games help develop skills that help later in reading and writing. Children this age also enjoy drawing or painting on a variety of surfaces such as textured papers, sidewalks or fabric.

Preschoolers are learning to mimic adult behavior. They play house, teacher and firefighter for hours. Provide girls and boys with plenty of dressup clothes, hats, bags and shoes - and a tall mirror so they can watch themselves act the parts of both real and imaginary people.

Books are always a safe bet for children from an early age. Children who are read to become better readers. Younger children need books that have simple stories with repetition and clear, whole, realistic pictures. Choose books that both you and your children will enjoy. As you read, stop and talk with your children about the ideas in the books; relate these ideas to their real-life experiences.

Kiddie cars, tricycles and other riding toys are favorites (there should always be adult supervision). Small cars and trucks are popular toys. Building toys are interesting, especially those with many uses like large wooden blocks (sanded wooden scraps are just as satisfactory), large-piece puzzles and interlocking blocks.

Soft stuffed animals, dolls, kitchen sets and tapes of children's music are also good items.

Preschool children are developing some large motor skills and need space to use large balls to roll and throw; wagons to pull; ramps, ladders and steps to climb up; large bats and rackets to swing; and tricycles to ride.

Generally safe toys

Peg boards with large pieces
Wooden animals
Large crayons
Low rocking horse
Dustless chalk and chalkboard
Simple musical instruments
Simple jigsaw puzzles with large pieces
Blocks with numbers and letters
Toys that aid color, size and shape identification
Sturdy cars and riding toys
Potentially dangerous toys

Toys made with sharp edges or easily breakable material
Toys with small removable parts or poisonous paints
Marbles, beads and coins
Electrical toys
Slightly technical for "lay-persons"
Metal toys with unfinished slots, holes or edges that can cut
Tricycles with seats more than 12 inches high
Riding toys used in hilly areas or inclined driveways
Toys with batteries must be closely supervised.
Ages 4 to 5

Small-muscles develop rapidly during this period. Children this age can manage toys like beads (to be strung on a string), and they can use scissors more skillfully.

Nonviolent action figures encourage creativity without encouraging violent play. Small bicycles with training wheels and lower seats encourage large motor development.

Generally safe toys

Those mentioned in 2-3 year category
Toy telephones
Unbreakable kitchen utensil sets
Dolls with wrap-around clothing
Construction sets with large pieces that connect easily
Rugged, key-wound or friction-operated toys
Blunt scissors
Lacing cards
Simple card and board games
Non-electrical trains
Toys with small parts that you have carefully examined for safety
Tricycles with low-slung seats, used off roadways
Pail and shovel
Building blocks
More advanced construction sets
Cut-out paper dolls, hand and finger puppets
Modeling clay
Paints and paint books
Non-electrical trains, battery-operated toys
Stencils, activity books, books with words and colorful pictures
Simple musical instruments
Play tents
Tape recorder & Small sports equipment
Bicycle with 20-inch wheels and training wheels for 4- to 7-year-olds. (Note: children should wear bike helmets.)
Potentially dangerous toys

Shooting toys that endanger eyes
Lawn darts
Riding toys in hilly areas or inclined driveways
Tricycles ridden without supervision
Broken toys
Poisonous or oil-based paint sets
Flammable or oversized costumes
Fireworks of any kind
Kites made of aluminized polyester film - this material conducts electricity
Electrical toys (unless battery operated)
Shooting toys and darts with pointed tips
Poorly balanced tricycles or wagons
Poorly maintained bicycle, or a bicycle ridden without supervision
Bicycle used on roadways
Bicycle that is too large for child
Bicycle used without a helmet
Ages 5 to 7

Large-muscle skills are improving, as is a readiness to start group activities and be with friends of the same age. By ages 5 to 7, a child can often manage a bicycle with training wheels, small balls (baseball or tennis ball sized) and large ones. Games, puzzles, books, musical toys and art supplies are popular.

Generally safe toys

Battery-powered electrical toys with Underwriters Laboratory (UL) approval
Puppets and puppet theater
Jigsaw puzzles (50 to 100 pieces)
Games requiring some reading
Well-constructed, lightweight tool sets
Dolls and doll equipment
Sets demonstrating simple principles of science (magnets and magnifiers, etc.)
Equipment for playing bank, store, filling station, etc.
Hobby starter sets (aquarium, rock collection)
Bicycle with 24-inch wheels for 7 to 10 year olds (Note: Children should wear bike helmets)
Potentially dangerous toys

Kites made of aluminized polyester film (this material conducts electricity)
Poorly made sports equipment
Shooting toys and toys with loud noises (cap guns, etc.)
Fireworks of any kind
Electrical toys run on household current
Lawn darts
Broken toys
Bikes or skateboards without helmets
Ages 8 to adolescence

School-age children enjoy shared activities and group play. They are beginning to understand rules, so playing games becomes more meaningful. Through board games, they learn math concepts and problem-solving skills. For the older child, playtime is a time to relax and just have fun away from school. Select toys and games that are challenging but are also just for fun. Children this age need a variety of toys, from dolls, trains, arts and crafts to board games and science toys.

Children this age have interests in arts, crafts, building and science. School-age children also love activities that lead to "real products," such as making jewelry, stenciled or painted T-shirts or book bags made with their own creative efforts.

Dramatic props can be bought or found at second-hand markets and used for real performances. One striking trait of school-age children is their increased physical coordination and their interest in developing athletic skills. They need bikes, balls, bats, rackets and jump ropes that they can use in "real" games.

Make-believe is fun. Puppet costumes and silly stories are entertaining. By age 8, science and magic will challenge thinking. Hula hoops and skates will challenge large motor skills.

Generally safe toys

Electrical toys with UL approval used on household current only after you have explained to your child how he/she should use the toy and how to use electrical plugs and outlets
Bicycle with 26-inch wheels for kids older than 10 (Note: All children should wear bike helmets)
Other sidewalk vehicles, skates, skateboards, etc. (Note: Children should wear appropriate helmets, knee and elbow guards)
Well-constructed sports equipment
Models (car, airplane, etc.) that children can put together
Chemistry and other science kits
Hobby and arts-and-crafts kits and materials, and board games
Some projectile toys (for example, suction-cup-type dart guns)
Potentially dangerous toys

Lawn darts
Fireworks of any kind
Sharp-edged tools
Poorly constructed sports equipment
B-B guns/air rifles, without gun safety instruction

Karen DeBord, Ph.D.is a Child Development Specialist at the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service. Reprinted with permission.

The information presented on this site is intended solely as a general educational aid, and is neither medical nor healthcare advice for any individual problem, nor a substitute for medical or other professional advice and services from a qualified healthcare provider familiar with your unique circumstances. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare professional regarding any medical condition and before starting any new treatment.

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