By Donald Middleton, M.D., with Sharon Dickinson Dent
In the movie “Toy Story,” the toys peer anxiously out the window as guests arrive for a child’s birthday party. Fear grips the toys, who worry that the birthday boy will embrace his new toys and banish them to the closet.
Wouldn’t it be great if toys really worked for your child’s attention? It sure would save you a lot of grief if toys put some effort into keeping your child interested and safe. Obviously, they don’t. So it’s up to you to choose toys your child will cherish.
First, ask yourself: why am I buying this toy? Most likely, you hope it will entertain, stimulate, or even educate your child. It will do none of those things if it’s meant for children older or younger than yours. Just watch a child playing with an age-inappropriate toy: he will either lose interest quickly or become frustrated and cranky. That’s no fun! Age guidelines are designed to help parents choose toys that are developmentally appropriate and safe for their kids. Think twice before you hand your 1-year-old a toy marked for ages 3 and up. Even if your brilliant daughter can figure it out, the toy may have small pieces that are a choking hazard for her.
Infants need toys that produce sensory stimulation (sight, sound, and touch): colorful soft blocks, soft balls, toys with different shapes and textures, musical toys, rattles and bright crib mobiles.
Toddlers (1 to 2 years old) use toys to explore their world: cloth or plastic books with illustrations of familiar objects, nested blocks and cups, riding toys, push-and-pull toys and dolls.
Preschoolers (2 to 5 years old) like toys that help them imitate behaviors of parents and older children: books, tape players, large beads for stringing, housekeeping toys, simple board games, transportation toys (tricycles, wagons, cars, trucks), building blocks, art materials, outdoor toys, hammer-and-peg benches, drums and bells.
Kindergarten and First-grade children enjoy play requiring creativity and skill: arts and crafts, blocks, dolls, housekeeping toys, dress-up clothes, toy food and eating utensils, medical kits, outdoor toys, puzzles, simple card games, puppets, books and music tapes.
Older children (6 to 9 years old) enjoy toys that require greater hand dexterity: paper dolls, board games, electric trains, crafts, bicycles, workbenches with tools and materials, puppets and marionettes and books for reading alone.
Middle childhood (9 to 12 years old) is the time for hobbies and scientific activities: model cars, boats and planes; collections microscopes and telescopes; sewing, knitting and needlework; outdoor sports; and games such as checkers, chess and dominoes.
Better Safe Than Sorry
Toy-related injuries are common: in 1994, more than 133,000 children younger than 14 were treated in hospital emergency rooms for such injuries. Fortunately, fatalities are rare. Here are some safety tips.
Protect against choking. When you give something to a baby or toddler, you can bet it will end up in his mouth. For that reason, toys for children under 3 should be larger than 1 ¼” in diameter and longer than 2 ¼” long. Here’s a simple, though unscientific, test: If you can hide the toy or toy part inside a cardboard toilet paper roll, then it’s probably too small. Also, check that the eyes, nose, ribbons and buttons on dolls and stuffed animals are securely attached.
If a child doesn’t immediately put the toy in his mouth, he’ll probably stick it in another body opening. Many family physicians have dug BBs out of ear canals, small plastic parts out of noses – you name it. Toy manufacturers have come a long way toward solving this problem by producing larger toys for young children. If you have older children at home, however, your toddler will undoubtedly try to get his hands on their toys. As much as possible, try to keep these toys out of reach.
Avoid electrical shock. Purchase battery-operated, rather than plug-in, toys when possible. Electrical toys require adult supervision and shouldn’t be given to children younger than eight. Teach children to disconnect an electrical appliance by grasping the plug, not by pulling the cord.
Never buy toys made from flammable materials. In addition, toys and hobby items that reach high temperatures, such as wood-burning kits or toy ovens, are not recommended for children younger than 12.
Supervise the use of projectile-type toys. These toys can cause eye injury. Make sure the suction or foam rubber “dart” tips are securely attached, and teach your child never to aim the dart at another child’s face.
Consider noise levels when buying toys. Toys that produce loud noises can cause permanent hearing damage. Although noise levels are regulated in the workplace, there are no such regulations for toys. If it is so loud that it bothers your ears, leave it on the shelf. Even toys that aren’t that loud can cause damage. If you’re concerned about a toy’s safety, call the manufacturer. Most companies print a toll-free number on their products for parents to call with questions.
Conduct Toy Maintenance
Prevent cuts and scrapes by carefully checking toys for rough surfaces and sharp edges. Periodically inspect your child’s toys and either fix or discard any broken ones.
Toys can transmit bacteria and viruses from one child to another. If other children visit your home to play, you may want to wash toys about once a week in soapy water. Try to buy washable toys, vinyl-covered books, and stuffed animals that can go in the washing machine. Of course, frequent hand-washing is the best way to control germ swapping.
Not all toys have to come from the store. Kids love to bang plastic spoons, bowls and pots and pans. Encourage their creativity (but make sure they don’t bang each other on the head with the cast iron skillet).
Touchy Toy Topics
Toys aren’t all fun and games. Controversial issues abound. Parents frequently ask: what if my child only likes to play video games? Is it o.k. that my son likes to play with dolls? Will toy guns encourage violent behavior in my child? The answer to these questions have to do with your personal values. What follows are some general guidelines.
Video games. These games are very stimulating and foster good hand-eye coordination. However, they don’t encourage social interaction, and some contain graphic violence. Monitor the games your child plays, introduce educational games occasionally, and encourage him to participate in other activities, too. If he’s playing games on a computer, help him to be more than just a user: discuss how computers work and explore other uses of the computer.
Gender-stereotyped toys. Giving your son a Barbie™ or letting your daughter play with trucks won’t in any way affect his or her sexual orientation. It won’t make the boy a “sissy” or the girl a “tomboy.” It will only teach them skills they might not otherwise learn, such as a sense of responsibility or the need to be gentle with smaller children. When choosing toys, don’t worry about gender. Besides, almost all boys have dolls – they’re shaped like Godzilla or GI Joe.
Toy guns. Much has been written about whether owning a toy gun has anything to do with what happens later in life. When children play with a cap gun or water pistol, they engage in creative fantasies that they are spies or cowboys or aliens from outer space. In all likelihood that behavior doesn’t translate to reality.
What may be more important are other influences in children’s lives, such as seeing guns portrayed as cool or powerful on TV or seeing adults and teenagers in their home wielding weapons.
Of course, your personal beliefs about guns and violence will guide your decision. If you choose to let your children play with toy guns, however, talk to them about the danger of real guns. And keep real guns locked away and out of reach of children.
Release Your Inner Child
Regardless of what kinds of toys or how many you buy, the best advice is: Play!
Don’t jus plop your baby in a playpen with a pile of new toys. Sit with him or her and talk as you play together. The value of a parent’s attention is immeasurable.
Middleton is the director of St. Margaret Memorial Hospital Family Practice Residency in Pittsburgh, Pa.: Director of Pediatric Education at the hospital; clinical associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine; and clinical professor of family and community medicine at Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine. Dent is an associate editor for the American Academy of Family Physicians, headquartered in Kansas City, MO.