You're racing around from store to store, desperate for the last few gifts you need. You spy something in your price range and grab it. Recommended age: 4 to 6. But that's fine for your 3-year-old nephew, right? He's pretty advanced anyway. Are you playing a dangerous game?
Believe it or not, manufacturer suggested age ranges on toys have a real purpose. They're designed to keep your kids safe and also to help you find gifts that match your children's skills and
abilities. After all, it's no fun to get a gift that's more work than pleasure, right?
A well-chosen gift provides the recipient with an opportunity to grow, learn, and have fun -- safely. On the flip side, choose a gift that's too advanced or designed for an older child, and you
could well risk your child's health -- or his self esteem.
Keep small children safe
Until they're about five years old, kids run a serious risk of choking to death on small pieces. Sure, your four-year-old no longer sticks everything in his mouth, but maybe he'll use his teeth to
pry two Lego blocks apart. No one plans for accidents, which is why you need to ensure that choking hazards aren't a part of your playroom.
Remember, too, that even age-appropriate toys can come wrapped and packaged in little death traps. If it's possible, consider opening toys completely and wrap them without all their extraneous
packaging. You can also take care of batteries and give gifts that are ready to play, as long as you're sure you won't be returning anything.
Something else to consider: you may be surprised to discover what defines a choking hazard. Grab a toilet paper roll and see what you fit inside it. A toy that fits inside the tube cleanly could
choke your child.
It's also important to take a close look at riding toys. Most injuries occur when kids fall off these toys, so make sure your child always wears a helmet. In addition, if you buy riding toys for
older kids, establish firm rules to keep smaller ones safe.
Consider age and ability
Just as important as your child's physical safety is his emotional well-being. So take a few minutes to consider whether a toy or game will challenge your child and keep him engaged -- or simply
frustrate him and make him feel inadequate. And of course, if you have a child with any kind of developmental delay or other disability, be sure to choose toys for your child's developmental age,
rather than his chronological age.
Beware the bargains
Hand-me-downs and thrift stores can mean big savings -- but also big trouble. Any used toys that don't have the original warnings should be carefully inspected. You'll have to use your best judgment,
but be sure to look for worn or sharp edges, removable or loose pieces, and peeling paint. Magnetic toys? Toss 'em. Really. It's just not worth the constant vigilance and worry.
What to buy
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has some guidelines for parents. Take a look at their recommendations and warnings.
Zero to one year-olds
explore with their eyes, hands and mouth. Good toys for this age include:
- Crib gyms
- Floor activity centers
- Activity quilts
- Squeaky toys
- Soft dolls or stuffed animals
One to three year-olds climb, jump, walk, throw and play rough and tumble games. Good choices for these kids are:
- Soft blocks
- Large blocks
- Push and pull toys
- Pounding and shaping toys
Three to five year-olds like to use their imagination and enjoy toys that are close companions, such as
- Nontoxic art supplies
- Pretend toys (e.g. play money, telephone)
- Teddy bears or dolls
- Outdoor toys (e.g. tricycle and a helmet)
Five to nine year-olds like to be challenged with complex games that teach specific skills and concepts. Consider giving:
- Arts and craft kits
- Jump ropes
- Action figures
- Miniature dolls
Nine to 14 year-olds develop lifelong skills, hobbies and enjoy team and individual sports. Good gift ideas are:
- Handheld electronic games
- Board games
- Sports equipment with protective gear
- Model kits
- Musical instruments
No matter what gift you give, be sure to check the age guidelines and use common sense.