The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) closely monitors and regulates toys. Any toys made in -- or imported into -- the United States after 1995 must comply with CPSC standards.
Here are some general guidelines to keep in mind when shopping for toys:
- Toys made of fabric should be labeled as flame resistant or flame retardant.
- Stuffed toys should be washable.
- Painted toys should be covered with lead-free paint.
- Art materials should say nontoxic.
- Crayons and paints should say ASTM D-4236 on the package, which means that they've been evaluated by the American Society for Testing and Materials.
Steer clear of older toys, even hand-me-downs from friends and family. Those toys might have sentimental value and are certainly cost-effective, but they may not meet current safety standards and may be so worn from play that they can break and become hazardous.
And make sure a toy isn't too loud for your child. The noise of some rattles, squeak toys, and musical or electronic toys can be as loud as a car horn — even louder if a child holds it directly to the ears — and can contribute to hearing damage.
The Right Toys at the Right Ages
Always read labels to make sure a toy is appropriate for a child's age. Guidelines published by the CPSC and other groups can help you make those buying decisions. Still, use your own best judgment — and consider your child's temperament, habits, and behavior whenever you buy a new toy.
You may think that a child who's advanced in comparison to peers can handle toys meant for older kids. But the age levels for toys are determined by safety factors, not intelligence or maturity.
Here are some age-specific guidelines for Preschoolers to keep in mind:
- Bicycles, scooters, skateboards, rollerblades and inline skates should never be used without helmets that meet current safety standards and other recommended safety gear, like hand, wrist and shin guards. Look for CPSC or Snell certification on the labels.
- Nets should be well constructed and firmly attached to the rim so that they don't become strangulation hazards.
- Toy darts or arrows should have soft tips or suction cups at the end, not hard points.
- Toy guns should be brightly colored so they cannot be mistaken for real weapons, and kids should be taught to never point darts, arrows, or guns at anyone.
- BB guns or pellet rifles should not be given to kids under the age of 16.
- Electric toys should be labeled UL, meaning they meet safety standards set by Underwriters Laboratories.
Big Kids: How They Play
Elementary school-age kids are accomplished in ways they never were before. They've grasped an understanding of the world around them and are now moving toward mastering skills that once challenged them, like catching a football or braiding a friend's hair.
This also is the time where talents and interests take hold — a 4-year-old who enjoyed story time may grow to love reading; a 5-year-old who listened to music might want to play piano.
Physical abilities, like large and fine motor skills, are being refined. Children learn to ride two-wheel bicycles and glide on skateboards. Arts and crafts become more intricate, and a child might spend hours weaving friendship bracelets or drawing comic strips.
Peer relationships take on more importance, and your child might be more interested in playing with classmates than with you. But remember that even as your child matures, you are still the most important playmate — so try to carve out some one-on-one time. Family game nights are one way to get everyone together.
And now's the time to try new adventures, such off-road biking, that kids couldn't do when they were younger and need your supervision to do safely now.
Smart Toys for Big Kids
Jump rope. By skipping rope with friends, kids learn to take turns and get along with peers. All that jumping, and the coordination it requires, encourages large motor development and problem-solving skills.
Card and board games. Card games like "war" or "crazy eights" and board games like checkers or chess teach about strategy, turn-taking, negotiating rules, and fair play. Encourage cooperation and help your child learn to manage the emotions that come with winning as well as losing.
Musical instruments. Learning to play the piano, violin, guitar, or another instrument encourages listening and fine motor skills and helps build attention skills
Science toys. Chemistry sets, binoculars, telescopes, or other toys that promote discovery and problemsolving help improve math and science skills, and help develop imagination.
The Perfect “Toy”: You
A baby staring at a mobile; a toddler stacking blocks; a pre-schooler painting with watercolors — all are activities that can be done independently.
But don't underestimate your role. After all, it's you who put up the mobile, turned it on, and encouraged your baby to follow. It's you who first showed your baby how to stack those blocks. And when you sit sideby-side with your kids and paint, color, or read a story, you give them the attention they need to build their self-esteem and feel loved and secure.
Toys are a tool to help kids develop, but it's parents who nurture that growth.