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:
- Toys should be large enough — at least 1¼ inches (3 centimeters) in diameter and 2¼ inches (6 centimeters) in length — so that they can't be swallowed or lodged in the windpipe. A small-parts tester, or choke tube, can determine if a toy is too small. These tubes are designed to be about the same diameter as a child's windpipe. If an object fits inside the tube, then it's too small for a young child. If you can't find a choke tube, a toilet paper roll can be used for the same purpose.
- Avoid marbles, coins, balls, and games with balls that are 1.75 inches (4.4 centimeters) in diameter or less because they can become lodged in the throat above the windpipe and restrict breathing.
- Battery-operated toys should have battery cases that secure with screws so that kids cannot pry them open. Batteries and battery fluid pose serious risks, including choking, internal bleeding, and chemical burns.
- When checking a toy for a baby or toddler, make sure it's unbreakable and strong enough to withstand chewing. Also, make sure it doesn't have:
- Sharp ends or small parts like eyes, wheels, or buttons that can be pulled loose
- Small ends that can extend into the back of the mouth
- Strings longer than 7 inches (18 centimeters)
- Parts that could become pinch points for small fingers
- Most riding toys can be used once a child is able to sit up well while unsupported - but check with the manufacturer's recommendation. Riding toys like rocking horses and wagons should come with safety harnesses or straps and be stable and secure enough to prevent tipping.
- Stuffed animals and other toys that are sold or given away at carnivals, fairs, and in vending machines are not required to meet safety standards. Check carnival toys carefully for loose parts and sharp edges before giving them to your infant.
Preschoolers: How They Play
Babies explore objects with the five senses. Toddlers start figuring out how they work. Now, as preschoolers, they will use toys and other objects for their intended purpose, yet also will imagine a world of other possibilities for them: A blanket thrown over a coffee table becomes a secret clubhouse. Modeling clay can be used to make pizza pies that you're asked to "taste."
For a preschooler, the world becomes a magical place without limitations — and preschoolers are the masters and creators of it all. It's not uncommon for kids this age to think they have magical powers and can battle "monsters" and win, or turn into a princess, fairy, or other whimsical creature.
Often, your preschooler will pull you into a fantasy and expect you to play along. It's also during this time that imaginary friends may "appear." This type of fantasy play is crucial to kids' development because it helps them work on their fears, anxieties, hopes, and dreams.
The world is also a stage, so expect to hear lots of "mommy, daddy, watch!" as your preschooler learns one new trick after another and seeks your approval and support for new accomplishments. The desire to connect with others extends to friends as preschoolers begin to learn the give-and-take of cooperative play and sharing.
Pretend play becomes more elaborate. Girls might imagine being princesses; boys might orchestrate crashes on their toy train tracks. And their knowledge of the world is more advanced, so don't be surprised if your preschooler knows exactly how to work the DVD player or make electrical toys (like a radio-controlled car or a video game) work. Play itself becomes more physical. Why just walk when you can hop, jump, or skip?
Smart Toys for Preschoolers
Arts and crafts. As fine motor skills improve, activities like holding a crayon, drawing pictures of family members, and using a pair of safety scissors to cut and paste strengthen coordination, encourage creativity, and foster selfesteem.
Blocks and construction sets. Building a tower (and figuring out how to stop it from toppling over) encourages problem-solving skills and hand-eye coordination. Preschoolers will use their imaginations to create buildings, vehicles, animals, and more from simple construction sets.
Puzzles. Jigsaw puzzles help with coordination and dexterity, and teach about spatial relationships (where things are in relation to other things) and logical thinking
Pretend play. Girls may play with dollhouses and boys dress as firefighters as they begin to identify with genderspecific roles. Boys might be fascinated with trying to "fix" things they pretend are broken, whereas girls might mimic mom by pretending to cook dinner.
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 side-by-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.