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 toddlers 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.
Toddlers: How They Play
If you think of your infant as a little scientist, using five senses to gain understanding of the world around her, your toddler is an engineer trying to figure out how to take these objects and make them work. It's not just an increasingly curious brain that makes this happen; it's also improved fine motor skills and stronger muscles.
Toddlers are becoming aware of the function of objects, so they're more likely to stack blocks, babble into a toy phone, or drink from a "big kid" cup. In addition, the concept of pretend play starts to emerge. Your little one might tuck a baby doll into bed at night or make "choo choo" noises while pushing a toy train.
This kind of pretend play lays the groundwork for preschool play, when using the oven timer in a play kitchen or ringing the bell in a pretend fire truck signifies your child's growing understanding that each item serves a purpose.
During this time, your tot also will begin to differentiate colors and shapes — so choose toys that are bright, colorful, and fun for little hands to hold. By age 2, most toddlers can kick a ball, scribble with a crayon, and build towers four or more blocks tall. By age 3, they can do simple puzzles and pedal a tricycle.
Expect to see a lot of repetition, as that's how little ones master new skills and learn they have some control over the world around them.
Smart Toys for Toddlers
- Balls. Whether they're bounced, rolled, caught, or thrown, balls encourage gross motor skills, hand-eye coordination, and dexterity.
- Shape-sorting toys. Pegboard puzzles, nesting cups or blocks, and buckets with holes for different shaped blocks challenge hand-eye coordination and problem-solving skills.
- Mechanical toys. Pop-up toys and "busy" boxes with knobs, buttons, and levers encourage fine motor skills and problem solving, and teach cause-and-effect.
- Role-play toys. Play kitchens, doctor's kits, and golf sets help children learn how the world works by imitating the actions of you and other influential adults. Dolls and stuffed animals encourage pretend play (a tea party for teddy bears, perhaps?) and aid social and emotional development by teaching tots how to express emotions and take care of something they love.
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.