Toy Selection
By Linda G. Miller, Ed.D.

Choosing appropriate toys for children is an important responsibility for the early childhood professional. Despite the great number of toys available to children in their homes, as well as in child care settings, many toys are inappropriate or even dangerous for young children. The need for open-ended opportunities is great since toys provided to young children support play, an essential element in child development.

Adults who recall their play memories often tell of long periods of free play, open-ended materials, and play uncontrolled by constant adult intervention. Clearly, most children today do not have these opportunities. Similarly, when adults are asked to recall childhood toys, they often tell of toys that supported open-ended play, that kept their attention for long periods, and that lasted for years, often surviving into adulthood. Examples include traditional dolls, small metal vehicles, and wooden building blocks.

Mass marketing often controls what is available in the market, and the influence of movies and television is immense. Increasingly, movies and network programming come with toys attached. Often a three-year cycle is prevalent with intense marketing the first year, reduced marketing the second year, and practically nonexistent marketing the third year, depending on previous demand. Violence and competition are common themes, with a strong affect on the quality of play the child experiences.

Consumerism is also evident in toy quality. Toys have a planned obsolescence; they are consumed, used up, so other toys can take their place. The disposable-toy mentality is also present in many giveaway toys available with fast foods. Like similar retail toys, these toys are short-lived and simply thrown away when broken.

A major concern for all early childhood professionals has to be the developmental appropriateness of the toys. What type of toy is appropriate for the child’s age and stage of development? The recommended ages on toy packages may have very little to do with the age or developmental level at which the toys are appropriate. The buyer must beware and determine appropriateness on his or her own.

Another major concern is safety. What adult hasn’t been tempted to choose a toy for an advanced two-year-old by looking in the toy section for much older children? The adult may not have realize that small parts that are a choking hazard for the two-year-old may have determined the age recommendation instead of the cognitive development level. Even the size of the pieces if the toy breaks must be considered. Depend on reputable toy manufacturers and distributors with great customer service.

Finally, playability can determine if the toy purchase is worthwhile. When a child can approach a toy at a number of different levels and with open-ended results, that child is able to experience a feeling of success; self-esteem is enhanced; and the time the child engages in play increase. Playability is clearly a much better determiner of appropriateness than the name of the movie shown on the package.

Toy selection for young children is a complex issue for everyone involved in the care and education of young children.

The following guidelines are presented to help make the process a little easier. [Note: This list of guidelines was first published by the author in Chapter 15: Choosing Appropriate Toys for Young Children in A Right to Play (1993).]

1. The toy is developmentally appropriate.

  • Challenging but not frustrating
  • Appropriate level of complexity

 2. The toy can be approached from a variety of levels.

  • Variety of developmental stages addressed
  • Lack of “functional fixedness”

3. Toy is safe for intended age group.

  • Passes choke test (for infants through three-year-olds)
  • No sharp edges
  • No danger of suffocation
  • Eye danger considered

4. Toy is durable and intended for extended use.

  • Will not soon break or become useless
  • Has play value for more than a few weeks or months

5. Toy is appealing to children.

  • Color, shape, style best for age

6. Toy is appropriate for intended use at home or child care center.

  • Size appropriate for available space
  • Can work for needed number of children
  • Durable enough for expected use

7. Toy is appropriate for both indoor and outdoor use (added bonus).

  • Flexibility offers increased play value
  • Waterproof or easy to clean

8. Play opportunities are open-ended.

  • Stimulates divergent thinking
  • More than one right answer or method of use

9. Toy is multicultural.

  • Will contribute to a variety of ethnic groups represented by classroom toys
  • Is free of stereotypes (e.g., teepee for Native Americans)

10. Toy is free of sex stereotypes.

  • Usable by both boys and girls
  • Colors don’t dictate use by single sex
  • Does not dictate a certain role

11. Toy is nonviolent in nature.

  • Weapons not included
  • Aggression not encouraged
  • Character does not represent violence

12. Toy is a result of responsible use of resources.

  • Not disposable
  • Toy and packing are recycled or recyclable

13. Price of toy reflects its value.

  • Resulting play and durability are worth the investment

14. Addition of toy will add variety to existing play setting.

  • All developmental areas (physical, cognitive, emotional, and social) are supported by group of toys present

15. Similar play and value cannot be achieved by teacher-parent-made toy.

  • Choice is responsible since other possibilities have been considered

Linda G. Miller, Ed.D., has 25 years education experience including classroom teacher, supervisor, and curriculum writer.

Abrams, S. (1990). Toys for early childhood development. Atlanta, GA: The Center for Applied Research in Education.

American Society for Testing and Materials. (1998). Standard consumer safety specification on toy safety. Chicago: Author.

Boehm, H. (1986). The right toys. New York: Bantam Books.

Miller, L. (1993). Chapter 15: Choosing Appropriate Toys for Young Children. In Guddemi, M. & Jambor, T. (Eds.), A right to play. Little Rock, AR: Southern Early Childhood Association.

Piaget, J. (1962). Play, dreams, and imitation in childhood. New York: W.W. Norton and Co.

Vygotsky, L. (1962). Thought and language. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.