Venturing to the toy store can be a very overwhelming experience for parents and children alike. There are pink aisles, talking aisles, and musical aisles all packed floor to ceiling with colorful items and displays to entice and confuse you. To help you select and evaluate toys and educational materials we have developed a question and answer section to cover the most frequently asked questions.
Question: I want my child to have toys that are educational. Are there such things?
Answer: Providing the appropriate types of toys and educational materials encourages and enhances hands-on learning opportunities throughout all areas of development. The latest brain research confirms that children learn best by “doing;” by having the opportunity to explore and manipulate an item fully. There are many toys that meet these criteria and provide meaningful learning opportunities. The following describes the unique learning that takes place when children play.
Social-Emotional and Creative Development
Proper materials engage children in a wide range of play, alone and with others. Children gain confidence as they make their own plans and choose materials that are of particular interest to them. An environment that encourages children to make their own choices helps them feel safe, valued, adventurous, competent and confident to take the initiative. Great equipment encourages children to use their imagination and learn to cooperate with others. Creative art, movement, and drama materials foster creativity, are an appropriate emotional outlet, and provide another view of life.
Appropriate toys and materials encourage children to build muscle control and strength. Children gain practice and confidence as they manipulate materials. Toys that children can explore in many different ways build eye-hand coordination and encourage children to think about how things work. Many toys also promote balance and body awareness.
Toys and materials that promote active learning also motivate children to pursue their own ideas and interests enthusiastically. Hardwood unit blocks help children learn about geometry, gravity, shapes, and balance. Construction items help children learn about science and number. Many toys also encourage children’s interests in the physical world, same/different, patterned/plain, and classification. Children also practice problem solving as they figure out how things work, pick up new ideas, and gain confidence in their abilities.
Great toys provide children with unique and interesting topics to talk about. Books and recordings help children appreciate words, literature, and music. Pretend play objects encourage children to talk with others. Children learn through experience that language is a way to communicate with others.
Question: What makes a toy safe?
Answer: The item should be well constructed, shatterproof, strong enough to hold the child’s weight and safe for the age of the child you’re shopping for. There are no sharp edges, points, exposed nails, projectiles, or loud noises. Corners should be rounded and surfaces smooth. Finishes and dyes must be non-toxic and meet all safety standards.
Look for and abide by safety notes on packages such as “contains small parts, not for children under the age of three. This indicates that the item has parts or pieces that are small enough for a younger child to swallow and choke. If your child is over three years of age and still puts items in her mouth, be wary of materials with this warning.
Carefully examine the toy at the store or when you first receive it to ensure it’s safe for your child. At the store, there are often samples available, look them over and see how they wear. If it is already broken or looks worn, it’s probably not going to hold up at your home.
If you are buying items with small pieces for an older child who has a younger sibling, consider providing a storage container with the gift to ensure safety.
While a few toy industry safety standards are mandatory through the CPSC (Consumer Product Safety Commission), most of the standards are voluntary, set by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ATSM F963). However, the vast majority of American toy manufacturers and importers conform to the requirements set forth in ASTM F963. When purchasing toys look for the designation on the outside packaging that indicates an item has met these important safety standards.
Question: How can I be certain I’m getting the most value for my money in buying toys?
Answer: Spend some time researching before making your final purchases. Ask your child what toys he would like, check the Internet with him so he can show you the types of items he’s thinking of. Make a note of those items you’re interested in and call toy stores and check out popular toy web sites for pricing before purchasing. Ask the store clerks what the return/damaged good policy is. Some items require you to contact the manufacturer directly, some stores only allow store credit and others will make full refunds. Understanding the policies ahead of time will prevent disappointment down the road.
Question: My child’s been invited to a birthday party next month, how can we be certain the gift we select is appropriate?
Answer: Asking the child’s parents for ideas is always a good place to start. Respect the family’s values. For example, if you know the family does not allow much television viewing, then a videotape is probably not a good idea. Also take into account what your children or other children you know about that age like. Toy specialty store personnel are often good resources for unique and popular ideas. Also note the age range and safety messages listed on the packaging. Some party invitations request no gifts be brought or to bring an item for charity (such as a canned good). Honor these instructions respectfully.
Question: How do I determine what my child really wants?
Answer: Watch and consider the kinds of activities your child enjoys and engages in often. For example, does she often make up her own stories with dolls and animals or do you have a hard time getting her out of the bathtub? Does he spend a lot of time taking items apart and putting them back together? These are all clues to help you understand the type of toy to look for. This doesn’t mean you don’t buy something outside of the norm for your child – while she may not be interested in something totally new at first, many children will try it at their leisure and may discover a new interest.
If your child is old enough, ask him what he likes to play with, do, and explore. Children are very honest. Be aware that television and media often influences children. Commercials are bright and engaging, with children who look like they are having a great time. Thus, children have a hard time understanding that commercials are not real shows. Explain to your child that the intent of commercials and advertisements is to try to get you to buy something – even if you don’t really want or need it.
Angie Dorrell, M.A., is director of curriculum for La Petite Academy, one of the nation’s largest providers of early childhood education programs. She also serves as a NAEYC accreditation validator and commissioner. She is the proud mother of two young daughters.