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Your baby or young child might look like he's simply having fun when he coos at his rattle or tries his hand at stacking "donuts." But make no mistake--what looks like playtime to us is work to babies, and toys are the tools for getting the job done.
Playing helps to develop a baby's social, emotional, language, intellectual, and problem-solving skills, says Marilyn Segal, Ph.D., dean emeritus and director of the professional development program at Mailman Segal Institute for Early Childhood Studies at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Batting at a mobile, giving a musical ball a shove, or transferring a rattle from one hand to another helps babies to learn about the world. Such play also helps them to connect sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell to objects, to recognize shapes, patterns, and colors, develop hand-eye coordination and memory, and to bond with you and others. "It's how your baby learns, and so much more," Segal said.
When you choose toys and activities that enhance your child's development, you're speaking your baby's language and helping her to foster cognitive and social skills that she can build on. But don't give toys all the credit. You're a key player. "The most important toy is the parent and other caregivers because babies crave one-on-one social interaction and need the security it provides," Segal said. The right toy, though, can make key developmental stages more fun--for your child and for you. Use this toy guide to find age-appropriate toys for your baby--and to learn what you can do to play up their important lessons.
The types of toys for babies and children vary widely based on the child's age and development level. Here are breakdowns of suitable toys by age.
Babies are born with natural curiosity and gather information about the world through their senses. Babies enjoy looking at the world around them--lights, shapes, patterns, and colors. At about 3 months, they begin to swipe at objects and might try to reach for them.
Rattles and play keys with high-contrast colors that make interesting noises are great, as are musical crib mobiles with bright, primary-color objects or patterns that stimulate your baby's sense of sight. But keep toys out of the crib. Mobiles can be suspended near or above the crib as long as they're safely mounted. Mobiles are safest near the foot of the bed, where they can't fall on a child. Remove the mobile when your baby can push up on his hands and knees, at about 6 months.
Babies can see bright colors and shapes of rattles and play keys (for babies younger than 4 months, the toy should be any combination of red, black and white--the colors this age group sees best), feel their smooth or nubby texture, hear their rattling or clinking sound, and mouth them, which stimulates brain development.
By this age, babies can reach for and grasp objects, move them from one hand to the other, and play with their feet. They'll search for the source of sounds.
A take-off on overhead mobiles, activity gyms feature charming, brightly-colored floor and hanging detachable toys that make sounds, play music, and have tantalizing textures. Some might include unbreakable, embedded mirrors, a definite plus. Like rattles and play keys, activity gyms help babies to explore their environment through their senses of sound, touch, sight, and taste. Their fine-motor skills get a tune-up when they bat, reach, and grab for toys. And if you place your baby in a gym on his tummy ("tummy time"), you'll help develop his posture and neck strength, a prerequisite for crawling and other physical skills. Babies of this age also tend to enjoy soft balls with sounds inside, musical toys, washable baby books, and toys with flaps or lids that can be opened and closed. They'll still be fascinated by rattles, and the more their pickup skills develop, the more they'll reach for and play with them.
Starting about 9 months, babies play by shaking, banging, throwing, and dropping toys. They enjoy searching for hidden objects, taking objects out of containers, and poking their fingers into holes. Your baby will be able to grasp objects with her fingers and put one object on top of or into another, such as a ball into a box. Stacking and nesting are another way babies develop eye-hand coordination and learn about spatial relationships. Sorting helps babies to understand the relationships among objects--how they fit together and spatially relate to one another and how they differ in size and shape.
Lightweight balls, nesting and stacking blocks or cups with rounded edges, pop-up toys that require sliding, toggling, pulling, and turning, squeeze and bath toys, soft dolls, puppets, and baby books, musical toys, and toy telephones and push-pull playthings.
Playtime can get messy starting at 1 year old, when children begin to take an interest in emptying, transferring, and rearranging their environment. Filling and dumping are organizing skills that help your toddler to experience how things work and relate to each other. Stacking toys, which kids younger than 1 might enjoy, continue to be fun for kids this age. Starting about 12 months, your baby might also begin walking. From 2 to 3 years old, playing actively and testing physical skills by jumping, climbing, and throwing is the name of the game. Toddlers this age also like using their expanding hand-eye coordination to work with basic arts and crafts, blocks, and simple puzzles.
Those that encourage your child's budding ambulatory skills, including blocks, books, fit-together toys, push-and-pull toys, pounding and shape toys, fill-and-spill sets, and balls. To bath time, add spoons, a plastic pitcher, measuring cups, and plastic cups to encourage filling and dumping skills without a mess. Toddlers and preschoolers also love ride-on toys and starter tricycles. For more information, see our report on Tricycles, ride-on toys, and scooters.
By 3 years old, children start interacting with each other and engaging in pretend play. They enjoy acting out grown-up roles and using props such as costumes to bring their imaginations to life.
Electronic toys that convert your TV or PC into a learning/interactive play site, nontoxic art supplies, books, videos, musical instruments, and outdoor toys such as a baseball tee, slide, or swing.
The two largest toy companies in the U.S. are Mattel and Hasbro. Both have many familiar name brands in their stables. There are also many smaller toy companies, too many to list here. Use these profiles to compare toys by brand.
The second-largest toy company in the U.S., Hasbro, makes such brands as Playskool, Tonka, and My Little Pony. It has also bended many a mind with its popular games Monopoly, Jenga, Trivial Pursuits, and many others. (www.hasbro.com).
The largest toy company in the U.S., Mattel manufactures toys under the Fisher-Price label and has such licensees as Sesame Street, Dora the Explorer, and Winnie the Pooh, among many others. Barbie and American Girl, Hot Wheels and Matchbox are some of Mattel's better-known playthings (www.mattel.com).
Other major brands of toys for newborns, infants, and toddlers are, in alphabetical order:
When toy shopping, follow the manufacturer's age recommendations displayed on the package. Although you might think that a more "advanced" toy will present a welcome challenge, in reality, it could be a source of frustration if it surpasses your baby's current stage of development. Age grading relates to the safety of the toy as well as its play value.
Consider the classics, such as stackable plastic "doughnuts," shape sorters, building blocks, and interlocking plastic oversized beads for very young children. There's a reason that they've been around so long.
For more clues about what toys your child might like, take note of what toys he or she gravitates to on play dates and/or at day care.
Shop around. Browse stores, catalogs, and Web sites for other ideas. Also, ask for suggestions from parents who have children of similar ages.
Check the federal Government's recall Web site, www.recalls.gov, to see whether the toys in your home--or toys you plan to buy--have been recalled. Even better, sign up for free e-mail notices of future recalls at the Consumer Product Safety Commission Web site, www.cpsc.gov/cpsclist.aspx. Keeping up-to-date can help prevent you from buying a recalled toy and remedy the situation if you bought a toy that has been recalled.
Regardless of your child's age, don't buy toys with small magnets, even if they seem safely contained within the toy. If the toy breaks and the magnets fall out, they could be accidentally swallowed and cause intestinal damage.
Cheap, poorly constructed toys are no bargain. Flimsy plastic toys--the kind sometimes sold in drugstores, airports, and dollar stores--often have dangerous sharp edges or small parts that can break off easily.
Used toys, especially solid, molded-plastic ones, can be a great buy. But as you would with new toys, check www.recalls.gov before shopping. Thrift stores, consignment shops, and yard and garage sales often have toys in excellent condition. But carefully check every toy to see that it's well made and safe, with no parts that could break loose and no magnets, which have proven dangerous for children as old as 11. Wash any secondhand toy before giving it to your child. Babies experience much of their world through sucking, so expect that most toys will go straight to their mouths.
Step into any baby store and you'll see that a generation of microchip-based toys is beeping, jingling, vibrating, flashing, and wailing its way into the nursery. Stimulating, tech-driven kid products aren't new, of course. What's newsworthy is the range of such offerings for babies--from an infant-size "interactive play center" that entertains with microchip-powered songs, sounds, and flashing lights to stuffed animals that sing and vibrate when you press their paws.
High-tech baby products can stimulate and entertain the older diaper crowd, but the chips inside aren't likely to add value for very young children. As for those electronic toys that claim to stimulate infant development or creativity, researchers say there's no credible supporting evidence regarding their long-term effects. "If it's a new toy, then for an hour or so, they're a little more alert and involved," Jerome Kagan, a research professor emeritus of psychology at Harvard University, said. But he said that you wouldn't want to make profound predictions such as, "If my baby plays with electronic toys, he'll be smarter."
Kagan says that the typical American household already provides enough sensory stimulation to make such toys unnecessary. "We should view the toys like an ice-cream cone," he said. "It's a brief source of pleasure that vanishes quickly."
Children will get far more meaningful stimulation from the sounds of the people, animals, and objects around them, says Jane M. Healy, an educational psychologist in Vail, Colo., and author of "Your Child's Growing Mind." There's also a need for quiet time, when the brain consolidates what it has learned. "If there's nothing that's entertaining, it gives the brain time and space to learn to manage itself," Healy said.
Look for the manufacturer's recommended age range on the toy package--and take it seriously. A toy labeled for children older than 3 is definitely not suitable for younger children. A stuffed toy, for example, that says it's for a child older than 3 could have eyes that are potential choking hazards for a younger child. That is more than a friendly hint. It can alert you to a possible choking hazard, the presence of small parts, and other dangers. If you're buying a toy for a child older than 3 who has a younger sibling, also be aware of small parts because it's likely that the younger child will find a way to get the toy. You might want to limit your older child's play with such toys to areas of your home where the younger sibling is not allowed to go.
Although the voluntary standard for toy safety says that manufacturers should make squeeze toys and teethers large enough not to become lodged in an infant's throat, sometimes age recommendations can be difficult to find (or even nonexistent).
You can test an item for safe size by slipping it through the tube of a toilet-paper roll. If the toy passes through, it's too small for baby to play with. Also, look for anything that could be bitten or chewed off, such as hard, sewn-on parts like eyes, buttons, or wheels, and soft, small pieces, such as strings, ribbons, and stuffed animals' ears. All can be choking hazards.
Durability is another important factor. All baby toys should be unbreakable. Stuffed animals or any toys made of fabric should be washable and bite-proof. Pull on fur to be sure it won't shed, and check that fabrics are heavy enough to keep the toy's stuffing inside. Dyes should be colorfast.
With toys you already own, inspect them for breakage, chipped or deteriorated paint, and other potential hazards each time you give them to your child. If you find a problem, throw the toy away.
Keep all small round or oval objects, including coins, balls, marbles, and magnets, away from children younger than 3.
Keep all balloons and broken balloon pieces away from your baby; they're a major choking hazard.
For more tips, read Safety first when buying toys.
Don't store toys in wooden chests with lids that can slam or automatically latch shut when closed, and hurt a child or cause suffocation. Chests designed specifically for holding toys have hinges or lid supports that will hold the lid open in any position to prevent such accidents. Open shelves or crates are safer and make it easier to find toys. Or look for a chest without a lid, or one that has ventilation holes that won't be blocked if the chest is placed against the wall, so a child can breathe if she gets trapped inside, or one that leaves a space between the lid and the sides of the chest to allow ventilation when closed.
Keep soft toys out of the crib. They're a suffocation hazard for young babies and can be used as stepping stools for climbing out. If you buy a crib mobile, hang it out of your baby's reach. A mobile should be taken down when your baby can push up on her hands and knees, at about 6 months.
The CPSC regulates toys sold in the U.S., and toys must meet certain federal safety standards. For example, they must have acceptably low levels of lead in paint. They must not have sharp surfaces or points. Toys meant for children younger than 3 years old must not have small parts, such as small balls or marbles, that could pose a choking, ingestion, or inhalation hazard. Other items on the safety checklist: no pinching parts, no small wires that could poke through, and no strings, cords, or necklaces that could trap a baby's neck. Toys must not exceed flammability limits and they must contain no hazardous chemicals.
Teethers and squeeze toys must be large enough not to pose choking hazards. The same goes for rattles, which also must be designed so that they can't separate into small pieces. Labels on crib gyms and mobiles must warn parents to remove them when a baby can push up on his hands and knees (about 6 months).
In recent years, the CPSC has recalled numerous toys for various reasons--rattles with seams that opened during use, releasing a bell or small beads (choking hazards), and toy phones with push buttons and antenna that could detach (also a choking hazard). If you've had a bad experience with a toy, call the CPSC at 800-638-2772 or log on to www.cpsc.gov/talk.html. Your call might lead to a recall. For more information about unsafe children's products, see our Safety blog.
When you have kids, it might feel like every room in your house has turned into a playroom. Toys seem to magically multiply and take over your home. The best way to reclaim your house is to make one room or small area into the playroom or play area. It will help you to stay organized, and even more important, you'll be creating a special environment that's safe and kid-friendly.
When you're having a tough day, just getting the toys put away seems like a major accomplishment. Organization is the key to making it easier. As a first step in organizing the playroom, get on your hands and knees and try to see the room from your child's perspective. This will help you determine how best to store his toys and identify the potential dangers in the playroom. Organize the room so that your child can easily reach her toys, thus eliminating the temptation to climb to get something she wants and allowing her to safely explore her space. Lots of handy storage makes it easy to put toys away where no one can trip over them.
You can turn the job of organizing a playroom into a fun project for you and your child. It's simple: Buy some sturdy plastic containers with lids that snap closed. Working together, fill the containers with different items, such as books in one, toy cars in another, and toy animals in another. Next, look in magazines for photos of the items in your containers and cut them out. Using glue labeled "nontoxic," "washable," or "for school use," attach the photos onto the corresponding containers. Glue is recommended only for kids over 5, so make sure you're supervising if your child is younger than that.
Toy chests or storage bins with hinged lids can fall on your child's head or neck, trapping her or causing serious injury. And children have been known to crawl into these chests and suffocate while trapped inside. If you have a toy chest, or any chest, with a freely falling hinged lid, the safest thing you can do is remove the lid entirely. Or you can add a lid support; heavy lids may require two. A lid support will keep the lid of the toy chest open in any position you choose. You can purchase a chest with a lid support or one that has hinges that support the lid, or you can install a lid support or two yourself. Check them frequently to ensure that they are still in good working order and that they do indeed work in any position. Remember to check, tighten, and adjust as needed.
When storing toys, use baskets, buckets, or other containers that allow your child to easily reach inside to pull out what she needs. Be sure that the toys in these containers are age-appropriate for all of your children. A 2-year-old should not share toys that are for a 6-year-old because of the danger to the younger child from small toy parts that could pose a choking hazard.