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Choosing the Right Toys for the Right Age

Age-appropriate toys can still be fun, while being safe.
By Christina Frank
WebMD Feature

Give a kid a new toy -- almost any toy -- and chances are, you've got a happy kid. Young children generally aren't fussy when it comes to baby toys and kids toys, but parents should be.

Toys are more than just playthings, though, and while they should be fun, they should also be age-appropriate, stimulating, and safe. "Play is so important in the social, mental, physical, and emotional development of children," says Vicki Panaccione, PhD, a child psychologist and founder of the Better Parenting Institute. "Toys should be thought of as developmental learning tools."

When choosing age-appropriate baby toys or kids toys for a young child, keep these tips in mind:

Keep them simple.

Toys that do too much don't allow a child to use her own imagination. Dolls and stuffed animals that talk or sing or direct kids to press certain buttons essentially take charge of the play situation when the child should be the one directing the action. "When a toy is too specific, it's limiting and it denies the child the ability to use her imagination," says Panaccione. "The best toys are often the simplest ones -- like blocks -- because they allow children to be creative and spontaneous."

Set limits on electronic toys and video games.

We live in an electronic age, and any parent who thinks she can keep her child -- even a toddler -- away from computers and the like forever is kidding herself. But for young kids, especially, it's crucial to set limits. Research has suggested that electronic toys pose several possible dangers for children's health and development, including hearing loss (from loud toys), weight gain (from being inactive while playing), and language and developmental delays. One recent study at Temple University showed that toys that don't require a child to do anything but watch promote a passive learning style, which can interfere with learning to think independently.

Electronics can also affect a child's attention span, says Linda Crowe, PhD, a professor in the Communication Sciences and Disorders Program at Kansas State University. "Toys that have flashing lights and constant changes and movement don't require a child to pay attention to any one thing for very long. Kids who use these toys frequently can find it difficult to focus on something like a book or non-moving toy."

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, kids under age 2 shouldn't watch TV or play computer games at all; kids over 2 should have their "screen time" limited to 1-2 hours per day.

Don't fall for toys that call themselves educational.

The educational toy business is booming, playing on parents' fears that their kids need to learn as much as they can as soon as possible to give them a leg up in the future. Not all such age-appropriate toys are inherently bad -- CDs that expose kids to classical music or foreign languages are fine, for example -- but many baby toys and kids toys boast that they can boost brain development or create early readers and mathematicians. A 2005 report from the Kaiser Foundation found that many of these claims are unsupported. "The real educational toys are not the flashy gadgets and gizmos with big promises, but the staples that have built creative thinkers for decades," says Roberta Golinkoff, PhD, head of the Infant Language Project at the University of Delaware.

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