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 their 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 they can keep their child -- even a toddler -- away from computers and the like forever is kidding themselves. 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.
Keep only a few toys out at one time.
"I see kids that are just inundated with toys," Panacione tells WebMD. "They are given too many toys too soon and have a hard time focusing on any one of them." She suggests that parents rotate toys in and out of a child's toy box or room, reintroducing a toy after a few weeks when it feels fresh and new. And if your child has several toys of a similar type, let him fully explore one before introducing another. Kids don't, for example, need five different shape-sorters out at one time.
The same toy can also carry a child through many different developmental stages, so don't be in a rush to replace old toys with new ones, says Panacione. "Some of the basic toys, such as blocks, serve so many developmental purposes that parents shouldn't be quick to replace them and move on to something 'newer.' For example, infants can begin to hold blocks and develop some muscle development and coordination." As a child grows, blocks help develop many other skills such as object permanence (the concept that an object is still there even when out of sight), spatial relationships, language, imagination, creativity, and the use of building, planning, and construction principles.. Using blocks with siblings or friends also teaches frustration tolerance and cooperation with others.
Choose age-appropriate toys.
Children enjoy toys that they can master and that are right for their particular stage of development. Here are some suggestions for the types of toys kids benefit from most as they go through different stages:
0-6 months: Infants are fascinated with movement, sounds, and simple black and white visuals. They are discovering their own bodies, working on eye-hand coordination, reaching, and grasping. Age-appropriate toys for babies include: mobiles, rattles, busy boxes, and anything they can begin to grasp, swipe at, pull, kick, squeeze, or shake.
6-8 months: Older babies can hold small toys. They are learning about cause and effect and they will repeat activities over and over in order to master them. They also like to transfer toys from hand to hand and into and out of containers. Many of the same toys for infants will be used in new ways by older babies.
8-18 months: This is the age when babies begin to foresee results, decide on a goal, and deliberately take some action to make it happen. They also begin to experiment with size, shape, and space. Age-appropriate toys include push/pull toys, blocks, nesting cups, rings on poles, shape sorters, and simple take-apart toys.
18-24 months: Toddlers begin to enjoy playing "pretend." This is the time to introduce dress-up clothing, dolls, kitchen sets, and toy cars, trucks, and school buses.
2-4 years: Kids learn a lot about socialization during the preschool years and continue to do a lot of pretend play. Miniature farm and house sets allow them to exercise their imagination, while large crayons, finger paints, and Play-Doh help develop creativity. Children also make huge gains in both fine and gross motor skills throughout this period, so puzzles, large Legos, blocks, and other construction toys are perfect age-appropriate toys. Noise is always an enticement, so young children love drums and hammer-and-peg toys at this age range.