Holiday season is upon us, and I know many of us are still scrambling to buy the perfect gift for our loved ones. Many children gifts initially pull us in with all their bells and whistles, but in my opinion as a pediatrician, I feel less is more, especially for the younger children. As parents, you often see many bright and flashy toys that look intriguing at first glance, but is it worth it? What’s safe for your child? Which toys would be the most helpful to your child? Any toys to avoid?
As a board-certified pediatrician, I am here to offer some advice to help answer your questions!
For Children Under the Age of 3 Years
Parents should start gifting “smartly and safely” for their children under the age of 3. During the first few years, age recommendations on toys can be very helpful. The toy’s guidelines are not only geared safety but even occasionally, the child’s development at that age. For children under 3 years of age, the biggest safety warning is regarding a possible choking hazard. I always recommend selecting toys that suit the age, abilities, skills and interest levels for the child. A toy that might be too advanced not only will frustrate the child but could also pose a safety risk.
At these young ages, my biggest concerns are toys containing button batteries or magnets. Children can be at risk of serious gastrointestinal system risks if swallowing button batteries or magnets. Think outside of the box of even just toys...even musical greeting cards, remote controls, small electronics, musical books, or building toy sets contain magnets.
At this age, it’s better to buy gifts without small pieces that are choking hazards. Children can even choke on inflated balloons and the strings of balloons can be a choking or strangulation risk. Make sure to remove tags and strings off toys for this important reason and don’t allow your child to play unsupervised with these types of toys.
Be cautious of toys you see labeled as educational. In reality, tablets, computer games, and apps at this age aren’t really educational even if they promote targeting memory skills for the alphabet numbers and shapes. These skills are only one part of school readiness and pediatric development. Some of the best skills and developmental milestones or learn through unstructured and social play with family and friends. Not to mention, swiping an iPhone screen really isn’t using fine motor skills.
When choosing gifts for the age group of children under 3 years of age – babies and toddlers – consider the toys that will help to develop skills like comprehension and problem-solving. Toys that can be manipulated like shapes, blocks, and infant puzzles are great for developing fine motor, cognitive skills. At this age, think larger size toys as well, ones that will not fit into your child’s mouth or be a choking hazard.
For The School Age Child
In my opinion, at this age the ideal toys are the ones that match children’s developmental abilities, while encouraging growth of other new skills! The best toys are those that support parents and children playing and interacting together. Often times, you’ll realize that that doesn’t happen from a tablet or a screen. Electronic toys by themselves do not provide the interaction and parental engagement that’s necessary to create healthy development. When you are electronic choosing toys, try not to use ones that are overstimulating and limit video game and computer game use for young children. Children younger than 5 years of age should play games that are only developmentally appropriate and accompanied by a parent or caregiver. Personally, I recommend school-age children to play with toys that teach problem-solving skills but also promote fine motor skills- good examples would be coloring books, art and craft kits, and even traditional boardgames.
For the Pre-adolescent child:
At 9-10 years of age, children are really beginning the transition into adolescence but are still young children in heart and mind at this age. Open communication is very important between parents and the child at this time as social pressures to fit in begin along with increasing school work and piling extracurricular activities. At this age, children can think more abstractly and form more well organized thoughts. Their attention span is longer, and they’re able to work for long periods of time on activities they enjoy. For this reason toys like science kits for your science buff and arts and crafts for the artistic child can be a great addition. Children at this age also do well with goal-oriented activities so board games are good toys that the whole family can enjoy. I’m always a fan of bringing back family game nights!
Close to when middle school is beginning and with the rigors of a new school and perhaps more classmates, children begin to learn and think more about their social identity. Friendships begin to play a much larger role in our children’s lives. This is a time where we also see a huge uptake in screen time and spending more time indoors rather than outside. To combat that, I recommend thinking outside the box for toys. I like activities where children get some more face-to face time with their friends rather than staying glued to a screen, so instead of video games, maybe a ping pong table or a basketball hoop. Card games are also a great and affordable option. Children at this age are also becoming more aware of seeking independence. If your child likes to be in the kitchen and get involved with cooking, consider some baking or cooking kits.
At the onset of teenagerhood, most children have begun puberty. This may also be a time when your pre-teen begins to face peer pressure and think of staying at home as boring which can translate into mood swings and short tempers with parents. As children begin to focus more on their body image and clothing, we see confidence can be greatly affected. At this age, you may notice when your child isn’t happy about just any new toy but wants it to be something specific to their interests. Take the time to learn and ask your child what those interests are. Hobby specific gifts like the ones previously mentioned or sports-related toys are always a good option. Books and journals are also popular among this age group and with the emerging independent tendencies, gift cards are an excellent option if your child prefers that.
Advice for Family and Friends:
Sometimes receiving unsafe gifts from well-meaning friends and relatives can put us parents in an awkward position. I’ve seen many family members always get young infants or children stuffed animals, crib toys, and baby blankets. It’s important for parents to know the risk of SIDS. Soft objects, loose bedding, or any objects such as crib toys or stuffed animals could increase the risk of SIDS. Similar advice goes for small toys or parts that could be choking hazards at young toddler ages. Consider this scenario: Your in-laws gives your child a present, but you are not happy with the toy given. We have all been there, but how to approach it? I recommend discussing your concerns with your family members and asking them as well to read warning labels. That give important information on what age is the toys safe for.
Personally, I can’t promote books enough. Children’s books or something that will always be in style no matter what age your child becomes and are great for creating opportunities in activities that a parent can engage with the child. Not only are you developing cognitive skills, but you’re promoting fine motor with page turning, language development with reading the book, and social and emotional development during the reading activity. You can always ask family and friends for the gift of books and when your child is tired of them, gift it forward by donating them to great causes!
Lastly, I think it’s important during this gift giving season to know that learning and healthy development can also be tapped into by simply recognizing a child’s natural urge to play. A child’s imagination is really a wonderful thing. Whether engaging with toys by participating in object play, promoting physical play which helps to develop gross motor skills, participating in outdoor play which assimilates senses and spatial awareness, or pretend play which encourages creativity – give your child plenty of opportunities to play as it’s one of the best ways to help them grow into curious and creative adults.
I hope this is not too overwhelming. Picking the right toy may be difficult, but these general guidelines are help you narrow down the field. Now, shop and be merry!