Choosing Toys Is Not Child's Play
Toy-testers and other experts say the key is knowing your child's interests and abilities
LITTLE Johnny has just presented you with his carefully printed holiday wish list: It's as long as a jump rope. If only it were that simple.Skip to next paragraph
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Such lists underscore a challenge parents face this time of year: how to surprise children with engaging, long-lasting gifts without surrendering completely to commercialism - or draining the family savings account.
Toys are an $18.7-billion industry in the United States, according to the Toy Manufacturers of America, an industry trade group. The average family spends from $100 to $500 on toys every year - the majority around the holidays. How can parents spend that money wisely?
Toy-testers, child-development experts, and family groups can eliminate some of the guesswork. As the Siskel and Eberts of the toy world, they give toys the thumbs up or thumbs down in their books, magazine articles, and now, increasingly, on the Internet.
Some recommenders have higher standards and better procedures than others, but for the most part they all consider safety, age appropriateness, durability, educational and play value, money value, design, and ''message.''
Take the mother-daughter team of Joanne and Stephanie Oppenheim. They issue ''The Best Toys, Books & Videos for Kids'' every year, a ''Guide to 1,000-Plus Kid-tested, Classic, and New Products for Ages 0-10'' (Harper Collins, 297 pp., $13). The Oppenheims also publish a newsletter on the Internet's Family Planet (http://starwave.com).
''We look for fun and engaging products that stimulate a kid's own sense of curiosity and imagination,'' says Joanne Oppenheim. Products that make the Oppenheims' first cut are sent to families for their feedback.
The operative phrase in choosing a toy is ''age appropriateness,'' says Joanne Oppenheim, reached by phone. Keep in mind that the age range printed on the box is as high and as low as a manufacturer can go. Parents must decide if a toy is appropriate based on their child's abilities and interests.
Ms. Oppenheim is discouraged by what she sees as a trend to ''push things onto younger children.'' For example, two companies came out with fake fingernail kits for preschool girls this year. Other toys reinforce gender stereotypes or celebrate bathroom humor and violence, she adds disapprovingly.
''Kids bring a lot of pressure to bear,'' she says. If your child is nagging you for the newest gizmo he's seen on television, it might help to go to the store and look at it. ''If it violates your values,'' she counsels, ''you have the responsibility to say 'No.' ''
On the positive side, Oppenheim is encouraged by the large number of toys that involve children's creativity, such as craft kits, as well as the breadth of multicultural dolls and proliferation of educational software for computers. Toys are also safer, with the new warning labels now required on all toys sold in the US that may pose a choking hazard.
You can't completely ignore a child's Christmas list, says Judy Ellis, chairwoman of the toy-design department at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. ''All parents get a wish list from their kids during holiday time, and if you don't get them something from it, you'll be in the doghouse. Figure out what your child wants, and work that into your plan.''