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Parents raising young children today are in a better position than ever before to provide a safe environment for their kids. Nowhere is this more evident than in the regulation of toys. If a toy is intended for children under age 3, there are strict laws in the U.S. governing how small its parts may be, including the size of the pieces if it was to break. All toys intended for children under age 12 must, by law, undergo rigorous safety testing. Whether that toy is appropriate for its intended age group is another matter.
However, there is usually no guesswork going on with the age level on the packaging of toys. Manufacturers give the minimum age due diligence, because the toy will be tested to the standards for that age group. Younger ages have stricter testing, so it doesn’t pay toy makers to overreach. The same is true for the upper age on the package, but for different reasons.
Manufacturers do not want to frustrate children with toys that require them to think in ways that are beyond their capabilities. The larger toy companies employ various experts, such as child psychologists and behaviorists, to help determine the upper age limit of a toy’s appropriateness. Some smaller companies cannot afford these added expenses, and that puts the impetus on the parents’ judgement. Not all children are on the same developmental level, so parents must do their best to find toys that are appropriate for their own children.
It should be obvious, but toys intended for this age group will vary greatly in complexity. Children learn and grow more rapidly during these years than any other time in their lives. There are no toys that will be appropriate across this age group, but they should all be safe from choking hazards, which is why we draw this distinction.
Children at this age learn reflexively. They get enjoyment from kicking their legs and moving their arms, and use sight and hearing to explore and learn. Objects like mobiles, that are farther than about 8 inches from their faces, are difficult for an infant to focus on at first. They soon develop the ability to focus farther out, though. They are attracted to bright colors and contrasting patterns, but sounds should be kept soothing. Sudden, loud sounds may frighten them.
Keep in mind that children of this age are just learning to grasp. Whatever they get hold of will soon be in their mouths, so keep to soft, washable toys, and make sure there are no sharp corners. Teething rings are interesting, often textured objects that are also soothing.
Children this young also enjoy cause-and-effect toys, such as rattles. Electronic toys that light up when shaken can also get them exploring, but remember to keep the sounds soothing. The human face is a source of fascination for infants as well, and mirrors make nice additions to cribs. Pay attention to your child as they experience toys in other places to see what they enjoy. If you’re shopping for someone else’s child, a quick call to mom will help steer you in the right direction.
During this time, children are learning to roll and to push up into a crawling position, so dangling objects like mobiles are no longer appropriate. They are beginning to manipulate objects with more dexterity, and are learning that objects don’t disappear when they can no longer be seen (object permanence). They are still interested in bright primary colors and contrasting patterns, but they are no longer content to just watch them.
Toys should still be soft and rounded, but handheld objects will give children at this age plenty of the stimulation they need. Any toys that emit light and soothing sounds will likely keep their attention, but toys need not be so complex. Just make certain the toy is sized right so their hands can easily grasp them.
Children at this age are beginning to crawl, creep, and maybe even climb. They may enjoy learning patterns and processes. Repeating-process toys — like dumping and refilling a container — help engrain relational patterns. At this stage, they are also getting more adept at grasping and manipulating objects, and often enjoy marking on paper with chubby, non-toxic crayons. Still, they are not ready for toys that require the use of both hands, though they may enjoy banging two toys together.
As they move closer to becoming verbal, infants are also learning to associate words with everyday objects. They often enjoy toys that help reinforce these simple words with objects they can see. Primary colors in bright shades continue to fascinate, but pictures of objects they are familiar with pique their interest, too. Handheld toys should still be soft and washable.
Toddlers are getting better at exploring their world, but they have yet to learn the trouble they can get into. Musical toys bring them enjoyment, and they will often move to the sounds. Toys can get a little more complex now, as these kids can twist, turn, rotate or otherwise manipulate toys to make them work. They continue to enjoy uncovering cause-and-effect relationships. Since they can move around and choose which toys to play with, they will let you know the types of toys they enjoy.
Throughout this age group, children are learning to make long-term memories. They can mimic, and they can delay that mimicking, but they can only do so briefly. Toys should still be simple, but can now be a source of pretending. They are learning to name objects by looking at pictures, so toys or books that reinforce these skills provide the foundation for more complex skills in the coming months.
By this age, children should be stable on their feet. They are able to run and jump, and they enjoy toys they can pull behind them or push. Their sorting and stacking skills are growing, and they enjoy toys that require skills such as placing a peg in the same-shaped hole. They also enjoy toys that can link together, be it magnetically or with Velcro, large hooks, etc.
This is also the age when symbolic thinking begins. Children in this stage may role play with toys or stuffed animals, and they can understand that a toy car represents a real car. They are also getting a better grasp of cause and effect. Toys with buttons or pull-strings that cause sound or movement will help reinforce their understanding of cause-and-effect relationships. Large crayons can spark creativity. They are beginning to draw representations, even if we can’t discern the dog from the scribbles.
While kids typically learn pretend play by age 2, the behavior peaks during their third year. Their drawings are becoming more representational, though the process is still more important than the result. They are becoming able to use more complex art supplies, and their interest in varying shades of color is growing.
These kids may now have favorite characters from television or cartoons. Look for toys with these characters that kids can incorporate into play and pretend. Toddlers often prefer a gentle character that makes them feel safe. Their innate curiosity also means these kids are able to use educational toys. Toward age 3, children start to prefer toys that are realistic representations of real-world objects.
Most of all, toddlers love to move around and play actively. Ball games that let them to kick or throw from short distances are appropriate. Their improving motor skills also enable them to cut and paste, and put together simple puzzles. They often enjoy exploring the effects that different art supplies produce.
This is the premier age for pretend play, and toys that enable role playing support this tendency. These kids like to assume what they consider to be powerful positions. They may enjoy pretending they are police or firefighters, doctors, teachers, or even parents. The superhero or heroine often fascinates kids in this group. Toys like action figures and dolls lend themselves to this type of play.
This is also often the age where kids learn to ride a bike. Remember that training wheels are important for them to build confidence, though options such as Striders allow them to learn to balance without pedaling. Their burgeoning dexterity also means kids can begin to learn to manipulate a computer keyboard or tablet. Art supplies that let them cut, paste, trace, sculpt, or color are also appropriate.
Play is getting more structured, and kids of this age will invent or adhere to rules better. These kids usually prefer toys and activities that encourage them to build a skill. As their dexterity has improved, activities like model construction, jacks, weaving, and braiding enable them to improve their fine-motor skills. Sports of all types are usually popular among this group.
Toward the end of this age span, children often become less interested in the cartoon characters and superheroes that entertained them at age 6 or 7. Their preferences in toys may also shift to the stars of sports, music, or movies. Their burgeoning attention to detail also brings about an interest in building collections, which makes gift-giving gradually simpler.
At this age, children who are interested in sports will often start to specialize in the one or two that interest them most. Predictability bores them, but they are usually keen to further develop skills they have been building in sports or activities that they enjoy. Whatever the implements of a chosen sport, most athletes appreciate trying out and mastering them.
Kids in this group often develop a preference for kits of materials that they can use to create something, rather than receiving finished products. They may also develop an affinity for certain music, sports, or other pop culture stars, and may prefer products bearing their likenesses. Though they are developing a sense of self, they are also more influenced by their peers than at any earlier time in their development. Keep an eye out for the hot trends, which seem to come and go annually.
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