Find the Perfect Toy

Depending on your perspective, buying toys for kids can be a blast or it can seem daunting. There are literally thousands upon thousands of choices available for children today, but if you follow a few guidelines, you should be able to make a great choice. The first guideline that you want to follow is age appropriateness. Children follow a fairly predictable developmental path, and fortunately, most toys today have some sort of labeling that can give you a hint about what ages for which the toy is best suited. There are real safety hazards to not following age guidelines. Toddlers and babies are notorious for putting small things in their mouths. Small balls and parts such as magnets can be life threatening to an infant. Secondly, if you are not buying a toy for your own child, make sure the gift is within the parent’s wishes. For example, don’t purchase a child a drum set or an electric guitar if the child is not allowed to have noisy toys. Also, be conscious of the expense of batteries if you purchase an electronic toy such as a remote control car or game. You certainly don’t want the parent wishing you had never given the toy to your child! Thirdly, make sure it is something you think the child will enjoy.

Activity Kits
Activity kits are packaged gifts that focus on one or more specific activities such as beading, paper airplanes, origami, or even pretend play. These kits range widely in age appropriateness. You may find toddler toys that encourage pretending to be a doctor or a vet all the way up to chemistry sets with chemicals for experiments (make sure you follow age guidelines to prevent injury). The beauty of these kits is that they often have everything you need in one box to keep a child occupied for hours or even days. They are also great for fostering creativity and more often than not are gender neutral.

Arts & Crafts
Arts and crafts toys are designed specifically to help children create things or learn about creating things. In this category you may find paint sets, open-ended puzzles, jewelry sets, beadwork kits, weaving projects, etc. Many of these items will be for slightly older children, such as grade school (7+) who can handle small projects with a minimum of supervision.

Stuffed Animals & Plush Toys
From teddy bears to shaped character pillows, kids adore stuffed animals. These are classic toys that are appropriate for children of all ages, especially younger kids of all types. Plush toys encourage imaginative play and can be a great comforter to babies and especially toddlers. For younger kids (3 and under) make sure that the toy you are purchasing doesn’t have any buttons or plastic eyes that could fall off and create a choking hazard.

Children’s Bags
There are a great range of adorable bags for kids. From book bags, back packs, play purses, and even rolling luggage, there is sure to be something for just about any child. Bags are great for pretend play, sleepovers, and even for toting their treasures to pre-school and back.

There are a huge variety of dolls out there, most often for little girls, but there are dolls for boys too. Young kids often like dolls because they like to pretend and doll play encourages children to model parenting behavior. They pretend to take care of the baby, chastise the baby for being bad, act out grown-up things, and just use their imaginations. Any kind of toy that gets a kid pretending and using their imagination is a good toy.

As with dolls, dollhouses foster imagination and let kids practice running a household in their own way. The great thing about doll houses is that boys and girls alike enjoy playing with them. There’s something about the small scale world where the child is in charge that creates magic. Boys and girls both enjoy moving the furniture around, role playing as the mom, dad, and kids, and in general having a great time.

Remote Control Toys
There are literally thousands of remote control toys on the market these days. From the traditional cars to the more modern mini-helicopters, to even R/C animals and mobiles, there is something for everyone and almost every age. There are cars designed specifically for toddlers that offer simplified steering and are built to take toddler scale punishment. The complexity and skill required for other toys can progress even into adulthood. Remote control cars are terrific for developing hand-eye coordination and learning about three dimensional and spatial concepts. Anyone who has ever flown an R/C plane knows that you have to use your brain to think like you’re actually piloting the plane and not just act as a casual observer. Remote control toys can turn into a life-long hobby.

Building Sets & Blocks
Building sets and blocks are one the oldest (besides dolls) and most classic of toys. Their beauty lies in their simplicity and the open-endedness that allows for unlimited creativity. They let children learn about architectural and physics principles while playing. Children will kept captivated for hours at a time. There are a huge variety of sets and blocks available, from toddler size up to adults. Toddler building toys most often take the form of blocks or larger sized building bricks. They are designed and sized specifically so that toddlers can manipulate them with their small hands but be large enough to not present a choking hazard. Building sets for pre-schoolers are often of a smaller size and a greater complexity. They may come in specially designed kits made to create a particular model. If you are purchasing for a child other than your own, make sure it is ok with the parent for the older child to have these kits especially if younger children are in the household. Older children have a vast array of blocks and kits to choose from that allow for more complex construction, often with nuts, bolts, or specialty parts. They may even have motors and gears available to create moving structures. Another great aspect of these toys is that they can encourage a great deal of parental involvement.

Games & Puzzles
Games and puzzles encourage children (and adults!) to use all of their brains! These toys stimulate pattern recognition, creative thinking, and competiveness. One key aspect of these toys is that the whole family can enjoy them. There are games designed for toddlers, such as “Candy Land” or “Chutes and Ladders” that can be enjoyed by young and old. Puzzles can become a lifelong pastime. Children from preschool upward, can enjoy putting puzzles together. The only thing that changes is the complexity and the number of pieces.

Bikes & Trikes
Bicycles and tricycles are fantastic fitness and balance toys that can foster a lifelong love of exercise and being outdoors. From toddler to teen, kids of all ages have the opportunity to “go for a ride!” For toddlers, most of the equipment will not have brakes and will have training wheels. If possible, get a bike or trike with an adjustable seat for longer product usage. For preschoolers, bikes with training wheels are the norm until they can learn to balance on their own. Remember the bike helmets! They’re required by law in many areas now.

Outdoor Fun
There are a great number of toys and games designed to be played outdoors. Outdoor play is great exercise and can be fun for the entire family. Horseshoes, bocce, croquet, water guns, obstacle golf, Frisbee, football, and soccer are all best enjoyed outdoors. From t-ball players to ultimate-frisbee fanatics, there is something for everyone.

Pedal Cars & Ride-Ons
Pedal cars and ride-on toys fulfill the motivation in all kids to be on the go. Kid-powered vehicles encourage kids to imagine and to put their leg to use. From racing the cars down the drive way to setting up a pretend drive-thru restaurant, riding toys captivate children. Ride-on toys allow kids to use their legs to push and go or ride down a hill as fast as gravity can take them. Some ride-on toys can actually be walk-behind toys to encourage young children to practice walking. There is a broad range of price points in this category. The range runs from simple plastic walk-behind cars to heirloom quality metal or wooden pedal cars.

Cars, Trains and Planes
The range of products in this category is staggering. There is literally something for every price points and age group imaginable. Toy cars, trains, and planes are some of the greatest imagination toys available. It seems toy cars a staple of a young boy’s childhood. However, toy trains and planes captivate across gender and age lines. From Thomas the Tank Engine wooden rails (suitable for toddlers) to Lionel O scale (suitable for adults who never grow up), model trains inspire creativity and imaginative play. The endless possibilities and layouts require children to use their minds to figure out the best way from point A to point B and what happens in between. Toy planes, flying or not, also encourage creative play. From using wooden block to create an airport, to combining rail, road, and sky into one model, the sky is literally the limit.

Wooden Toys
Wooden toys hearken back to a simpler time and place. Most people think of blocks when they think of wooden toys, but the range is much greater. Sled, wagons, riding horses, even Lincoln logs are all made of wood. One the great things about wooden toys is that, due to their simpler design, they require greater imagination from the child playing with them. Also, because they are often very durable, wooden toys can become heirloom type items. Good quality blocks can literally last for generations.

Educational Toys
While almost all toys can be educational in some way, some toys are designed more for this purpose in mind. Alphabet puzzles, musical instruments, electronic reading aids, and even some video and board games can teach important skills such as counting, reading, letters, colors, and logic. When choosing a game of this type, make sure it is age appropriate. Most toys that are labeled “educational” are designed with a particular age group in mind. Some of the better toys available can be played with on a variety of levels. For example, there are some educational video games that have multiple settings (easy, medium, hard) that require different skills such as color recognition, counting, and then reading.

Developmental Toys
Developmental toys are designed for children to begin learning about how things work and are put together. This category of toys includes things such as building sets, work benches, scales, and toys that require assembly and demolition. Most often these toys are for children three and older, and can require adult supervision.

Dressing up isn’t just for Halloween! Children love to use their imaginations, and what better way than dressing up and pretending to be a super hero, a famous queen or king, or a rock star? While, unfortunately, this category is most often highly geared toward girls, with the ubiquitous pink princess, dresses, tiaras, and shoes, there are still great costumes out there for boys. Hats, capes, gloves, shields, and swords can make even the smallest child into a conquering super hero or heroine!

There are many playground options available. The limiting factors for most parents or grandparents are space and budget. Playgrounds can be as simple as the traditional swing set or as complex as the more modern multi-tiered wooden plays area complete with rock climbing walls and bridges. They key factor is to choose something that a can be enjoyed through a variety of age ranges. There is no sense in building a great play area that will not be played with by any child over 5 years old. Kids grow up quickly and the playground should be adaptable.

Action Figures
Action figures are widely varied. From heavily licensed characters marketed on TV, to more generic figures, kids love playing and pretending with action figures. They love acting out their favorite TV shows, and creating new adventures for their “friends”. Most action figures are geared to a slightly older child, so these types of toys are most often designed for children 3 and over due to the accessories that often come with the figures.

Electronic toys are everywhere these days. From simple handheld games to highly advanced gaming systems, there is indeed a wide range of toys available. There are plug and play game modules that plug directly into your television set or DVD player that may have upwards of 20 classic arcade games on them. Children’s digital cameras, mp3 players, and even computers are readily available. It’s best to follow the age recommendations on the packaging where considering an electronic gift.

Travel Fun
Traveling with children can be exciting (in a good or bad way!). First of all you want the toys to be fun and entertaining and as compact as possible so that these toys can be played in limited space. You also want them to be light weight so they can be easily transported. Also you want toys that don't easily cause a mess in 'non-stationary position', which means that you should try to get travel toys with as few pieces as possible. Finally, the toys should be quiet, especially if it's going to be used on an airplane. Here are some suggestions for travel toys for kids. An etch-a-sketch or magna-doodle type game that can be used over and over is great suggestion for a range of age groups. Board books with internal activities are another great suggestion. Magnetic puzzles where the puzzle pieces stick to the puzzle can be a great diversion as can the traditional coloring book. If your child is of the appropriate age, car bingo is a terrific game to play. There are sets available or bingo cards can be downloaded off of many websites.

Science & Exploration
Kids love to explore and find out about their world. There are a wide range of toys available to help do just that. From kid sized microscopes, to bug collection kits, or even small flower pots with seeds to help kids learn about plants, there is something for every age group. There is even a great selection of kids books that focus on anything from slugs to whales and anything in between.

Gadgets & Hideouts
Kids love their own space and they also love fun specialty items. What kid doesn’t like having a special club house that’s protected by booby traps and secret codes. With today’s technology, kids have more opportunities for this type of fun than ever before. From laser trip wires, to super secret spy listening devices, and even night vision goggles, there is something for every kid sized spy out there. There a lot of fun gadgets out there too. How about a cup that stirs your chocolate milk for you? How cool is that?

Bath Toys
Kids don’t necessarily love baths, but they do love bath toys. You can go the traditional route with the rubber ducky or boat (every kid needs a rubber ducky!) or you can go educational with stick on letters, water mazes, or even bath time art supplies like bath paint and chalk. The variety is wide and the appeal for a wide range of ages is also. Just makes sure whatever toys you get that they are easy to clean and that all the water drains out easily or you can have a mold issue on your hands.

Newborn Toys
Newborns are stimulated by bright colors, bold patterns, faces, and fun textures. There is a huge range of toys available, all designed to ignite the senses of the newest additions to your family. “Tag” books, rattles, toy hammers, and playmats, and plush animals with large facial features are all huge hits with babies. Since babies like to put things in their mouths, make sure that the toy is for their age group.

Toddler Toys
Toddlers love learning about their world and what makes things tick. Anything that relates to pretend play that emulates the real world is going to be a hit. Dolls, play sets, costumes and dress up, plush animals, blocks and balls are all awesome toddler toys.

Preschool Toys
Preschool kids are learning and preparing for that leap to school. Activities and toys that encourage the skills they will need in school can be both fun and educational. Toys that focus on colors, letters, numbers, patterns, and fine motor skills are all great ideas. Some great toys for preschoolers are blocks, snap together bricks like Legos, or Megablocs, small puzzles (30-50 pieces), games that teach colors and counting such as Candy Land or Hi Ho Cheerio, or educational video games like V-tech.

Musical Toys
Kids of all ages love music and dancing. Musical toys can make great gifts for a variety of reasons. Simple musical instruments like drums, tambourines, kazoos, and recorders, all teach basic rhythm and intonation and can lay the groundwork for a lifetime love of music. For older children, a kid-size guitar or keyboard can encourage creativity and may even uncover hidden natural ability. One word of caution, especially if you are purchasing for a child outside of your household, make sure the instrument or toy that you purchase has an off button and/or volume control. The recipient’s parents will love you much more if you keep this in mind.