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Choose the Right Children's Toys this Holiday Season

Renee Despres
Friday, March 22, 2013 - 14:06

With Christmas right around the corner, many procrastinating parents, aunts, uncles, grandmas, and grandpas are madly scrambling to find last-minute gifts for the kids on their holiday gift lists. Should you choose educational toys? Video games? Electronic gadgets? Old-fashioned toys? If you’re one of those procrastinating parents, don’t despair. Here are some guidelines for choosing the right toys this holiday season.  

First and foremost, remember that play is learning, says Deborah Best, William L. Poteat Professor of Psychology  at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “Ask yourself, ‘What are you getting out of the toy?  Does it only do one thing? Does it have different kinds of uses?’”

Toys that only do one thing – or that do things for kids – should stay on the shelves, says Best. “With these kinds of toys, children really don’t have opportunity to be creative,” she says. “We used to have toys – or make toys – that required imaginative play. If they had a cardboard box, kids would turn it into play house, a doll house, space ship. We didn’t have toys that did everything for us. Today, with many toys, kids just watch – they don’t participate.”

Boys Can Button, Too

Gender can also be a big factor in kids’ attraction to specific toys and games – and try as parents might, kids tend to be drawn to gender-specific toys, says Best. So, is it a mistake to buy “girl” toys for girls and “boy” toys for boys? “Yes and no,” says Best, a developmental psychologist who studies gender roles and young children.

 Girls and boys are drawn toward different types of toys, says Best, largely because kids like things that are easy for them to do. “Boys tend to have less well- developed fine motor skills than girls, so they don’t like toys that require them to use those skills – like girls buttoning a doll dress,” she explains.

But you can still challenge your kids with something new. “Children naturally gravitate to gender-appropriate toys, but playing with other-gender toys may teach new skills. They need exposure to ‘girl’ toys, ‘boy’ toys and gender-neutral toys to gain experience that will encourage them to play across boundaries,” Best says.

Too much same-gender play may narrow children’s cognitive and motor skills, she says. Girls may refine gross motor skills playing with trucks. Boys may improve their fine motor skills playing with typical girl toys, such as buttoning doll clothing.

Preschool and Elementary (Birth to 8 Years)

Younger kids will enjoy – and benefit most – from toys that allow them to improvise and create. Toys can play an important role in a child’s education and development, especially for children who haven’t reached first grade yet, says R. Keith Sawyer, PhD, associate professor of education in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.

But Sawyer, who is an expert on creativity and improvisation, suggests that parents look for toys that foster improvisation during fantasy play — which leads to all sorts of social and conversational advancement. “I like to see pretend play that is more loosely structured and more improvisational,” he says.

“Most of the toys geared at children age 6 and younger are based on an educational theory known as constructivism,” Sawyer says. “Constructivism is the idea that children create their own knowledge by actively participating in the learning process. Playing with toys — even something as simple as blocks — allows children to create their own play environment and stimulate their imagination.”

Sawyer notes that toys that are “low realism” can improve a child’s creativity and improvisational play skills. “Low realism refers to toys that are not likeness-based. For example, if you bought your child the cowboy from the movie ‘Toy Story,’ the child will probably already be familiar with the movie, with the character and how the character talks and acts. That narrows the range of pretend play options or scenarios the child will engage in. However, if you get your child a generic cowboy toy, the child might act out scenes from ‘Toy Story,’ but might also do something completely different.”

Tweens  (9 to 14 years)

Finding gifts for older kids can be much more challenging. At this age, children are starting to develop a clear idea of what they like and dislike. Preteens are also negotiating  treacherous terrain. Sexuality, relationships with peers, and body image are critical issues in their lives.

Still, the same rule of thumb applies: Play is learning. Developmentally, kids this age need a balance of group play and individual pastimes. They’re able to navigate complex sports or mental games, and they’ve got the physical skills to take up crafts such as knitting, model-building, or even woodworking.

Gender plays a big role in determining preferences for tweens. As girls transition into adolescence, they often want to experiment with skimpy or inappropriate clothing. “Sexuality is a big issue for older kids, especially girls,” says Best. “Parents really need to have conversations with their children about what skimpy or inappropriate clothing implies and what it looks like.  One of the most important things during this stage is the child’s reputation with other children. If you have a bad reputation – if you’re known as too aggressive or too sexy – that’s the kind of friends you’re going to have.”

Boys may be drawn to videogames, most of which are violent. “Most research on computer skills shows that boys tend to be a little more advanced than girls,” says Best. “That’s partly because the kinds of games created are violent. When they play the games, they get to kill things and shoot at stuff. That’s really why girls don’t have that kind of experience – they’re not drawn to it.

A long history of research on exposure to violence on television shows that children who watch more violent shows are more likely to be aggressive,” says Best. “Boys are probably getting the same kind of message with video games and aggressive toys that are on television.”

Thus, says Best, parents would do well to monitor children’s interactions with videogames. “Videogames are big, but be very selective about them,” she says. “While it’s inevitable that children will be exposed to violence, you don’t need to reinforce it.”

The Disappearing Gift

What does a parent do when a well-meaning relative or friend gives your child a toy that doesn’t fit your value system, or that you find inappropriate or offensive? Of course, it will be the “bestest bestest bestest” gift under the tree, at least from your child’s perspective.  

Start by warding off the gifts before they make it to the tree. Monitor children’s wish lists to ensure that inappropriate items aren’t included. “Parents need to have conversations with children about their Christmas lists. It’s a great opportunity for parents to talk with children about values,” says Best.  You can offer comments like “this is too expensive,” “these are not things we have in the house,” or directly address the problem with the item – too skimpy, too violent, not enough.

Parents can also talk with adults who will be giving your child a gift this season. Often, the people who are giving toys will appreciate the guidance.

Inevitably, though, an inappropriate gift will end up under the tree, if not this year, next year, or the year after that. When that happens, the gifts might just need to magically disappear, says Best.

Gifts for Santa’s List

So what types of gifts should make it under the tree this year?  

Some gifts transcend all ages:

  • Gardening tools: “One of the best gifts my son ever received was a bucket and shovel and rake and a few packets of seeds,” recalls Best. “When spring rolled around, he started his own garden.”
  • Art materials. Pick materials that allow the child to create things themselves. Construction paper, glue, markers, colored pencils, and scissors, stickers, yarn, and glitter are always-needed essentials.  A child-sized easel can encourage good technique in both younger and older children.
  • Books. Choose age-appropriate books, based on the child’s likes and dislikes. Online booksellers usually group books into appropriate age groups. Or go to a physical bookstore and ask staff for help.
  • Music to Listen to: Kids of all ages enjoy listening to music. Offer them a wide variety of musical genres – and don’t be surprised if your tween is totally engaged by Bach or Tchaikovsky. Of course, avoid music with violent or disturbing content.
  • Music to Play: Kids of all ages enjoy making music. A harmonica, drum, violin -- or even music lessons -- might be the best gift you ever gave your child (and yourself).

Some gifts for preschool and elementary age children:

  • Legos. “Legos have always been one of my favorite toys,” says Best. “There are so many opportunities for kids to learn from building and moving and visualizing.” Legos come in many sizes and shapes, offering kids a chance to develop both gross and fine motor skills. As children grow, they can build cities or other scenes. Legos can be used for both individual and interactive play.
  • Dolls. “Girls are going to like dolls,” says Best. “Try  to get something that gives the child a chance to do things – dress them, have them play imaginatively. Avoid Barbie – she’s just a sexpot.”
  • Mini-trucks: Trucks and a sandbox out back can be a wonderful pastime for youngsters of both genders. Children can become entirely engrossed in the sandbox, moving things around, and building things.
  • Child-Size Household Items. Young children love to be real helpers, not just pretend to help, and they can do amazing things if given the right tools. A child-sized broom and dustpan, child-sized cookware, aprons, or other "practical life" items can be wonderful gifts that allow your child to work alongside you while you do housework. Including your children in chores helps them know they are truly part of the family. “Anything that teaches children about things in the home is a great choice,” says Best.

If there are tweens on your gift list, consider the following:

  • Games: Board games and games like trivial pursuit require another person. “That’s a good thing,” says Best. “Children are learning some good skills when they play these games and interact.”
  • Advanced Crafts. Preteens of both ages may enjoy learning to knit, crochet, sew , weave, or build models; woodworking and other crafts can help build skills and concentration.
  • Hands-on science kits. Many hands-on science kits prepared kids to learn about scientific concepts in a playful way. For instance, some kits allow kids to build and shoot off rockets; others provide basic chemistry experiments; others give kids a chance to investigate growth or behavior of plants or insects. The key, says Best, is choosing something that allows kids to build something that has an interesting outcome.
  • Sports equipment. Tweens love to play in groups – and they need physical outlets. Give them a chance to play safely and establish good fitness habits early on.

Best’s final word of advice to parents? “Don’t just cowtow and buy them the gifts they want. Think about them and discuss them with your children. That takes work. But parenting is a lot of work.”

After the gifts are opened, sit down and play with your child. And have the Merriest Christmas ever.


Ready to shop? Check out these sources for high-quality children’s toys, games, and more: