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Magnets, sound, and batteries: Choosing safe toys


The holidays feel more important than usual this year as the pandemic rages around us; we all are looking for something to enjoy. And a big part of holiday enjoyment for families is, of course, buying toys.

As parents, friends, and family set out to buy toys for the children on their lists, here are some suggestions for things you shouldn’t buy — and those you should.

Buyer beware when choosing toys

The US PIRG (Public Interest Research Group) has a list of kinds of toys that people should try to avoid. They include

  • Loud toys. Loud noises can actually damage hearing. Given how much noise we end up being exposed to over a lifetime, and the ubiquitous use of earbud earphones, you really don’t want to start early with extra noise. You can always turn the sound off, but it’s probably better to just not buy the toy.
  • Slime. Apparently, some brands have high levels of toxic boron! Make your own instead (there are lots of easy recipes for borax-free slime), or just avoid it altogether.
  • Fidget spinners and other toys designed for adults. The “designed for adults” is the key point here; they don’t have to meet safety standards for children.
  • Anything with small parts if the child is under 3 years old — or if there is a child in the household that is under 3 years old. Read the safety labels! If you aren’t sure if a part is too small, see if it fits through a toilet paper tube. If it does, it’s too small. Be mindful, too, of attached small pieces that might come off, like the eyes on a stuffed animal.
  • “Hatching” toys. As they hatch they generate small pieces that can become — you guessed it — choking hazards.
  • Balloons. These are the top choking hazard for kids. Anyone under 3 should never get them, and those between 3 and 8 should be closely supervised.
  • Smart toys and devices. They may collect data you’d rather not share, and could be hacked. Mozilla has a great resource to help you figure out which devices are safer than others.
  • Makeup. Apparently, it can contain asbestos and other toxic chemicals. Personally, I think young kids shouldn’t wear makeup anyway.
  • Magnets in toys. This is a big and important no for any child who might put the toy in their mouth (or siblings of any child who might do so). Little magnets in toys, many of which are 10 times more powerful than traditional magnets, can be deadly if a child swallows more than one of them. They can connect through the walls of the intestine, leading to blockages and perforations. In 2014, the Consumer Product Safety Commission banned the sale of these magnets, but after a lawsuit by a magnet company, the ban was stopped in 2016. Not surprisingly, the number of emergency room visits for magnet ingestions has gone up.
  • Used and older toys. While most of these are likely fine, they don’t have their safety labels anymore, and you don’t know if they may have been recalled or be broken in a way that could make them less safe.

Which toys to buy instead

When it comes to toys for children, “back to basics” is best: simple toys that encourage pretend play, creativity, fine motor skills, language skills, and movement. Think things like dolls, puppets, costumes, train sets, blocks and other building sets, balls, jump ropes, bikes, books — and, of course, all kinds of art supplies. These are the kinds of toys that give the most sustained kind of fun, ones that require imagination and interaction and get kids moving, and help kids in their development.

During the pandemic, I’d particularly suggest three kinds of toys:

Toys without screens. With even preschoolers in remote school, everyone has way too much screen time. So skip the electronics this year.

Toys that encourage exercise. We are all too sedentary these days. It’s great to get outside and exercise, so things like bikes and balls can be excellent gifts. If the weather is too cold or you don’t have much easily accessible outdoor space, look for things you can do inside. Balls with a handle that you can sit and bounce on are fun, as are balance boards, riding toys, stepping stones, or even indoor tightropes. A yoga mat can be used for all kinds of exercise. Along with setting up home offices, it’s a good idea to set up an exercise space if you can.

Toys you can play with together. We are all spending so much time together, so it’s great if we can have fun doing it. Look for games that you can play as a family — there are so many out there. Or get a train set or building kit that you can do together. We need each other more than ever before, and we need fun; getting both at the same time is a wonderful holiday gift.

Follow me on Twitter @drClaire

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