Picking Winners: How to Select the Right Toys for Your Child

By Matthew S. Robinson

Whether you’re a toy manufacturer, a parent or a child-development researcher, there’s no question that play is serious business. Every year, hundreds of new toys and games come on the market competing for shelf space, advertising budgets and, most important, consumers’ attention.

So how can you tell which toys are appropriate for your child?

“Almost any play material can present opportunities for being creative, imaginative and constructive,” says W. George Scarlett, Ph.D., assistant professor of child development at Tufts University and author of the forthcoming book Children’s Play. Parents should not ask what toys or play materials are “educational” and “creative,” Scarlett advises, but rather how the child’s interests can create opportunities for learning and creating with a particular toy.

Child-development and play experts offer these tips and considerations to keep in mind when filling your own child’s toy box:

Look for toys that are related to your child’s interests.

Toy use can be subjective and each child has different needs and interests.

“The key is to follow your children’s interests and to not be limited by what they ask for,” says Susan Oliver, director of Playing for Keeps, an organization dedicated to promoting healthy and constructive play. “Kids have different reasons that lead them to ask for a particular toy. If they have seen a toy on TV or among their peers, that can make the whole thing more complicated.”

But rather than giving in to requests for the latest fad or a child’s whim of the moment, Oliver advises parents to watch how their kids spend their time when given the choice and let that be a guide.

Playing for Keeps analyzes and shares the latest information about play and proper play materials with teachers, pediatricians and parents. To help adults make the best choices for kids, the organization focuses not so much on individual toys, but on characteristics of the play those toys encourage.

“As play is a natural way for children to learn, most children gravitate toward certain play features,” Oliver says. “So, if you try to find a ‘good’ toy, you need to start with where the child is developmentally, what they are working on, and what is fun and/or challenging for them.”

Look for toys that match a child’s stage of development.

“I do not think that parents can choose any toy on the shelf and assume it will work for their child. You have to know your children and understand what they can do and what they like,” says Diana Nielander, director of business development for the National Lekotek Center, an organization that researches play, acts as a consultant to toy manufacturers and provides special play centers and toy lending libraries – all primarily for children with special needs.

Nielander urges parents to pay attention to the manufacturer’s age-level suggestions on toys, even when it comes to kids with special needs. “Age ranges are very helpful to parents because they help guide us to things that are closer to good matches. Even if your child’s developmental age does not match his or her chronological age, age-level labeling can help in your decisions.”

Playing for Keeps’ Susan Oliver believes that today’s parents have more developmentally appropriate toys than ever to choose from. “There is a growing market for developmental products,” she says, citing a trend toward older first-time parents and the increased involvement of grandparents in their grandchildren’s lives. These adults place a high value on playtime and are looking for developmentally oriented toys, she says.

“Companies are working to fill those niches,” Oliver notes. “People seem to feel that they need to justify giving their children time for play, so the support for these toys helps do that.”

Look for safe, well-built, open-ended toys that stimulate imaginative play. When it comes to selecting the right toys for kids, early childhood educator Isabel Johnson, of Alamosa, Colo., believes the problem lies more in finding toys themselves amid today’s store shelves full of electronic, high-tech gadgets geared toward kids.

“It is harder and harder to find toys for children,” says Johnson, who is editor of Early Childhood Educator, an online magazine devoted to parents and educators involved in early learning, “because we are moving away from toys [and] toward entertainment and technology.”

Citing the recent spate of exercise videos and computer games geared to toddlers, Johnson believes it’s more important than ever to find what she calls “true toys” – objects that a child can manipulate and play with in an open-ended manner.

The best toys are those that are well built, safe, attractive and encourage hands-on exploration, she says. “It is always safe to offer children one of the ‘old reliables.’ Things like blocks, balls, dolls and costumes are always good because they appeal to both genders and because they also support imaginary and creative play.”

Scarlett agrees. “Trendy toys and play materials may work well, but good, old-fashioned blocks, dolls and markers can work better.”

“One of the fallacies now being challenged in developmental research is that imagination is a childish way of thinking,” he says. “Imagination is a lifelong means of knowing and coping, and its origins can be seen in the life of children’s play.”

Different toys engender different types of opportunities, he notes. “While dolls lend themselves to telling stories, paper and markers lend themselves to symbolizing in a two-dimensional medium, and blocks lend themselves to three dimensions. Sound, too, can be a medium in which to play and symbolize.”

Johnson also recommends arts and crafts toys (finger paints, clay or dough) and the creation of “prop boxes” containing various materials that have to do with common themes, such as the firehouse, a lemonade stand, etc.

Don’t discount those high-tech toys.

While Johnson espouses a “back-to-basics” approach, other play experts believe technology has a place in the world of children’s toys – as long as high-tech or computerized toys are used appropriately.

Oliver notes that children with physical or mental handicaps often need toys with “techno-gadgetry” to help them play and develop in spite of their disabilities.

As with any toy, however, Oliver says parents considering a high-tech or electronic toy need to consider the activity level of the child. “When technology is used inappropriately,” she says, “instead of it being a question of what can the child do with the toy, the question becomes what the toy can do. We try to keep the focus on what the child can do.”

While Oliver acknowledges that parents may have value systems that discourage too much focus on computers, electronics or video screens, “at the end of the day, it is the way you play with a toy that makes it good or bad.”

Look for toys that are multi-sensory and adjustable, particularly for children who have special needs.

Some children – and parents – need extra support when dealing with play. Yet even kids with special needs still need the same kinds of benefits that toys offer.

“There are some children who will need specially made toys and who will not have the same success with off-the-shelf toys,” says Lekotek’s Diana Nielander. “But, for the most part, there are certain characteristics that apply to all toys and all children.”

Among the attributes that Lekotek’s experts look for when assessing toys are whether they have multi-sensory appeal and whether they are adjustable. “As different children deal with things in different ways and at different levels, parents need to consider whether the toy can be changed to be reached by different children, either physically or in terms of their learning level,” Nielander says.

Though no one toy will appeal to all children, parents can use these attributes as criteria to make informed choices that will increase their chances of success in matching toys to children.

Finally, look for toys that will keep kids actively engaged in play. Referring to the nation’s current epidemic of childhood obesity and sedentary lifestyles, Johnson urges parents to choose toys that encourage active involvement, as opposed to passive entertainment.

For the young outdoor enthusiast, she recommends wheeled toys and climbing equipment, which encourage both gross- and fine-motor skills. Swing sets, sandboxes and other playground equipment also give kids the chance to interact and play together, she says.

“Time outside is not only good for children’s mental health, but for their physical health as well. Unfortunately, many children have very little these days,” she says. “You have the rest of your life to sit in front of a TV or a computer. You don’t need to start so early!”

Nielander echoes concerns that today’s kids are being given less time to enjoy any of their toys or creative activities.

“The idea of play is becoming less and less accepted by schools,” she says, referring to the many schools that have removed such activities as recess in favor of more “academic” work.

“People are so worried about when their child will learn to read, they pass by such vital lessons as turn-taking and reasoning and all the other lessons that come from play. ‘Learned’ learning is important,” Nielander says, “but we need to let the children play, because it is through play that children learn how to do the academic things that allow them to be successful.”

Parents need to be reminded how important play is, Oliver says, and children need to be given permission to engage in it in a meaningful way that they can enjoy. “This is especially true with the kinds of toys that we feel are more productive for children,” she says, “which are toys that allow them to tell the story instead of having the story already programmed in.”



Early Childhood Educator Published by Paideia Press, this site is edited by an educator and parenting instructor and offers tips and information about toys and play.

The National Lekotek Center – Researches toys and play, particularly for children with special needs; advises manufacturers on toy development; and provides play centers and toy lending libraries for kids with special needs.

Playing for KeepsEducates parents, professionals and the toy industry on aspects of play and child development; advocates for more playtime for children.


Catch a Fish, Throw a Ball, Fly a Kite: 21 Timeless Skills Every Child Should Know (and Any Parent Can Teach!), by Jeffrey Lee, M.D., Three Rivers Press, 2004. Lee, a pediatrician, wrote this book on how to teach kids the basics of different kinds of play after noticing that many of today’s parents don’t know how.

Matthew S. Robinson is a freelance writer and early childhood educator.From United Parenting Publications, October 2004.