Here is my guide to toy selection. I hope it helps you with your shopping. 

Categories of Healthy Toys

Before making your toy selection, let’s discuss healthy categories of toys. Especially in this digital age, it is important to remember the value of play without the use of media or devices. In 2019, the journal Pediatrics published a report on how to select appropriate and safe toys in this digital era.  The report discussed the concern that electronic toys were replacing more traditional children’s toys. Although we know there is a place for healthy use of electronics, in this guide we will focus on the traditional categories of children’s toys.  

The Council on Early Childhood Development cites a number of different traditional toy categories. In each of these categories, there are a range of options for toys that are fun and appropriate for different ages of children. These include: 

  1.  Symbolic or pretend play (dolls, costumes, play kitchen with food, cars, airplanes) 
  2. Fine motor/manipulative play (legos, blocks, shapes, puzzles)
  3. Art (crayons, paints, clay) 
  4. Language based toys (card games, board games, toy letters) 
  5. Gross motor (bikes, jump ropes, pull or push toys).   

Toy Selection Safety Tips

One important safety practice when purchasing a toy is to check the label for the minimum age that a child should be in order to safely use the toy. Here is a guide published by the National Association for the Education of Young Children with recommended toys for children at different ages. 

Unfinished solid wood toys, or the ones with water-based stains, are great choices. As we know, younger children will often put these toys in their mouths, and you want to ensure the wood is non-toxic and will not cause harm. Skip the wooden toys made from pressed wood (where you can see the layers) or particleboard (where you can see the fine grain of glued-together particles), unless you are sure that the glues are safe. Many adhesives contain chemicals that you wouldn’t want to expose to your child. For wood products, something displaying the seal from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) goes the extra step, and certifies the wood was harvested in a sustainable way. Bamboo can be another good choice for toys.

It is also a great year to look for toys made from natural cotton or wool (organic is even better). You want your stuffed toys to have a safe filling. You also want fabric-based toys to be washable in order to keep them clean at home. For art supplies (a great gift that fosters creativity!), look for those that are labeled nontoxic. Products with the AP seal are certified safe by the Art and Creative Materials Institute (ACMI).

Although I prefer natural toys, I am realistic. Many of the toys your children request are made out of plastic. Look for plastic toys with the recycling symbols 1, 2, 4, or 5. Avoid anything made from 3 (PVC, commonly made with phthalates) or 7 (unless it says BPA-free). BPA is primarily a concern in the mouth. Phthalates are also a concern in the air and on the skin. Some toys are labeled BPA-free and phthalate-free.  

Avoid toys with button batteries or high-powered magnets as these may be a choking hazard and dangerous, especially to younger children. Toys with batteries should always have their batteries secured in a battery case by screws so that children cannot open them. 

The Consumer Product Safety Commission regulates consumer products to ensure their safety and manages recalls when needed. Toys may be recalled if a problem is found. Always take these recalls seriously and discard the toy right away.  

Don’t Forget about the Packaging

Even if a toy is safe, the packaging, carrying case, or storage pouch may not be. You may want to keep the toys and throw away the case. Be sure to promptly remove and discard plastic packaging to avoid choking and suffocation injuries. And I always recommend you watch out for cheap metal jewelry and toy cosmetics, which may contain lead and other harmful substances. Paint on toys should be lead-free and labeled nontoxic. 

As you shop for toys this holiday season, remember that fancy electronic toys are not necessary. Sometimes the best gifts are the old-fashioned simple toys that foster growth and creativity in your child. Have fun with picking safe gifts for your children, and cherish their smiles as they receive them.  

References and Resources — Allows anyone to report a problem with a consumer product. — Provides details and information about toy recalls. 

Healey, A, et al. Selecting appropriate toys for young children in the digital era. Pediatrics 2019;143(1):e20183348. 

Karr C. Addressing environmental contaminants in pediatric practice. Pediatr Rev. 2011;32(5):190–200. 

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Alan Greene MD contributor