Child’s play: Tips for buying safe and healthy toys

This article was updated on December 14, 2020 to reflect recent information and research.

Selecting the perfect toy for kids this holiday season is about more than pursuing the latest wish list.

  • Simple toys that encourage interaction and imagination can be good picks.
  • Be careful with toys that have button batteries.
  • Read toy labels and product information to reduce risks.

[3 MIN READ]

The holiday season is upon us, which even with all its festivities and cheer, also sends parents, families and friends in a shopping frenzy seeking out the perfect toy for kids in their lives.

It can be a challenge to find the right present that offers up hours of engagement (and hopefully a little education). That’s not even to mention that it’s important to pick out a toy that will be healthy and safe for the age range and development for the child on your shopping list.

Here, we break down a few of the most common recommendations and warnings to keep in mind as you browse websites and wish lists this holiday season.

Select toys that encourage interaction

Although it’s hard to compete with flashy electronics and shiny parts, Resa Bradeen, MD, regional medical director at Providence Women & Children’s Services in Portland, Oregon, suggests that parents look for interactive toys that promote imaginative play. That could include a game that requires interplay with others or a toy that encourages a child to sing, dance or solve puzzles. 

Children learn from interacting with their parents. An added bonus is the playtime with parents and grown-ups, which is the attention kids crave.

Dr. Bradeen says children learn from interacting with their parents. An added bonus is the playtime with parents and grown-ups, which is the attention kids crave.

“Interactive toys require kids to use many different parts of their brain,” explains Dr. Bradeen. “Electronic toys can sometimes be interactive, but many of them allow children to just zone out. That’s not a helpful feature in a toy.”

A simple toy is a good toy

A good toy (and perhaps your child’s favorite one day) doesn’t have to be expensive, big or complicated. Some of the classics, such as toy cars and building blocks, can be the most enjoyable to play with and may keep a child’s interest for longer periods of time.

You don’t need fancy toys to promote creativity, imagination and interaction.

 “You don’t need fancy toys to promote creativity, imagination and interaction,” says Dr. Bradeen.

Watch those button batteries

Button batteries are found in a long list of electronic devices: Toys, games, remote controls, cell phones and even flameless candles. The size and shape is appealing to young children, but button batteries can be extremely dangerous if swallowed. Make sure battery compartments of all electronic toys are taped or screwed shut, and that loose batteries are always stored out of your child’s reach.

Plastics and chemicals in toys

Phthalates are a group of chemicals that make plastic flexible and harder to break. These common chemicals can also be found in toys (and just about everything else). In fact, they’re so widespread that they’re called “everywhere chemicals.” They are used in food containers, plastic bags and, of course, plastic toys.

The good news is that the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) regulates the type and amount manufacturers can have in children’s toys. And, they’ve taken steps to ban at least eight different types of phthalates.

Holiday shoppers may also want to keep an eye out for items and clothing with other chemicals, such as flame retardants, PVC vinyl and bisphenols (including BPA).

This is particularly true for younger children, as children under the age of 3 are still putting objects in their mouth which increases their risk of exposure to toxic materials.

Avoid toys that pose choking hazards

Of course, it’s not just exposure to chemicals that should give parents pause about the toys they give their child – and the toys their child receives from well-meaning family and friends.

Apply the same discerning eye for toy labels as you would a nutrition label.

Encourage friends and family to pay attention to toy labels. Apply the same discerning eye for toy labels as you would a nutrition label. Items that pose a choking hazard for young children will have a note that they aren’t suitable for children under age 3. And if you have doubts about the size of a toy or any of its parts, use a cardboard tube from a roll of paper towels to double-check your gut instinct. If the object fits inside the tube, the toy shouldn’t be given to kids under 3.

Safe toy buying tips

Whenever you’re shopping for a child, keep a few simple guidelines in mind to help make sure you’re picking out a safe, age-appropriate and engaging toy:

  • Read the label. Look for disclaimers like “Harmful if swallowed” or “Wash hands after use.” These may not be appropriate for young children. Avoid toys that involve glitter, goo or paint that could easily be ingested by a small child.
  • Choose age-appropriate toys. Most manufacturers include age recommendations on their toys.
  • Seek out interactive toys and games. Games that encourage imagination, problem-solving or role play are great choices for kids of all ages.
  • Look for code ASTM F963. This means the toy meets the most recent government safety standards set by the American Society for Testing and Materials. All toys sold in the U.S. must have it. (Art supplies will have ASTM D4236, which means toxicologists have reviewed the ingredients and listed their warnings.)
  • Check for chemicals. Avoid toys with recycling symbols No. 3 (PVC) and No. 7 (contains BPA). Instead, look for products that are labeled non-toxic or BPA-free.
  • Avoid antiques. It may be tempting to pass down a meaningful toy or a one-of-a-kind toy from an antique store, but those toys may not follow today’s safety standards. They may contain toxic substances, like lead paint, or pose a choking hazard.
  • Stay up to date on the latest recalls. Fill out the registration card that comes with your child’s toys. It allows the company to contact you if there is product recall. The CPSC also keeps track of the latest recalls.
  • Check the toy’s durability. Make sure the toy can withstand rough and tumble play or being dropped without breaking into small, sharp pieces.

Feeling overwhelmed? Just remember, the simpler the better. 

Feeling overwhelmed? Just remember, the simpler the better. Taking a little extra time to read the label can help make sure you pick a safe, age-appropriate toy for your child. And, if you aren’t shopping in the store, you can often easily find toy safety information online.

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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

About the Author

The Providence Body & Mind Team is dedicated to providing medically-sound, data-backed insights and advice on how to reach and maintain your optimal health through a mixture of exercise, mindfulness, preventative care and healthy living in general.

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