Family Health: Toys for kids can be both safe and fun

Back in the 1950s, if you wanted to get your kids a really special Christmas gift you might have put a Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab under the tree. This kit was so realistic that it included actual uranium ore samples – probably not the safest toy.

More recently, children received CSI Fingerprint Examination Kits that used fingerprint dust made from asbestos, and Snacktime Cabbage Patch Dolls with mechanical jaws that pulled in fingers as well as French fries, and had no off switch.

Most kids’ toys today don’t come with these kinds of risks. But depending on the age of the child you’re buying for, even toys that seem safe can cause injuries or illness. These tips from the American Academy of Pediatrics and other experts can help you choose safe, age-appropriate toys that kids enjoy.

For babies:

  • Keep strings and wires on hanging crib toys too short to go around the child’s head. Ribbons and strings on other toys should also be short.
  • Check labels to make sure toys are labeled “nontoxic,” since they are likely to go into small mouths.
  • Avoid small toys or those with small parts, which are a choking hazard.
  • Good toys for babies include soft dolls, board books, rattles and other things they can shake or squeeze to make noise. Unbreakable mirrors or pictures of faces are also good choices. Older babies like things to build with, like soft blocks and nesting toys. Dolls, puppets and toy vehicles with wheels are also good for these kids.

For young children:

  • Nontoxic toys and are a must for this age group, too. And young children can also choke on small parts from toys or game. A good rule is to make sure all toys and parts are bigger than the child’s mouth.
  • Don’t buy toys with buttons or plastic eyes that aren’t securely attached. Toys stuffed with small pellets are also a choking risk.
  • Avoid toys, small remotes and other items with button batteries or magnets, since they can cause serious health problems needing immediate attention if they are swallowed. Even some books have these batteries.
  • Stay away from loud toys that could damage a child’s hearing.
  • Young kids like to create, so try giving nontoxic, washable markers and a book of large paper. Puzzles are also good choices – simple ones for younger kids. Objects to sort by size, shape or color appeal to toddlers, and toys that involve pounding or hammering help develop muscles. As kids get older they like picture books with more words, and more complicated toys like those with interactive screens.

For older kids:

  • Stay with the same cautions about toxic materials and small parts – even older kids may put things in their mouths.
  • Don’t buy toys that shoot objects into the air. Kids can get serious eye injuries from these toys.
  • If you buy plastic toys, make sure they are made of sturdy material that won’t break.
  • Avoid hobby kits and chemistry sets. They may not contain uranium, but they can still cause fires or explosions. Kids older than age 12 may be safe with one of these kits if adults have ensured they have the appropriate equipment and understand the risks.
  • If you buy an electric toy, make sure the label says “UL Approved.”
  • Kids older than age 5 or 6 like more complicated toys, such as board games and construction kits. Nurture young scientists with a simple telescope or a grow-your-own crystal set. Books about how things work are good for this age, and so are active toys like bicycles – don’t forget the helmet. Kids this age are usually good with technology, so consider educational apps for tablets. Check them out at bestappsforkids.com.

One way to weed out the most dangerous toys is to check for recalls at safekids.org. This site also offers advice on avoiding injuries from fires, falls and other hazards during the holidays. For more information on the Safe Kids Missoula Coalition, contact the Foundation for Community Health at foundation@fchwmt.org.