MONDAY, Dec. 19, 2011 (HealthDay News) -- When it comes to toys, kids' wish lists for the holiday season often pose a dilemma for parents, who find themselves asking two crucial questions.
The first question is almost knee-jerk: Which of these toys will be safe for my child?
And the second, though not as obvious, is becoming more common in the era of toys and media aimed at spurring a child's development: Which of these toys will be good for my kid?
Common sense can help guide parents to toys that will aid their child's growth, said Dr. Garry Gardner, chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics' council on injury, violence and poison prevention and a Chicago area pediatrician.
"Two things come to mind," Gardner said. "Kids need toys that are engaging and encourage imaginative and creative play. And kids need toys that encourage activity and exercise."
December has been dubbed Safe Toys and Gifts Month, but many parents these days want to buy gifts that go beyond being harmless and actually are beneficial for kids.
Gardner and Dr. Benjamin Hoffman, a pediatrician at Doernbecher Children's Hospital in Portland, Ore., agreed that one of the best things parents can do is purchase toys that cut down on the amount of their children's "screen time" -- time spent in front of televisions, computers and portable devices.
Video games can help hone a child's fine motor skills, but they also drain time away from more creative or healthy pursuits, Gardner said.
"I've seen kids outside on a beautiful day at the park and here they are, sitting on a bench and playing a video game," he said. "And kids sitting in front of a screen often are snacking -- and not on healthy foods."
What's worse, Hoffman said, is that so much screen input might have detrimental effects on kids' development.
"The cognitive stimulation kids receive from a screen is different, and probably not beneficial," he said. "Our human brains did not evolve to sit in front of a screen with flashing lights and loud sounds. It is potentially harmful to child development."
So what toys are good for kids? Gardner believes parents should begin by keeping it simple.
"Keep in mind, a lot of time kids have more fun with the box than the toy that was inside," he said. "Parents don't need to spend a lot of money, or have a lot of angst whether this is the 'Einstein' toy that's going to make their child brilliant."
Types of toys that allow kids to engage their imaginations and intellects, according to Hoffman and Gardner, include:
- Building blocks or Legos.
- Paints, modeling clays and other art supplies.
- Puzzles and games that promote logic and reasoning.
Parents also should consider toys that prompt outdoor activity or physical exercise, like bicycles, skates and outdoor play equipment, the two pediatricians said.
"I love the idea of toys that are going to get kids outside, active, running around playing," Hoffman said. "It helps set the stage for kids who remain active later on."
These sorts of gifts require more forethought and vigilance from parents and other gift-buyers, however. They need to make sure they're purchasing age-appropriate gear for kids, along with any helmets and other protective equipment needed for safe use.
"Toys with wheels often are bought prematurely for children," Hoffman said. "Even though they may seem to have the manual dexterity, they don't have the cognitive ability to assess risks."
The same goes for swing sets and other outdoor play equipment, which can pose a falling hazard for kids who are too young, he said.
"If the child is going to play with these items, there needs to be an adult there to supervise, depending on their age," Hoffman said. "A 10-year-old on a bicycle on a closed street in a neighborhood is completely appropriate. Sending a 4-year-old out on the street is not."
Hoffman noted that there's another type of gift that's important for kids but often is overlooked because it doesn't seem as "fun" as other options.
"Parents often forget about the impact that reading and books have on children," he said. "That's one of the best things a kid can get." He urged parents interested in their child's development to be sure to give books as gifts.
In terms of toy safety, Gardner and Hoffman emphasized a few key points:
- Keep choking hazards in mind, particularly for young children and with toys that have small parts. Use a toilet paper tube as a guide: If a piece can fit through the tube, the toy isn't appropriate for small children.
- Be careful when giving toys that contain small magnets. If more than one is swallowed, the magnets can stick together in the digestive tract and cause tearing of the bowel wall, Gardner said.
- Toys that shoot missiles or other objects are prime hazards for eye injuries.
- Be aware that costume jewelry and other low-cost toys can contain lead, particularly if they are imported from another country.
- Toys with small batteries also should be approached with caution. Tiny lithium batteries can be swallowed and lodge in the esophagus, where they pass a current through the moist membranes. "It actually burns a hole through the esophagus in a two-hour time frame," Gardner said.
To learn more about choosing safe toys, visit the Nemours Foundation.
To read a toy expert's advice for selecting a gift, click here.