Most parents have a story about the time when their child abandoned the carefully selected, age-appropriate, much-too-expensive toy in favor of—you guessed it—the box it came in.
It's no accident that children gravitate toward certain toys, pediatricians and child development experts say.
As a rule, select a toy that invites creativity and imagination and encourages exploration and curiosity. In most cases, the simpler the toy, the more children are free to use their imagination. Toys too complicated or defined, such as talking stuffed animals or dolls with specific themes, limit creativity, so boredom quickly follows.
Babies and toddlers are the easiest to please. Just choose something safe, stimulating, and appropriate for them developmentally. Grandma may find that gigantic fluffy stuffed bear irresistible, but Junior is much better off with something smaller and washable he can grasp and wave around.
For newborns to 1-year-olds, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends large blocks of wood or plastic; pots and pans; rattles; soft, washable animals, dolls, or balls; bright, movable objects that are out of babys reach, such as hanging mobiles; busy boards; floating bath toys; and squeeze toys.
As baby grows to toddler, introduce cloth or plastic books with large pictures, sturdy dolls, kiddy cars, musical tops, nesting blocks, push and pull toys without long strings (these present a hazard), stacking toys, and toy telephones.
The choices are more varied for preschoolers, but choose wisely. Parents often mistakenly believe their child is more advanced than average and choose toys recommended for older kids. This can set a child up for unnecessary frustration at playtime.
Better choices for this age group are toys that help them imitate an activity they associate with parents, older siblings, or other grown-ups—such as housekeeping toys, dress-up clothes, a collection of play hats, play tools, or a set of dishes.
Boys enjoy the dramatic play area as much as girls, says Amy Harris-Solomon, coordinator of the early childhood center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. "They're learning to put things on and take them off, so it's fun to put on outfits. It's good for them developmentally."
Preschoolers also like blackboards and chalk; crayons, non-toxic finger paints, modeling clay; outdoor toys such as a sandbox, transportation toys, simple puzzles, books that feature short stories or action stories, and a tape player for music or stories, preferably one that can also record the child's own voice.
Picking out attractive playthings for children in elementary school becomes more of a challenge because of television's influence.
Studies tell us children under age 8 are likely to believe everything the ads say. If it says, "All the girls love Surfer Barbie!" your second-grade daughter is likely to want one.
Again, going back to the fundamentals of imagination, exploration, curiosity, and creativity, you'll find that the enduring card games, electric trains, board games such as Monopoly and Clue, skates, sports equipment, crafts, and balls hold more promise for hours of fun.
Appropriate computer games, microscopes or telescopes, arts & crafts projects, or additions to a hobby collection are good suggestions for preteens, the AAP says. Magazine subscriptions that support a particular interest are always welcome.
Just remember, you don't have to spend a lot for children to have a lot of fun with a toy.