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Toys: Finding the perfect fit for your child

December 20, 2002

chrisc@herald-mail.com

OK. It's the Friday before Christmas and you've delayed getting to the toy store to buy presents for your kids.

Haven't written down a list? Worried about what to get? Let go of the idea that shopping for kids is hard - or hard on the wallet.

Toys need not be complicated or expensive. Children are play-machines. They can find a way to have fun with nearly anything.

Dr. Julie Oakley, pediatric and adolescent care specialist with Antietam Pediatric and Adolescent Care in Hagerstown, said humans are like other mammals: They learn through playing.

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"Play is the main way we learn about interactions with others," she said. "Children make-believe. They role-play. They imitate people that they admire. Also, they exercise their imagination."

But not all toys are suitable for all kids. Here are a few guidelines.

Better safe than sorry


Children just want to have fun, but sometimes bad things happen. Most toy-related injuries are minor. But occasionally children are injured or, rarely, killed while playing with their toys.

The majority of toy-related injuries occur to younger children, according to the Website for the Minnesota Safety Council

(msc@mnsafetycouncil.org). In 1999, more than 118,300 children ages 14 and under were treated in hospital emergency rooms for toy-related injuries. Children younger than 5 accounted for more than 60 percent of these injuries.

Nurse practitioner Tracey Galloway, of the Family Medicine Center in Keedysville, said she frequently sees children who have been injured while playing with toys. She urges parents to read manufacturer's labels.

"People need to pay attention to what it says on the package," she said. "Don't give a toy for a 3- to 6-year-old to a 6-month-old."

And for bigger children, make sure they have safety gear for their bigger toys. Are you thinking of giving your child roller blades, a bicycle or a skate board? Make sure they have knee pads and a helmet, Galloway said.

Language development


Play also develops language skills in very young children, according to Risa Cohen, a certified speech-language pathologist with the Frederick County Health Department. In her work, she plays with young children whose language skills lag behind their peers.

"Toys are very valuable in developing your language," she said. "There's so much to talk about around toys. I think that's how kids learn much of what they need to know: colors, shapes, animals, transportation - the vocabulary of toys."

Cohen works mostly with children younger than 3. Popular playthings include puzzles, books, dolls and food-related toys. Cohen and her clients like to make pretend food or go on "picnics."

Toys are a good way for parents to get down on the floor and play with their kids, she said. There is teaching going on, even if it just looks like recreation.

"Parents can play with the child with the toy, talking about the different parts of the toy, making the car sound," she said. "Dads, when they play, they tend to be sillier and pretty creative. They make lots of different sounds, cars and trucks and animals, and get really animated."

And that's the secret to using toys to teach and enrich your children's language: talk to them.

"Kids learn how to talk by exposure to language," she said. "They need to be exposed to good models of language. Talk about the toys with them."

Balance


Does your child have plenty of cars and trucks but no books or art suppplies? Lots of dolls but no building blocks?

The key to nurturing your child is to provide balance, according to Joanne Oppenheim, New York co-author of the "Oppenheim Toy Portfolio, 2003 Edition," an annual evaluation of new toys (on the Web at www.toyportfolio.com).

"You bring home a nourishing balance of food," she said. "Do you really have something for each different aspect of play for your children?"

Oppenheim said different toys provide different kinds of learning for children. Construction sets and blocks nurture spatial skills. Puzzles encourage fine motor development and problem solving. Puppets, dolls and pretend playsets nurture communication skills.

Chambersburg, Pa., kindergarten teacher Karim Powanda, of Andrew Buchanan Elementary School, said her students - boys and girls - love the kitchen center and the dress-up centers she has in her classroom. The kids pretend to make meals, play house and be storybook characters.

"The other popular center is the writing center," Powanda said. "I've got paper, pencils, markers, glue, scissors - where they use their imagination. Open-ended play like this is really excellent for development."

Oppenheim said craft kits and art supplies are "One of the best gifts you can bring a school-age child." They build self expression and creativity, she said. And they need not be fancy. Simple crayons, inexpensive watercolors, cheap markers will do.

"They never have enough art supplies," she said. "And they love them. Bring it in a container. Bring safety scissors. An easel."




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