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Tips for picking the best toys this season

When you’re toy shopping for little kids over the holidays, keep in mind that play has a purpose. Unlike tech toys, choices such as blocks and dress-up clothes tap into a child’s imagination.

“Why buy toys when there’s Tupperware?” quips one mother of a 4-year-old girl. What the mom has discovered: Less is more. Too many toys are overwhelming. Also, where a toy is placed in the house makes a difference. For example, her daughter enjoyed her kitchen set so much more when she was “cooking” near mommy – but she ignored it when it was in the family’s playroom.

“Selecting a toy can be overwhelming,” says Sandra Schefkind, pediatric coordinator at the American Occupational Therapy Association. She encourages parents to select toys that will make the most of playtime.

Occupational therapy practitioners are experts in play as it relates to a child’s social, physical and cognitive development. Consider these questions when gift-buying for children:

• Is the toy safe and age-appropriate? If the suggested age range is too young for the child, he or she may get bored quickly. If the range is too old, the child may get frustrated and give up, or be exposed to small parts that could pose a safety risk. Be mindful of your own child’s strengths, interests and abilities.

• Can the toy be played with in more than one way? Toys that offer unlimited possibilities can tap into the child’s creativity. Blocks can be stacked, knocked down, lined up, crashed into and even substituted for play food in a pretend kitchen.

• Can the toy be used in more than one place or position? Toys that are easy to carry or can be used while sitting, standing, or even lying down make play possible anywhere. Crayons, markers, sidewalk chalk or a baby gym can be used in a variety of locations.

• Does the toy involve the use of both hands? Moving parts, buttons and gears encourage activity and movement. Construction toys, craft kits, puzzles, balls, riding toys and toss-and-catch sets promote motor-skill development at different ages.

• Does the toy encourage thinking or solving problems? Board games and science kits offer older kids the chance to use thinking skills in a new way, while shape sorters and puzzles are great for babies and toddlers.

• Does the toy encourage interaction? Dress-up clothes, costumes, playhouses, kitchen sets and tools can all teach cooperation and negotiation while fostering creativity.

• Is the toy worth the cost? Consider its appeal and durability.

To get the most for your money, scour consignment shops for wooden dollhouses with people and furniture; wooden barns with animals and tractors; Matchbox cars with a garage; or play kitchens with pots, pans and play food.

“Children learn best through play,” says Stevanne Auerbach, Ph.D., a child development expert known as “Dr. Toy.” “Parents forget that a child’s play is their first job in life.” Some of her favorite selections are listed in the “Dr. Toy’s Best Picks 2012” guide, which is available at The criteria that Auerbach uses to evaluate toys include:

• Is the toy safe? Does it have any potential hazards, such as sharp edges or loose ties? Is it nontoxic?

• Will it take rough treatment? Can the toy be cleaned or disinfected if needed? What is the return policy?

• Is the product fun?

• Is it well-designed, easy to use and versatile?

• Will it encourage creativity?

• Will the toy frustrate or challenge the child? Does the toy offer something new to learn or to practice? Will it be too difficult without adult assistance?

• Does the toy build eye/hand coordination, fine and large motor skills, or communication?

Another annual resource is “The Toy Insider,” co-published by Laurie Schacht. It is available at, and features gift ideas for babies through tweens.