Checkup on Health

boy playing with toy blocks
The choices for children's toys are endless, so it's important to pay attention to age guidelines. Of course, the most important gift to any child is quality time from you!

By Thomas Bullen, M.D.

The holiday season is upon us, and the choices for children’s toys are endless. What should you give to those youngsters on your list?

Here are some guidelines to help you pick something that is likely to be fun as well as safe.

  • Pay attention to age guidelines on the toy. Guidelines may be intended for reasons of safety or developmental abilities. Think carefully about how they apply to the child you have in mind. Just as some kids are intellectually advanced and would enjoy a board game designed for older children, other kids may still be likely to pop things in their mouth at 5 years, well after the age when small parts are normally allowed.

  • Be aware of hanging danger for infants. Once babies can raise themselves onto their hands and knees, avoid toys that they could hang themselves on, such as mobiles hung within reach of the crib, toys with strings, or crib gyms that are strung across a crib or playpen.

  • Watch out for small parts! Generally, any toy that can fit through a toilet paper tube is too small for a child under 3 years. Some toys are obviously made for older children, and few people would mistakenly give them to an infant or tot. But other toys that seem appropriate at first glance may turn out to be potentially dangerous under closer scrutiny. Many teddy bears and dolls come with buttons on clothes or plastic eyes that could be chewed off and swallowed. Little cars may have small wheels that could be pulled off.

  • Consider the needs of other children in the house. Avoid toys that may be dangerous to little brothers and sisters if they are likely to get hold of them.

  • Don’t buy toys that shoot. Every year, toys such as launchers, toy guns and bows and arrows cause serious eye injuries when shot at close range. Even if a toy comes with soft objects for shooting, curious children often substitute rocks or pencils, making them especially dangerous.

So what are good choices? Check out these suggestions for the age group you have in mind:

Young infants

Dr. Bullen is a pediatrician with UC Davis Medical Group in Sacramento.

Toys to look at or listen to are your best bet. Squeak toys and rattles are good, but make sure the soft ones don’t squish down to that toilet paper tube opening size. Mobiles and crib gyms are great until the baby can raise onto hands and knees.

Older infants

Babies that can sit up love to play with blocks, nesting cups, stacking rings and simple pop-up toys. Cardboard or vinyl books with large, simple pictures are also popular.


Think motion for this age group! Large balls, toddler play structures, digging tools, trikes or big plastic cars are all great backyard choices. For quieter moments, choose simple art supplies, such as crayons, markers, finger paints and play-dough, as well as easy puzzles. Bath toys are also fun. And save those holiday toy catalogues. Toddlers love to look through them over and over again.


Three-to-five year-olds spend much of their day in make-believe land. Dress-up items and toy tools or kitchen utensils make big hits. Puppets, dolls, stuffed animals, and play sets with village, farm, or transportation pieces also stimulate the imagination. This is also a great age for a child’s tape player and cassettes featuring children’s storytellers and music.

Ages 6-9

Early elementary school-age children are ready for bigger challenges, both intellectually and physically. Bikes, scooters and sleds make great gifts, but be sure to include appropriate protective gear, such as helmets, as well as knee, wrist, and elbow guards for roller blades. Kids this age enjoy science sets, model and craft kits, and board games. Easy chapter books are also good buys.

Ages 9-12

If possible, spend time enjoying your gift with the recipient. It’s the best way to ensure you’ll give treasured memories along with a present.

Children this age are beginning to develop interests and skills that they may pursue the rest of their lives. Consider giving a subscription to a children’s magazine, geared towards nature or literature. Strategy games such as chess or other board games are popular, as is equipment for team sports.


Perhaps the hardest age group? Not if you know the child. You really have to target interests, as presents at this age merge with items you would buy for an adult. Books, magazine subscriptions, calendars, hobby and sports equipment are good bets. If you don’t want to guess, consider choosing a gift certificate to a favorite music or book store.

If possible, spend time enjoying your gift with the recipient. It’s the best way to ensure you’ll give treasured memories along with a present. The most important gift to any child is quality time from you!