Looking for healthy gifts for kids? Youre not alone. Toys should be fun, but its also nice to improve a child's mind or encourage physical fitness at the same time. (Or, at the least, do no harm.)
Some toys, however, promise and dont deliver. Who can forget the Baby Einstein debacle? We collectively shelled out millions for a product that didnt turn our babies into Einsteins. (The Walt Disney Company is currently offering refunds for anyone who bought the popular DVD series, once marketed as a tool to make infants smarter.)
So which toys are better left on the shelves? Here are some toys to avoid when it comes to the little tykes on your list.
1. Buy age-appropriate toys.
It sounds like a no-brainer. But a surprising number of people ignore the age recommendation listed on the box. Toys for older children may include smaller parts, which can increase the risk of a younger child choking.
About 15 to 25 toy-related deaths occur in the United States each year, often because younger children attempt to swallow a small toy or piece of a toy, says Michael Cabana, MD, MPH, the chief of the division of pediatrics and a professor of pediatrics at the University of California San Franciscos School of Medicine. “A good rule of thumb is to make sure [the toy] cant fit into a toilet paper roll," he says.
"Let the buyer beware” is good advice too. Even some toys that seem fine and have a suggested age range may have been recalled by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).
2. Be smart about educational toys.
As the Baby Einstein refunds show, not everything thats marketed as an educational product is really going to boost kids brainpower. In general, DVDs or videos may be good electronic babysitters, but not much more.
“Kids less than 2 shouldnt be in front of a TV at all, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics,” Dr. Cabana says, referring to a 1999 policy statement from the organization.
Books are the best toy you can give to improve your childs learning, according to Dr. Cabana. “Books, just like toys, should be age appropriate,” he says, in terms of both content and construction (think thick, durable pages for toddlers). “For kids who are too young to read, parents reading to kids can offer a lot of stimulation.”
For older kids, pick out a game like Brain Quest (pictured), where they have to answer age-appropriate trivia questions. “Board games are fun for older kids,” says Dr. Cabana, and are especially educational “if they contain new information, or sneak in some math or vocabulary.”
Nintendo DS offers a problem-solving game called Professor Layton and the Curious Village that can keep kids engaged for hours, as well as other games like My Spanish Coach or My Japanese Coach that make learning new languages fun.
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3. If you choose a video game, choose an active one.
In a recent study of adults, playing active video games offered the same moderate-intensity workout they could get elsewhere (like the gym). But the study was funded by Nintendo, the creator of Wiiso take it with a grain of salt.
While an active game is still better than a sedentary one, parents shouldnt rely on video games to promote a healthy lifestyle for kids. “For weight loss, [exercise] has to be combined with a healthy diet and sustained over time,” says Dr. Cabana.
To see any real results, children would have to use their fitness video games “on a daily basis just like exercise, and combine it with some nutritional knowledge,” he says.
You can pick an active game thats also educational. The Smart Cycle Extreme (pictured) is a stationary bike that plugs into any TV. Kids then race through levels, reading and counting along the way.
4. Think healthybut not boring.
While kids who are more active are healthier, that activity shouldhopefullybe as part of active play. While some toy makers model kids play equipment after adults workout gearlike a weight bench, treadmill, or rowing machineit may seem too fitness focused. Keeping kids active isnt about making them mimic adults, but encouraging fit yet age-appropriate behavior.
If you want to give a gift that gets them moving, why not stick to more traditional healthy equipment, like a tricycle or bike, ice skates, a tennis racket, or even a sled?
Or try something outside the boxwhile keeping fun in mindlike the Wobbler (pictured), a balance-board game that builds lower body strength, balance, and coordination.
Because, lets be honesthow often do we really feel like were having fun on a treadmill?
5. Avoid toxic toys.
Like being a doctor, the first rule of toy buying for kids is "Do no harm." Luckily, tighter regulations on toys is making that easier.
After 26 million units of 148 different toys were recalled in 2007, federal regulators tightened lead-content rules and gave more money to the CPSC for inspections. However, toy recalls still happen every day.
From lead to mercury to arsenic, innocent-looking toys can hide some pretty serious dangers. To find out if a gift youre thinking of buying contains any toxins, search the database of more than 2,000 toys that have been tested by HealthyToys.org.