According to major retailers, the toys your kids want this year are inspired by hit movies like Justice League and Star Wars, feature “almost-real” animals (yep, Hatchimals are still a thing), key in to trendy games like Escape Rooms, but still go back to the classics with faves like Legos and other building sets, Barbies and the ever-ticklish Elmo.
But the toys you should buy your kids? Just make sure you take safety into account too. Which is why we talked to Children’s Hospital of Georgia pediatric emergency room physician Dr. Natalie Lane about her top picks and advice for the safest toys, at every age.
Dr. Lane’s Top Picks
- Pick toys designed for your child’s age. “Probably the top reason I see children in the emergency room around the holidays is for ingestion of toy pieces,” said Lane. So always read the labels to check that a toy is age appropriate. If you have older children, monitor and educate your children about the importance of keeping items like buildable toys with small parts away from younger siblings.
The good news is that even if your child swallows one of these, most will easily pass through your child’s system within a week. It sounds gross, but you can take a peek at your child’s poops to make sure the item has passed. For the most part though, if your child is eating well, having normal bowel movements and not experiencing any discomfort, there’s no need to worry.
However, if you think your child has ingested or placed an item containing a button battery or any kind of magnet inside a body part, say a nose or an ear, definitely head straight to a pediatric ER that offers specialty care. These items can be very dangerous and need to be checked out immediately and possibly removed by a surgeon or subspecialist.
- Pick toys your child is developmentally ready for. Skateboards, hoverboards, scooters and other similar toys are great gifts—if your child is ready for them. “We all know falls are common when children are learning to ride any of these toys, so you can’t really avoid scrapes and scratches,” said Lane. “But you want to ensure your child is responsible enough to use these toys appropriately, on a smooth, flat surface away from moving cars or other obstacles.” Also, remember that safety gear isn’t just a plus—it’s a necessity. So include helmets and pads as part of your gift.
- Pick up eye protection and talk about responsibility if you choose a shooting toy. While Nerf guns with their soft, squishy missiles may seem safe, they can still shoot these items at a high rate of speed. “Our big concern is the risk to vision,” said Lane. So children need to be taught how to use or not use these toys, including to never shoot at anyone’s head or face. Protective eyewear is also recommended.
- Be prepared for pitfalls if you pick electronic games. Kids always want the latest and greatest games and gaming system. But parents need to pay especially close attention to the types of games their children are playing. Age ratings should be taken seriously, but they shouldn’t replace parental involvement. Research the game yourself ahead of time—most online retailers offer screenshots or videos of the action, so you can see if there’s realistic violence or other material that you may not think is appropriate for your child. In moderation, there are positive elements to gaming, but keep in mind too that studies have shown that today’s immersive electronic games can at times breed challenges in psychosocial adjustment and ability to cope. So keep it balanced; if your child likes gaming, make sure there are limits to its use and other toys or interests that get your child away from the screen.
- Pick a time to talk about trampolines. Kids may scream with joy when they find their parents have gotten them the ultimate gift: a trampoline. But set the rules early to keep the experience safe. A parent or other adult should provide supervision. Most importantly, accidents happen most often when more than one or differently weighted children are jumping together. The safest approach is to allow only one jumper at a time, but the reality is that doesn’t seem quite as fun. So, make sure that children jumping together are about the same size and weight.
- Pick motorized vehicles with caution. Nowadays, even toddlers can tool around in the latest-model motorized vehicle. While these don’t move very fast (about 2 miles/hour), be sure to always supervise, especially if children are using them outdoors. As children grow older, be extra cautious of ATVs. “Although some may be marketed for children or teens, children don’t have the decision-making capacity to know how to react if something happens while riding an ATV,” said Lane. “In fact, their first instinct in many cases is to jump off, which can be very dangerous, especially if they are moving at a high rate of speed.”
But as with most situations, nothing replaces good parental supervision. “We don’t want to be helicopter parents,” said Lane. “But at the same time, with toys in particular, let’s just take the time to make sure they’re being used safely and are developmentally appropriate for our child. Toys are meant to be fun and entertaining. So just a little due diligence on our parts can ensure they stay that way.”