Q: When parents think of buying toys, they think about what kids have asked for, what looks fun to the parent and, hopefully, what will both entertain and be of some life-skills use to the child. What should they be thinking about?
A: Safety is probably the most important aspect of selecting toys for children of all ages. Parents should learn to look at the label and whether the toy is appropriate for the age of the child and his skill level. Of course, it's always important that the child is interested in it and enjoys playing with it. When parents look at that label, they should also see if the toy requires adult supervision. For example, children less than age 8 should not be given electrical toys; they should be battery-operated. For the younger child, probably the most important thing is to realize that small parts can be hazardous to a child, especially under the age of 3. Parents should look at the toy, look for small removable pieces, anything that can be put in the mouth. Anything that can be easily broken off can be easily aspirated. I tell parents to get the choke tube testers (that are 1 1/4 inches in diameter and 2 1/4 inches long). Anything that cannot fit through the tube probably wouldn't be an issue for children under 3.
Q: How big a problem do toys pose to children?
A: In 2003, there were 11 toy-related deaths. Most of them were in young children, and the death was due to choking or aspirating small pieces, small balls, beads, balloons. It is also significant that 155,000 kids were treated for injuries due to toys.
Q: Are there certain toys or types of toys parents should automatically mark off their list?
A: I think it would be a good idea for people, before they purchase a toy, to check the recall list. The Consumer Product Safety Commission has a recall list (www.cpsc.gov/cpscpub/prerel/category/toy.html). Safe Kids also has a list where you can check on recalled items (www.firehouse.com/safekids/news/121300-recall.html). But young children less than 8 years old really should not have any balloons. If there are balloons, you should use Mylar balloons instead of latex. Any toys that have strings or straps longer than 7 inches can be a strangulation risk. The electrical toys can pose a hazard of burning; small batteries can also pose a choking problem. Parents should see that the toys are age appropriate, that there are no parts that can cause choking and should continue to check them as the kids play. Toy cap guns can be ignited easily; toys that have sharp edges and points are dangerous, and also, believe it or not, toys that can make loud or shrill noises can pose a hazard to hearing.
Q: How does a parent check out the safety of a toy when the item is packaged in tamper-resistant wrappings or packages you can't open?
A: By reading the label to see if it's age appropriate. If a person decides to purchase it, I would still have to inspect the toy once it's outside the package ... and be observant about how the child uses the toy. They don't always use them the way they are intended. If a toy comes apart easily, what are the parts like inside? As for the packaging, it needs to be discarded once the child opens the toy. There are plastic bags and parts of the packaging that can be hazardous.
Q: Most reasonable people understand the dangers of things like "yard darts," which have been outlawed, but what about things like yo-yos or rubber balls with stretchy strings on them?
A: The strings should not be longer than 7 inches, but that includes straps, anything that can be stretched longer than 7 inches. The proper use of the toys is very important. Constant supervision is needed with all toys.
Q: Can parents depend on the caution labels on toys to be accurate?
A: There are some mandatory safety regulations that the government does impose and they are age specific. For instance, all balls and toys and games with balls smaller than 1 1/4 inches in diameter ... need to be labeled as a choking hazard. They do list what is required specifically for ages. I think parents need to use their judgment; they can use (the labels) as a good baseline, but nothing is fool proof. You need to know your child and continue to assess the toy for sharp edges, anything broken, etc.
Q: What dangers are posed by buying age-appropriate toys for adolescents that may not be safe for younger children that are in the house?
A: For the older child, for example, a science kit might be appropriate for a 12-year-old but not a 5-year-old. You have to be certain it is stored properly from the younger child. Just in general terms, the older child's things need to be separately stored. With things that have so many small pieces (such as Legos), you have to be always vigilant and watch what's in the couch, in the chair, on the floor, and what [the young kids] can get into to. One thing you should know about, too, is storage. Toy boxes can be dangerous [and shouldn't be the type with a heavy lid on top]. If it does have a lid, it should have safety latches so that kids won't climb in and be locked inside ... and holes for ventilation.
Q: What is your best advice for parents trying to give their children the toys they want for the holidays but also trying to make sure they pose no hazards to anyone in the family?
A: I would look at the labels on the toys and see if they are age appropriate and if the child is has the skills to use the toy appropriately. Really read the labels, but don't totally depend on that. Use your own parenting skills and constant supervision for toy use and maintenance.