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The best toys to engage your child’s imagination at any age and where to find them in New Orleans 

What comprises a good toy? CUE KIDS offers tips from the experts

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Toys are much more than diversions and entertainment for children. Good toys, which can be as simple as a set of plastic nesting bowls for young children, help a child develop skills in areas ranging from hand-eye coordination to social skills.

  In "Selecting Appropriate Toys for Young Children: The Pediatrician's Role," published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, researchers said, "Play is essential for learning in children. Toys are the tools of play. ... Toys should be safe, affordable and developmentally appropriate." The report was developed as an aid for pediatricians fielding questions from parents about toys and childhood development.

  "A young child's growth and development can be supported and enhanced through play," the report continued. "Toys bring parents or caregivers and children together in play. Early brain development is enhanced through these relationships." Playtime also allows parents to monitor a child's skills and help them develop them more fully, according to the report.

  That all sounds complicated and quite a responsibility, but buying toys shouldn't require research or a degree in early childhood development. Gambit's KIDS has compiled some tips and guidelines from experts, and recommendations from local toy stores for good toys for the fall.

A good toy ...

• Is safe

• Is interactive

• Can be played with multiple ways

• Engages imagination and creativity

• Promotes development of fine motor skills

• Exercises muscle groups

• Is age- and skill level-appropriate

• Promotes physical activity

• Can be used in pretend play

Guidelines for selecting toys

Compiled from recommendations of the National Association for the Education of Young Children and the American Academy of Pediatrics

• Safe — Toys for young children should be well-made, with no splinters, moving parts that can pinch, parts that can be dismantled or small parts or accessories that could become lodged in a young child's throat. Make sure toys have only nontoxic lead-free paint, are shatterproof and easy to clean. Electric toys should be labeled "UL Approved." Note: Just because a product is on the market or costs a lot doesn't mean it is safe.

• Age-appropriate — Toys should match a child's stage of development and his or her abilities and promote safe physical activity.

• Feeds imagination — Children use play to work out real-life problems, and using their imaginations and pretending are tools in building important social and cognitive skills. Avoid toys that discourage children from using their imaginations.

• Avoid negatives — Children live what they learn, and computer or video games that depict violence in an interactive way can lead to acts of violence by the child. Parents also should consider whether a toy promotes negative racial, ethnic, cultural or gender stereotypes. Limit video game, computer game and television time combined to 1 to 2 hours a day, less or none for children 5 and younger.

• Don't buy into the hype — There is no scientific evidence that any particular toy is "necessary" or sufficient for optimal learning.

Toys for the ages

Birth-6 months old — Bright colors, toys with sounds, things they can put in their mouths, toys they can reach for, shake, squeeze, toys with textures, unbreakable mirrors (they love faces) and board or vinyl books stimulate their nascent senses.

7 months-1 year old — Baby dolls, puppets, water toys and toy vehicles with wheels stimulate kids to pretend and mimic the world around them. Skill development toys include stacking and nesting items; soft blocks and wooden cubes for building; and large balls and push and pull toys for muscle development.

1 year old — Board books with photographs of real objects; recordings with simple songs and rhymes; toys for "pretend" play including toy phones, dolls, push carts; art supplies such as large paper, non-toxic washable markers and crayons; dress-up accessories; puppets, stuffed toys, realistic-looking plastic and wood vehicles; cardboard, wood and plastic blocks for building; and puzzles, balls and toys with dials, switches, knobs, lids, etc. for developing muscles large and small.

2 years old — Wood puzzles with four to 12 pieces, sorting toys and toys with buttons, buckles, snaps and zippers de- velop problem-solving skills; small but sturdy vehicles, child-size furniture, play food, dress- up clothes, blocks, dolls, stuffed animals and puppets are good for pretending and building; creativity is honed with large washable markers, crayons, finger paint, large paintbrushes and nontoxic paint, blunt-tip toddler scissors, chalkboard and chalk and rhythm instruments; picture books; CDs and DVDs with a variety of music; balls, ride-on equipment, pint-sized climbing structures, tunnels and hammering toys build their muscles.

3-6 years old — Puzzles with 12 to 20 pieces, snap-together blocks and things that can be sorted by color, shape, length and collections of things (colored blocks, bowls and lids, shells, etc.) build problem-solving skills; blocks, construction sets, toy vehicles, kid furniture, toy food, puppets, water and sand toys and dolls with accessories such as extra clothes, a stroller, doll bed, etc. promote pretending and building skills; art supplies, chalkboard and chalk, modeling clay, collage materials and musical instruments feed creativity; picture books with more words and photos; CDs and DVDs with a range of music types; different-sized balls for kicking, throwing and catching; ride-on toys, climbing structures, wagons, plastic bat and ball, toy construction tools help build muscles; and interactive computer games, used wisely, can expand a range of concepts and skills in children.

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Pull-toys

The Walk-A-Long Puppy pull-toy by Hape is for children 1 year and older, and it raises and lowers its head as it's pulled, $24.99 at Le Jouet.

Wooden toys

My First Railway Train by Brio, $34.99 at Magic Box Toys, has three pieces that connect with magnets. Other pieces of the train and a track are sold separately. For children 18 months and older.

Vehicles

The colorful Roadmax earth mover by Bruder, $36.99 at Le Jouet, has multiple functions to keep children 2 and older busy.

Stacking toys

This stacking game by Haba, $29.99 at Little Pnuts Toy Shoppe, gives kids 2 to 6 years old cards that show a formation and they stack wooden elephant blocks to match.

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Puzzles

The Very Books puzzle by Mudpuppy, $19.99 at Magic Box Toys, features six cubes with images for different puzzles on each side based on popular children's books by Eric Carle, so children 1 and older can put together six puzzles.

Chalk and letters

An updated version of a classic first produced in 1972, the School Days Desk by Fisher-Price, $29.99 at Magic Box Toys, has stencils, letters, chalk and an eraser that store inside the desk. It teaches kids 3 and older how to write letters, spell words and form sentences.

Games

Story Lines by Hape, $19.99 at Little Pnuts Toy Shoppe, helps children 4 and older learn how to determine a story line using logical thinking, visual detail perception and chronological story telling.

Mechanical toys

Children ages 8 and older can assemble this easy-to-build robot, which will move around on the floor and change direction when it bumps into something. $16.99 at Le Jouet.

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Art supplies

The art box by Djeco, $29.99 at Little Pnuts Toy Shoppe, is for kids ages 6 to 10 and includes stencils, markers, an art instruction book and teaches art techniques such as shading and mixing colors.

Imagination stimulators

There are more than 90 colored triangle pieces in Mudpuppy's Mosaic Animals, $19.99 at Magic Box Toys, which children 8 and older can use to make a variety of animals — or anything else they imagine.

Playing with math

Secret Code 13+4, $23.99 at Little Pnuts Toy Shoppe, requires arithmetic, concentration and strategy to crack tricky codes, for ages 8 to adult.

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Games of strategy

Children 8 and older will learn observation, logical thinking and strategy playing Pyramix by Gamewright, $23.99 at Little Pnuts Toy Shoppe.

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