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  • Feature Story

3 things to consider when shopping for kids’ toys

Brown toy bear on a wooden rustic table.

November 21, 2017

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” or so goes the song made famous by Andy Williams in 1963. The holidays can be wonderful, but they can also be fraught with anxiety as shoppers search for the perfect presents.

For parents and grandparents, the search can be even more difficult due to the overwhelmingly large variety of toys on the market. How do you know you’re buying the right toy for your child? Will it fit with my child’s developmental age? Is it safe?

Toys receive a lot of attention from regulatory authorities and consumer protection groups. Mandatory testing and exact specifications are intended to help reduce the risk of injury or illness in children.

Yet, despite stringent requirements and mandatory safety testing, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recalled 67 million individual children’s products for 2016.

Melissa Beran and Ellen Metrick, both human factors specialists who work for UL, explain that while a product might meet a country’s regulatory requirements, many product developers are not looking beyond the basics as set-forth by the regulations.

Human factors analysis looks at the “essential safety” of a product to understand what children will do with an item in their environment above and beyond what they’re “supposed” to do with it.

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“When a company designs a toy, how it’s intended to be played with and how a child may actually play with it can be very different,” says Beran. “We look at kids of different ages and compare how they typically play, and what they typically do so we can go back to the company to say, this is how children may interact with your product.”

Human factors specialists look at a product through the cognitive, physical and social development of a child. For example, Beran and Metrick reviewed a large activity center that had a design element of heart cut-outs on the side. Though the size and shape of the cut-outs passed regulatory standards, from a human factors perspective, children could place their feet in the cut-outs, using them as steps to climb on top of the unit or cause it to topple on top of them.

“We point out children’s behavior-what they’re capable of doing cognitively and physically-that maybe the designer hasn’t thought about,” says Metrick.

To help create the most wonderful time for your family, Beran and Metrick offer up these toy shopping tips:

  • Pay attention to the age label on the product; it is there for a reason. Explains Beran, “We see this with grandparents more than parents as they will think ‘my grandkids are smart’ or ‘oh, my grandkid doesn’t put anything in his mouth anymore.’ Well, they do it, but you’re probably just not seeing it."
  • Consider the age ranges of all the children in the family. A toy might be age graded for a five-to-seven-year-old but chances are your two-year-old will also be very interested in the toy too. Consider all the ways that your youngest might interact with the toy. What safety risk does that pose?
  • Make sure your child is physically ready for the toy. Buying with room to grow might seem like a good idea, but from a safety perspective, it may not be the best choice. Oversized products such as bikes, skates, even costumes can lead to a severe injury as the child may not be able to safely operate or maneuver with an item that is too big for their body.

Paying attention to the recommended age and purchasing for what your child can do now, as opposed to six months from now, is not only a smart move but a safe one too.