How to Pick Toys for Kids

The best gifts take advantage of curiosity, not technology.


Picking out toys that kids will love can be harder than completing a Rubik's cube. Some claim to be educational but inhibit creativity; others are too complicated even for adults. Claire Green, president of the Parent's Choice Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to helping parents pick the best toys and media for their kids, calls electronic screens "the 21st-century hearth" and says that by picking the right toys, parents can help their kids get a head start on understanding basic science concepts as well as exploring their own creativity. U.S. News spoke with Green about why the most popular toy isn't necessarily the best one and how to avoid common parental mistakes. Excerpts:

What makes a good toy?

A good toy can be played with in many different ways. It's not a one-trick pony. Kids don't get bored with it quickly. The more ways a child can find to play with a toy, the better a toy is. We talk about a toy being more "child" than "toy." The best of the toys are 90 percent child—you're looking for more or all of the play to be directed and developed by the child, not the toy. That's how they learn.

So, toys play a role in kids' development?

They can learn a lot by figuring out how to play with a toy and other kids. You learn how to negotiate roles and rules. One time, you'll be the boss, then they'll be the boss. You'll go first, then I'll go first. They're constantly learning. Kids are born scientists. When we see a child in a highchair dropping Cheerios, they're not being ornery. They're testing. They're playing a game. They don't know they're doing gravity experiments, but that's what they're doing. What is it like when I drop a Cheerio on the floor? What happens when I spill my milk? They're learning things in both science and social ways.

When you're picking the best toys, what are you looking for?

We're looking for long-term play value. Many toys today are laden and infused with technology and all sorts of bells and whistles, for infants on up. We encourage parents as well as manufacturers to make sure the technology enhances the play—to make sure it opens up windows of opportunity and doesn't slam them shut. You don't want technology to overshadow the play or dictate the play. Here's a great story. Two young girls are with dolls they each recently received. One says, "My doll can say 12 sentences," or 42, or whatever they're up to now. The other girl says, "My doll can say anything I want her to."

That's the difference. Whether it's a doll or a truck, kids can use it to be sad or happy or angry. They can create wonderfully rich, imaginative worlds. That is what play is all about.

It sounds like spending a lot of money on tech-heavy toys isn't necessarily a good idea.

You don't have to spend a lot of money. There are so many websites that don't cost anything that let kids play games and explore one's creativity. You don't have to be in line waiting for the hot toy. What are common mistakes parents make when picking out toys?

Parents who clearly want to make their children's holiday special are often trying to keep up with the Joneses. That's a problem, especially in this economy. It's about finding products, toys, games, and books that spark an interest in a child. If your child is interested in building, don't give the child a violin. Try not to force your dreams on your child. Give them as much nurturing and care and the opportunity to learn and grow. A lot of that is through play. A lot of hot toys don't provide that long-term play value or educational value. Learning can be really fun.

Can kids really learn from toys?

They definitely can. And it doesn't just have to be toys. There are some terrific shows on television on Smithsonian, Discovery, and the HD Network that can be a great springboard for talking about science and explaining science to young ones. They talk about how bridges are made, how to make a volcano in the kitchen, and how eagles' wings flapping can help explain how airplanes work. The holidays are a great time to start learning about science by going to museums, science centers, or planetariums.