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Child's Play

You're out running errands when you happen upon a toy store. So many cute things...anything your baby would like? As you peer closely at the infant selections, you notice that almost every plaything is labeled, in one way or another, as "developmental." It's not enough to just be fun  -- toys today promise to impart knowledge of cause and effect, provide verbal or visual stimulation, teach object permanence, or boost brain activity. The not-so-subtle innuendo: You really can make your baby smarter! All of the sudden, it seems that this little impulse buy could mean the difference between community college and Harvard.

The right toys as tools
Toys as teaching tools Could what's in your baby's toy box actually have that much of an impact on his development and intellect? "Toys that are appropriate to a child's developmental level can be extremely important," says Helen Boehm, Ph.D., a Manhattan-based psychologist and author of The 2004 Official Guide to the Right Toys. "Toys can reinforce cause and effect. But if the skills involved in playing with the toy are beyond the child's abilities, he could become frustrated. In the same way that our work may be frustrating without the right tools, our children's play may be less challenging  -- and not as much fun  -- without the right toys."

But won't a baby pick up, say, the idea of object permanence on his own? Yes, but having the right tools at hand helps the process along and makes it more fun. "Parents have been playing charming but clearly important games, like peekaboo, with their children for generations. Whether we're using our hands, a doll that's hidden behind Mommy's back and brought out again, or the latest 'developmental toy,' we're fitting products into time-tested experiences. The toy is a tool," notes Dr. Boehm.

Christina Vercelletto is the products editor of BabyTalk.