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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.

Finding the right toys

The term "developmental toy" is just another way to describe a toy that's appropriate for the stage your baby is in  -- it lets her practice the skills she's trying to master. But remember that each child is an individual. "Development is not totally a function of age but also of personality, intellect, and emotions," says Dr. Boehm. Also, boys generally develop fine motor skills (such as pushing a button) later than girls. If you observe your child and rely on age-based markers as guideposts, though, you'll be in the right ballpark.

Toys that require a skill just one step beyond your child's present abilities are worth trying if you help and she can imitate you. If you need to do most of the work to make it interesting, then your baby isn't quite ready.

Keep in mind, too, that a baby's attention span is short  -- less than one minute for a 6-month-old. So a seemingly quick loss of interest in a toy doesn't necessarily mean you made a poor choice. Don't force a toy on a baby, though. If your child seems frustrated with a toy you offer, put it away and try again in a month or so.

Making it fun
The key to an ever-exciting toy is letting your child control the action. "Make sure your baby's doing it, not the toy. Babies want to make things happen," says Stevanne Auerbach, Ph.D., author of Dr. Toy's Smart Play. Your child should be an active participant, not a passive observer.

And to keep the good times rolling, the toy should grow with your child. Take a soft ball, for example: An infant can touch and look at it, an older baby can push it, and a toddler can throw or kick it. Books can also evolve with your child. Board books that are safe for a baby to mouth let him get used to the feel and look of the books he'll read later. As he gets older, he can look at the pictures, practice turning the pages, and pretend to read by babbling.

Put active toys, such as ride-ons, on your shopping list as well. Development means physical as much as mental. "The two are totally interconnected. Toys that help children with physical balance and coordination may help with language development as well. Gross (large) motor skills, such as crawling and walking, and perceptual skills are the underpinnings of learning to read, aside from promoting good health," says Dr. Boehm.

Dr. Auerbach suggests keeping these additional tips in mind as you shop for a toy your baby will love:

* "Music is wonderful stimulation. The softer, the better," she says. Crinkle noises and animal sounds are also great.

* Vivid colors engage babies most.

* Look for a variety of textures: satin, soft plush, smooth wood, bumpy plastic.

More for your money

Toys that both of you will enjoy don't need to cost a lot. But when you're buying several at a time for a birthday or holiday, the bill can add up. To decide whether the toy is a good value, ask yourself:

* Is it washable or easy to keep clean?

* Is it durable? Little ones are clumsy, so the toy should be able to stand up to a lot of lovin'.

* Will it travel well?

* Is it multipurpose (you can put it away and take it out again when your baby is at a different stage)?

* Can it be played with in more than one way? For example, pull toys can also be pushed.

* Could you buy two or three of a less expensive item that serves the same function, giving you more variety for the same price? One super-fancy musical toy may cost as much as three baby music CDs.

What not to buy
"You don't need fifty toys, even twenty-five toys. You should be selective," says Dr. Auerbach. Clutter can be overwhelming for everyone. Here's what you can leave on the store shelf:

* Yet another stuffed animal. A few furry friends have their place, but you don't need a menagerie.

* Flash cards for babies.

* Toys that are obnoxiously loud, flashy, or busy. Follow your instincts. If a toy is annoying to you, it will probably overstimulate your baby as well.

Play with me

Even a carefully chosen toy can only take a baby so far. The missing piece in the puzzle is you. "It's not just the toy; it's how the toy is introduced into the baby's life. The first developmental toy is the parent," says Dr. Auerbach. "Playthings should bring you and your baby together."

Contributing editor William Sears, M.D., the author of more than 30 books on childcare, offers these play tips:

* Play an instrument or musical toy just out of your baby's sight as he learns to turn to locate a sound.

* Place a favorite plaything a little beyond your baby's reach, then encourage her as she scoots toward it.

* Infants love to touch a friendly face. Let your baby interact with your face in the mirror, then touch his eyes, ears, nose, and mouth as he watches and learns.

The claims on the box are only generalizations of what your baby may get from a toy. If you're part of the game yourself, you can help her improvise to learn even more. At first, she'll just try to grab at a set of stacking rings, and then she'll chew on them. With you there to show her how to stack them and to cheer her on, she'll develop the control to do it herself.

Remember, too, that at the end of the day, all the toys in the world can't compare with attention from you. Exploring the grass and bushes in the backyard, splashing bubbles or animating a washcloth puppet in the tub, and listening to the sounds of the crickets at night are all enriching activities that don't require a trip to the toy store. Yet toys  -- the right toys  -- can make the days more interesting for everyone. What a developmental toy develops, really, is the relationship between you and your baby.

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