Bring Your Own Expert
When possible, take your child with you when you go shopping. It's the best way to find out what excites her -- and what doesn't. If she gets the "gimmes" every time she crosses the threshold of a toy store, try promising a modest reward for good behavior, like one of the small, inexpensive items by the checkout counter, suggests Marianne Szymanski, founder of The Toy Tips Research Institute at Marquette University in Milwaukee. If your child's not with you, watch other kids who are about the same age to see which playthings they're drawn to.
Try to arrive just after a store opens, especially if you go on the weekend. You'll beat the crowds and be the first to spot bargains -- usually found at the end of the aisle.
Do A Hands-On Inspection
Look over a prospective purchase for both safety and quality. If the toy is in a sealed box and there's no display model to test, you may have to wait until you get it home (always ask about a store's return policy) or ask the manager to demonstrate it.
Opt For Low-Maintenance Items
Check to see if plush toys -- especially those for infants -- are machine-washable, and review assembly instructions. If you're not prepared to hand wash stuffed animals or spend an hour putting a toy together, leave it on the shelf.
Follow Age Recommendations
Age ranges on labels are not there just for safety reasons. Playing with a toy meant for an older child won't make your toddler any smarter -- instead, it might frustrate her. And what about labels that say something like "ages 3 to 103"? Read the box carefully to see if the activities match your child's skill level. Such toys are often geared more toward adults, and may require supervision.
Look For Toys That Encourage Creativity
Versatile toys, such as blocks, stacking and nesting toys, and art supplies, are always a good bet since a child is more likely to use her imagination when a plaything isn't limited to one function or a single activity. And though the occasional one-shot toy is fine, most trendy or hyped toys don't pass the test of time.