A wrong guess is more than a matter of wasted money. After all, toys aren't just things. They're vehicles for learning, for entertainment, and for making lasting memories -- which is why a poor choice is disappointing and a good one is worth all that time in the store or online.
Barbara Rowley, a contributing editor, is the author of Baby Days.
Birth to 1
Consider the buildA baby's initial play is supremely simple: He picks things up. Therefore, most of his toys -- from nesting cups to soft blocks -- should be lightweight and small (as long as he can't fit them inside his mouth). They should also be soft enough that they're easy to grip or have handles, protrusions, or finger holes. If a plaything's got buttons, levers, or knobs, test to see that tiny hands can manipulate them.
Feel your waySince babies explore their toys through touch, it's best to offer a variety of materials -- wood, cloth, plastic -- as well as those with interesting textures like raised dots or nubby fabric, says Carol Andrew, Ph.D., a toy developer and occupational therapist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, in Lebanon, NH. The best infant toys match different textures to visual cues: A fabric ball might have a panel of smooth, red satin and a rough corduroy panel in, say, blue.
Listen upIndulge your baby's attraction to fun, unusual sounds and music, but don't feel pressured to buy into the overhyped idea of classical compositions boosting brainpower.
That doesn't mean you shouldn't buy toys that play tunes, but various types can be satisfying, as long as they have an appealing sound. And look for noisemakers that connect a sound to an action whenever possible, says Andrew. When your baby shakes a rattle harder, for instance, the clacking should grow louder too.
Go for good looksInfants love colors and patterns as well as mirrors and other shiny surfaces. Glitter encased in plastic will also prove fascinating. But even though your baby likes sparkle and shine, she's not ready for the flash of Las Vegas-like lights, says Dorothy Singer, a psychologist at Yale University who specializes in play. Try to limit the number of toys that blink or light up, especially in her crib. "Babies' neurosystems are much more finely tuned than those of adults. Lights have a tendency to overexcite, not soothe, them," she says.
You don't need to offer an abundance of black, white, and red toys, either. A pure diet of high-contrast colors early on is, at the very least, unnecessary and, at the most, potentially overstimulating, say child-development experts.
Stick to age-appropriate learningInfants are figuring out their first life lessons -- such as where sounds come from and the difference between flat and bumpy. Toys that feature the alphabet and numbers won't make your child smarter or give him a leg up on his peers.
Ages 1 to 3
Get toughToddlers possess the strength and persistence to destroy, without the reasoning skills to resist such temptations as tossing a truck into the toilet or chucking a play phone down the stairs, says Julie Creighton, a Parenting contributing editor who's been testing toys for more than 25 years. To head off trouble, choose items made of thick plastic, wood, or tough, machine-washable fabric, and try to anticipate the ways your child might abuse a plaything before you purchase it. Could she detach those wheels or break off that thin, protruding piece of plastic?
Think fastA busy toddler with a short attention span needs quick results, so provide toys that do something immediate, whether it's a pop-up toy that springs to life with the push of a button or a pull toy that moves when your child gives it a tug. Pass up electronic toys that keep doing their thing until they run through a full cycle. "Your toddler is most interested in what she can do with the toy, not what the toy does on its own," says Creighton.
Don't worry about the ABC'sMany toddler toys claim to teach letters and numbers, but you'll do your child a favor by buying things like art materials and blocks, which help him learn to think imaginatively instead. Asking your 2-year-old to set out one plate and one cup for each pretend tea-party guest is a much better way to teach math than drilling numbers.
Test for successTo make sure that your easily frustrated toddler has a reasonable chance of working a toy the way it was intended, try it yourself. Will the stacking cups stay stacked when she puts one on top of the other? Will she be able to turn the crank to pop open the windows? Do all of the sorting shapes fit easily through the holes, or only if the piece is held just so?
You may also need to modify a new toy when you first bring it home, says Creighton. "By age two, many kids can play matching games, but the sets often come with as many as thirty pieces. Start with four or five pairs until your child gets the hang of it, then add more."
Don't wait for special occasionsThough all young children change rapidly, it's never truer than in the toddler years, when certain predictable obsessions -- emptying and filling containers, taking off lids and putting them back on, pounding with toy hammers -- come and then go as an activity is mastered. Present your toddler with a busy box just as he's constantly pressing buttons or opening doors around the house and you'll have a surefire hit and help him develop his motor skills.
Ages 3 to 6
Choose child-powered toysThis is the age of do-it-yourself learning, and do-it-for-you playthings take time away from the activities that benefit kids most, says Andrew. In general, preschoolers should maneuver their ride-on cars with their own feet, provide the voices for their dolls, draw pictures on real paper, and play games with people, not with computer programs. "Crayons help refine motor skills in ways a keyboard can't," she says.
There's no need to ban the computer or veto a toy just because it has batteries. But do make sure that most of your child's playthings give her the chance to exercise her imagination as well as her muscles. Limit those designed to replace you or a peer as a playmate.
Get messyIf you've just recovered from cleaning up food under a high chair, the thought of new messes and clutter can be off-putting. But now that your child's probably stopped putting everything in his mouth, you can finally offer toys with small parts -- and those multipiece block and bead sets and hands-on art toys provide wonderful opportunities for building motor and thinking skills. (You can always turn cleanup time into a game.)
Look at the big pictureYour child's now ready to tackle letters and numbers, but you should still focus on toys that teach broader concepts. Puzzles, for instance, show kids how to make comparisons (which piece is too big, too small, the right shape?). Memory and matching games help with logic and concentration. Board games reinforce turn-taking and cooperation.
Provide propsYour now social child will love playthings that she can use with a friend -- without adult assistance. Such items as a toy vet kit, a cash register, and a well-stocked costume box are all the inspiration most kids need to launch into pretend play. A set of blocks, some good balls, and cars are all easily shared.
Ages 6 to 12
Strive for balanceIf your child is a Lego fanatic, toy buying can seem like a snap: Buy more Legos. But you should also purchase toys and games that aren't part of his regular play. "If he's really into sports, look for a quieter pursuit, such as a nature toy," suggests Creighton. Then set aside time to explore it with him.
Remember non-electronicsEven though your child may ask only for a new game cartridge or other high-tech paraphernalia, try not to let toys fall by the wayside. Older kids still enjoy pretend play (theatrical productions, such as puppet shows, are often a hit) and get a kick out of construction toys, brainteasers, and games. This is also the time to get your child hooked on a hobby like building models, drawing, or performing magic.
Focus on family timeLook for craft, science, and nature kits that you can work on together. Board and card games are also superb, conversation-inducing alternatives to turning on the television.
Think of toys as toolsSeek out items that may be downsized for kids but work like the genuine article: metal garden tools for your landscape artist, a working microscope or binoculars for a scientist, art supplies for a painter, cooking implements for a budding chef.
Variety, as they say, is the spice of life, and that goes for toys too. The most important thing to remember: Offer a range of age-appropriate playthings. Your child's bound to have fun -- and so will you.