It doesn't take a degree in developmental psychology to know that not all toys are right for all age groups. An 18-month-old wouldn't have much use for a tricycle. A rattle might not particularly intrigue a 6-year-old.
The most important reason for age ranges on toy packaging, though, is safety. Job one in keeping kids safe is following those age recommendations, especially when your child is an infant: One of the biggest toy dangers is choking, and infants are most at risk.
If you're a parent, you know why: Babies put everything, absolutely everything, in their mouths. Anything small enough to get lodged in a baby-size throat poses a choking or suffocation risk. Public Interest Research Groups (PIRG) reports that in 2008, three children died this way, and between 1990 and 2007, nearly 200 children did [source: USPIRG]. It's no joke: Small toys or removable parts of toys are not for children under the age of 3. For these "oral age" kids, anything less than 1.75 inches (4.45 centimeter) in diameter is inappropriate [source: USPIRG].
Most toys have age guidelines and related warnings printed prominently on the packaging, so you typically won't have to guess (in fact, if there are no ranges, you might want to avoid that toy). Age-inappropriate toys, however, do slip by, so it's important to know what to look for in terms of what's right for your child's stage of development. A few tips:
- Small parts -- While they're banned in toys for babies and toddlers, there's still some risk of choking in kids all the way up to age six, so use caution. Pay attention to "small parts" warnings on all toys. Consider purchasing or making a "choke tube" to test toys for size safety, and check stuffed animals for loose pieces (eyes, noses) that could come loose and become a choking hazard.
- Cords -- Cords, strings and other tethers pose a strangulation risk for small children, especially under 1 year old. Toys with cords and strings should be saved for older children.
- Electric Heating -- A toy that produces heat, like a baking set, is not safe for children under 8 years old. Young children are more likely to use it improperly and get burned.
- Handles -- A long-handled or long, narrow toy (like a drumstick) is only for children older than 4. A younger child is more likely to stick it in his mouth and choke.
- Guns -- Toys guns like pellet guns, cap guns and BB guns can, literally, put an eye out. They are not appropriate for children younger than 16.
If you come across a toy you believe is unsafe, don't hesitate to tell the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Go to CPSC: Report Unsafe Products.
Following age recommendations is a good start in protecting kids. But there's at least one toy component that's dangerous for children of all ages.