Q:

I love to give toys to my nieces and nephews for birthdays and holidays. However, I want them to have ones that help them learn and develop. What should I be looking for? -- Searching

A:

According to the American Occupational Therapy Association, if you are shopping for toys, you need to ask yourself these questions before buying:

1. Is the toy safe and age appropriate? If the suggested age range is too young for the child, he or she may get bored quickly. If the range is too old, the child may get frustrated and give up, or be exposed to small parts that could pose a safety risk. Be mindful of the child's development in terms of his or her strengths, interests and abilities.

2. Can the toy be played with in more than one way? Toys that offer unlimited possibilities can tap into the child's creativity. Blocks can be stacked, knocked down, lined up, crashed into and even substituted for play food in a pretend kitchen.

3. Does the toy appeal to several senses? Children's attention is captured by exciting colors, sounds, lights and textures. Toys that encourage them to push buttons, move parts, open doors or sort shapes will often lengthen playtime.

4. Can the toy be used in more than one place or position? Toys that are easy to carry or can be used while sitting, standing or even laying down make play possible anywhere. Crayons, markers, sidewalk chalk, a baby gym and plastic rings can be used in a variety of locations.

5. Does the toy involve the use of both hands? Moving parts, buttons and gears encourage activity and movement. Construction toys, craft kits, puzzles, balls, riding toys and toss-and-catch sets all promote motor skill development at different ages.

6. Does the toy encourage thinking or solving problems? Board games and science kits offer older kids the chance to use thinking skills in a new way, while shape sorters, puzzles or a Jack-in-the box is great for babies and toddlers.

7. Does the toy encourage communication and interaction? Dress-up clothes, costumes, playhouses, kitchen sets and tools all can be used with more than one child to teach cooperation and negotiation, and foster imagination.

8. Is the toy worth the cost? Consider the appeal, durability and cost of the toy. Will the toy engage the child in a way that he/she is an active participant rather than a passive observer? Can the family engage in play together?