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Toys No Fuss

Picking a better gift for your child

Swarming around the glass doors, the crowd presses forward, straining to surge through the moment the security guard opens the store for the morning. Mothers are shoving frantic fathers, who in turn are pushing those in front of them. The time arrives, the harried employee turns the key, and the crazed mob tramples everything in its path on the way to the hallowed shelves that hold "Turbo Man."

While this scene from Arnold Schwarzenegger's movie Jingle All the Way is humorously exaggerated, few things occupy a higher place in the minds and hearts of our kids than toys. And no time of year brings this truth home quite like the Christmas holidays.

For good or for ill, children closely identify the birth of the Savior with accumulating new booty. For those who care about time and money spent wisely (and who doesn't?), answering three key questions might save the family budget and weary feet?and make what you do buy more meaningful for your child.

1. What do I value?

Socrate's admonition to "know thyself" can be helpful at this time of year. Here are questions to consider by yourself or with your spouse:

Which toys do I object to? Some moms object to Barbie dolls, feeling they reinforce unrealistic standards of appearance for girls. Other parents steer clear of toy guns. Others ignore products with ties to Disney, or boycott goods manufactured in religiously oppressive countries.

Do I prefer toys that are less expensive or toys that will last a long time? Am I interested in something that can be used and then recycled, or do I want a toy that my grandchildren can use?

How important is it to get a "hot" or trendy toy?

What are my toy-buying weaknesses? Some dads get misty remembering that fancy batting cage or super-slick Stingray bike that made a boyhood Christmas memorable. Moms recall the longed-for hula hoop or play make-up kit that elicited squeals of elation when December 25th rolled around. Toy makers know how to push those buttons, so know which toys appeal more to you than to your child.

Answering these questions before hitting the malls can save hours of valuable time.

2. What does my child need?

"Keep in mind when you are shopping, 'Who is this for?' " encourages Steve Rocha, assistant manager of the Store of Knowledge in Santa Clara, California. "It's important to remember the ages or needs of each child." Consider: does this toy match my child's age and skill level, or am I setting him or her up for frustration?

The Internet guru "Dr. Toy" agrees: "What does your child need now, and what is he or she ready to play with? The right toy for the right reason will help make your child realize more joy, wonder and learning."

Where does my child spend most of the time playing? "Heather was quiet, patient and focused," remembers Carole Shellhamer, long-time elementary school teacher and experienced mom. "She loved board games and hours of quiet play on her own. Scott, on the other hand, thrived on anything involving physical movement, whether it was the big bubble wands or skateboards."

Shellhamer notes that years of watching kids in the classroom convinced her that children have very different ways of playing. "It's not a matter of right or wrong. That's just how God made them and how they play and learn."

What is my child's learning style? Is he auditory and musical, one who loves rhythm and singing? Is he active and kinesthetic, oriented toward movement? Is she intrapersonal in her play style, enjoying lots of solitude and reflective moments?or interpersonal, always looking for a playmate to make the activity more fun? Is she constructive and analytical, a lover of math and engineering and putting things together? Or is he artistic, a creator and inventor?

3. What makes a toy great?

Imagination. "I like anything that helps them think," says Steve Rocha of the Store of Knowledge. "Things that make a game out of learning, while engaging kids for longer time periods, are worth the investment."

Value. Is it priced right, or am I paying for a name or packaging? "I want the most bang for my buck," laughs Roxanne Jantzen, mother of four from Cincinnati, Ohio. "I'd rather have fewer good toys than a lot of cheap stuff I have to trip over and pick up all the time!"

Creativity. "Anything that requires creativity" is important to Carole Shellhamer. "And if the toy grows up with the children, then I really like it."

Safety. Look at the toy's safety features, particularly of those for preschoolers. Could sharp edges or little pieces be broken off and swallowed? Are there loops or ropes that could choke or parts that could catch little fingers and pinch?

Nobility. What values does the toy communicate? What character qualities does it encourage in my child?

Once you have answered these three questions, you will be prepared to face the maddening crowd with confidence. Happy shopping?and if you run into Arnold, wish him a Merry Christmas!

Ginny Nieuwsma is a writer and mother who lives in San Jose, California.

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