How To Choose Safe Toys for Your Grandchildren

Recalls and lead-paint scares are enough to make any grandparent nervous.

By Jennifer Nycz-Conner

Grandparents love seeing the looks of joy on their grandchildren's faces as the kids unwrap the perfect holiday toy. And there's no doubt grandparents love shopping for those gifts: They accounted for 21 percent of the $22.3 billion in U.S. toy sales in 2007, according to The NPD Group, a market research company. Unfortunately, a rash of recalls, warnings, and other concerns about toy safety has made shopping for that perfect toy worrisome. From lead paint on toys imported from China, to magnets that can kill if swallowed, to concerns about children choking on small parts of toys, there are enough red flags to make and grandparent freeze up when he or she enters a toy store.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Here’s what you need to know to keep your purchases safe and keep worries from ruining your holiday.

To Avoid Lead Paint, Buy New Toys

In response to the lead paint scares of 2007, the federal government passed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act in January 2008. “It will really change the landscape for consumer products and toy safety for years to come,” says Alan Korn, director of public policy and general counsel for Safe Kids Worldwide in Washington, D.C. Among the provisions of the new legislation is the elimination of lead, within three years, from all products marketed to children younger than 12. The law also stipulates that choking-hazard warnings must be included not only on toy packaging, but also on other key points of purchase, such as catalogs and websites.

Stay on Top of Recalls

According to a 2007 Harris Interactive poll, nine of 10 Americans believe that most toy recalls are due to lead paint. In reality, the majority of recalls are due to manufacturers' design flaws. You can receive free, up-to-date recall information when you sign up for e-mail alerts from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, (CSPC), the federal agency charged with protecting consumers from hazardous products. The alerts identify recalled products, the reason[s] why they’re being recalled, what they look like, where they were manufactured and sold, and any steps to take to correct their problems.

Take Age Recommendations Seriously

Many toys come with warnings that say, for example, that they are not recommended for children younger than 3 because of small parts that could become choking hazards. Those warnings should be taken seriously, says Julie Livingston, spokesperson for the Toy Industry Association, even if your grandchildren seem precocious or advanced enough for the toy. You should also keep the warnings in mind when shopping for grandchildren with siblings younger than 3 who could get at the toy. For a detailed guide on what type of toys are safe for which age groups, visit the Tips on Toys section of the Toy Industry Association’s website.

Where You Shop Matters

Everyone loves a bargain, so it may be tempting to pick up a cute little toy at the local dollar-store. But safety experts recommend sticking with retailers you know and trust, and avoiding discount stores that may not keep up with product recalls. Such stores may put toys on their shelves long after they've been discontinued by manufacturers. Studies by consumer-safety groups have also found hundreds of recalled toys offered for sale on online auction sites, so visit the CSPC's website to check on old toys before buying them online. Similarly, toys available in second-hand shops can be broken in ways not immediately obvious, or have sharp edges.

Green = Safe

If you’re concerned about your grandchildren's exposure to chemicals, or if you're simply trying to be environmentally aware, seek toys made of sustainable or reclaimed wood, and those that use vegetable dyes or natural oil or beeswax finishes, says Jennifer Taggart, author of the forthcoming book The Smart Mama’s Green Guide: Simple Steps to Reduce Your Child's Toxic Chemical Exposure (Hachette Book Group).

Supervision Makes Playtime Safer

The best accessory you can give your grandchildren is supervision. "Supervised play is safe play," Korn says. If younger children place a small part in their mouths, you can respond quickly. Also, regularly inspect the toys you keep in your home for the grandchildren. Kids play hard, and toys can start to show their wear quickly with sharp, broken or rough edges. And if you have grandchildren of different ages, store their toys separately.

Being smart about safety is important, but it’s equally important to remember why we give kids toys in the first place. As Livingston says, "The most important tip is to have fun."

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