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Shopping for great toys: things to look for in the stores.

My father used to state quite clearly as any holiday approached that he was not stepping foot into any toy stores that year. He just couldn't stand being bumped into by some stranger with their cart full of boxes about to fall on him! Of course, he usually broke his promise and the item we had requested usually was wrapped and waiting on the eventful day. There was also some story to go with it about running to several stores before closing time trying to find that special toy.

The importance of toys and creative play experiences cannot be underestimated. Many concepts and skills are learned through play. Opportunities to interact with siblings and peers are present and readily available. Play looks different for each of us. There is not a right or wrong way to play. We all need opportunities for creative expression and ways to use our free time. There are hundreds of opportunities available but problems arise when we are confronted with a wide array of toys and play materials and are working with limited budgets.

We all know the overwhelming task of choosing just the right gift for our sons and daughters, friends and relatives. There is an overwhelming array to choose from these days. It can take hours to comb through shops and catalogs to determine what the choices are, and many more hours to choose the best options.

So where do we begin? As the coordinator of a toy library, I shop for toys regularly. There are many things that I look for in a toy. If I have particular youngsters or individuals in mind, I will be thinking about their interests, preferences and abilities. In some instances, I know the youngster well and can identify several choices for toys that would engage him or her. Having met the parents or other family members before, I can select a toy or toys that will meet with their approval. I also know the abilities of the child and skill areas of importance to the family members and professionals involved with them.

There are equally many times when I do not know the youngster or the family well and must use other selection criteria. In these cases, I rely on the information that the parents and teachers have given me. I often think about what other kids of the same age may be interested in and check age references on the box when available. I also have several young toy consultants who often go shopping with me to help in finding the best toys.

Whenever possible, I try to test the toy in the store to see what it takes to operate it. Can it be operated by a swipe of an arm? How much pressure does it take to make it go? Are there multiple pieces and how big are they? Toys that are easy to activate usually wind up either in my shopping cart or on my wish list. Toys that require little reading or that use tactile information are also favorites.

Kids need ways to explore and create. I am always keeping my eyes open for toys that present creative options for play. Toys that provide opportunities for producing something like a building, a picture or a musical tune increase a child's self-esteem. It is so exciting to watch as a child controls his or her environment in new ways, often for the first time.

With the variety of toys on the market, we each have our own set of personal values that are challenged. In selecting toys, I personally look for ones that do not promote violence or engender fear. I also try to select toys without stereotyping roles or restricting opportunities for exploration. If a child is interested in fire engines, my choice is not influenced by whether they are a girl or a boy. Many may disagree with these criteria, yet have other important requirements for toys. For each of you, there will be certain toys that will not meet with your approval.

Another criteria I use for toy selection is whether a toy can help a child develop computer-related skills. There is always at least one computer in our toy library. When I meet with kids and families, especially if the child is age 5 or under, we spend equal amounts of time playing with toys and using the computer. I use the toys to introduce new experiences that I know will also be presented by the software. If I am going to use software that is operated with a switch, I choose toys that have been adapted for switch use. The child gains experience and confidence first with the toys, and then practices the same skills with the computer. When I am shopping for toys, I am also looking for toys that will complement the software that I use. The toys can help the child make sense of what is presented on the screen, as they are actual objects that can be felt and held.

Finally, when a toy catches my eye in the store, I spend time thinking about ways that the toy could be adapted that would increase its use by a variety of youngsters. Can handles be built onto the surface that will enlarge the area that activates the toy? Is there space to add additional handles to pieces? Can pictures be enlarged? Can a base be put on the smaller pieces to allow them to stand without falling? How can the rules of the game be changed? If it is a battery-operated toy, is the switch adaptable? Many toys with multiple functions (e.g. backward, forward, etc.) may need someone with sophisticated electrical experience in order to adapt them. Some adaptations will require the assistance of a carpenter or skilled electrician. You may know of someone in your family or community who has those skills and can assist you. SIMPLE MODIFICATIONS

There are also many simple modifications that can be made to toys and games to increase independent play. Plexiglass handles can be epoxied onto buttons to extend as levers. Plexiglass hollow tubing can be added to cranks on jack-in-the-boxes to extend handles and give a larger surface. Velcro can be added to the bottom of toys to stabilize them during play. Wooden dowels can be inserted into pieces that are small to assist in picking them up and using them during play. You don't need to think of elaborate ways to modify toys. The simplest ideas are usually the best.

There are many resources available that can assist in giving ideas for adapting and creating toys. A short list is inclued in a sidebar, along with the names of some companies that distribute or manufacture adapted toys and switches.

As parents and professionals, we all have creative abilities and a strong commitment to providing play experiences for youngsters. As you shop in the coming months, stop and think about your child's interests and new ways they could use a particular toy. Keep a fist of toys that you think may work well and try them out one at a time. Talk with friends and other families to exchange ideas and share ones that you have found. Networking with others who are equally passionate about using toys is a fun way to get fresh ideas to add to your list ! I have been on several marathon shopping sprees with my friends, and we've discovered some great finds! I have found some very unusual toys in unlikely places like airport gift shops, discount stores and toy selections in local drug stores and gift shops. You can never ten where you will find something new and interesting that, with a slight modification, will bring hours of fun and enjoyment.
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Author:Wershing, Alice
Publication:The Exceptional Parent
Date:Nov 1, 1989
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