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Finding appropriate playthings that don't break the budget

NO one disputes the value of a good toy - it challenges, teaches, amuses, and helps to develop large and small motor skills. As everyone knows, play is one important way for children to learn about themselves and the world around them, and appropriate toys enhance play.

When parents of young children contemplate the range of available toys, however, they are often overwhelmed. Making a choice is hard enough, but paying for the selection can be even more difficult. Toys are expensive, and fitting a large enough collection into the family budget is apt to worry parents. Does a preschooler really need all those shiny items advertised on TV? Should quality be sacrificed for quantity? How can we make the most of a limited toy budget and still provide enough playthings to keep small children amused and contented?

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Bear in mind that the best toy is one that is appropriate to the age, does what it says it will do, and involves the child (rather than keeping him a spectator). Here are some budget-conscious guidelines for building a toy collection:

Watch garage sales. People whose children have outgrown perfectly good toys are often willing to sell them for a pittance just to get the basement organized again! In addition to tricycles, wagons, and other large riding toys, keep an eye open for bags of wooden blocks, small ''people'' figures, and sturdy gas stations or doll houses.

Be sure items are in good condition (a broken tricycle can be more frustrating to a preschooler than not having one at all). And don't buy anything that can't be completely washed at home.

Organize a toy swap. If you have friends or neighbors with children the same ages as yours, it might be fun to host an evening ''swap'' (when children are in bed and can't influence decisions). Parents bring items in good repair that their children have tired of using and exchange them for others. You can decide on a time limit after which the toys are returned or another swap is scheduled.

Good exchange items include wooden puzzles, canisters of building materials, small cars, blocks, or books. Tape names of the owners somewhere on the items, and, because toys can be mishandled or lost, don't trade anything that you really value.

Scout the neighborhood for unusual ''junk.'' Creative playthings don't have to be expensive and can often be found near home. Appliance stores may occasionally have boxes that contained refrigerators, washers, or dryers. With cut-out doors and windows, they make perfect backyard playhouses. The supermarket can provide smaller-sized boxes (doll beds, cages, ''store'' counters).

Your gas station may yield old tires for swings, and the wallpaper store probably has books of discontinued patterns that can be cut up and glued into interesting art projects or collages. If there's new construction nearby, talk to the builder about buying a length of new sewer pipe at a discount price - it makes a marvelous outdoor tunnel.

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Look around your house. Ordinary household items can be transformed into toys with a minimum of effort. Small children love egg cartons - they're so handy for carrying and storing. Mom and Dad's old clothes, shoes, and hats can be recycled into wonderful dress-up items. And don't forget water play - a plastic tub containing corks, funnels, measuring cups, and egg beaters can keep a preschooler busy all afternoon.

When you do buy new toys, try to avoid impulse purchases of cheap trinkets at the supermarket. Instead, aim for a few sturdy toys that will have lasting value. If you buy one toy a month and supplement your purchases with household or secondhand values, you'll soon provide your child with a perfect collection.

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