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Playthings worth unwrapping

Toys are part of every child's life. For adults, finding suitable toys for holiday giving can be daunting.

Parents already have mixed feelings about the season: They want to give good things, but dislike the commercialism, mob mentality, and long lines to buy the latest Elmo doll or Laser Tennis game.

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Thoughtful adults tend to seek a middle ground between buying everything on a child's wish list and canceling Christmas altogether.

So how do you sort out valuable toys from the duds, and still ensure happy faces on Christmas morning? Fortunately, there are a number of resources, including lists of recommended toys that have been evaluated by educators and tested by kids (see story, right).

Whether you are looking for family games, electronic gadgetry, or something to keep a child's attention while dinner is cooking, experts offer the following suggestions:

*Think "open-ended play." This buzz phrase describes a toy's flexibility. Wooden and plastic blocks, such as Lincoln Logs or Legos, are a good example, because they can be reconfigured into hundreds of shapes and uses. Train sets are also good, primarily because children are solving puzzles as they connect track. Dolls and playhouses encourage young imaginations.

*Avoid toys that are merchandising tie-ins. Commercial TV shows and movies have their own spin-off products, even those that are not strictly for children, such as pro-wrestling programs. These toys usually follow a script and some encourage violence or the modeling of adult behaviors. These items, in turn, reinforce the omnipresence of TV and movies in children's lives.

*Ask, will this toy encourage social interaction? Educators know that children begin patterns of interaction early, so toys that encourage inclusiveness and teamwork put kids on the right track.

*Look for toys that keep gender-based stereotypes to a minimum.

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*Check whether the toy helps develop physical skills, such as hand-to-eye coordination. But beware the toy manufacturers who claim their product does this, when there is no other educationally redeeming value.

*Recognize that the ages on the label may be misleading. However, toys that are labeled "Age 3 and up" probably contain small parts that could be swallowed by very young children.

*Don't push preschoolers into vocabulary-building or math games too early, and watch out for advanced toys that can be frustrating to younger children.

*What's new is not always better. Don't forget the classics (see box, left).

*Remember that books are always a good choice.

*Next week: A roundup of quality children's software in time for holiday giving.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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