More than ever, parents are faced with a dilemma when purchasing toys for their children: Should they buy what their children really long for? Or should they buy a good, educational toy they choose on their child’s behalf?

In our society, children are constantly bombarded with advertisements promoting toys often designed to break within a few months or be replaced by their own “newer” versions. The toys your children want are not necessarily the ones that are of great quality or of any educational value for that matter, but they are the ones advertised constantly, and the ones all their friends own at school: the “cool” toys. Often, however, when children get these toys, they fail to play with them. The problem is that, if you observe closely, there is not much that they can do with the toy. It does not inspire the child to use their imagination, or any other skills for that matter.

It is important for children to play. They don’t necessarily need toys to play, but often, as is common in our culture, they look for “something to do”.  The new toy offers no possibilities, so they look for other answers. Unfortunately, the options are, more often than not, watching tv, playing video games, or yearning for the next toy that promises hours of fun.

If there is one word of advice you can draw from this article, it’s this: look at what you are going to buy and, before you decide, ask yourself “how can my child play with this toy? What does it do? What skills does it promote?” If you have good answers for those questions, chances are you are in the right path.

Children spend an estimated 34 hours a week interacting with toys and games, listening to music or watching movies.  The toys you choose have both short and long-term impacts. Not only do they provide creative outlets and help strengthen physical and mental skills, studies have shown they can bolster parts of the brain used to make decisions later in life.

This means the decision you make in aisle four could have long-lasting effects on your child’s brain.  Here are a few factors to consider before approaching the check out counter this holiday season:

Age Groups

A child’s brain is at its highest level of development before the age of six. Babies are developing their sense of sound, sight and touch, and familiarizing themselves with the world that surrounds them. Toys that assist in hand-eye coordination, visual skills or any of their senses are a good choice.  Look for toys with bright, attractive colors or patterns, mirrored or reflective surfaces, varied textures, and safe to mouth (meaning easy to wash!) Toys they can pull, chew, discover, hear, grab, and get a sound out of are some good choices. Lamaze has some good choices for young babies, but there are many exciting choices in the market. I also recommend soft blocks and cars, rattles and washable books. Here are some concrete ideas.

Toddlers are in a stage of exploration and are finding their independence. They are developing their motor skills and using their imagination. Ride-ons or anything that can be pushed or pulled are great choices. Even better if they have elements of everyday life that they can use to pretend-play, such as lawnmowers, grocery carts or dolls and strollers. These toys are also great for early walkers. Toys they can use in the sand or water are not only great but also necessary for their development. Non-toxic finger paint and shape sorters or puzzles are also perfect for their budding imaginations. You will find, however, that some of their favorite things to play with will be right in your kitchen! Here are concrete ideas for one year olds and two year olds.

Preschoolers are jumping, running and interested in so many things! Good toys will challenge them and engage their imagination and reasoning skills. Vehicles and bikes are great for gross motor skills, while puzzles, building toys such as Lego, brio trains and tracks, and art supplies develop their fine motor skills (and their imagination and reasoning skills). Realistic dolls and house furniture and accessories of any size (from real-sized babies to Playmobil) are great for role-playing and imagination as well. Science kits are amazing for this age group, and books and toys that help them learn to read. Here are concrete ideas for three year olds, four year olds and five year olds.

Young Children have well established social skills, and love to play in groups even more than they did before. Board games and group games are a great choice for this age group, as are art supplies and crafts projects, as well as more complex building sets and science kits. Books they can read on their own are a wonderful gift, and magic kits or circus-type toys such as devil sticks promote better motor skills. I love to encourage outdoor toys for this age group as well, such as skates, basketball, jump-ropes and Chinese elastics, ping-pong, badminton, or anything that will promote healthy outdoor play and invite new friendships.

Tweens and Teens are the age group that people struggle the most with. I have one at home and, personally, I find this age group fascinating! As veteran toy consumers, they are hard to impress. Often, the only toys they gravitate towards are videogames. However, this is the perfect age to introduce them to some of the things you still like to play with as an adult! Our son loves to make animation movies. He inherited one of our cameras, and we bought him a computer and some plasticine. He also invites his friends over and together, they make movies which they later can post on YouTube. Choose things that will give your child a great sense of accomplishment and engage them to the fullest. This age group is incredibly creative! Other choices can be a real instrument and some lessons, a painting kit (I love the type that come in wooden cases with handles, which they can take outside). Knitting or sewing projects (even a simple sewing machine), woodworking, clay, an easel, a pet they always wanted; the possibilities are endless. Look for toys that show you trust them and believe in them, and you can affect them for life!

While anticipation of a gleeful smile and wish fulfilled should, of course, play into your purchasing decisions, what you put under the tree can have a lasting impression on your child. A little research combined with a lot of love will ensure your child has an extraordinary present with benefits that last far beyond the holiday season.