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Holiday shopping tips for preschoolers and toddlers

Play is an important part of life for children and adults too.

The chaotic holiday shopping season seems to approach sooner each year, and while visions of toy recalls dance in their head, consumers shopping for young children will be on their toes this season. While safety should be a big concern, toy shoppers should keep other things in mind as well, say early childhood experts at Parents as Teachers National Center.

•Age and skill level. Consult the age guidelines shown on toy boxes, but remember they are just that - guidelines. Imagine the child playing with the toy; is it challenging enough to capture his interest without being overwhelming or unsafe? "If you are unsure, ask the child's parents. They know their child's skills and capabilities best, and can decide if he is ready to enjoy a particular toy," suggests Jane Kostelc, early childhood specialist at Parents as Teachers National Center.

•Opportunities for parent-child interaction - the "play with me" factor. When shopping for gifts for young children, look for items that will foster parent interaction with the child. Adults can support and extend children's play. Look for play materials that provide such opportunities. Games are good choices as they require more than one person to play. For parents, think of things you like to do and see if you can extend those pastimes to include your child. For example, if you like to cook, child-sized utensils, apron and a cookie-baking date could make a gift both you and your child will enjoy.

•Interests. "At a very early age children develop interests that guide their learning and enjoyment," says Kostelc. "Parents should watch what their child chooses to play with and listen to the things she talks about." At the same time, help a child who is engrossed with a particular type of plaything to branch out and have other play experiences. For example, a child who is fascinated with trains might enjoy a puzzle with a train theme.

Toys are not the only things children play with. Look for everyday objects that can support and extend a child's interests. For example, a child interested in bugs might like a flashlight and an unbreakable magnifying glass to find specimens.

•The value of play. Young children learn things every day through play. Toys that do everything for the child don't have much play value, nor are they likely to engage a child for long. But toys and materials that allow a child to use his imagination will also help his brain grow. Look for activities that are open-ended, that is, that can be played with in many different ways. Building blocks, for example, can be played with by children at different ages. They can become anything the child imagines them to be.

•All things considered. Always focus on how safe playthings are when choosing gifts for children. Safety depends on how toys are manufactured, but also on how appropriate they are for a child's age, skill level and activity level. There is no such thing as an absolutely safe toy. Children require supervision during play. And remember that more than anything else, young children crave time and attention. "These are the best gifts a parent can provide. When you play with your child you foster learning and support his development in a number of areas." Kostelc adds.





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