How To Buy Toys for Children

Purchasing Toys for Kids

I’m entering the second toy purchasing phase of life, as our grandson arrives next week to spend the Christmas holidays,  As he is 1.25 years old, I plan to spend the next several years showering him with toys.  Which ones? 

Here are rules for toy purchases, learned, sometimes the hard way, with my own children years ago.  It was going to be a list of ten – but there were more than that.

  • You’re purchasing a toy for the child, not for yourself. As a life-long car and motorcycle nut case, it’s hard for me to stray from my roots. When our children were young, I was struck by how much accuracy had evolved in small replicas of cars and motorcycles and trucks. So much cool stuff, and such temptation!  I wanted to buy every cool car model or motorcycle that was not available in my own childhood.

Somewhere buried in the dirt embankment of the driveway of the home of my childhood is a “Dinky” toy model of a Fraser Nash sports car. I lost it there and spent hours excavating the dirt looking for it. Still miss it.

A hard fact of life is that the child, or in this particular case the parents, may not be so gaga over miniature replicas of great machines as I. Since hardly anyone is, this should be obvious.

  • Eschew the electronics.  Anything powered by electricity, either plugged into a wall socket or by batteries, should be avoided if at all possible.  Not so much for safety reasons, but because any operations done with electricity are things the child does not do. The goal of a toy is to play with it, to let the mind roam, and to expand thoughts and fantasies. Simply watching someone’s creation run through its bag of tricks does not engage anything except the eyes. 

The late Johnny Carson once devoted the entire monologue at the beginning of “The Tonight Show” to this topic.  It must have been 40 years ago, but he’d been in a department store and was appalled by all the new electronic toys that required the child to merely sit and watch.  He did several minutes on what he called “Dickie the Stick,” detailing all the wonderful play a child could have if given only – a stick. Like all comedy, it was based on anger.  It was brilliant.

There are caveats, of course, While perusing the stock at a Radio Shack store a month or two ago while waiting for my 88 year old mother in law to straighten out an issue with her purchase plan phone, I was struck by the number of really cool radio-controlled vehicles you could purchase. And they were not all that expensive, These, purchased in pairs, get a pass, because what could be more fun than racing against your grandson around the back yard with your matching off-road vehicles?  In addition, I’ve owned several slot car race track sets in my life, and assuredly will purchase another one in a few years.

In a fit of excess, at the age of 30 I collected several sets of discarded slot car sets from friends and made a slot car track that required several transformers, mounted on saw horses covered by three or four 4’ X 8’ sheets of plywood. The lap time for this track was about 47 seconds.  I called it “Kirkland Junior Raceway” and had parties where friends would come over, ante in a buck or two, and indulge in races. As it was my track, and I had lots of practice, I tended to win a lot. And then people began to come up with custom paint jobs and modifications to the cars to make them faster.  I fought back with a model of an AMC Matador NASCAR racer, which I figured would handicap me with its size and weight. And it did.

  • Stifle the noise. Any toy that makes noise will drive the parents up the nearest wall in short order, in contrast to the melody of a child creating his or her own sound track.  Worst gift my children received in their youth was a game that involved a clucking chicken circulating a track, You were to depress a lever at the correct time for an egg to be delivered to you, and you tried to get more eggs than your opponent.  The clucking noise was a prescription for an eventual trip to a well-padded room when the noise defeated your brain. At the time, I wondered what heinous crime I had committed against my brother for him to respond in such a cruel way. Fortunately the children tired of this monstrosity in short order.
  • Avoid weapons.  This will arouse consternation for many, I am sure, but I don’t see the value in teaching children the “fun” of shooting things. I have to admit we did have fun back then with a set of laser tag pistols, which were weapons AND electronic, AND made noise, but in general, children will learn enough about violence in the fullness of time. Santa need not assist.
  • No computer games. Every child alive today or that will be born in the future who is fortunate enough to live in a first world society will spend an appalling percentage of a lifetime in front of a computer. You need not add to the total.
  • No videos.  Same as computers. TV is something to be tightly controlled.
  • Dolls are a toughie.  We may look at them as teaching “violence” (G.I. Joe) or “sexism” and “unrealistic body image expectations” (Barbie) and all sorts of other woes, but at the end of the day many children like them and have fun playing with them. The solution that worked for us was a variety of stuffed animals, especially ones that could be draped over a hand and used as a puppet. The child (or parent) provided the personality and voice and adventures, without the implied restrictions of a humanoid doll in a costume of some sort. 
  • Non-computer games are a go.  There are all sorts of games that require the child to engage parts of the brain dealing with logic or math in some form or strategy.  I spent hundreds of hours as a child with a set of “Soma blocks’ that could be put together in various combinations.  I’d recommend spending up for wood ones if possible. Teaching a child how to play Checkers and eventually moving on the Chess will give them a game for a lifetime.  My older brothers enjoyed a 3 dimensional chess set with three levels of clear plastic “boards.” The pieces could be moved in several directions. That one was a step too far for me, as I was not capable of playing it with any skill.

When my son learned to play chess, we had fun while playing if I was also watching Monday Night Football on the TV behind him. That way he was competitive and won often enough to retain his interest.  After a while he could beat me with the TV off.  And then, easily…

  • As a general rule, any toy made of real wood or steel or paper will be more valued that one of plastic. Sometimes you will have no choice.
  •  You can create a toy that is a “fort kit” from items in your home. Any child from 1 to 15 wants a fort. It could be three chairs with a blanket over them up to a tree-fort in the back yard as age appropriate.
  •  Avoid sexism. Some boys like to play with dolls. Some girls like to  play with radio kits, erector sets, or basic tool kits. 
  • Go for manual manipulation and dexterity.  Some (but not all) “classic” toys attained their status because they’ve provided millions of hours of play for children across decades. Most of them allow or require the child to put things together or take them apart, and they can be selected based on the age of the child.  Remember “Lincoln Logs”?  Erector sets, Lego kits, and models of one thing or another – the choices abound.

When I was about ten my older brother received a “visible man” kit for Christmas. This had the skeleton and bones of an adult male in small parts which fit into a clear plastic “skin.”  George went beyond the kit to paint in the arteries and veins in blue and red model paint, showing the focus and patience that would serve him well in his eventual career with a doctorate in chemical engineering.  I was more interested in basic items, like a new hockey stick.

  • Music is fine…if…  Does the child like music?  A gift that the child uses to create music, not merely listen to it, can be a wonderful thing.

Fun story. In elementary school I took up the flute. On Christmas morning I was excited to tear the wrapping paper off what emerged – a new case for my school rental flute. I was thanking my parents when they suggested that I actually open the case. It never occurred to me that they would actually purchase me my own flute! I still have it.

  • Books, books, books, and more books. A child who is read to, and then learns to read by him or herself at an early age will be streets ahead of everyone, for life.  There are books for non-readers, books for beginning readers, and on and on. The reason books are so great is that when you read, your imagination has to picture each scene and provide all the sounds and smells and colors.  This is a good thing.  It is pretty easy to keep track of the child’s tastes in literature and gently lead them toward a life of wonder and exploration.

Another fun story.  My children loved the “Berenstain Bears” books. I read them so often I thought I would lose my mind with our second child. I came up with a better idea. I would simply start to tell my son a bedtime story that I made up on the fly. I did not have to worry about the ending, because he would fall asleep before I had to figure out how it all came out.  I paid little attention to what was in each story. This worked a treat until the fateful day when my son said, “Daddy, tell me that story you told me last week again.”

Panic. I had no recollection of what the story was about.  Quick thinking got me to “Which story was that?”

“You know, the one where the boy is in the attic and he opens an old trunk and finds a toy fire truck.”

“Oh, that one,” I lied. I then took up that story and kept it going until he fell asleep again.  Whew!

If you remove all the gifts from this list that are “don’ts” you’ll still have millions of choices. I look forward to making mine.


Copyright 2014                                                       David Preston

About david

I am a 74 year old motorsports nut who lives in Snohomish, Washington. After a 31 year career as an English teacher, I segued into a self-created job in the motorsports business. Now retired, I was involved in customer relations for Ride West BMW in Seattle, after almost 10 years of similar work for the Cycle Barn MotorSports Group. I own, at the current time, a Triumph Rocket 3 (2020), a 2020 Triumph Bonneville, and a 2016 Ford Focus ST. What else would you like to know?
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