In the latest installment of our conversations with Fort Worth newsmakers, Sharon Evans, a nurse and trauma injury prevention coordinator at Cook Children’s Medical Center, discusses how to pick safe, age-appropriate toys for children this holiday season.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For a longer version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.
Alexis Allison: Sharon, we have entered the holiday season. I’m wondering what safety guidelines you would give people who might be thinking about buying toys for the children in their lives?
Sharon Evans: People look at the age ratings on toys and usually overlook that and go, ‘Oh, well, my child’s advanced.’ But I would really encourage them to pay attention to those, because they are made from years of research. They’re looking at the safety and the developmental level of the child.
Allison: So it’s not just about the emotional maturity of the child.
Evans: It’s not anything related to intelligence or maturity. It’s looking at child development, and what is expected during those stages for the child to do. And then also their fine motor skills. You know, what is the weight of the toy? I mean, you don’t want some big heavy truck or something for a 2-year-old that, when they pick it up, they’re going to topple over. So there’s lots of different factors that weigh into (those ratings), but safety’s the top.
Allison: Along with age range, what else should parents or caregivers be looking out for when they’re picking toys?
Evans: Toys that are sold in the U.S. have to meet certain standards, (but) toys sold at carnivals and fairs and vending machines do not have to meet the safety standards. So, making sure that whatever you are gifting meets those safety standards that we follow here in the U.S.
Allison: And how can you tell if they meet the safety standards?
Evans: Finding that (age range) on the package, (and) if you’re buying something that has paints or any type of a chemical product, it should have (an American Society for Testing and Materials label), meaning that it’s been tested, and they’re non-toxic for the child.
Allison: Are there any other materials that the gift-givers should be looking out for?
Evans: A lot of the toys are made out of plastic. It’s important that it’s not cheap plastic, because those do tend to crack to where it could pinch the child or pieces break off. And then that of course could become a choking hazard.
Allison: What makes something a choking hazard for a child?
Evans: We know that kids, basically up till around 3 years of age, are going to put everything either in their mouth or try to bite it or chew it — that’s just their developmental level. You can buy the official choking testers to see if the toy or the part fits into that tube. Then you know it’s a choking hazard. You can also use an empty roll of toilet paper. And so, if a toy will fit inside of there, then it would be considered a choking hazard and definitely not safe for anybody under 3.
I mean, you look at a toy and it’s large. And so you think, ‘Oh, they won’t choke on it,’ but are there wheels? Are there eyes? Are there arms or legs that are attached that can break off and become a choking hazard? Kids also have a very small trachea or windpipe. And so small things are going to lodge in there or totally obstruct that airway, and then they oftentimes don’t have the power behind the cough to eject whatever is stuck in that throat.
Allison: It makes me think, too, about wrapping elements for gifts. Is there anything that you can tell us about how we should handle those?
Evans: Well, definitely any of the wrapping that comes on the toys, all that plastic, and then the bubble wrap, and the little gel pack inserts, all those can be deadly. So you know, you do want to make sure that you’re watching. And you know as the child unwraps — sometimes, it’s just a (bedlam) of tearing through the paper and everything flying every which way — you want to make sure you’re cleaning up all those little pieces so it doesn’t get in their mouth and become a hazard.
Allison: You mentioned toys from fairs and carnivals. I also wonder about hand-me-down or homemade toys. Can you tell us about considerations for those?
Evans: Generally, we say don’t do the hand-me-down toys. From sibling to sibling, that’s one thing, but oftentimes, I know as a parent, I saved a bunch of my kids’ favorite toys. And when I did that, I thought, ‘Oh, when they have kids, they’ll want to play with them.’ But the problem is, safety standards change. What was not (considered) toxic 30 years ago, may be now. Plus, the plastic and the different materials they’re made of does age and get brittle. Parts could break off and cut them or choke them.
Even from sibling to sibling, you want to double check that the toys are still in good shape. Kids don’t handle toys lightly.
Allison: It makes me think of some of the toy donation programs. And I know people might donate toys or buy toys to donate. How should they be thinking about making sure that they’re giving safe toys away?
Evans: I think it’s the same thing as if you’re buying it for your child. Would you be OK with your child using this? Again, following the guidelines for the age, making sure that the fabrics are machine-washable, that paints are non-toxic. The exact same things as you would do for your own child.
Allison: Why is it important to see if the fabric is machine-washable?
Evans: Well, like we were just saying, the toys aren’t handled lightly. I mean, they get very dirty and gross and being able to wash those, clean the toys off, especially if you have a younger child. Again, everything goes to their mouth. But even for the kids that aren’t putting it in their mouth, their hands are all on it. And you know, even as adults, it’s hard to go all day and not touch your face or your mouth and stuff. So it just helps decrease the spread of germs and make sure they’re playing with clean, safe toys.
Allison: Every child is different, and I know that there are some kids who have physical differences or learning differences or maybe are neurodivergent. Can you talk to us about how gift-givers should think about buying gifts that would help those specific kids?
Evans: That is such an important aspect. We really want to make sure that we’re looking at the child’s developmental level and buying something that’s appropriate. It may be a 12-year-old, but they may not be able to handle toys that are actually designed for a 12-year-old.
Looking at, what is their interest? What is it that they really like to do? And try and use that to guide you to the best gift you can give them. Years ago, we had a child who was on the Autism spectrum. Crunching Doritos was what calmed him and made him happy. And he actually asked Santa for a case of Doritos, and he would just crunch the bags. So I mean, it may be things that you wouldn’t normally consider a toy. But for that child, it’s comforting.
Talk with the parents, make sure you understand what their interests are and what they need and what is physically able for them to use. Oftentimes, toys that are above the age (recommendation) can really be frustrating for the kids with any sort of difference. It can be frustrating to have to work at that toy.
Allison: I like that you brought up having a conversation with the parent or caregiver, but also giving the child the opportunity to share as well, like this child who wanted the case of Doritos.
Evans: I think we just have to remember that what we want to give them may not be the best choice.
Allison: Well, thank you for sharing all of these tips. Is there anything else that you think we should know?
Evans: Just remember, if you’re giving a bike, scooters, any of that, a helmet needs to be given with that, too. Or, make sure they have one before you give it. We don’t want to set them up for an injury. Even though it may be just a small ride-on toy (and it) doesn’t look like they really need a helmet, you’re starting a lifelong habit.
Alexis Allison is the health reporter at the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from Texas Health Resources. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.