In the 1983 film A Christmas Story, the only thing Ralphie Parker wants for Christmas is "an official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model air rifle with a compass in the stock, and this thing which tells time.” Unfortunately for him, his mother, his teacher Miss Shields, and even the department store Santa all tell him that he'll shoot his eye out. In the end, he almost does, proving the adults correct.
The movie, a modern classic which is set in the 1950's, is unfortunately still correct in it's warnings about BB guns and potentially dangerous toys. Every December the group Prevent Blindness America promotes National Safe Toys and Gifts Month. Their goal is to educate parents (and others) who are planning on giving a toy to a little one in their lives the rundown safe and what's appropriate.
Recent reports suggest that over 200,000 toy-related injuries happen annually, with almost 8,000 of those being eye injuries. While buying a toy for a child might seem intrinsic (Is it noisy? Shiny? Need eight D batteries? Make every adult in the house fight the urge to smash it into a thousand pieces?), there are a few common sense pieces of advice to follow that will make sure that the rugrats in your life remain safe and injury free.
Buy age appropriate toys
Those labels on the boxes and packaging that say “For ages X and up” aren't there for decoration. While no one wants to buy a child a gift that's too young for them, buying something that's meant for an older child can present real risks, such as choking hazards or dangerous misuse. Even if the child in question seems smart enough to handle something designed for older kids, and they might “grow into it”, remember, it's a toy, not a sweater. The age range on the box is there for safety reasons more so than a suggestion that the child might enjoy it. That goes for video games too. If you don't think a bloody R-rated movie is appropriate for the child in question, an M-rated video game won't be either.
Read the instructions
Again, they're there for a reason. Any toy that requires assembly should be put together according to the manufacturers instructions. Failure to do so could result in a dangerous situation where the toy could break, or fall apart, especially with things like bicycles, scooters, or large playsets. Likewise, if you feel like the child needs instruction on how to safely use a new toy, take the time to show them how it works. Chances are that they'll enjoy it to it's full extent, and also lessen the chance that it will break from misuse.
Check for testing and safety certification
The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) are two companies that test toys and make sure that manufacturers are complying with safety laws. Often times the seal of approval from these companies will appear on the toy's packaging (for example, on a box of crayons, there should be text that says “ASTM D-4236” meaning that it's been tested by the ASTM. The presence of 'ATSM' on a box means it's approved). Additionally, there are always recalls going on, but adults tend not to check these things before they go shopping. A complete list of current recalls and toys with safety issues can be found on the CPSC website (http://www.cpsc.gov/cpscpub/prerel/prerel.html )
It's easy as an adult to try to think back to when you were the age of the child you're buying the toy for and think it would have been appropriate for you. But you're not that child. Some things are just bad ideas, for any child...Slingshots. BB guns. Anything that shoots a projectile that's not made of Nerf. Sharp things. Trampolines. Remember that if there's a way a child could be injured with a toy, chances are he or she probably will, so err on the side of safety.
Keep an eye on the current news, make use of the safety resources available to you, and you should be able to find a safe and fun toy for any child this holiday season.