U.S. consumers buy three billion toys each year, according to the Toy Industry Association — toys and games are a $22 billion industry. Most toys are extremely safe for children in the age group indicated by the label, but manufacturers' instructions and warning labels should be taken seriously. Nationwide, some 160,000 children per year go to the emergency room with accidental injuries involving toys.
Small parts can lead to big problems
It's important to read the label and follow age guidelines. A toy that is safe and appropriate for a second-grader might pose a danger to a younger sibling. For example, toys with small parts must be labeled as a choking hazard if intended for ages three to six; these products are not safe for children under three. Anything that fits in a federally approved "small parts tester" is considered a small part and a choking hazard for infants and toddlers. These testers are available in toy stores; a cardboard tube from a roll of toilet paper will work just as well.
Button-type batteries and small magnets can be particularly dangerous if swallowed. In addition to their being a choking hazard, batteries can poison a child, and magnets that get stuck in the digestive system can cause life-threatening internal injuries. Balloons, too, can become choking hazards; each year, several children choke to death on broken or deflated balloons. Remember that small children have small airways that are all too easily blocked.
Register for recalls
If a new toy comes with a product registration card, it's important to send it in. If the product is found to be defective, the manufacturer will contact registered owners with safety notices and trade-in instructions. On secondhand or hand-me-down toys, look for the manufacturer's toll-free number or Website so you can register. Visit Recalls.gov to see whether there have been any safety notices issued about the product.
Toys with wheels call for special attention. Two out of five toy-related injuries involve scooters, inline skates, skateboards and other riding toys. Kids should never ride wheeled toys in or near motor vehicle traffic or near a pool or other body of water. Insist they wear a properly fitted bike helmet that meets the standards set by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission — in some states and local jurisdictions, it's required by law — as well as knee pads and elbow pads.
Safe Kids Worldwide also recommends these precautions to ensure toy safety:
- Take a good look at older toys to check for damage or missing parts. An otherwise safe toy can be dangerous when broken.
- Young children should not have toys with straps, cords or strings longer than seven inches. Kids can become caught in these features and strangle. (This includes electrical cords, which aren't recommended for children under eight years of age.)
- Teach kids to put away their toys when they're not in use. A toy car or a roller skate in the middle of the floor is an accident waiting to happen.
- Make sure toy chests are equipped with safety hinges that prevent the lid from closing on a child who is leaning over the open chest. Retrofit older toy chests or remove the lid.
Above all, remember: Many toys and activities are quite safe for supervised children and extremely dangerous for unsupervised children — and simply being in the same room as your child isn't the same thing as supervising. Active supervision, the most important factor in preventing accidental injury at home or on the playground, means an adult is focusing undivided attention on the child and not talking on the phone, eating, cooking, reading or watching other kids. It's obviously not practical to keep a close eye on a child every minute of the day, but it's important to provide active supervision whenever a child is playing with a potentially hazardous toy.