In general, I'm pretty careful about the toys I buy for my son, mostly because our small Brooklyn apartment can only hold so much. But I've had some missteps, including the huge purchasing mistake above. Let me paint the scene for you: it was an unseasonably warm spring day and I had just stood for two hours watching my son get every penny's worth of his bouncy house, inflatable slide, etc. wristband at a local street fair… I was suffering from street fair fatigue: hot, tired and cranky. We began to wend our way home through the crowds amidst the nauseating smell of grilled sausage and peppers, when my son became transfixed by a toy car zipping along a winding track, stopping, to his delight, to ride up an elevator and continue again.
This toy pretty much goes against everything I think a good toy should be, but for a mere $12 it could be ours and, more importantly at the time, we could be on our way home to recuperate on the couch. It was a moment of weakness for sure, but I plunked down the cash and we were on our way.
Thankfully, my husband was home and volunteered to assemble the track, all 80+ pieces of it. The toy is called City Car, made in China, and the box boasts that it is "Inspiring! Fun!" and will "Develop Kids' Intelligent and Creative Thinking, Improve their General Programming Abilities." The kit comes with a bunch of stickers to affix, many of which are kind of hilariously lost in translation (like, "Establish the urgent telephone here."). As far as I can tell, the track can only be set up in one configuration and we've yet to find another toy car in our collection whose wheels are wide enough to not fall through the tracks.
The City Car track remained on our coffee table (hanging off both sides) for a few days and my son did watch the car go round and round many times. I boxed it up while he was napping one day and it was only unboxed about 4 months later during a stretch of consecutive rainy days.
Now, I'm not really beating myself up about this purchase. Do I regret it? Sure, I do. Mostly because I feel guilty about its eventual resting place in a landfill. But I make lots of mistakes as a parent and in the scheme of things, this isn't keeping me up at night. But there are so many bad things about this toy that it occurred to me that there are specific lessons to learn from it and insights about avoiding poor toy purchases.
Questions to Ask Yourself Before Buying a Toy:
1. Is it a passive toy?: Can you actually play with it or do you mostly watch it?
2. Is it Age Appropriate? Is it too young for your child or will they outgrow it very quickly? Or, is it too old for your child and you will either be storing it away until it's a good fit or your child will insist on using it and become frustrated every time. [The City Car I'm discussing might earn a point or two if my son were old enough to assemble it himself.]
3. Does It Require Assembly Each Time It's Used? This is an especially important consideration if your child doesn't have a dedicated play space like a play room or basement or other out of the way spot where a toy can stay for a long time. While there is novelty value to a toy that only comes out once in a while, in general, a toy that requires lengthy assembly and takes up considerable floorspace is not going to be played with often.
4. How Much Room Will It Take Up in Your Home? This relates to the question above about assembly and is particularly important if you live in a small home. It's just one of the realities of small space living - the size of a toy matters. We are currently in negotiations with my son over a large toy garage that he almost never uses - until we mention trading it in for something new (and smaller!) and then it gets an immediate flurry of use as he insists he loves it.
5. Is it Cheaply Made? I'm all for affordable toys and am a bargain hunter at heart, but there's a difference between something being inexpensive and being cheaply made. An inexpensive toy is not a good value if it's going to fall apart while your child is still enjoying it or before it can be handed down to someone else.
6. How much Play Power Does it Have? I wrote about this concept last year (attributed to Richard Gottlieb). The gist of it is this formula: Play Power (PP) = Joy + Durability / Cost. Put another way, the most fun for the least cost. Generally, classic toys like balls and blocks fall into this category. They are used for a long time because they are well made and span several age groups.
These are just a few things to think about before buying a toy, but a good place to start. What else would you add? What toy buying mistakes have you made?
(I should note that I took this box out today to jog my memory of some of the specifics and my son gleefully asked, "Are we going to put that together today!!!!")
(Image: Carrie McBride)