Toys on the 'wish' list:The right gifts for the right ages

Along with the arrival of my first daughter, Sofie, 12 years ago, came numerous mail-order catalogs full of clothing and toys I'd never even imagined my child would need. Two years later, when my second daughter, Ariel, was born, I was well aware of the purpose of these items ? and already owned many of them.

As my daughters grew, they eagerly awaited the arrival of such catalogs, which kept on coming; and they perused them devotedly, informing me of just what they wanted from each. They also became familiar faces in our local toy stores.

Today, seasoned receivers of gift items from a variety of sources, they keep careful track of what it is they "have to have," some selections dropped after just a few days, others hanging in for the long run until we hit the holiday season.

Unfortunately though, I find that years of buying for my own children have left me with little insight into picking the perfect present for the other youngsters in my life ? the nieces and nephews, the children of my friends, the friends of my children. It slips my memory just what my daughters' favorite toys were when they were three years old, and my three-year-old niece is very different from my own girls anyway. I haven't a clue when it comes to my friend's 10-year-old son.

There are some guidelines, though, some developmental similarities based on what age the child is. We asked Karen DiCapua, children's safety expert, and Allison Bell, licensed clinical child psychologist in private practice in Westchester, to give us some general characteristics of different age groups ? to help us this holiday season to choose gifts that the children in our lives are likely to love.

Birth To One Year>

"Babies of this age are using their hands, their mouth, and their eyes to explore their world," explains Karen DiCapua. They touch and they squeeze, as their dexterity and fine motor skills begin to develop. For these little ones, DiCapua suggests soft dolls, stuffed animals and squeaky toys, as well as activity quilts with wheels to turn and buttons to push. "Keep toys at ground level," advises Allison Bell, noting that at this age, babies are generally on the floor.

Bell describes these babies as "reaching out to look at the world." "Choose something that will stimulate them and grab their attention," she says, explaining that from 0-6 months, babies respond to black and white geometric shapes, especially those resembling facial features; while from 6-12 months, the more bright colors, the better.

On a practical level, babies of this age are teething, so teething toys will surely be a treat. "When introducing these babies to books," notes Bell, "choose soft books that they can also chew." On the flip side, DiCapua warns that because mouthing is common at this stage, "toys must be selected that cannot choke or poison."

One To Three Years

During this period, children are beginning to walk, climb and jump, and, DiCapua reminds us, as they get older, to tumble and throw. Appropriate gifts include push and pull toys, which help with walking, and large balls to encourage throwing. Since their motor skills are still developing, their toys should be soft in case they fall during play. These children still enjoy activity centers, and any toy which entails shaping something with their hands.

According to Bell, this is the time for banging toys of any kind. "Pots, pans, cymbals and other primitive percussion instruments, toy tool sets with hammers and pegs." She goes on, "Children of this age bang whatever they can."

"If you haven't already," says DiCapua, "now is the time to introduce books with hard pages." Bell agrees, adding that children of this age love rhymes. "Choose a cardboard version of a book like 'Goodnight, Moon', which has simple rhymes and bright, primary colors."

Three To Five Years

This is the time when children develop their imaginations, experimenting with fantasy worlds and creating elaborate scenarios. Play money, toy phones, dress-up clothes, doctor sets, dollhouses, and similar "pretend" toys are bound to be a hit (as long as parts aren't small enough for choking, stresses DiCapua). Three- to five-year-olds may also bond with a favorite toy, caring for it and taking it everywhere with them. According to DiCapua, dolls and stuffed animals will probably be greatly appreciated by these youngsters.

Because this is a stage when larger gross motor skills are developing and coordination is improving, Bell suggests beginner roller skates and tricycles. But, urges DiCapua, "Always wear a helmet, even at this age, to establish the behavior." In addition, children in this phase enjoy the problem-solving aspect of puzzles, says Bell.


Art supplies, such as crayons or Playdoh, will stimulate creativity, but since children this age still tend to mouth things, make sure materials are labeled non-toxic.

Five To Nine Years

At this time, more specific skills and capabilities are emerging, and children enjoy being challenged both physically and conceptually. Bell explains that fine motor skills are developing, along with the ability to visualize something and then to create it. So this is the perfect time for building toys such as the more intricate Lego and Erector sets; girls in particular will enjoy jewelry-making kits, sand art, and simple cooking projects.

This is also a time for board games, as this age is more capable of taking turns, taking risks, and handling the calculations and problem-solving involved. "Children during these years are functioning on a higher level of cognitive ability," Bell comments. "They are able to think in more complex ways.

"In addition," she continues, "they are extremely rule-oriented. They respond when rules are precisely laid out, when it's clear who wins, who loses, and how."

DiCapua adds that this set also enjoys jump ropes, Pogo sticks, and similar, more physical activities. And, she says, "at this age, we're less worried about small parts, so it's a good time to introduce miniatures and action figures."

Nine To Twelve Years

During these years, the notion of play begins to shift from toys and games to people, explains Bell. "These children are becoming more socialized," she says, "and a dominating force in their choices is conforming to the group." So having a particular brand of jeans, for instance, becomes critical.

Parents of this age know that these kids let you know what they want, and, says DiCapua, "it's up to you to monitor what they are interested in and to decide what is appropriate." Bell concurs, advising that parents weigh "the level of greed against the level of need" ? that is, the importance of feeling a part of a group as opposed to the negative aspects of conformity and the unchecked influence of peers.

Nine- to twelve-year-olds show specific interests in hobbies and sports, and begin to develop lifelong skills such as playing a musical instrument. For the athletic, DiCapua suggests that sports equipment is a good idea; for the more sedentary, try a modeling kit or a hand-held electronic game. Older children begin to develop a personal taste in music, and always appreciate CDs (if you deem their lyrics and style acceptable). Bell notes that this age group enjoys more complex board games that they can play with adults, such as Monopoly, Risk and Scrabble.

I look at the stacks of toys and games Sofie and Ariel have accumulated over the years, and I'm often tempted to throw most of them away. "You never use them," I moan, but for the most part, they refuse to part with these possessions, gifts and special purchases. These are their belongings, what has been given to them throughout their short lives. Funnily, they can tell you exactly where and from whom they got these various treasures, from the shiny silver charm of a kitten to the endless accumulation of Playmobil sets all tossed together in a blue plastic box.

They're 11 and nine years old now, bonafide members of the oldest age group discussed here. I can attest to what the experts say is happening to them, witness to the green nail polish and the devotion to their favorite radio station. Yet I remember vividly the toy kitchen, complete with tea kettle and built-in cabinets, that was Sofie's favorite when she was four. For Ariel's ninth birthday, she received a variety of craft kits, which she tackled enthusiastically one after another over the following few weekends.

There are some toys, though, which seem to span the years. Sofie got Monkey when she was first born; Ariel was given Joe when she was a few years older. To this day, though Monkey and Joe are now in laundry bags filled with other stuffed animals, they're considered special and irreplaceable.

There are still times when Sofie and Ariel empty out these laundry bags ? cats and dogs, bears and lions, mice and fish, collected from their earliest months on through to the present ? and they play. They know every animal and where it came from, and they cherish each and every one ? gifts given with love across all the stages of development.