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Unwrapping Joy: A Guide to Safe Toys that Spark Imagination and Last Beyond the Holidays

Our Cook Children’s family shares holiday shopping tips during National Safe Toys and Gifts Month.

By Ashley Antle

It’s gift-giving season once again! While shopping for those on your holiday list can be fun, finding the perfect gift for the children in your life may present some challenges. What toys are safe and age-appropriate? What will grab their attention after Santa and his elves have returned to the North Pole and the new wears off? What will engage their mind, body and soul?

Much like Santa, our Cook Children’s family knows a thing or two about kids, toys and the magic that makes the holidays special. We’re here to help take the chore out of your holiday shopping with tips on everything from how to spot an unsafe toy to how to know what type of gift will bring holiday cheer while feeding your child’s passion. 

So, grab a cup of hot cocoa, and let’s get started on finding the perfect gift for the children in your life.  

Safety First

December is National Safe Toys and Gifts Month. Last year, more than 200,000 toy-related injuries were treated in U.S. hospital emergency departments, according to the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). The commission also received reports of 11 toy-related deaths of children ages 14 and younger. Reported causes of death include choking hazards,  riding toys and magnets. 

When it comes to toys, one size does not fit all. It’s important to make sure whatever you give a child is appropriate for their age, size, maturity and developmental ability. You can read more safe toy tips here.

Some toys pose a danger no matter the child’s age. Water-based soft-gel toy guns were all the rage a few years ago, and remain a popular toy. But anything that blasts a projectile, be it hard or soft, comes with risk. If you are gifting one of these toys this year, be sure your child also unwraps protective gear. 

“I encourage eye protection for any air-powered firearms or toys, such as BB guns, airsoft guns and water bead guns,” said Dan Guzman, M.D., emergency medicine physician and director of the Aim For Safety program at Cook Children’s. 

Read more about potential injuries from air-powered toy guns here. 

If Santa brings a big outdoor gift this year, like a trampoline, all-terrain vehicle (ATV) or golf cart, be sure he doesn’t forget to leave safety equipment and a list of precautions before shimmying back up the fireplace. 

“We have definitely seen an increase in golf cart injuries and deaths over the last two to three years,” Dr. Guzman said. “It is very sad to see the lack of supervision and how parents allow children to drive golf carts on the road.”

We’re not trying to “bah humbug” these popular sources of outdoor amusement and adventure, but making safety a priority means less of a chance your fun will be interrupted with a trip to the emergency department. We cover everything from trampoline to bike to ATV, golf cart and motor vehicle safety here. 

Holiday Gift Guides for Safe, Healthy and Strong Kids

Now that we’ve covered safety, let’s talk gift ideas.

We asked for input from Cook Children’s Child Life experts. If there is one thing these professionals know, it’s how to engage kids and teens by tapping into their personal interests. They spend their days helping children and families express and work through their concerns while undergoing medical care, and they do it with a big dose of fun. 

Here are the kid-friendly gifts that top their lists for everyone from the avid reader to the artistic genius to the musician, animal lover and tech wizard. 

For the Book Lover

By Ashley Brock, Cook Children’s Family Library/Literacy Program Manager

  • If you are looking for a new book for your little reader, award-winning titles are a good place to start. The Association for Library Service to Children publishes a comprehensive list of awards, including the distinguished Newbery Medal.  
  • Graphic novels are popular. Don’t write them off. There's still a lot of reading to be done with these books, and kids are likely to read more if they can choose books based on their interests.
  • Drawing books, craft books, or otherwise interactive books are good for reluctant or shy readers.
  • You can never go wrong by gifting a book lover a bookmark, especially one your child can color or personalize. Bookmarks with built-in book lights and digital timers to keep track of how long your child reads are fun and useful for those who need to log their time for reading homework. 
  • Every bookshelf needs fun book ends. Just be sure they can not topple or be pulled off the shelf onto the top of a little one’s head. Kids Reading
  • Gift a floor pillow or lounge chair that can be used to outfit a reading nook where your child can comfortably read. It doesn’t have to be big, just a cozy little corner in your home will do. Accent the space with a bookshelf and lamp for good reading light. 
  • Wrap up a personalized book bag with a library card inside. Kids love having their very own library cards. It’s a special rite of passage. 
  • Consider a subscription to a child’s magazine that will come directly to your home for something new to read every month. 

“Give the gift of time and attention by reading with your child. It’s never too early to start this.  They’ll learn to love books early and can become life-long readers and learners. Share books that you loved as a child. Recently, my daughter and I read Charlotte’s Web together. It was special for both of us. Make time for you to read, too. Much like so many other aspects of parenting, we can model behaviors we want our children to adopt.” ~ Ashley Brock

For the Budding Artist

By Sydney Peel, Cook Children’s Resident Artist, Create Art Residency Program

Art can be a joyful hobby and outlet for many kids, and is such a healthy and encouraging way for them to spend their time and to connect with others. Make sure your little Picasso has all the supplies they need to let their creative juices flow. Girl Painting

  • Choose a material that your budding artist might be interested in and buy one or two good quality items while avoiding the multipack art kits that tend to be lower quality. A mixed-media sketchbook is great for most types of art. Include charcoal pencils for the drawing enthusiast, or oil pastels for those that prefer to work with color. If your child enjoys more 3D art, air-dry clay is a good option.  
  • A gift card to a local art supply store will excite any artist. 
  • Encourage art exploration with a how-to-draw book that relates to your child’s other interests. For example, a how-to-draw dinosaur book for your dinosaur lovers. 
  • Paint sticks are a fun and relatively mess-free material for new artists to try. They glide across the paper like a glue stick but are actually paint. 
  • Exploring while making a mess is a fun way to engage with art. Try liquid watercolors and watercolor spray paints if you aren’t afraid for you or your child to get their hands a little dirty. 

“When children get a gift of art supplies they will be encouraged to explore and feel excited to try new materials. Having their own supplies gives them ownership and freedom to make their art their own. When kids have the opportunity to be creative it helps them grow and gain confidence in themselves.” ~ Sydney Peel 

For the Music Maker

By Raymond Turner, Recording Studio Producer, Cook Children’s Child Life Zone

If you have a young musician in the family who is constantly tapping, humming, or suddenly belting out movie theme songs at full operatic volume around the house, it’s likely time to take it as a sign from the heavens that you might have a future rockstar on your hands. But, where do you start with this angelic Mozart? At the candyland for all musicians, of course — your local music store. A field trip to the music store with your child is not only great time spent together, but can also give you precise clues as to what instrument has a particular “groovitational pull” on them. 

If it’s possible in your area, find a music store with a diverse assortment of instrument families (guitars, keyboards, pianos, drums, stringed instruments), and watch your child explore them to see what instrument awakens something inside of them. Other location options might include your local orchestra/symphony performing organization or a high school band hall. 

While listening to music in the car or at home, take note of what instruments intrigue them without being asked. Are they more conscious of the words or melody of the songs? Do they attempt to air drum or make rock guitar strumming motions along with the songs? Avoid the pressure of having them choose a specific instrument early on. Instead, focus on creating a positive musical atmosphere around them to make it easier for them to find which instrument may, in fact, be choosing them. This may take some time and lots of earplugs!  

Here are a few gifts that will make young musicians sing with delight. 

  • A keyboard or piano, no matter how small, can be foundational to understanding other diverse instruments, even if your child never becomes proficient at it. The tactile connection between pressing a key and hearing an immediate musical sound is a quick “win,” and creates an indelible neurological imprint that will likely keep them coming back to it even decades later.  
  • For the young want-to-be guitarist, a ukulele is a good place to start. The strings are made of nylon, which is not as hard on the fingers as a steel stringed acoustic guitar. Kids can quickly learn a few simple chords and strum patterns. 03-Bongos
  • If you are a glutton for punishment, a cajon, or box drum, will thrill your child with hours of rhythmic fun. Since these do not utilize sticks, kids are immediately free to create beats using only their hands. This is true of any hand drum, like bongos, frame drums, or a small djembe. Parents should highly encourage their child to play their drums along with their favorite songs. 
  • A kalimba, or thumb piano, is a nice melodic entry point into music-making.  
  • Handpan drums, or tongue drums, are made of metal or wooden tines, but the tone is resonant and immediately soothing. Since these are played with hands (or soft mallets) and based on a harmonious scale, it’s unheard of to play a “wrong” note. Handpans have an uncanny ability to lure musicians into their web of sound and lose track of time.
  • A customized songwriting journal for writing lyrics, concert tickets to hear a favorite artist, or gift cards to a music store are all gifts that inspire musicians and help them express to others what is otherwise inexpressible for them.  
  • Instrument accessories and gear are always a win. For guitarists, give customized picks with their name, a new set of their favorite strings, or a guitar strap printed or embossed with their name. For a drummer, wrap up a set of their favorite drumsticks, or even customized drumsticks with their name or signature, a practice pad, new cymbal, or new drum heads. 
  • For children with sensory disorders, instruments such as rain sticks, ocean drums, and small shakers can allow them to express themselves in more subtle ways. These instruments can help with coordination, brain stimulation and soothe the child all at the same time.
  • Music production is an interest for many teens. They enjoy producing beats and loops, and mixing their music so it sounds comparable to any other song they’re listening to. The good news is that you don’t have to break the bank to get great studio-quality equipment. Look for a good microphone, a recording interface that connects to your teen’s computer, recording software and a small MIDI keyboard. Unlike a typical keyboard with built-in sounds, a MIDI keyboard must be connected to a computer to access the “virtual” sounds used for recording. Often, you can find many of these components bundled together as a packaged deal. If your child has these components already, an online subscription service to a reputable tutorial site where they can learn about their software and mixing and producing beats will help them along significantly in their musical journey.  08-Microphone - Copy

“I believe children are born with a limitless outlook and a boundless capacity for creative ideas.  Unfortunately, those ideals can get locked away behind impenetrable walls because of rejection, abuse, neglect, bullying, etc. Music in my own life started like a slow, steady stream of water and eventually became the unquenchable rapids that finally eroded those stony walls. Music has the ability to go places within the human heart where nothing else can reach. When a child has an instrument, they intrinsically know they are holding something that will allow them to convey whatever they need to say, without hurting them in return. At its essence, any musical instrument can begin this process of healing and unlocking things within children that they never knew were there. I’ve seen this happen time and time again, even just in songwriting sessions.” ~Raymond Turner

For the Animal Lover

By Laura Sonefeld, CCLS, Sit, Stay, Play! Facility Dog Program Coordinator at Cook Children’s (with the help of Steve, her furry friend and one of Cook Children’s facility dogs)

SSP_Fall2023_18Puppies are a popular holiday present for many heart-warming reasons. They help fill a home with fun, joy and comfort. A dog’s excitement when greeting its owner and the unconditional love they provide can boost mental health and acceptance in humans.  

All dogs are incredibly intuitive, too. They sense when their owners are sad, happy or sick. Oftentimes, we hear parents say their dog knew their child was sick before the parents did because their dog would not leave the child’s side at home.

But dog ownership isn’t something to jump into lightly. A dog requires so much time, and a puppy requires even more than a fully grown dog. Think of your new puppy like an additional child in your home. They require love, attention, feeding, bathing, stimulation and more, just like all children do.

If you plan to give your child a furry friend for the holidays, here are a few tips to help you prepare a safe home for your new animal and a positive pet parenting experience for your child.

  • Do your research on dogs and the type of environments in which they thrive. Not all dog breeds are a good fit for a home with small children. Taking the time to research which breeds are the best fit for your home is crucial. Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers are known to be great dogs for a family, as are a number of other breeds.
  • Consider your limitations. Do you have time to take care of another living, breathing creature in your home? Do you have the financial ability to take care of all of the expected and unexpected costs of having a dog? Who will care for the dog when your family goes out of town if you can’t bring your pet along? How will your child be involved in the pet's care? Have you looked into a good veterinary clinic and what types of visits your new puppy will need soon after you bring them home?
  • You’ll need a few accessories to care for your furry friend. Gift your dog and its new pet parent with a leash, collar, water bowl, doggy toys, chew toys, dog bed, kennel/crate, dog food and heartworm and flea preventative so that all are well prepared for the new arrival. 
  • Patience is a virtue and required when owning a dog, especially when it’s a puppy. Potty training takes dedication and time to perfect. It will not be an overnight success. The Four Dogs
  • Puppies, much like infants, go through a teething stage and often use their humans as their chew toy. Their intention is not to be mean or to hurt their humans but to help relieve the discomfort they feel with their puppy teeth moving out and adult ones moving in. 
  • Both you and your dog are getting to know each other and that can take some time for both of you to get used to a new routine. There are many groups, trainers, social media posts and other resources that can help guide you on how to train a dog and to take care of them.

“Including your children in the pet caretaking responsibilities can help teach them how to take care of others and involves them in the many responsibilities that come along with having a dog in the home.” ~Laura Sonefeld

For the Techie

By Bianca Erazo, Cook Children’s Child Life Zone Program Coordinator

From gaming systems to robotic toys and every smart gadget in between, there is no shortage of gift options for the technologically inclined. Many enhance learning in science, technology engineering and math (STEM). 

Consider these giftable gadgets if you have a future programmer, scientist or engineer in your family. 

  • Robotic toys and robot-building kits can give young kids and teens hours of fun, and they’ll be learning engineering and programming skills along the way. 
  • Take the guesswork out of gifting with a monthly STEM-based subscription box. There are boxes for everything from cooking kits to science experiments to gadget and toy building projects. 
  • Outfit your gamer with accessories like high-quality headphones or a comfortable gaming chair. Build their gaming setup with accessories that relate to their favorite games. A driving wheel for virtual car racers or a throttle for those who enjoy piloting virtual planes, for example. 
  • Young gamers have loads of fun with hand-held gaming devices. Some can be plugged into full gaming consoles for play at home or taken on the go for entertainment while traveling. 

“If your child receives a gaming console or hand-held device, setting up parental controls can help you monitor and limit screen time and block unwanted connections for a safer experience in the tech world. Parents should closely monitor their kids’ online activities.” ~Bianca Erazo

Aim for safety. 

When the holiday unwrapping is done, make sure safe handling has begun! Non-powder guns are a popular gift item. To kids, and even adults, they may look like toys, but they should be handled like guns. BB guns, paint balls guns, gel and water bead guns, etc., that are thought of as toys can still be dangerous. These items should have parental supervision to ensure the toys are used safely and that children are not showing signs of aggression or worrisome behavior. 

Safe storage. Safe children. Safe play. When we have firearms in our homes, we must take certain steps to protect our children from unintentional shootings. Cook Children's Aim for Safety® initiative is designed to help reduce the number of injuries we see every year among children through gun safety education. This is not about whether guns are right or wrong. It's about taking the necessary steps to protect our children.