How To Find Your Way Through Toyland

A money gift for a child is easy - you sign your name. But walking into a bulging toy store before a birthday or Christmas can be an exercise in confusion especially if you're just a friend of the family. Here are some ideas on picking presents for a child, starting with a sound rule of thumb: The most successful, popular toy requires participation from the child. Children delight in working things out for themselves - using their limitless imaginations. So say child psychologists.

If a toy has only a single limited use, it will provide no challenge to the child. He'll quickly lose interest, for example, in a missile-launching rocket that takes just pushing a button, despite the excitement when the box is opened. But assembling a model auto kit (or airplane or boat) gives the satisfaction of achievement. If you're a true novice at gift-buying for youngsters, note that a perfect example of a toy with no end of possibilities is a building block set - from simple, large blocks for toddlers to elaborate 100-piece sets. Toys that lead to fantasy and "pretend" play are also classic: dollhouses, play kitchens or grocery stores, doctor's and nurse's kits.

Another key to smart gift selection is, of course, knowing the stage of development the child has reached. A toy that's beyond a child's capabilities will only frustrate him. Here are some guidelines:

The toddler - age 18 months to three years - is trying out newly discovered muscles and finding out how things work. Curiosity impels him to take things apart, so toys should be simple, sturdy (with parts that are too large to swallow). He likes to ride and climb on things - like a tricycle, kiddie car, wagon, truck, or an animal. He also loves anything that makes a noise - like drums and tambourines, wind-up phonographs, toys with bells inside. Other ideas: sandbox and sand toys, simple gym sets, a slide, swing, or teeterboard, pegboard sets, putty, finger-paints.

From three to six years, children spend much time acting out grown-up roles. Costumes and miniature equipment to play cowboys, Indians, policeman, doctor, nurse are fine for most kids. Puppets, scaled-down kitchen equipment and miniature tool sets are also good. At this age, too, the child ventures beyond home into the neighbourhood. He wants a bigger tricycle or a two-wheeler with training wheels. Note especially: There is no set age for a two-wheeler - and it's important that an adult's fear of accidents not be transferred to the child.

By age seven boys and girls begin to have different play interests. Most boys are greatly interested in racing cars, construction and science sets, work benches, and real tools. Now is the start of serious model building - planes, cars, boats. Girls' interest in housekeeping continues but now the toys are more sophisticated - like a sewing machine that really works.

From seven to nine, youngsters are interested in many board games (even chess). Boys want sports equipment that really works in a competitive game - and girls want elaborate doll wardrobes and realistic doll houses. Real hobbies develop during the years 10 to 12. Chemistry, photography, leather work, block printing, and handicraft sets for painting, sculpting, and ceramics are now past the "toy" stage. Real telescopes, microscopes, planetariums, and model kits in great detail - all these open new worlds.

Because of the violence they represent, many people are apprehensive about giving boys toy guns, Army tanks, play daggers, and such. But many leading child psychologists maintain that these are necessary tools in a child's development. Far from contributing to juvenile delinquency in later years, they provide a way for working off destructive feelings, which are quite normal.

The four-year-old hammering on his pounding board or the eight-year-old playing war with guns is discharging destructive drives. From this fantasy play he gradually learns to channel his aggression into socially acceptable and constructive behaviour. A child who doesn't have an outlet for these drives may actually be more potentially disturbed.

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Heading Off A school Drop-out

The wintertime holiday season often gives parents their first chance at a close, at-home reading of how their freshman is doing in school. Unfortunately, the holidays sometimes bring the first whiff of trouble. The fact is that the school "drop-out" is an increasing problem for many families - and for schools struggling to cope with bumper crops of students. And more often than you'd expect, according to top educators, the trouble arises from the swift change of environment rather than from any inability to handle the academic work.

Typically, a boy steps out of sixth form college or prep school and onto a school campus, where he is suddenly confronted with considerably more independence... see: Heading Off A school Drop-out