The Safest Stuffed Toys for the Kids on your Gift List

Although it's hard to say when the first stuffed dogs appeared, I would guess that it was soon after dogs were domesticated. We do know that as long as there have been children, there have been dolls, rattles, miniature weapons, and hand-made animals. Anthropologists have found evidence of toys dating back to the earliest records of human life.

Play is universal and cross-cultural. Though it may vary among cultures and generations, it's clearly instinctive and a key part of our development. A child's play is his way of learning about himself and his world. Play opens the door to a child's imagination. Some of our fondest memories from childhood are recollections of time spent playing with special people and favorite toys.

A classic among childhood toys is the Teddy Bear, who made his appearance in 1903 and is still popular today. Although the Teddy Bear may be famous because of his political affiliation (he was named after Theodore Roosevelt), just about any stuffed toy can become a child's favorite. Especially for infants and toddlers, there's great comfort and reassurance in having soft, cuddly companions like stuffed dogs to snuggle up with.

As surely as children play with toys, their needs and interests change as they grow and mature. As a child matures, a stuffed toy may come to represent a favorite animal in nature. Toy stuffed dogs might be huggable versions of media characters like a cartoon or comic strip dog ("Snoopy", "Scooby Doo", "Blues Clues", etc.). Finally, stuffed dogs can play the role of imaginary family pets.

When shopping for stuffed dogs for small children, keep in mind the child's age, interests, and abilities. Be especially careful when selecting toys for children under age 3. Labels help consumers narrow down which toys are right for a child, but here are some general guidelines regarding stuffed toys for children from birth to three years of age:

For children in the one to three year age range, avoid toys with small parts that could be swallowed, aspirated (inhaled into the air passages or lungs) or inserted into the nose or ears. The eyes and noses of stuffed dogs should be securely fastened and the seams well sewn. Avoid stuffed dogs with any sharp corners, rough edges, or strings.

Here are some specific guidelines to keep in mind according to a child's age:

Birth to 6 months

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For the first few months babies can't grasp with their hands, so choose toys that stimulate with sight and sound. High contrast, black-and-white or brightly colored toys and toys that make noise (like a squeeker toy) will get baby 's attention. Puppets can be used by adults to entertain baby.

Once the baby has learned to grasp, look for textured toys that are safe for mouthing. Choose stuffed dogs with short pile fabric.

Never hand a toy from the crib, stroller, playpen, etc., or around babies neck.

6 months to 1 year

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Infants become more mobile at this age and interact more with their toys. This is also the age when they love to drop things, so nice soft stuffed dogs will earn points with Mom for the absence of loud crashing sounds as they hit the floor!! Of course, your peace and quiet could be spoiled by the fact that toys that squeak when squeezed are popular at this age. Puppets are still a great way for parents to hold a child's attention, and there's even one popular brand that doubles as a washcloth at bath time.

The stuffed dogs you choose should still have a short pile fabric. Babies start teething at 6 months, and will definitely chew on their toys, so make sure you buy toys that you can throw in the washing machine

1 to 2 years

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During their second year of like, children love to explore. Their play is more physical and involves experimentation and imitation of adults. At this stage, stuffed dogs might be seen as "pretend pets" to befriend and care for. This could be a good rehearsal for the real thing. Children are not instinctively gentle with animals. Interactive play between parent and child, using stuffed dogs as props, can be a fun way to introduce them to the idea that a pet should be handled with gentle loving care. At this stage, objects still get mouthed, so stuffed dogs should still have short pile fabric.

2 to 3 years

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Finally, you can graduate to nice, furry stuffed dogs! The long pile isn't considered a hazard--mainly because children age 2 to 3 no longer place everything in their mouths.* Kids this age have developed good hand coordination and like to put it to work with arts and crafts and simple puzzles. Plain stuffed dogs make use of a creative imagination. You might also consider a doggie hand or finger puppet. These work the mind as well as hands and fingers!

*No more thumbs or pacifiers at this age!! It will affect your child's oral and dental development.

3 to 6 years

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After age three, make-believe is a favorite pastime and children interact with each other, using toys as props. It's common at this age to develop strong attachments to favorite toys, and express feelings towards a particular doll, teddy bear, or stuffed dog. Toys representing favorite cartoon or TV characters might be the objects of affection. Puppets are also lot of fun for games of make-believe.

6 to 9 years

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By now, more sophisticated games and toys are likely to have replaced stuffed toys. The exception is young collectors, looking for stuffed dogs to add to their menageries. Collectors defy age categories; the "beanie baby" craze is a great example of this. Personally, I never played with dolls as a kid but had an enviable collection of stuffed animals, and am still a sucker for a cute stuffed toy. Puppets are still appealing, as well as some of the nontraditional forms of stuffed dogs. These might include a pair of slippers in the form of a favorite dog breed, or bookmarks made to look like stuffed dogs.

9 years and up

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Especially as they approach their teens, children want to impress their peers and leave "childish" toys behind. Stuffed dogs, and stuffed toys in general, are only for young collectors in this age group. There are variations on stuffed dogs you might do better with. For example, a pair of dog slippers, a dog backpack or purse, or stuffed dogs suspended from key chains. Young (and old1) golfers would love a plush golf head cover in the shape of their favorite dog.

Finally, since your household (or the one you're shopping for) may have children of different ages, here are some general rules you can follow for fun and safe play:

TEN STEPS TO FUN AND SAFE PLAY *

1. When shopping for toys, keep in mind the child's age, interests and abilities.

2. Read toy or packaging labels for age ranges and safety warnings.

3. Be especially careful when choosing toys for children under three. Select toys that are free of small pieces (or pieces that separate or can be broken off), are lightweight, have no sharp edges or points and are non-toxic.

4. At home, read instructions for assembly and use. Keep product literature in case of future questions and complete warranty cards.

5. Remove and discard all packaging from a toy before giving it to a baby or small child.

6. Consider the home environment in which a child will play with a toy and younger children who may be there. A toy intended for an older child may be dangerous in the hands of a younger one.

7. Always provide toys in conjunction with sensible supervision. Supervise children when they play and set good examples of safe play.

8. Remind caregivers, including grandparents, of play-related safety concerns

9. Do not leave toys on stairs. Choose a safe storage place for toys. ( Anything large enough for a child to climb inside should have a cover that's easily removed).

10. Check toys at least every three months to determine their safety. Make any repairs immediately or throw away damaged toys.

* Source: www.toy-tia.org

© 2004, Carolyn Schweitzer. Lifelong dog-lover, power-shopper, and former family dentist Carolyn Schweitzer is owner and editor of " Great-Dog-Gift.com " . If you need inspiration for stuffed dogs, pay her a visit. The site offers a wide range of choices for dog gift shoppers, plus shopping and gift-giving tips. (Also advice on dog care and feeding.) She's always looking for new dog gift ideas and dog stories to share with her readers. You can reach her by email at [email protected].

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