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Most toys manufactured today include a suggested age range, supposedly identifying the ages of children who will (safely) appreciate the toy.

How accurate are these ranges? How do the manufacturers determine the ranges?

I know part of the determination is due to obvious safety issues (e.g. small parts that could present choking hazards for toddlers and infants, movable parts that require more strength or manual dexterity than young fingers might manage, etc.), but how do they determine the upward bound? Or the lower bound when safety issues aren't the only determining factor?

My son has enjoyed playing with a number of toys that were "too old for him" (toy trucks and cars that do not present choking hazards, for example), and there are a number that peg him squarely in the proper age range that seem "too young for him" (this ball popper, for example, lists a range of 9 months to 3 years, but my son started playing with it at 6 months and lost interest before 12 months; I can't imagine many 2-3 year olds finding it entertaining for more than a few minutes).

Is there a standard by which these age ranges are determined? Is there a way to determine which age ranges are influenced by safety issues, rather than the manufacturer's best guess as to how old my son should be before he'd enjoy it?

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I am not a lawyer, though I believe these are usually based on "what's the minimum age where we can reduce the number of lawsuits enough that it warrants the loss of sales to ages below it" type of formulas. As for maximum age, that's probably coming from the marketing department. "At age six, we can market them a new toy that they have to purchase." Cynical? Maybe. But that's business. –  DA01 Dec 12 '11 at 18:22
    
I have a vague feeling that the upper end of the range caters to kids who would be developmentally behind their peers. Like your ball popper example: The only time I see any kids much over 24 months playing with one is in the company of even younger children. –  afrazier Dec 12 '11 at 20:12
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Those air powered ball poppers are AWESOME. There is no upper age limit. I kinda wish I had one now. –  DA01 Dec 12 '11 at 22:48
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@DA01 at 15 months, my son uses it strictly as a ball dispenser. He pushes the button, waits for the ball of the color he wants, grabs it, and leaves. I honestly enjoy it more than he does. Maybe he'll grow back into it :) –  Beofett Dec 12 '11 at 23:09
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Just to jump in on that specific ball popper, for a single child it can be pretty boring. However, when multiple kids get togther it can be the center of impromptu game that is more fun than a 3 year old can handle. –  Christopher Bibbs Dec 19 '11 at 17:21

4 Answers 4

up vote 8 down vote accepted

I believe that the suggested age range is almost exclusively dictated by the risk of swallowing parts and other dangers.

Generally, if my child has any kind of (safe) pleasure out of a toy, then I would not hesitate to let him play with it. Who cares if it's designed for a three-year-old? If my 2yo likes it, I won't stop him. (And it gives me a (false?) feeling that he's ahead of the curve.)

If it's too difficult for him to operate, then he'll probably lose interest fairly quickly, but not until he's had some little frustration -- and a healthy challenge to his mental skills or dexterity.

Either way, it's a win! Just make sure it's reasonably safe, and disregard any age label!


The ball popper you link to looks cute, but totally boring. It looks to me as if it's motorized, sort of like a fountain but with balls rather than water. I would think it's boring because it does not require much interaction from the child. More interaction, and some degree of difficulty, present a much more interesting toy.

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The required interaction is for the kid to constantly feed the balls back into the popper. If they're easily amused, it can keep your kids occupied for far longer than anyone would have rationally thought possible. It's even better when a few kids are racing to be first to get the balls. :-) –  afrazier Dec 12 '11 at 21:35
    
Thanks for the clarification! I'm glad I was mistaken :-) –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Dec 13 '11 at 6:45
    
This is correct. The only time I've seen any kind of real precision in the 'suggested age' label is on board games. Monopoly, for instance was suggested at 8+, clearly overkill for any concern about small parts, but rather accurate when describing an age where a kid would probably understand the game. –  Tim Post Dec 14 '11 at 6:50
    
8+ probably is fairly accurate in general, although even here it is not completely accurate. Me and my sister first played monopoly when I was 7 and she was 8. We then played it solidly for 3 years. Consequently, my younger brother first started playing when he was 4 (and enjoyed it, even if he did not grasp all of the rules), and could play properly by age 6. –  Nico Burns Dec 16 '11 at 1:41

I find that I need to closely evaluate where my child is preforming (schools can help with this). Two of my children had excellent fine motor skills at a very young age and therefore were able to do some toys (such as beading) much earlier than recommended.

As well, and possible more to the point, there is a law change about what is require at age three and up so many toys are labeled age three as the bottom age recommendation just to get out of the extra testing, so be careful when evaluating age 3 toys as they may be more appropriate for younger ages.

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We find that the age guides are a bit of help from a safety perspective, but we can judge ourselves what we know will be safe for him. For our boy, anything that he can crawl on top of needs supervision, since he became obsessed with trying to walk since he hit 8 months old. Therefore, things that are suggested for his age aren't necessarily safe for our boy.

We judge a toy more based on if we think he will get something out of it now and then down the line. We have a bunch of toys, especially toys with wheels, that he will flip over and play with in his own way. He flips a walker / lawn mower toy over and spins the wheels for example. Over time, he seems to change the way he plays with these toys, moving toward the 'intended' use.

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Manufacturers typically list an age range that a typical child of that age could utilize most or all of the features of the toy in the way the manufacturer envisions the toy being played with. This may or may not match your personal considerations of what you find age-appropriate.

For example, when my son was 7 months old we purchased a plastic toy keyboard that was marketed for ages 18months+. At 7 months he was able to press on the keys and make them light up, but he was not able to understand the buttons to change the instrument sound and so forth. So while he wasn't necessarily using the toy to its full capacity, and may not have been playing music the way the manufacturer envisioned, he was still able to safely enjoy the toy.

Particularly when it comes to toys for babies the age range is determined by skills that a child of that age typically have. Like toys with buttons to press are usually labeled for 6+ months (or more) because babies younger than 6 months typically do not have the dexterity to press buttons. Or a ride-on toy requires the ability to both sit up, and climb on the toy.

If a child is given a toy that is significantly too hard, they may find the toy boring or frustrating. They may not have the manual dexterity necessary to operate the toy, they may find putting puzzles together too challenging and don't know what to do with the pieces and so on. Toys that are too easy, likewise will not hold a child's interest--give a child over the age of one a toy labeled for a 3 month old and they will probably be bored of it within minutes, and not find it exciting, and prefer more age-appropriate toys

There are different ways manufacturers can determine an appropriate age range.

One would be though focus groups or other forms of product testing, where they have children of different ages play with the toys and they see which ages enjoy the toy and use it appropriately.

Another would be by considering the skills necessary to operate the toy and looking up what age, developmentally, has that skill. A toy that requires reading and following specific instructions would require a child old enough to have a sufficient reading level to understand the directions and be able to follow them. The directions a 5 year old can follow must be much simpler than the directions an 8 year old will follow.

In some cases the age range may have been set by a marketing department before the toy was created, based on the demographics of their target audience. Or they might compare the age range of a competitor's product and choose to market theirs similarly.

In many cases, the age range is arbitrarily selected to simplify product testing.

From a well-written article on Slate.com about how toys are safety tested:

Since no toy manufacturer wants to get stuck making an embarrassing recall, most companies have their products evaluated by independent testing labs before they go on sale. [...] Many stores won't buy a product unless they're satisfied that it meets these standards.

What kinds of tests does a toy have to pass? The generally accepted standards, testing methods, and labeling requirements are laid out in an ASTM document called the Standard Consumer Safety Specification for Toy Safety. Every kind of toy must generally be clean and "free from infestation," and it can't have sharp edges or exposed bolts. If the toy is meant for children under 3, it can't have any "small parts"—defined as pieces that can fit inside a 1-inch by 2.25-inch cylinder.

So, basically, it is not uncommon for toys to be labeled as 3+, simple because a company does feel it is justified or cost-effective to spend the extra money to have their toy subjected to additional testing to verify whether or not it has any parts that are choking hazards and the like, if they expect their primary users of the toy are not babies. I have even seen fuzzy baby-rattles in a college bookstore say they are for ages 4+ on their tag--which would appear to be more for lawsuit-prevention purposes than based on what age would use and enjoy the toy.

Generally, I would say that toys for ages less than 3, the age range is based on the typical developmental abilities at a particular age. However, obviously, some children walk and talk younger than others and have varying skill levels, and in some cases, a child may simply never like a toy, age appropriate or not--my 18 month old son, for example, is quite fascinated with the ball popper you linked to, and studying how the balls defy gravity. Some of it is personality. The toy age range suggestions may help a parent decide that one type of toy to select, but they are not absolute, and many children are ready for toys more "challenging" than the package lists the ages for sooner. But sometimes a child will not be able to immediately fully enjoy a toy if given too soon. At 12 months, my son could not solve board puzzles, but at 10 months, he can. But that doesn't mean we waited until 18 months to obtain one.

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