This is a little bug bear of mine and I can guarantee that at least three or four times a week I’ll have to go through this spiel again. The issue of the age appropriateness of a toy can arise whenever the child’s interests differ from the norm for their age.
A fairly benign case of this happens where a child plays at a stage above their age. When I’m asked what might be a good toy for such a child I’m faced with a slight dilemma: say we have a boy of seven who does a new jigsaw puzzle every week, based on this information I can guarantee his abilities will be higher than the jigsaw companies expect and as a result I would suggest picking a jigsaw puzzle that perhaps has age 8 or 9 on the box. This particular age on the box is a guide, it has nothing to do with safety (or anything so rigid) and has much more to do with the manufacturer’s opinion of what would be the appropriate age for this toy. This is based on general ideas about children’s play, so specific cases like our seven year old jigsaw fan are unlikely to fit within their paradigm.
However the person buying the toy can often be put off by the suggested age and in this case will opt for something which is likely to be below the child’s abilities. With something like a jigsaw this is likely to mean that the child will get bored with it, not the worst thing in the world but when you’re buying a gift you tend to hope that the recipient will enjoy it. This doesn’t happen too often though and most of the time people actually like the idea that the child they’re buying for exceeds expectations.
The real problem (and the main topic of this entry) lies at the other end of the spectrum. Some toys do not show a suggested age but instead place for example a 3+ mark on the box (which is placed to mark the manufacturer’s recommended ‘safe’ playing age), the problem is that it’s sometimes not easy for a customer to decipher between a 3+ safety tag and the suggested ages such as the ones described above.
There is a big difference between these, and when some customers see e.g. 3+ on the box they assume that older children won’t be interested in it because the toy is ‘for’ 3 year olds. This isn’t right and the children potentially miss out on something really fun. I’ll admit it’s easy to mix up the numbers on the box but this is where common sense should step in: does it look like something the child would enjoy? If the answer is yes then by all means get an 8 year old child a toy that says 3+ on the box.
The problem is even worse when the child is actually there in the shop and specifically asks for the toy only to be told ‘you’re too old for that’ or even worse ‘that’s a baby toy’. I seems we’re happy for a child to drive on and surpass their expected level for play (note play not maths, English or a sport) it fits our culture of striving for improvement in our children, and there’s nothing wrong with this but we see the opposite as something like an inverse of this situation: a child who likes toys aimed at a younger age is seen as somehow falling short when in fact they just like the look of it. Giving a child a younger toy doesn’t mark them as a failure since many toys can be played with in vastly different ways by different ages. Instead of accepting this though we are careful to avoid play which isn’t progressive: that is we discourage play which seems orientated around an earlier developmental stage. And we wonder why kids grow up so fast these days.