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Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
Shelley Marshall, with the help of her daughter, Ava, tests toys in their home using three different types of lead-testing kits.

When Nicole Bradley's son, Marshall, turned 1 year old, he received a wooden Noah's Ark as a gift from one of his grandmothers.

The toy was beautiful, and it stood apart from the "sea of plastic toys" already being used by her son, said Bradley, who lives in Holladay.

"Aesthetically, it was pleasing to look at," she said. "It made me think how I could incorporate more toys like that into his playroom."

Now, two years later and pregnant with her second child, Bradley has a collection of toys for her son she believes are high-quality and conducive to learning. She also has a blog, www.thetoysnob.blogspot.com, to help other moms find "beautiful" toys for their young children.

Bradley is one of a growing number of parents across the nation who are concerned about the quality of children's toys, both from an educational and quality standpoint and from the perspective of being safe for children and the environment. It's a trend highlighted by last year's wave of toy recalls but also driven by a desire to be more eco-friendly and allow children the freedom to develop their imagination through play.

Research shows young children learn through play they initiate themselves; by making the "beep, beep" noise of a car or creating their own scenarios to act out with dolls, said Cheryl Wright, chair of the University of Utah department of family and consumer studies. While she believes electronic toys can be great tools for learning, and are appropriate for teenagers and school-age children to use, it is her opinion young children should have simple playthings that allow room for creativity.

Some examples include wooden building blocks, art materials and noninteractive cloth dolls. The goal is for the child to act upon a toy, not the toy to require the child to act, Wright said.

"If you give children outlets to play, it helps them build skills and build confidence through creative ways of learning," Wright said.

But analysts predict some of the top-selling toys for young children this Christmas will be electronic. The Web site, www.timetoplaymag.com, recently uploaded a list of the "most wanted" toys this holiday, which included the new "Elmo Live!" doll, an electronic puppy named "Biscuit" and a new interactive reading system by LeapFrog.

In total, parents are estimated to spend about $470 billion this holiday season buying toys, according to the National Retail Federation. That's a 2.2 percent increase over last year's spending, but significantly lower than the 10-year average of 4.4 percent.

For Salt Lake mom Shelley Marshall, part of a parent's responsibility is to avoid excess with toys. She tries to limit the number of toys her daughter, Ava, receives as gifts and also shops for recycled items. Her goal is to teach her daughter to be environmentally conscious and avoid waste.

Last month, Marshall checked several of her daughter's toys with household lead testing kits. The results were negative.

"It's hard sometimes, but you just have to kind of do the best you can," Marshall said.

Jennifer Hamilton, who runs the nature-based Earth and Sky Playschool in Sugar House, said she believes children will adapt if their parents begin cutting back. She advises parents to look at what they used to enjoy playing, then find a way to allow their own child to do what they did.

"Kids are like their parents," she said. "So think about what you really enjoyed as a child. Nine times out of 10, your child will like that toy, too."

But she does follow strict rules when buying toys for her school. Hamilton first looks to see if a toy is age-appropriate and safe and then selects items made from natural materials such as wood or wool.

She has multiple wooden block sets at her school and several soft, fabric dolls. Children at her school will oftentimes play dress-up or build forts with just a simple square of cloth. The goal is to allow children to learn and explore by using their imagination, Hamilton said.

"Children are overwhelmed with so many options," she said. "You really need to focus on quality versus quantity — and your children will be OK with that. They'll get used to the idea."

Likewise, Bradley also advocates balance. High-quality, educational and environmentally friendly toys can be expensive, and Bradley said she has her fair share of plastic toys.

But she wants parents to be educated and choose the best toys available.

"You need to ask if (the toy) is adding to play value or taking away from it," she said. "I would urge parents to educate themselves about buying toys for kids."

For guidelines on age-appropriate toys and also a list of recently recalled play items, you can log on to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission's Web site: www.cpsc.gov.

E-mail: nwarburton@desnews.com