Really organized parents in Portland will have all their Christmas presents bought and wrapped and tagged. The rest of us are still wondering just how busy the stores will be on Saturday. What we shouldn’t be wondering about, though, is whether we’ve unwittingly purchased a dangerous toy.

In this day and age of medication commercials with disclaimers about possible side effects and risks of death, anyone purchasing a toy or a game for a child should know enough to look for warning labels on the packaging. At times, though, those warnings are overwhelming. Is your child a mature 3 for a toy marked as appropriate for ages 4 to 6? Is your child close enough to 6 — his birthday is in February — to use the really cool toy he’s been asking for since July?

Child safety and development experts have a few pointers that can make it easier to differentiate the naughty toys from the nice ones. And, as one pediatrician says, play is a child’s job. It should be safe and rewarding — and appropriate for the child’s abilities.

First, don’t skip over the warning labels. Of course a bag isn’t a toy, but labels include more than what seems obvious to you. There may be choking hazards or parts with sharp edges that you don’t know about.

Second, there really is research behind the age ranges. Children develop what researchers call “capacity” during the first four years. The child’s brain triples in size during that time. After that, the focus shifts to skill building. It’s more than we can go into here, but the point remains: Look at the age ranges.

Some of us will be in a big hurry when we shop for our kids’ Christmas presents, but that’s no reason to throw caution to the wind. A BB gun is a dangerous toy, no matter how much your child wants it. The hunt for the perfect toy should also be a hunt for the perfectly safe toy.

If you’re shopping for your own child, you’ll probably have a good idea of his or her skill level. If you don’t know the child well, stick with the age range on the package — as we said in our last post, it’s there for a reason, so don’t try to second guess it. If the child is 5, say, but a young 5, the parent will be able to decide if the toy is too advanced.

Next, look for well-made toys. Check with other parents and kids to see if a toy on your child’s wish list will last more than an hour. Run a quick web search to find customer and safety council ratings. You want toys that will last, but, more importantly, you want toys that won’t break — creating an unanticipated choking hazard or a sharp edge that can do some real damage to a child and his environs.

Finally, watch your child play with the new toy — or, better yet, play with your child and his new toy. You’ll be able to tell if the toy is dangerous or just too advanced for your child, and you’ll have fun.

And that’s what the holidays are all about.

Source: USA Today, “Choose toys wisely for safe holiday play,” Darla Carter, Dec. 2, 2011