Safe or Not? 10 Household Items Toddlers Love to Play With

Your toddler loves to climb into cardboard boxes, chew on your car keys, and squeeze lotion bottles. But could any of these (or other) household items be dangerous?

Smiling in box

You did your research and bought your toddler the best toys for his development -- they're toxin-free, fair trade, and age-appropriate. But they lie untouched as your little one gnaws on the remote control unearthed from the couch, ruining all your DVR settings in the process. The only thing that can distract him from that task seems to be the lure of the dog's water bowl, but is it safe? Is there any harm if he's happy being entertained and learning about the world? "Toys come with a warning, 'Not for use under a certain age,' but everyday items do not," says Mark Zonfrillo, M.D., a pediatric emergency medicine physician and injury researcher at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Unfortunately, there are potential hazards lurking in some of the household items that toddlers love to play with, so we ran a list of kids' favorites by safety experts to see which ones are okay to keep in the playtime repertoire -- and which ones should be kept out of reach.

Metal Keys

Why Kids Love Them: They're shiny and toy-size, make a great jangling sound, and are fun to hide and seek in small places like pockets and bags.

Potential Problem: Keys are made of brass or nickel-plated brass, some with added lead. "Your keys may or may not contain traces of lead, but they certainly contain traces of metal," says Courtney Ilarraza, owner of Baby Bodyguards, a babyproofing service in New York City. "They also tend to be stuck into dirty and greasy areas. Not the ideal things for your child to have in his mouth." Plus, sharp edges aren't ideal around little eyes.

Play or Take Away? Take away. Replace metal keys with (BPA-free plastic) toy keys.

    Remote Controls

    Why Kids Love Them: All those colorful, soft buttons that show flashing lights when pressed make remote controls satisfying toys, especially when they can turn other things on and off!

    Potential Problem: Unfortunately, remotes are made up of many small parts, and some still use coin-size lithium ion batteries, which could be fatal if ingested. "While it's often difficult for an adult to remove the batteries, children quickly discover that they come out after banging the remote against the floor," Ilarraza says.

    Play or Take Away? Take away. Toy versions are acceptable substitutions.

      Opened Packages

      Why Kids Love Them: A box's contents become forgotten when there's cardboard for making basic houses and tunnels or when there's hilarious bubble wrap to pop or packing peanuts to toss around.

      Potential Problem: Sure, cardboard boxes usually get a thumbs-up, but what's inside comes with a big caveat: Use under supervision only. Ilarraza once wrapped an entire room in bubble wrap for her son's birthday party and kept a close eye on the kids. "Kids were just bouncing around as if it were a bounce house in there, popping them." If your kids are not monitored closely, however, bubble wrap and other packing materials could be choking hazards.

      Play or Take Away? Play, but only under your watch, and then remove everything when they're done.

      Pet Toys and Dishes

      Why Kids Love Them: Fido's toys look just like all the others on the rug, and the dog gets to splash around with a water bowl all day long.

      Potential Problem: "Household pets are fun to play with, but they do carry a lot of bacteria in their mouth and from outside," Dr. Zonfrillo cautions. Chew toys can also come apart in small, hazardous pieces, and there's the potential for conflicts between the dog and the kid over toys or food, which rarely end well.

      Play or Take Away? Take away. If you can't put the water bowl out of reach, this is a good time to teach your kid the concept of "Don't touch."

        Babyproofing Your Home: Toys

          Storage Containers of Food

          Why Kids Love Them: The pantry is full of popcorn kernels, dried pasta, or grains in plastic canisters and yogurt containers; they double as fantastic noisemakers and shakers.

          Potential Problem: "Keep in mind that [canisters are] probably going to open," Ilarraza says; even something airtight could still open with enough banging. "Kids will then try to eat whatever spills out."

          Play or Take Away? Play. Just make sure that what's stored in the canisters won't cause choking hazards or allergies.

            The Recycling Bin

            Why Kids Love It: The recycling bin certainly looks like a toy box that's constantly full of new bottles, foil, and cartons that make cool sounds and introduce new tastes.

            Potential Problem: Even if you've taken away anything that has sharp edges and can cause choking or break easily, there's still an unseen danger: "Once an object is in the recycling bin, a child shouldn't play with it because of the exposure to germs and bacteria," Dr. Zonfrillo advises. "I think it's better to play with containers before they go into the recycling bin."

            Play or Take Away? Take away. Or rinse out bottles or cartons for playtime before you toss them into the (childproof) bin later.


              Why Kids Love It: Spoons, spatulas, mixing bowls, pots, and pans are classic toys that also make amusing instruments.

              Potential Problem: Experts love encouraging kids to role-play with wooden spoons, silicone spatulas, and plastic bowls, but not all items get the green light. "If you let children play with pots and pans, they won't understand when it's just a toy on the floor versus when it's on the stove with a flame under it," Ilarraza explains. Even if you normally keep the hot stuff out of reach, tots may reach for a hot pan at Grandma's house.

              Play or Take Away? Play -- with everything but the pots and pans. There's a time and place to teach about hot stoves, but this is too risky.

                Babyproofing Your Home: Kitchen


                  Why Kids Love It: Pulling one tissue of its magic box means another one pops right out -- again and again, until the box is empty. Plus, they're soft enough to tear up and eat.

                  Potential Problem: "If a child puts a clean tissue in her mouth and eats it, it's definitely not harmful," Dr. Zonfrillo says. But if you notice your kid is seeking out so-called nonnutritive substances to eat on a regular basis (more than your typical mouth exploration), mention it to your pediatrician, as there might be an underlying medical reason for this behavior.

                  Play or Take Away? Play. Tissues are fine, as long as you don't mind cleaning up the mess later.

                  Baby Lotion Tubes and Bottles

                  Why Kids Love Them: Tubes of diaper creams and bottles of moisturizers are just asking to be shaken, squeezed, sucked on, and opened for an experiment in finger painting.

                  Potential Problem: Although most baby lotions are completely harmless, playing with them isn't a good habit to encourage. "If the caps are unscrewed, they are a choking risk, and children may feel it is okay to play with other containers that contain more harmful substances, such as prescription medications and household cleaners [that can be ingested]," Dr. Zonfrillo says.

                  Play or Take Away? Take away. It's best not to let kids think that tubes and bottles are toys.

                    Piles of (Dirty) Laundry

                    Why Kids Love It: Mini mountains of soft clothes on the bedroom floor are perfect for jumping on, crawling over, burrowing into, hiding under, and tossing around.

                    Potential Problem: "Dirty laundry often has bacteria on it from body fluids, and generally should be avoided," Dr. Zonfrillo says. "Certainly, we don't want to be so obsessive about this, because there's good evidence to show...that in an era of being too clean, kids may be predisposed to allergies because they're not exposed to allergens and bacteria of that nature. I think it's a balance." Ilarraza, on the other hand, has "hundreds of pictures of my kids being 'laundry monsters,' hiding in the laundry basket covered in clothes."

                    Play or Take Away? Your call. You can let your kids play in the laundry if you know there's nothing scary-dirty in there, and give them a bath later if you're still concerned about germs.

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