How safe are your children’s toys?


A child playing with toys.

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What you need to know:

  • Playing contributes to the development of cognitive, motor, and psychosocial, emotional, and linguistic skills, and also plays a key role in raising self-confident, creative, and happy children.
  • While minor accidents are inevitable during playtime, parents strive to protect their children from harm and anything or anyone that can cause injury.

A month ago, a five-year-old boy from Nakuru County, Liam Maina, walked into a shop and bought a vuvuzela toy to play with. He had been given some money by his grandmother, but he opted to buy the toy, which he had insisted on being bought on multiple occasions.

However, the tiny gadget which was meant to be a source of fun, quickly turned into a life-threatening hazard that has now changed the fortunes of the family for the worse.

The boy swallowed a loosely fitted cap on the toy, which got lodged in his lung. In several stories published by Nation, his father, Isaac Kinaga, recounted how the accident distraught his family emotionally, and diminished their finances as Liam’s hospital bill accumulated at the Kenyatta National Hospital, where he was taken for surgical removal of the tiny plastic.

Where is the gap?

“Liam’s unfortunate story, raises a lot of concern about the safety of children’s toys in our country,” says Chris Lalmakar, a teacher and father to a two-year-old girl.

“As I was reading about this ordeal, I kept thinking about my daughter, who is at a very curious stage where she wants to put everything in her mouth. I also kept wondering, how could a child this small get his hands on something this risky that could easily be a choking hazard?”

Play is very important when it comes to early childhood development. The National Library of Medicine defines play as “an action involving fun and learning in which a child willingly participates, while toys are tools they use while performing these actions. Playing has a very important role in children’s lives. It contributes to the development of cognitive, motor, and psychosocial, emotional, and linguistic skills, and also plays a key role in raising self-confident, creative, and happy children.”

While minor accidents are inevitable during playtime, parents strive to protect their children from harm and anything or anyone that can cause injury. The question is, who is to blame when such accidents happen? Is it the parent, the toy manufacturer, the seller, or weak or lack of proper toy safety regulatory measures?

“As a parent, I am constantly worried about my child’s safety,” Lalmakar says. “However since I cannot manage to monitor my child all the time without any distractions, I limit the access she has to objects that can cause her harm. I am very intentional when shopping for play objects, always steering clear of tiny removable pieces which are a choking hazard.

“The parent is the first line of defence, but this does not eliminate the risk. My child will most likely interact with other children, and I cannot control what their parents buy them. As such, I think it must be a joint effort, right from the seller to the toy manufacturer, to make sure what gets to the market has a standard safety threshold.”

An expert’s take

Babu Sitima is a safety expert at Safetynet Consultancy Limited. He begins by noting his approach is not only that of an expert but also of a father.

He points out that the biggest risk when it comes to children’s toys, is the danger of choking. For him, parents are the first responsible party, but regulation also matters a lot.

“If you talk about regulation, it is almost non-existent in Kenya, which is critical. Take countries like Britain for instance. They have a Toys (Safety) Regulations Act passed in 2011 that gives clear enforceable guidelines. It covers the obligations of manufacturers, importers, and distributors, approved regulation bodies, enforcement, and even toys given in charities and second-hand sales," Sitima says.


A mum and her child playing with toys.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

"While you cannot absolutely prevent accidents from happening, you can significantly reduce the risk, and this starts with quality control. Before a product is allowed into the market, KEBS should ensure it meets recommended global standards. They need to be marked what age they are appropriate for, should have no tiny removable parts, and should be sturdy to prevent easy chipping which can result in injury,” he further points out.

He notes the downside to thorough regulation is that toys become expensive and might not be affordable to everyone.

“A lot of SMEs are operating in this sector, whether local manufacturers or businesses importing cheaper products from countries like China. It therefore makes recalling or tracing every ‘high-risk’ toy in the market quite a challenge, but it is never too late to start taking the right steps. Our children’s safety must be paramount, and I am confident there can be solutions to making affordable toys, but much safer ones.”

He adds that as a parent, a good hack to reduce the risk of choking is to make sure the toys you get children, especially toddlers, cannot fit inside the roll of toilet paper.

Much like Kinaga’s family, Alice Kerubo’s family has also gone through a similar ordeal, one with a fatal outcome. Alice who lost a six-month-old baby due to choking says her story, albeit not as a result of a toy accident, is relatable and relevant.

She founded Amara Initiative after her daughter died. Amara Initiative conducts safety training and first aid for caregivers.

“The pain of losing a child is quite immeasurable. Her name was Amara, and she choked while she was being fed by her nanny. I could not comprehend how God could allow such a thing to happen, and I felt angry and in pain," Alice says.

"However, I got to thinking afterward, if I had been there, could I have been able to save her? What is it that I could have done differently? It haunted me because on her death certificate, it was written ‘preventable death’,” she reflects.

She also notes that while going through the grieving period, she was shocked by how ‘nonchalant’ a lot of people who came to console her were.

“I would get so many ‘Oh, yes that happens’ or ‘I am so sorry, take heart, I also know of another family who went through the same ordeal’, and this awakened me to the dangers that surround our children that a lot of times we take casually.”

She notes that this was her motivation behind starting the initiative, as she realised a lot of parents and caregivers lack basic knowledge on how to act when such accidents happen, for instance, if a baby swallows a foreign object and they start choking.

“A lot of us are reactive rather than proactive, so you will see or hear a lot of parents raise concerns once something has happened. I never imagined I would go through it either, so when it happened it was a huge shock and a wakeup call.

"Now I am very conscious whenever I am around a baby, and I will easily notice the things they are putting in their mouths. I am also very alert to a child coughing, as it is very easy for them to choke without even noticing.

"That is why I advocate for basic first aid training as a necessity. A first aid certificate is only valid for a year, and people only go when they learn they are going to have a baby, or because the certificate is required somewhere, or the training is being offered free of charge.

"However, due to the granular nature of the training, it should be done often. This will not only mean you know what to do in an emergency, for instance for a baby below one year as opposed to a three-year-old, but will also give you the confidence to act accordingly instead of just panicking.”

Alice also says that as a parent who has gone through such a horrible ordeal, she is usually quite concerned by some kind of toys she sees in the market.


A child playing with toys. Shutterstock

Photo credit: Shutterstock

“I was once in a very popular gift house in town and a woman was getting a toy for her child. The toy fell from the check-out counter, and it cracked open and some tiny removable objects sprawled on the floor. When you see such, you wonder, how is that even allowed in the market? The danger is so obvious.”

Alice says while not everyone can afford to buy quality imported European toys, having safety training can go a long way in preventing unfortunate calamities.

When it comes to quality regulation, she argues that the regulator should work similarly to how the sale of drugs is tracked.

“The Pharmacy and Poisons Board will pay regular random visits to pharmacies to ensure the medicine they are selling is quality. This can also be implemented because even if we are now hearing the unfortunate story of Liam, there are possibly still hundreds more similar toys in the market and accessible to any child with just five shillings.”

A quick visit to several toy shops within the Nairobi CBD paints a clear picture of the regulations in place for this sector. 

Joslay, a toy shop attendant says to the best of his knowledge, the only permit required is a normal business permit, and when it comes to quality control it is entirely left to the sellers.

“In our shop, we strive to make toys as safe as possible for children by making sure we source good quality products. We ensure all toys come in their original packaging which has legible safety instructions, and are made with good material so that even if they contain small pieces inside which can be a choking hazard, during the toy’s recommended lifetime, they will likely not break or pose any harm to the child.”

He also adds that when a customer comes to the shop, they walk them through the various products they have based on what they are looking for, and recommend age-appropriate toys for each customer.

“For instance, we have something called baby slime. It’s a gooey substance that is very fun to play with, but it is not recommended for babies below two years. Before we sell it to a parent, we make sure that the child is at an age where they will not be tempted to eat it.”

Joslay adds that another safety measure is to sell toys with silicone pieces on them for teething babies, who are likely to chew on their toys. As the silicone bit is softer yet strong enough to not chip off or release any harmful chemicals, then the risk of the baby hurting themselves while chewing on it is minimised.

In his parting remarks, Sitima says:  “No matter our best efforts, we cannot prevent accidents from happening or our children getting hurt while playing, it is just part of life. What we can do, however, is eliminate some of these life-threatening risks like substandard toys, and the way to go is to have proper regulations, which can then be implemented by KEBS. Because as it is, we are only left with manufacturers and businesses to self-regulate, and for parents to be vigilant.”

An update on Liam, he underwent four surgeries at Kenyatta National Hospital. After the successful operations, the boy was discharged and is now fully recovered.

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