With holidays just around the corner, it's time to buy presents. Annie and James are going to the mall this weekend to start their shopping. They've made lists of people they need to get things for, and they've figured out how much they can afford to spend. They'll be looking for gifts for their parents, grandparents, best friends, teachers and their little brothers and sisters.

Buying presents for adults is pretty easy, most of the time. If you know what kinds of things they like -- like books or earrings -- you just have to pick out some good ones. But buying toys for little kids can be harder. First, they like interesting-looking toys. There are tons of them out there. But it can be hard to choose a toy that is appropriate for the age of the child who'll be playing with it. And it can be challenging to figure out if a toy is safe.

James remembers the year he gave his 2-year-old brother a Transformer. His brother was thrilled -- until he tried to play with the toy. He couldn't figure out how to change it from a robot into a racing car; it was too hard for him. He started to cry. "Great present," James thought. "I made him cry."

James's little brother stopped crying quickly; no harm was done. But sometimes there's a more serious problem than being puzzled or frustrated by a toy that is too complicated; kids do get hurt by their toys.

The government is concerned about toy safety. They monitor what's on the market, and they regulate what kinds of things United States toy manufacturers can make. Toys are very big business: More than 1 1/2 billion toys are sold in this country each year.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission, headquartered in Bethesda, sends teams of field inspectors out to check on toys, both imported toys and American ones, to see if they are safe. One of the most important tests is for small parts. Children younger than 3 are very likely to put anything they play with in their mouths. Sometimes, they swallow things and risk choking.

To prepare James and Annie for their shopping expedition, their mom told them to watch out for toys with little pieces that can be dangerous for toddlers and babies. Balloons are dangerous for the same reason; an uninflated balloon can cause choking; small balls and toys with jagged edges or sharp pieces aren't good for very little kids either.

Toy buyers should also: Check to see that rubber toys such as rattles or teething rings are too large to fit entirely in a child's mouth. Check for sturdy seams on stuffed animals and cloth dolls. Make sure the doll's or animal's eyes, noses, buttons, ribbons or other decorations are attached securely and can't be pulled or bitten off. Read the toy label. Labels can make choosing appropriate, safe toys easier. Toymakers follow age-grading guidelines established by the CPSC. Let's say you see a toy labeled "ages 3 and up." That means a child over 3 will be able to handle it safely. Avoid toys with strings 12 inches or longer and attached at one end that can form a loop that could choke a small child.

A booklet published by the Toy Manu- facturers of America suggests what kinds of toys are good for kids of different ages: For toddlers ages 18 months to 3 years: Things to ride and climb on, outdoor balls, digging tools for a sandbox, dress-up clothes, dolls and stuffed animals, musical instruments like drums and tambourines. Ages 3 to 6: Play store items and pretend money; toy villages, forts, circuses and gas stations; puppets, dolls and doll furniture; stuffed animals; trucks and cars; coloring and paint sets; puzzles. Ages 6 to 9: Board games, action figures, science kits, electric trains, sports equipment, video games, records and tapes.

Since Annie and James are now in the holiday spirit, they'll each remember to choose a toy to give to a program in their community that provides presents for homeless children. Sharing, they know, is the real meaning of the celebration.

Tips for Parents

To judge the safety of small parts on toys, parents can purchase a toy-testing cylinder. If a toy fits into the cylinder, it's almost certainly small enough to choke a child 3 or younger. The tube costs $1 from Toys to Grow On, Dept. Safe Toy, P.O. Box 17, Long Beach, Calif. 90801.

For a free copy of the Toy Manufacturers Association of America's Guide to Toys and Play, write to: Toy Booklet, P.O. Box 866, Madison Square Station, New York, N.Y. Some tips for adults from the publication: Plastic wrappings from toys and other products should be discarded immediately. Check toys periodically to make sure they aren't unraveling or developing loose parts. Toys appropriate for older kids can be hazardous to a baby or toddler. Store them out of reach of younger children. Establish a toy storage habit in your kids. Choose a toy chest that has a removable lid or a lid with spring-loaded support that will hold it open securely. The chest should have smooth edges, holes for ventilation and hinge-line clearance to prevent pinched fingers. Never hang or attach crib toys with anything that might entangle the infant. If you suspect that a toy is unsafe, call the CPSC toll-free at 800-638-2772.

Catherine O'Neill is a children's writer.