Hanukah began over the weekend, and the countdown to Christmas is underway. You know what that means: presents!

Kids--and adults, too--like to make wish lists for gifts at this time of year. At the same time, adults who care about children's safety and well-being think about which toys and games are good for young people and which aren't.

Every year during the holiday season, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) urges gift-givers to keep safety in mind when choosing toys for young children. The commission reports that more than 120,000 children were treated in hospital emergency rooms for toy-related injuries in 1998.

If you are picking out gifts for younger relatives or friends, keep these tips from the CPSC in mind:

* Choose toys to suit the age, abilities and interest of the child.

* For babies and toddlers, avoid toys with small parts, which could become a choking hazard.

* On stuffed animals and dolls, look for sturdy construction, especially tightly secured eyes and noses.

* Avoid toys with sharp edges and points for children under age 8.

* Do not purchase toys with heating elements for children under age 8.

* Always throw away the plastic packaging, which can pose a suffocation risk.

* Pay attention to labels that give age recommendations.

"Toys are an important part of holiday giving, and CPSC is on the job 365 days a year to make sure toys are as safe as possible," says Ann Brown, chair of the commission. "By always reading labels and being safety-conscious, [we] can help prevent toy-related injuries."

Toys are important for kids, because the creativity used in playing with them helps young people learn skills they will need as they get older, says Sandra Russ, a psychologist at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio.

She is studying a group of elementary school children trying to find out whether the skills children use when playing continue to be important through adolescence.

Russ gave the children in her study several tests to determine creativity. In the first, she measured the emotions children showed during five-minute pretend play sessions using hand puppets and a set of blocks. One of the others, an "Alternate Uses Test," tried to measure creativity by asking children to write down as many uses as they could think of for an ordinary object like a newspaper.

To find out about the kids' coping ability, Russ asked them how they would handle different stressful situations, such as forgetting their lunch at home, dealing with someone who is teasing them or losing a book they needed for a test.

The testing showed that children who had shown more emotion and fantasy in their early play and had more emotions in their play stories in later years were more creative and were better copers.

"Good early play skills predicted the ability to be creative and generate solutions to everyday problems," she says.

In other words, play is good for kids, but safe, creative play is even better.

Tips for Parents

Case Western Reserve University psychologist Sandra Russ encourages parents not to underestimate how valuable play is in a child's life, explaining that it gives children an opportunity to explore a variety of solutions to everyday situations. Russ and her colleagues are following children in a long-term study on play and creativity. Their findings so far, published in the August 1999 issue of the journal Creativity Research, show that creative first- and second-graders often become better problem-solvers in the fifth and sixth grades. Russ says a family's child-rearing practices influence how creatively their children play and she offers these tips for helping kids play:

* Allow time for free play.

* Respond to and interact with children when they are playing, but remove yourself when the children are totally absorbed in their play.

* Praise children when they exhibit creativity and imagination.

* If children have trouble getting started, give them some suggestions.

For You to Do

Did you know that you could exercise your creativity? Try this activity, which is based on the "Alternate Uses Test." It's fun, it can be very silly, and it's ideal for playing during a car trip. All you have to do is think of as many uses as you can for ordinary objects. For example, what could you do with:

* A shoe?

* A newspaper?

* A cabbage?

* A cardboard box?

* A blanket?

To stretch your imagination ever farther, make up a play that uses these objects in it.