The toys parents think are good, probably aren't. And the ones they hate just might be. By Sally Williams
The Comfykeyboard Computer was impressive. Drivetime Bunny was rather cute. But the sight of these and the other 20,016 sq metres of toys at this year's International Toy and Hobby Fair at Olympia made me feel as I do when I look at my own children's toybox - rather sick. I asked the same question I ask most evenings spent sorting out the jumble of Barbie shoes, squashed crayons and plastic pigs - why do we buy all this stuff? Do young children really need all these toys or would they be just as happy with a wooden spoon?

"Need," says Dr John Richer, child psychologist at the John Radcliffe, Oxford, "is too strong. Children like and benefit from toys, but past generations of children survived perfectly well without them."

According to developmental psychologists, growing children do need certain types of play for their mental and manual development. One of the reasons why Britain's toy market is now worth pounds 1.64bn a year, and the average spend per child at Christmas has risen from pounds 86 in 1990 to pounds 115 in 1995, is that more and more parents are buying into the ideal of "early learning": that the right sort of play creates clever children. It is also the reason why many of the 398 exhibitors at the fair were plugging their latest product's ability to develop "hand-eye co-ordination", "sequencing" and "number awareness", and why toy companies such as Fisher-Price sponsor leaflets on "The Value of Play" ("Children who play with a wide range of well-selected toys are more likely to be challenged and stimulated").

"But," confirms Dr Peter Willatts, senior lecturer in psychology at Dundee University, "the sort of information babies get from toys will be the same as grabbing anything that comes to hand. Everyday objects would do." Everyday household objects - saucepans, spoons, balls of wool - did indeed service past generations of children, so why don't today's parents fall back on the old favourites?

"We are much more safety conscious than we used to be," says Dr Dorothy Einon, lecturer in psychology at University College, London. "We know that a young baby can stick a wooden spoon down its throat, so we buy them toy spoons instead."

We buy children toys because toys are safe, and because they are safe we know we can let children play by themselves. Children of the past had an altogether much more social time.

"Fears about abduction, road accidents and the dangers of the world outside mean that children are stuck at home much more than they used to be," says Dr Richer. "So, especially for the under-fives, there can be a lot of time to fill."

It is true, she maintains, that children benefit from toys and playing. "But that doesn't mean lots of toys. The best play is with other people - adults or children."

Anne Cunningham, 32, and her daughter Emily, four, illustrate how the situation for children has changed. Emily has "far too many toys" whereas Anne had very few. Anne says: "I can remember making tree houses and playing with friends nearby. Emily could never play like that. We don't have a big garden and this isn't a safe area. For all her toys Emily's childhood isn't as rich as mine was."

Toys compensate for loss of freedom and lack of playmates, and, as David Howtin, director-general of the British International Toy and Hobby Association claimed this week, toys are also bought to compensate for poverty. His research indicates that poorer parents tend to buy the most expensive toys: "The poor tend to be the ones buying beyond their means. Toys are used to compensate children for the other things which are lacking in their lives."

Not surprisingly, says Dr Richer, one of the reasons parents buy toys is to show love to their child. "A young child might get just as much fun out of a grubby looking box filled with bits of paper and string, but it's not much of a present is it?"

Manufacturers of course, are fully aware of the powers of presentation. Tomy's Multi-Gym has undergone an extensive redesign - to its packet, which now in glorious technicolour with several languages flagging its educational benefits. Promises, says Dr Willatts, that can be empty. "Lots of manufacturers claim this toy will develop spatial awareness or colour awareness. These are boring, trivial abilities. Children would pick these up automatically. But they ring all the right bells with parents."

Dr Richer agrees: "Some baby toys packed with bells and gongs and things that go squeak are intrinsically boring, but parents think, this toy does a lot, therefore my child can do a lot with this toy. But it doesn't follow."

So, not all educational toys are educational and other toys educate children in ways parents wouldn't necessarily want them to be educated. But what could My little Pony Dream Beauty Parlour, Baywatch Barbie and reproduction Kalashnikovs possibly teach a chid othe than to encourage girls to be feminine and boys to be macho? And is there any value to Polly Pocket other than the $250m she made worldwide last year?

"Polly Pocket is fantastic," enthuses Dr Willatts. "The compacts are well made. They are portable, very attractive and Polly's little worlds really get the imagination going." But she always gets lost - my daugher has already gone through six.

"From a manufacturer's point of view it's an advantage if the toy wears out or is easily lost, but Polly's still great," says Dr Willatts. "Any toy that stimulates the imagination is good."

Of course, children don't need, as manufacturer's would like, to have Polly Pocket's Mermaid Palace with Myrtle the Turtle (pounds 14.99), or the Fantastic Light Fashion Show with Polly and her fibre-optic hair (pounds 24.99). Along with "TV tie-ins", there is nothing quite like a "collectables range" to get the suits at toy fairs drooling. This makes merchandising victims of all parents and consumers of our children, but that's not to say you should stop buying toys entirely. "Next time your children are playing" says Dr Willatts, "really listen to what is going on. You'll be surprised."

And sure enough, when I next spied on my children, Polly was late for work, Action Man was tucked up in a frilly cot and the green plastic pony was riding a motorbike. Children, you see, like to mix toys up, break all the manufacturer's rules and play exactly what games they want to.

Dr Dorothy Einon's guide to toys you won't regret

0-6 months: A musical mobile, rattles

6-24 months: Peek-a-boo toys: pop- up toys, shape sorters. Cause-and- effect toys: rattles, drums, anything that makes a noise. Role-play toys: dustpan and brushes, tea sets, drills, brushes. Books: surprisingly useful, surprisingly early on. Comfort toys: teddies, etc. Construction toys: Stickle bricks or Megablocs

2-5 years: More sophisticated construction kits: Duplo, Lego, Meccano. Jigsaw puzzles; dressing-up clothes; drawing and painting equipment; a set of small figures and accessories such as Playmobil; dolls; balls.