ID: A wicker basket of Grapat (ambiguous cone shaped wooden figures) lays on a wooden floor.
Since becoming a parent, I’ve made a concerted effort to think about my environmental footprint. We’re largely a vegan household. We use reusable cloth nappies, we try to get a veggie box rather than lining the pockets of big supermarkets. We do this because we have a passion for it, but also as we have the privilege to do it. Vegan food can be expensive. Cloth nappies require an initial investment, and a veg box isn’t cheap. With this in mind my desire to share the importance of sustainability is always tinged with the knowledge that I speak from a context of comparative affluence. To get on my soap box and tell those buying their plastic wrapped lettuce that they’re killing polar bears would be failing to recognise this. So, when I found myself scrolling the socials on Christmas Day and seeing the excess of toys (often plastic) purchased for children year on year, I found myself at a real junction. Plastic is everywhere, and this toy consumption looks pretty excessive. My knowledge of learning tells me that this can’t possibly be good for our kids, or the planet. But how far is this perspective accurate, how far is it tinged with elitism, and if this truly is an issue, how can we solve it without bankrupting ourselves? With the small grain of energy I had left after getting G to nap, I thought I’d look a bit deeper.
It turns out quite a few parents have thought about this too. My first, undiluted thought when I saw what some families were doing was the following: ‘this sea of plastic is contributing to the destruction of our planet, it looks pretty hideous, and it’s not really supporting expressive play either. Why do people do this when there are open ended, beautiful toys available?’. Knowing this was one tiny perspective, I tentatively reached out to ask what others thought. Many other parents, family members and educators echoed my initial feeling. Yet I also found an important caveat. The apparent ‘gold standard’ I had in my head (which replaces the plastic, bells and whistles, bright and possibly TV themed toys) of natural, often wooden materials, beautifully arranged and pedagogically sound, had a pretty serious price tag, excluding many. Equally, having the time to research the most beautiful and beneficial items for our little darlings too is afforded by having the time and mental space for research. The answer clearly is not as simple as jumping on my soap box again: it requires more digging. With this in mind, I decided to set out to take a better look at the
actual impact/benefits of ‘natural’ vs ‘bright plastic’ materials on our environment, our children, and our pocket. I plan to do this while recognising how privilege might mar judgement. Finally I plan to outline some possible solutions for reaching sustainability, sans soap box.
ID: A Grimms rainbow and wooden blocks in focus above a stack of picture books.
Firstly, environment. Is the excess of toys , particularly in Western cultures, truly an issue for our environment, and is there a way out? In short, yes, it is a problem, though without a simple black and white solution. While Greenpeace does not consider plastic toys a single use plastic due to the potential of their longevity as compared to, say, a plastic water bottle, our consumption of plastic toys and their associated packaging certainly contributes to our landfills. When it comes to popular plastic toys, particularly those that are marketed to a very specific age range and have a very specific ‘objective’, which in terms of interest last as long as a child’s current favourite TV show does, accumulation of waste is inevitable. Using recycled plastics is a limited option, as the composition of these materials often does not meet toy safety standards. Equally, constant updates towards guidelines around toy safety may put off some parents from buying secondhand, where it can’t be certain that the item meets the latest guidance. Is it any wonder, then, that a poll by the British Heart Foundation (via BBC) found that over a quarter of parents admit to throwing away toys that are in working order? I would in fact argue this number is far greater.
This certainly feels like an issue, encouraging us to flock to our favourite ethical, natural wooden toy company and look with judgemental scorn at those choosing fantastic plastic. Certainly, toys made with natural and sustainable materials (namely wood) create far less of a carbon footprint, have higher resale value (therefore promoting secondhand purchasing) and biodegrade much more quickly. Yet this isn’t all about the beautiful wooden rainbow. I believe the key to making the most sustainable choice here is longevity and play potential of the toy regardless of its material. We know that plastic is harsher on our environment, so going for wooden when possible can’t be a bad idea. Yet the key here is putting a focus on the toys we do buy having open-ended play opportunities. This can take the form of beautiful wooden mandala sets, blocks, and small world creatures. But it can also take the form of lego, magnetic tiles or construction materials. When looked after, the longevity of plastic can become a positive where an open ended item can be suited for multiple age ranges, and can be refashioned for any form of play. Wooden blocks can be a tower, a chew toy for your baby, right through to the foundations of a den for your 8 year old; and so, (in the right non choke-inducing size!) can a set of lego!
This leads us onto pedagogy. When it comes to the environment, our choice of toy purchases for our children can go a long way in making our home more eco-friendly, but they too can support our child’s learning. Natural materials help, but our focus should be on toys being open ended to ensure we limit our waste and increase play potential. Just scroll through Pinterest to see a peppering of various beautiful looking pedagogies. Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio, Charlotte Mason… the list goes on. Rarely in any of these pedagogies will you see a bright flashing toy with all bells and whistles, and there is good reason for it. The toy market is saturated with passive play. Children will definitely seem to enjoy something that requires limited effort for maximum result, and toy companies are more than aware of this. Passive play certainly contributes to our environment issue, where to include these bells and whistles toys are almost always designed using plastic. Open ended toys are again the winner here. I really recommend the website OneHundredToys for advice on limited your child’s toy selection while maximising the opportunities for discovery, yet sites like this usually have one common drawback. Expense.
The most common frustration with wanting to create a sustainable and open ended set of toys for children is expense. Often, your beautiful wooden toy selection costs a pretty penny. Those genderless, ambiguous wooden figures you’ve seen on Instagram probably cost more than four barbies combined, and well made wooden blocks feel like they cost more than their equivalent weight in gold. It is easy to make the argument that ‘well made simply costs more’ and that with open ended toys, you need less. I’m not saying this isn’t true, but it requires an initial investment that many of us simply do not have the funds to facilitate. What then, is the answer? Here, especially when it comes to toys with fewer parts (and less, therefore, potential hazards) I praise the secondhand market. Open ended toys are available for purchase at your local charity shop, right through to eBay and my favourite, Facebook MarketPlace. Equally, if you do fancy some whizzy plastic for your begging toddler, buying secondhand significantly reduces your footprint - though do be mindful of ensuring the toys still meet safety standards you’re comfortable with. Similarly utilising your local toy library is a fantastic way to circulate your kids toys and try out more long lasting items without the price tag. It is also worth noting that if you are able to buy the more expensive, open-ended wooden pieces we all oggle over, these do tend to keep their value over time, meaning your parted with cash can eventually be returned to you if you need it, which can less frequently be said for your bells and whistles plastic toys (just look up Ostheimer on eBay and you’ll be shocked).
In summary, while plastic ain’t completely fantastic, it’s certainly not public enemy number one when it comes to toys. Your best bet when buying for you kids is this. When buying new, go open-ended and natural when you can afford it, and if you’re buying plastic, do your best to make it applicable to various age groups and have multiple play opportunities. Secondhand, regardless of material, will always be better for the planet, though keep an eye out for safety measures. Utilising borrowing schemes and toy libraries can circumvent this, as you are likely to know more about where the item has come from.
We can all do our bit to limit our impact on the environment. Toy consumption is one way to do so, but the key isn't always in what it's made of, but what you can do with it. I really hope this helps give you a bit more perspective on the true environmental impact of toy purchasing, and how your family might make your own choices towards what you buy your kiddos.