I saw the strangest thing at an organic grocery store this week: a 3-year-old sitting in a cart playing a videogame while his mother carefully selected organic strawberries. The stranger thing is that this isn’t unusual at all; it just makes no sense.
In its simplest terms, organic is about two things: what you choose to put into your body and what you choose to do to the planet. In food terms, you choose to buy and ingest organic strawberries because those berries were not doused in potentially toxic chemicals, and also because those berries were not fertilized with nitrogen and other agents that will harm our land, aquifers, streams, rivers and oceans. Among the many side benefits of the organic choice: better health, better jobs, lower rates of obesity and a cleaner world for us, our kids, and plants and animals.
How does organic relate to toys? It’s the exact same choice – a choice this shopper apparently had already made as relates to food. For toys, the choice is all about those same two things: choosing better stuff to put into the body and a better way to treat the planet. The brain and hands are part of the body – rather important parts actually – and it matters deeply what you put into them!
The first choice in toys isn’t what you buy, it’s how much. Buy less, but buy better. Kids don’t need the 70+ toys they receive each year, and they actually do better with fewer toys. Relative scarcity affords them time to enjoy and master their toys, which leads to creative and alternative uses. Longer term, the choice of fewer leads to greater attention span, greater impulse control, and better ability to thwart boredom. And parents like this: a child that doesn’t get everything stops demanding everything. Ah, peace!
Materials matter. Choose natural materials like wood and cloth over plastic and polyester. Dolls and stuffed animals often sleep with kids; that’s 12+ hours a day of exposure, so why not choose materials you feel good about? For solid toys, we love to feel the natural warmth of wood and see its grain; we like our kids to understand where things come from – trees, in this case. Nice wooded toys also tend to be sturdier, whereas plastic toys tend to break easily. (If a wood toy breaks, which does happen, a parent often can fix the toy with a little wood glue. A broken plastic toy – enjoyed for 2 weeks – can’t be mended is off to the landfill for a few centuries of leaching and decomposition.)
Prevalence of batteries. Batteries and microchips in toys for younger kids degrade creativity and the environment. A good rule of thumb is that a toy should be 90% child and 10% toy. The more work the toy does (making sounds, blinking lights, talking, counting, etc., the less work your kid is doing.) Battery powered toys contribute to social and health issues, including obesity. Ever see a young kid completely immersed in a video game? Where is the sociability? Where is the physical activity? Batteries also present disposal issues. Americans buy 3 billion batteries per year (toys are a key market); 80% of those are single-use alkaline batteries (not rechargeable) that are put in landfills.
Finally, the local issue. People are coming to realize that local does matter in food; why import apple juice from China when we grow apples in the US? Local buying preserves local ecologies and economies. It provides a check on quality and labor and environmental standards (not high in China). It reduces the length of the supply chain, reducing carbon use. Wood toys imported from China and elsewhere are often made of unsustainable wood from Indonesia or South America shipped to China for manufacturing and then shipped to the US for sale. Nothing green about that!
Cost. OK, we all gripe about the cost of organic foods. The same gripe applies to toys; $50 will buy many more plastic toys than wood toys. Better toys cost a bit more on a per-item basis, but by buying fewer but better toys you’ll actually save money. Furthermore, a really good toy will be open-ended (not have a narrowly defined use), so your kid will use it for a longer life period. Good toys don’t require batteries or break as quickly, so your cost of ownership is actually lower. Finally, there are plenty of costs of cheap toys not captured in the price tag: landfill waste from toys and batteries, environmental degradation in the manufacturing and shipping process, lower values (crass consumerism) and diminished creativity.
In the spirit of full disclosure, the author, his wife, their two preschoolers and two dogs run Pure Play Kids, an online and home party business selling sustainable, creative and battery-free playthings. Feel free to dismiss this diatribe as enlightened self-interest (which we can’t deny), or look at it the other way – we believe in the cause of restoring the role of creativity in play passionately enough to dedicate our lives to it.
Tips for Toy Bliss:
Don’t shop for toys with kids. Kids respond to on-package marketing (images, lights and buttons marked “try me”.) Would you let your kids choose all of their own meals?
- Buy better, but buy fewer.
- Materials matter: choose natural or organic.
- Look for toys that are kid-powered, not battery-powered.
- Avoid toys based on TV or movie characters. These tend to be the most commercialized, and remember that the percent that pays the royalty for the character’s use comes out of quality of construction.
- Engage with your kids! Show them the produce and the lobsters at the grocery store! Kids love to see and learn and play.