Buying Guide for Natural Toys

Many parents have made a revolutionary decision when it comes to their children. Despite enormous societal and family pressure, they have decided to forgo the oh-so-popular plastic, commercial toys in favor of natural toys that foster creativity and imaginative play. Here is an overview of the must-haves of natural toys.

Wood Kitchens

Most of the major retailers sell play kitchens for children, but these are mostly made of lifeless plastic and leave little to the imagination. Families in search of natural toys will love the newer options for wooden kitchens that are on the market today. Wood kitchens are not only more aesthetically pleasing, but they’re also more durable and will last a lifetime.

Two of the best makers of wood kitchens are Elves and Angels, and Willow Toys. Both offer several different models to suit your needs, ranging in price from $150 for a small kitchen (consisting of a sink and stove, with no shelving) to $290 (for a larger kitchen with sink, stove, dishwasher, and hutch). Their refrigerators cost around $160. Other brands of wood kitchens include Guidecraft, Kidkraft, Land of Nod, Small World Toys, Constructive Playthings, and Little Colorado.

Blocks

Children can spend hours playing with a good set of blocks. They learn hand-eye coordination, balance, and creativity through building towers and other structures. Many mainstream toy stores sell collections of wooden blocks, but a great alternative is a set of tree or bark blocks. Tree/bark blocks are simply slices of wood of varying sizes, with the bark left on. These blocks are usually made from apple, cherry, or hazelnut trees. The benefits of bark blocks are many: the varying shapes (large disks, columns, forks, etc) provide more options for building, the bark helps the child to connect the blocks to real trees, and eco-friendly harvesting-only trees that have stopped producing and are at the end of their life cycles are used to make tree blocks. The biggest brand is Tree Blocks, although you can find several others on the Internet. You can also make your own if you have access to apple, cherry, or hazelnut wood.

Playstands

The workhorse of many natural playrooms is the playstand. A playstand is basically a bookshelf, except it usually only has one shelf towards the bottom, and a rod at the top. Many playstands come with arches at the top so you can set up a canopy. Playstands can be turned into kitchens, markets, puppet theaters, forts, and anything else your child might come up with. They are truly open-ended toys. You can find playstands at www.willowtoys.com and www.atoygarden.com among other places, and they’re also fairly easy to make, even for a novice.

Dolls

Waldorf dolls are very popular among “natural living” parents. These dolls can run upwards of $150, which makes them a bit too pricey for most. However, you can find some inexpensive Waldorf-styled dolls on sites like www.maukilo.com. A good website for regular Waldorf dolls is www.joyswaldorfdolls.com. Towel dolls are another good option for families trying to keep their toy stashes more natural, as are yarn dolls. There are several websites that teach you how to make such dolls, as well.

Playsilks

Playsilks, like playstands, are another staple when it comes to natural, open-ended toys. Playsilks are simply squares of heavy silk in varying sizes, usually 3-4′ square. Children can use playsilks in a variety of ways-they can be capes, dresses, bandages, blankets, and roofs of forts. Blue silks can be water when playing with boats, and green silks can be pastures when playing with horses or other farm animals. The possibilities are endless.

Wood Playsets

Fisher Price Little People sets can be found in most homes with young children, but most parents aspiring towards a natural lifestyle will probably want to avoid these. Luckily, there are dozens of different kinds of wooden playsets that can be played with the same way. Holztiger makes dozens of wooden animals (you can find them at www.maukilo.com), and Woodland Fantasies, Imagiplay, and Plan Toys make elaborate sets. A search on Google for wooden toy car brings up over 2 million links-so there is no shortage of good quality wooden alternatives to plastic play sets like Little People.

Musical Instruments

What child doesn’t love making her own music? Musical instruments are definitely a must-have if you’d like to inspire creativity in your children. Some great websites that offer good quality (though not always wood, which is fine) musical instruments are: www.musicforlittlepeople.com, www.larkinthemorning.com, www.expressivetoys.com, and www.creativediversity.com. Of course, some of the best musical instruments can be made at home. An empty coffee can make a great drum, and an empty yogurt container filled with beans, popcorn kernels, rice, or sand (glue lid shut to prevent accidental choking) is another great rhythm instrument.

Art Supplies

Every child should have access to a good selection of art supplies. These should be stores in easy to open bins or drawers and should be readily accessible. Your art supply stash should include paper, safety scissors, tape, glue, crayons, markers, paint and paint brushes, sponges, feathers, pompoms, pipe cleaners, foam shapes, and anything else that strikes your fancy in the craft store. Younger children can be led a bit when doing arts and crafts, but older children should be allowed to exercise their imagination however they please.

Natural Materials

The Waldorf philosophy says that children should have as few pre-made toys as possible. Rather, they should have access to natural materials like stones, sticks, pine cones, seashells, feathers, yarn, etc. The idea is that children can turn a pinecone into anything they like-a baby, a horse, a gnome, a car, anything. Without toys that are preformed, children must be creative in their play, as there are no preconceptions as to what a pinecone really is. They’re not being led in their play by what the object actually looks like.

Why Wood?

One question many people ask is, “Why is wood better than plastic?” There are many, many answers to this question, and most parents will have their own set of reasons for why they prefer wood to plastic. Here are a few:

Wood Toys Are More Unique – there are, of course, exceptions to this reason (mass produced brands like Melissa and Doug being one), but for the most part, wood toys tend to be one of a kind. Any toy that is hand crafted will be different from any other. Plastic toys that are bought at mainstream toy stores are easily replaceable-children don’t have to worry about a toy breaking, as Mom or Dad can just run out to the store and get another.

Wood Toys Are Harder to Come By – many parents are trying to simplify their lives, and that usually means less toys for their children. They believe that children can play better with fewer toys, will have longer attention spans, and will be more creative. Limiting their toy purchases to high quality wooden toys usually means that they’ll buy fewer toys, as they won’t be tempted by all the plastic in mainstream stores.

Wood Toys Are More Eco-Friendly – production of plastic toys involves the petroleum industry, and plastic toys that end up in landfills will be around for centuries. Not only are wooden toys less likely to break and end up in a landfill, but if they do, they’ll biodegrade like any other natural material. Buying wooden toys means keeping our world healthier.

Wood Toys Are Ethically Produced – the vast majority of plastic toys are produced in countries like China, India, etc where factory workers are paid pennies for their work, and often children are exploited as well. Furthermore, the more respectable makers of wooden toys only use wood from trees that are nearing the end of their life cycle. Imagiplay uses rubber trees that are no longer producing the sap that is used to make latex. Tree Blocks uses wood from fruit trees that are no longer producing. These trees would be cut down anyway-making wooden toys from them is a bonus.

As with most things related to our children, natural toys do not have to be an all or nothing affair. Many families are concerned more with open-ended toys, which makes toys like Little People perfectly acceptable. The one pitfall that a lot of parents come across is the desire to replace every plastic toy with a wooden replica. That’s unnecessary, especially since the point is to inspire creativity and imagination in your children. Less is more when it comes to toys, and wood toys happen to be better suited to have multiple uses than most plastic toys.

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