During the early infancy months, you carefully protect your little one from everything. You probably breastfed your baby, chose bisphenol A (BPA)-free pacifiers, and carefully introduced organic blueberries using a baby-led weaning program. Just because chemicals are a necessary part of making our convenient world doesn’t mean your sweet baby has to bear the consequences of those chemicals.
Now your little guy is getting a little more independent – playing with toys and exploring the world. Meanwhile, you’re no less worried about the health effects associated with plastics, paints, and dyes. Are any toys actually dangerous for your children, or is there a better type to choose? Are there really even toys that are genuinely chemical-free and non-toxic? We have the pros and cons of typical plastic children’s toys and wooden toys to help you choose what works for you and your little ones.
Plastic toys: the good and the downright disturbing
Plastic toys are ubiquitous. You find them in every toy section, happy meal, Christmas gift bestsellers list, and they are likely what you played with as a child. If your kids are old enough for a swing set, most of the components are plastic, and your daughters’ dollhouse and tiara she adores are as well. None of this is surprising. Our modern world is built on plastics. They’re used in our phones, cars, packaging, sports equipment, even beauty products. We simply can’t escape plastics.
Benefits of plastic toys
Plastic toys are easy to find, as mentioned. A trip to almost any store will provide a massive array of plastic toys for any age group. They’re so easy to find because plastic is inexpensive to produce. This quality makes it possible to mass-produce cheap products at a price point that allows companies to make a profit while fitting into the average family’s budget. Luxury items are the first thing cut by families in hard times, as we all know. And it’s hard for companies to argue that the umpteenth Paw Patrol pup your kid is begging you to buy is not a luxury. They want to keep their prices low enough that you’re likely to buy new toys fairly frequently for your children.
Quality plastic toys are tough. Watch a few kids play with their toys, and you’ll understand why you want this trait. Children are generally pretty rough with their possessions. They don’t mean a thing by it. Exploring the world and how things work involves a lot of breaking things down to their basic components. Remember biology class and dissecting frogs? Kids do the same thing with their toys.
For the sake of your sanity you want toys that can withstand bending, pulling, being jumped on, and occasional (or constant) banging on floors, walls, and furniture. Thick plastic components tend to hold up well against the abuse, especially if you have a small pack of young children like I do. Jealous kids fighting over a toy will break a cheap one in exactly 0 seconds flat.
For some moms (unless you’re one of those who lets your kids eat dirt to boost their immune systems), the ability to disinfect plastic toys is their greatest perk. You can hit those bad boys with a natural disinfectant spray after a playdate with another kid with a runny nose. Don’t feel bad if you let out a sigh of relief that the flu will be missing your house this year. We do it, too.
The downside of plastic toys
Let’s get something straight: while petroleum itself is a natural product when its pulled from the ground as crude oil, most of the other stuff we make with it is not. Plastic isn’t a natural item. It takes a lot of chemicals to reach the end state desired by the manufacturer.
Since we aren’t chemists, we’ll have to rely on this study to explain all the weird stuff that goes into making plastics and their effect on people. It goes far beyond BPA’s estrogenic properties. Chemicals like di-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), di-butyl phthalate (DBP), and di-n-octyl phthalate (DNOP) are found abundantly in children and baby products. They are used to soften hard plastics to be more valuable, like the squishy plastic used to make teethers.
The literature on the health effects of exposure to chemicals found in plastics links them to insulin resistance, obesity, and irregular sex hormones. Babies are even more susceptible because of their size and teeny organs.
If you’re more eco-conscious you probably are concerned with the environmental impact of plastic children’s toys as well. We get that. Because of the typical assortment of materials in toys, many of them can’t be recycled. For instance, toy trucks with metal axles, plastic body, and rubber wheels cannot be separated and recycled by most facilities. They’ll inevitably end up in the dump.
Wooden toys: the good and not-as-awesome
For a lot of us, completely ditching plastic toys in favor of wooden ones can be tempting. It’s easy to think that it will solve all the dilemmas associated with plastics, and we’ll never have to worry about our children’s health again. Wooden toys do offer a lot of perks for the health-conscious family. Don’t think, though, that they’re necessarily 100% perfect. Nothing ever is.
Wooden toys benefits
Wood is a completely natural product. If you’re transitioning to plant-based cleaners and detergents in your home and buying organic food, it makes sense to continue the trend with your children’s products. If you wouldn’t let them pick up a bottle of window cleaner and chew on it, it doesn’t make much sense to allow them to gnaw on a hunk of plastic labeled as a baby toy.
As well as being natural, toys made from wood are some tough cookies. Wooden trucks, trains, blocks, and puzzles stand up to the abuse without batting an eye. Even better, a few teeth marks are nothing, and your kids can continue happily playing. Plastic toys are easily caved in by chomping toddlers.
Because wooden toys have to be cut and carved to shape they are usually much simpler. Don’t think this is a bad thing. The purpose of toys is to help children expand their imaginations, problem-solving skills, and understanding of the world without ruining all of your stuff. Toys that do all the thinking for them don’t build those traits. Simple toys are blank slates that allow the child to create her own game and world.
It doesn’t take long for kiddos to outgrow their favorite toys. It’s the sad reality of childhood – it goes by too fast. After several years of play, your kids’ toys probably won’t be in shape to donate or sell, and will likely land in the trash. With wooden toys, this isn’t as big of a deal. They’re biodegradable and won’t sit around in a landfill for a few centuries.
No batteries! No lights! No sounds! So this is definitely a perk for you, mama, but it benefits your children, too, if you don’t land in the insane asylum from hearing the first three words of the same song played over and over and over from your toddler mashing a button all day. Those noises will begin to haunt your dreams. Instead of requests for more batteries to refuel the toy that you hate anyway, you’ll get asked to sit down and play blocks. Not bad.
Wooden toys downsides
We’d all love to believe that our children are darling little angels who wouldn’t hurt a fly, but the truth is, kids hit stuff. You, your furniture, the windows. The sounds made from banging their toys on any surface they can find are very satisfying to children. It’s part of their exploration of their world.
The problem is, wood hurts. It hurts when your baby clobbers you in the face with a block because their motor skills are terrible. It hurts your coffee table when the kids are racing wooden cars on the surface, and they have to beat them triumphantly upon winning. It hurts when the triangle block is left in the hall, and your poor foot comes down on the point. The same tough characteristic of wood makes it downright painful when wielded by an ornery toddler.
Wooden toys also can’t be left outside. If you have a lot of outdoor space as we do, you know the constant dance of indoor and outdoor toys being shuffled around by your kids. It doesn’t matter if you remind them that that certain toy won’t hold up well in the weather, they want it for that outside game, and they’re going to make it happen. The result is a faded or broken wooden toy that is a sad remnant of its former glory.
Wood is a naturally porous material. Those microscopic holes and grooves are good hiding places for bacteria, virus prions, and fungal spores. Yummy. It’s harder to make sure you eradicate all the yuck when you clean your children’s wooden favorites. If you have to, you’ll need to make sure the cleaner you use is safe for wood, so you don’t damage the toy.
Alternatives to plastic or wooden toys
Because no material is perfect for all situations, you may find yourself hoping for some other options when buying toys for your children. There are some good choices, depending on what you need.
You’re probably already using silicone all over your home and don’t realize it. It’s made by adding oxygen or carbon to silicon, the second most abundant element after oxygen. If you want BPA- and lead-free baby products, look out for silicone ones. They don’t leach chemicals, so they are good for sippy cups, teachers, and pacifiers.
Where wood fails outside, metal is perfect for outdoor toys. Bikes, toy trains, trucks, construction equipment toys – the best ones are usually made of metal. It allows a resilient, weather-proof toy that will last for years. Unless you kid is licking bike spokes – we hope not – you really don’t have to worry about off-gassing chemicals entering their systems.
Long before plastic and metal alloys, children have had toys made from fabric. Dolls, baby lovies, felt boards, and books can all be found in cloth. The best feature of cloth is how quiet it is. If you have more than one child, having a few quiet cloth toys to pull out while the younger one’s nap is a lifesaver.
Paper laminate toys can be pretty cool. But the most obvious thing we can be missing in our digital age: books. Buying your children lots of books from the earliest age is proven to help their development, boost IQ, foster a lifetime love of reading, and increase their chances of a good-paying job. When they’re too young to read, having their parents read to them is one of the easiest ways to slow down and bond in our busy lives.
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How to choose non-toxic toys
When you’re on the lookout for safe toys for your kiddos, keep in mind that BPA isn’t the only concern. Watch out for toys that contain lead, cadmium, and phthalates. Yes, even toys made in the United States may have these toxic chemicals in them. Even wooden toys may have paints on them that are harmful to the health of your little ones.
If you can find organic toys, all the better. Some materials obviously can’t be organic, like metal. In these look for lead-free diecast toys. Some manufacturers will ignore the hazards associated with lead to help them lower their production costs. If the packaging doesn’t tell you the toy is lead-free, don’t hesitate to ask the company.
Make sure you’re keeping in mind what stage of life your child is at and what the toys will be used for before you purchase any. Babies don’t need puzzles and dolls don’t stand up well outside. If you need solid toys for the outdoor play area, focus on metal ones. Wood and cloth toys are better suited for indoor use.
You want to keep your babies as safe as possible, even when the rest of the world doesn’t see them as babies anymore. Keeping the chemical load their bodies have to filter to a minimum will help them prosper during their childhood. Natural toys and child products are easy to find and will help you breathe easier when your toddler shoves a toy car in her mouth. Even if you started them on plastic toys, it’s not too late to male the change for the better. You will also need somewhere to put all the toys, check this out for some great storage ideas.