With the focus on reusability and lowering impact, it makes good sense to choose natural toys for children. Not only are the natural materials renewable, but open-ended natural toys get long-term use from children.
When a friend told me that she was handing out stickers for Halloween, I told her that I would be handing out sticks and saying, “Here, kid. It’s a natural toy.” For days I’ve been thinking about this tossed off comment. I’ve been noticing how much my children play with sticks. Sticks played a big role in their Halloween costumes. My son made a goblin’s scythe out of a large stick, and my daughter made a witch’s broom out of a gathered bunch of small sticks. My son and his best friend have just run by with several sticks each tucked into pockets and belt loops. Why sticks? They are easily available. They are continually brought back into new games because they are easily adaptable. I can never quite be sure when my son is done with a particular stick, but, when he is, he just let’s go and attaches to a new toy (or stick). I don’t wonder if he got enough use out of his stick to justify the expense as I might with discarded single-purpose toy.
Natural Toys Connect to the Natural World
One of the most compelling points I have heard by Waldorf or Steiner educators in favor of natural toys is the connection that a child makes to the natural world, to where things come from and how they got to be the way they are. A stick or a wooden rattle or a wooden dollhouse is recognizable to a child as coming from a tree, since natural materials don’t require a lot of processing before they become toys. I don’t wonder what new carcinogenic chemical has been introduced, since the materials are minimally processed and generally safe . It’s more difficult to explain to a child how oil and gas come from wells under the ground and are then processed to become plastic then extruded into molds to become plastic toys. The connection is more difficult to make, and the toy doesn’t draw a child into a positive view of nature they way a natural toy does.
With an open-ended toy, the child does something rather than the toy doing something with the child watching or taking an action to keep the toy moving. An open-ended toy encourages active play rather than passive play, where there are open spaces for the child to fill. If a child comes to expect objects to DO something, objects become boring when they don’t.
A cotton and wool Waldorf doll has very little expression sewn on. This is another open space where the child provides mood and expression through imagination.
Because open-ended toys can be adapted to a child’s needs, they get more use than single-purpose toys. We usually think of reduce reuse and recycle in terms of the waste we generate, but it applies to all areas of our lives. The way to reduce and reuse toys is to provide toys that will stimulate a child’s desire for play and will last over longer periods of time.
My daughter is old enough that she spends less time with toys now, but I see her adapting her natural toys to her life. Yesterday, when she saw that her dog needed play time, she ran through the house wearing an 8-foot long colorful silk play cloth as a cape. She was screaming with laughter, the dog was barking, and beautiful colors flowed through the house. She has had cotton and silk play cloths as long as she remembers, and she still uses them oceans, capes, tents, and doll clothes. She still plays with her wooden dollhouses, arranging and rearranging the interiors. She still uses her fairy bower to create a different space in her room—a room within a room. And, her long-time friend and Waldorf doll still sits next to her bed waiting to listen.
A stick, a silk play cloth, and a simple cotton and wool Waldorf doll are really the best toys and most-used toys my children have had.