Why Choose Natural Toys

Natural wooden marble run toy


You anticipate toy shopping soon—as do I. I just want to give you a few reasons to look for toys made from natural materials like wool, cotton, wood, and rubber.

The Negative Reasons to Choose Natural Toys

Choose toys made from natural materials because they aren’t made from plastic. It isn’t just that plastic is unsustainable, being made from oil and gas that are in limited supply. Plastics, especially soft plastics, can be health hazards.

With the passage of the CPSIA in the U.S., six plastic softeners (phthalates) were banned in children’s products that could be used for eating or sleeping because of the risk that a young child will suck on the products. These plastic softeners were’t banned in every product, though, and they can still pose a hazard through off-gassing. You know that new plastic smell? That is the toxic off-gassing, the hormone disruptors that can cause developmental problems for children (as well as high rates of miscarriages among women and erectile dysfunction among men).

You are less likely to find some of the worst chemicals in children’s toys now, but that doesn’t mean all plastic toys are safe. Avoid soft, vinyl plastics (phthalates) and polycarbonates (Bisphenol A or BPA).

The U.S. PIRG (Public Interest Research Group) is still warning against toys made with PVC plastic. Even they are recommending that parents “choose unpainted wooden or cloth toys instead.”

For more details on the reasons to avoid plastics in toys, see “Why No Soft Plastics.”

For sustainability and for health, just avoid plastic toys. Choose natural toys instead.

The Positive Reasons to Choose Natural Toys

Natural materials are sustainable. They grow in nature, and they can grow again after they are harvested to make your child’s toys. That is what is meant by renewable materials (in contrast to petrochemicals used to make plastic, which do not replace themselves—or, more accurately, only replace themselves over millions of years).

  • Cotton grows as a protective fiber (a boll) around seeds in a cotton plant in a field
  • Hemp is grown as the stem of a hemp plant in a field
  • Wool is the hair of a sheep, sheared annually
  • Silk is the coccoon of a silkworm
  • Rubber is the milk of a rubber tree
  • Wood, of course, is the body of a tree

Natural materials generally require less processing before they can be used to make toys. Pick up a stick, it’s already a toy. Sheer a sheep, and you just have to wash the oils out of the wool in order to use it for stuffing. The milk of a rubber tree coagulates easily into the kind of rubber we know as Sophie the Giraffe or a rubber duck. Natural materials are renewable in the long term but they are also lower impact in their processing in the short term.

In addition to sustainability, consider the sensory experience of natural materials. They feel warm, smell nice, and look soft. Natural materials feel good in the hands of a child. Read more about the sensory experience of natural materials in last week’s post “What Are Waldorf Toys?”

It’s tough for me to come up with rational reasons to choose natural toys because I usually just stop with “why wouldn’t I choose natural toys?” They are the obvious choice unless I’m buying into the nonsensical stories that mass marketing tells me about the superiority of plastic toys over nature.

But there are rational reasons: choose natural toys for the short-term and long-term good of the environment and because of the sensory experience your child will get with natural materials.

Choose Natural Toys

We know that most of our customers are deliberately seeking more natural ways of parenting. Choosing carefully when you buy toys that your child will play with every day is an important step in creating a natural environment for your family.

Read more about natural toys in “Toy Monday: Why Natural Toys.”

To buy natural toys, see our Holiday Gifts Guide at bynature.ca.

What Are Waldorf Toys?

A child play with silk cloths


We are asked in the bynature.ca store about Waldorf toys and Waldorf dolls. Waldorf toys are simple toys made from natural materials, beautiful toys that inspire a child’s open-ended play.

First, What is Waldorf?

The “Waldorf” in Waldorf toys comes from Waldorf education, based on the educational philosophy of Rudolf Steiner, the Austrian founder of anthroposophy around the turn of the 20th century. Sometimes people refer to “Steiner schools” or “Steiner toys,” and these are the same as Waldorf or Waldorf-inspired schools and toys. The “Waldorf” part comes from the name of the factory where the first Steiner school was created for children of the factory workers.

Waldorf education is followed in schools and in home education throughout the world. You don’t need to follow Steiner’s educational philosophies or Waldorf education methods to appreciate the beauty of Waldorf toys, though.

Play in Nature

If one of your goals as a parent is to help your child understand and flow with nature rather than against nature, you can do that more easily with toys made from natural materials.

You know we love natural materials—not just because cotton, silk, wool, wood and other natural materials are renewable therefore sustainable but because natural materials enhance a child’s experience of nature. A child can experience natural toys through all of their senses—or most of them. We don’t necessarily want our child tasting their toys, but if you have used food-grade coloring on natural materials, a lick here and there probably won’t hurt. Natural materials look beautiful; they smell nice; they sound rich when when a child plays with them; and they feel warm to the touch.

When you want to teach a child about a tree, what makes more sense? Look at a book about trees, get out a plastic model of a tree, or go outside and meet a tree. If you want your child to learn about nature and how things work in the natural world, put them in nature! Even when they are playing with toys, a natural toys put them closer to the natural world.

Soft and Simple Means Open

There is a softness to Waldorf toys—soft dolls, soft lines, soft colors, soft details.

A Waldorf doll made of cotton outside and wool for stuffing and hair will have a simple face so the child adds the details through imagination. Sometimes, a baby doll get sad. It’s tough to imagine that when the doll has a smile painted on her face.

Waldorf toys and other handmade, natural toys inspire open play—play led by the child rather than play that follows a specific motion to a pre-determined end. Waldorf toys join the stories a child tells in his mind, and they stimulate a child’s imagination rather than bringing a child out of her own world into an assembly-line play experience. Natural, simple toys can be more than one thing. A play silk can be a cape flying in the breeze outside or a river flowing past a doll house or the wrapping for a gift.

When you are choosing a toy, think about whether it leaves space for open play. Will this toy inspire your child’s imagination? Will this toy join the ongoing stories of your child’s play? Will your child add the details to make this toy a rich part of her or his experience?

A Few Waldorf Toys at bynature.ca


What’s the Deal with Charcoal Bamboo?

Charcoal sticks

We often get questions about charcoal bamboo rayon and its emerging trend as a cloth diapering fabric. We don’t carry charcoal bamboo, and we want you to know why.

You may have seen charcoal bamboo rayon used for cloth diaper inserts or the absorbent inner layer of a diaper. You will notice because the fabric is charcoal grey. Charcoal doesn’t just refer to the nice, grey colour, though.

Charcoal bamboo is rayon with added nanoparticles of charcoal, which is made from bamboo. During the process of making rayon from bamboo (drying, aging, ripening—essentially cooking), other materials can be added. Any cellulose fiber can be used to make rayon, and many materials can be added to the goo phases of the process. In this case, bamboo is heated, creating charcoal, then the charcoal is ground into a very fine powder so small that the particles are called nanoparticles. (Nano refers to size. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter like a centimeter is one hundredth of a meter.)

Charcoal nano-particles can be added to any extruded fiber. You might find charcoal polyester fleece or charcoal microfiber in addition to charcoal bamboo rayon. All of these fibers are extruded—like pasta dough through a spaghetti press.

Charcoal bamboo and other charcoal fibers first came to the North American market through import co-ops—the same import co-ops that bring us cheap, unsupported diapers. We’ve talked before about the hidden costs of cheap diapers and of imports (labour, safety, quality, environment, sustainability). Basically, these products externalize costs. You save money in the short run while you and others pay in other ways. Cheap is only inexpensive when you don’t notice the ripple of consequences.

Questions We Hear about Charcoal Bamboo

Doesn’t bamboo charcoal nanotechnology kill bacteria?

First of all, what are you trying to kill? Washing diapers kills bacteria through heat and detergent. What more needs to be killed? Even if charcoal nanotechnology does kill bacteria, I’m not sure that this is a desirable characteristic of a diaper.

Second, I don’t know. I see that manufacturers of fabric make this claim, but I also see those selling bamboo rayon continuing to claim antimicrobial properties of bamboo rayon when the U.S. Federal Trade Commission absolutely states that there is no evidence in support of this claim for rayon. According to the FTC, “Even when bamboo is the ‘plant source’ used to create rayon, no traits of the original plant are left in the finished product.” Manufacturers and retailers continue to fight the FTC over this, and I see small cloth diaper sellers repeating claims that have been debunked. The only difference I see so far with charcoal bamboo rayon is that it is newer, so the claims haven’t been argued with regulatory bodies—yet.

Isn’t charcoal bamboo just another natural fabric?

What is often just called “bamboo” is bamboo rayon, a manufactured fiber. We wrote about the process of creating rayon from bamboo in “Hemp vs Bamboo Rayon for Cloth Diapers.” This manufactured fabric is made from natural inputs (bamboo and other cellulose), but the processing is far from natural. This is another issue that U.S. FTC takes seriously. Claim this is a natural or environmentally-friendly fiber, and they will sue. If you still see the claims, maybe they just haven’t gotten around to the lawsuit yet. They are already busy with bamboo rayon marketing and labeling claims.

I heard charcoal bamboo contain natural oils. Does it?

Sometimes I don’t even know where to start. Let’s start with no. Bamboo rayon has no natural oils. Even mechanically processed (non-rayon) bamboo has no oils. Rayon is not a natural fiber; it is manufactured fiber. If there are oils in your fabric, they are the oils added during the knitting or weaving process to help the fibers move through the machines as the fabric is created. Oils, sure; natural oils, not so much.

Is charcoal bamboo rayon approved for the North American market?

That is an interesting question, and I don’t know the answer.

I heard that charcoal bamboo rayon calms the mind.

I’ll just wait until the science comes in on that one.

Are You Willing to Submit to an Experiment?

I would like to go back to one very important point: safety. One of the most important complaints made about co-op diapers that are imported without regard for legalities is their lack of compliance to safety regulations.

The problem with cheaper materials isn’t just the potential de-lamination of a diaper cover, as an example. Smell that off-gassing? Those molecules escaping from unstable polymers have an effect on your brain and your body when you breathe them. That is why some phthalates have been banned in certain children’s products. Imagine what those unsafe soft plastics can do when placed against the most sensitive skin on your baby’s body. Soft plastics, though, are already under regulation. If you buy diaper covers that are CPSIA compliant, you know they don’t contain banned soft plastics.

What about nanotechnology? We mentioned the nanotechnology in conventional sunscreens last month. Those particles “are designed to be absorbed into the skin.” Can nano-particles of charcoal be absorbed into the skin? What are the potential consequences of that? Are other nano-particles added to rayon? Some textile processes use both nanosilver and nanocharcoal. Is that true of charcoal bamboo? We wrote about the use of nanosilver as an antimicrobial and found that the science showing potential harm is building up. Where is the independent science that shows no harm will come to your baby from absorbing nano-particles of charcoal through the genitals? What are the short-term effects? What are the long-term effects?

If that science isn’t available, using nanotechnology on your baby in this way is experimentation. This is the wrong way around. We don’t just try things out on our babies first then work out whether it’s safe. Prove safety first.

Let’s back up a long way and start over with the first question.

Why don’t you carry bamboo charcoal diapers?

We prefer domestic products over imports, and bamboo charcoal fabric and products are all imports. The same companies referred to in our Cheapie Leakies post are importing a lot of charcoal bamboo rayon products. Low-quality imports like this are just a non-starter for us.

We will not test new technologies on your baby. Until a product or material is proven safe, we will not carry it in our store.

We choose the simplest solutions that work for our customers. When there are already basic, natural materials that do the simple job of a cloth diaper, there is no need for nanotechnology just for the sake of the technology—especially when questions of safety remain.

So, no, we won’t be carrying charcoal bamboo products until or unless we become convinced that it is safe for your baby, until the benefits have been proven, and until the benefits of nanotechnology outweigh the benefits of natural fibers.

You can count on bynature.ca to look into new products, but we will not jump on bandwagons.

Yesterday, we asked what our Facebook followers thought of charcoal bamboo in diapers. Not one of the dozen people who answered was willing to experiment with this nanotechnology in diapers.

Related Articles

Cheapie Leakies - Cloth diapers in general have SO much value compared to single-use products. And, many cloth diapers that seem higher priced actually reflect the value of products made ethically and sustainably, not cheaply and without care for workers or the environment. These high value products are also safety tested to the highest standards, so you can be assured you’re buying something that is safe for your little one.

Cheap Products—At What Cost? - You already know what we think of cheap imports if you read our 6-part “At What Cost?” series last year on labour, safety, quality, environment, and sustainability.

Antimicrobial Overkill – Use of disinfectants such as nano silver in everyday situations is overkill. Even in more extreme situations, there is a lot of debate about whether the antimicrobial benefits outweigh the potential risks.

6 Questions about Natural Sunscreen That We Hear Daily – What are nano particles, and why does it matter if my sunscreen is free of these? The concern is that nano particles could enter the human body.

Hemp vs Bamboo Rayon for Cloth Diapers – There are efforts to add nano-particles of charcoal to make the fiber antibacterial.

Image © Dianazh | Dreamstime.com

It’s a Toy If He Says It Is

This acorn is a natural toyMy son has pockets full of garbage. He keeps important broken pieces of electronics, pieces of paper, rocks, sticks, string, and so on—along with whistle, golf pencil, compass, play person, ball, and wallet chained to his belt. At least a couple of times a day, he empties his pockets and examines his stuff. He plays with it, incorporates it into a town or school or camp or island or other creation he’s made. Then, the stuff all goes back in his pockets, though it might be different stuff in than came out.

I love that he has such a clear desire to carry his stuff and that his stuff involves so much that is just incomprehensible to others as toys.

But, these are his toys. A rock or a piece of string is as much a toy for him as a ball or a pencil. He gathers toys from the recycling, from the garden, from the garbage, and from interesting mysterious bits that accumulate in the bottom of toy boxes. Anything works as a toy if it intrigues him.

As I was reading through The Creative Family: How to Encourage Imagination and Nurture Family Connections, from the Baby by Nature store, I love the emphasis on natural materials. Author Amanda Blake Soule definitely endorses the anything goes approach to toys.

Among her suggestions are Toys from Natural Materials

  • from trees – found sticks and pieces of wood as wooden blocks
  • from scraps – a basket of fabric scraps of any size or color (I keep special threads for my children as well. Glowing thread was a big hit this week and has already been incorporated into a special birthday gift from one child to the other.)
  • from fibers – yarn and string (though be sure to supervise young children)
  • from outdoor collections - rocks, pinecones, and shells

She also suggests Natural Art Supplies

  • from the pantry - “beyond the pasta necklace” to seeds and grains of a variety of colors and textures
  • from nature – rock, leaves, nuts, bark
  • from the garbage – calendars for collage, newspapers for papier-mache, old electronics (like my son loves so much!)
  • from thrift shop – dishes, fabrics, or anything that catches their imagination

Recipe for Natural Glue

Combine a 3:1 ratio of flour and sugar in a saucepan. Slowly add cold water until a paste forms. Stir over heat until the mixture thickens. Add 1 teaspoon of white vinegar. This glue will keep in the refrigerator for a few weeks. Allow the glue to warm to room temperature before using it. ~“Alternative Art Materials,” page 39

Image © Melissa Dockstader | Dreamstime.com

Baby Product Profile: Tres Tria

Zac and KidsContinuing our occasional series of product manufacturer profiles (Beco, Peekaru, and Peapod Creations came earlier this year), this week we feature Zac Carter of Tres Tria, a product of Better for Babies. After our post about natural rubber in toys, I was really curious about how the Tres Tria co-sleeping pillow came about. Zac and Leah Carter spoke to me about their research and development.

Tres Tria is three in Latin, as in three in a family bed or co-sleeping with parents and child.

When Zac and Leah Carter moved back to the U.S. after living in Wales, they left their bedside co-sleeper there because they didn’t really use it. That left them without anything at all to use when they got home to Georgia with their toddler. They tried using a bolster from the back of a daybed, but it rolled awkwardly. Zac knew what he wanted, but he hadn’t seen a pillow semi cylinder-shaped before.

Developing a Natural Rubber Pillow

For a lot of Better for Babies products, Leah creates a version then Zac refines it and sells Leah on the changes. For a lot of Better for GrownUps products, Zac comes up with the ideas. Tres Tria was one of these. Zac did the research and development.

Tres Tria prototypeHe knew he wanted a product that is all natural. Most rubber products include synthetics for strength. Since he had no intention of adding synthetic materials to the pillow, he had to choose a method of creating the pillow that would give him the most strength natural rubber could provide. There are two potential processes to get a natural rubber shape: carve from a slab or mold. He chose the mold. In order to determine just the right firmness, he had to start with the final shape.

From the prototype photos, it looks like shape was the fun part. Zac created cardboard prototypes, experimenting with various heights and curves and lengths to get the shape as it remains today. “As soon as we found that shape, even with the cardboard,” he said, “we instantly knew that it was going to be a thing that people would love.”

With the shape then the firmness in place, along with rubber harvested from Thailand, the rubber is molded close to the source in Asia. I learned while researching natural rubber toys that it is better to make rubber products close to the source. If rubber has to travel any distance, it requires the addition of ammonia as a stabilizer.

Natural Materials

A lot of customers find Tres Tria because of the natural rubber, certified Natural Latex Rubber by the Eco Umwelt Institut, and organic cotton, certified organic and sustainable by Control Union Certifications and certified fair trade by the Fair Trade Labeling Organization. “All of our customers were looking for something natural,” Zac told me, “and we knew they would love this as much as we do.”

With natural materials, one of the properties we look for is a material that will break down, that will biodegrade. I asked Zac if this means rubber requires special care. Sunlight, he said, can break down the rubber, but this won’t happen if the cover is on the pillow. Tres Tria comes with an inner cover that doesn’t come off—so it protects the pillow from the sun—and a soft, organic cotton outer cover that zips off for cleaning.

Changing Lives

Tres Tria co-sleeping pillowAre there unexpected ways Zac has seen Tres Tria make the lives of their customers easier? He has seen the product make a big difference as it helped co-sleeping families to sleep through the night and not experience sleep deprivation. Because they are sleeping with their infants and not worrying about being up so much at night, he says,

It is so nice to be able to have a different story to tell. It’s nice to have memories of your baby that aren’t about a stressful period. You end up having an extra bond with your child. Our relationship with both of our kids seems to be stronger because of co-sleeping.”

New, Great Products

Finally, I asked if there are any new, great products in the works for Better for Babies or Better for GrownUps. Better for GrownUps recently launched a line of reusable organic cotton family tissues, facial rounds, and wipes. They are working on more great 100% reusable products for families. Zac is writing about the history of the handkerchief, giving fascinating context to their natural living choices.