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 Is Nature Deficit Disorder?

Child outside

“Technology is not, in itself, the enemy; but our lack of balance is lethal. The pandemic of inactivity is one result. Sitting is the new smoking.” Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder

Richard Louv, in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods, used the phrase “nature deficit disorder” to decribe what has happened as children spend more time in front of screens and less time outside. The idea refers to the costs of the alienation of humans, primarily children, from nature.

Is it a real disorder?

That the majority of children spend little time outside is real. The change from how children spent time only decades ago is real. There is research, Louv points out, that finds a correlation between concentration and taking walks, between greener neighborhoods and lower body mass. The change in body and mind is real.

The word “disorder” might imply a diagnosis, though, and there is none. The author chose that word to make his point simply understandable.

Do I need to worry about nature deficit disorder?

Maybe. If your child is young, your awareness that our culture pushes children indoors can help you make decisions that will give your children more access to nature. If your child is young, you can probably avoid the problem.

Encouraging your child to go outside will get more and more difficult as they get older. Create the expectation of open, outdoor play now, and the habit will be easier to continue. Model outdoor activities yourself, so it doesn’t appear to your child that outdoors is just for young children.

The truth is, you probably do need to worry about it because the pressure will increase to stay inside—peer pressure, homework pressure, and plain laziness. Remain conscious of outdoor time and prioritize nature in your family life, and you will reduce the negative effects of spending too little time in nature.

Image © Christophe.rolland1 | Dreamstime.com

7 Ideas for Outdoor Summer Fun with Baby

Baby sitting in the grass outside

If it’s your baby’s first summer, not quite ready to run around quite yet, what will you do all day during the summer? I have a few ideas based on the activities that my babies loved.

When I was a very new parent, there were days I just had no idea what to do. I would stare at my baby and ask her, “What do you want to do?” She would just smile at me. By the time I had a second baby, I knew that he was very happy to be my passenger. What I liked to do, he liked to do. So, I put him in a baby carrier, peeking over my shoulder, and I set off doing what I would have done anyway.

If you are looking ahead to the long, hot summer and wondering what to do, I have a few ideas for outdoor activities you can do with your baby.

1. Bubbles. My number one favorite play activity with babies is blowing and popping bubbles. One second they are there then they POP! No more bubbles. Who can resist a baby’s amazement the first time they see this happen.

2. Water. My babies loved water, especially splashing. They did not love the sprinkler, which they didn’t control. Go slowly so you don’t take your baby over that edge of excitement into worry and fear. I liked keeping the water movement under my baby’s control as we drummed and splashed in a bucket of water.

3. Garden peekaboo. Whether you have a cultivated garden, a wild garden, or a collection of weeds, it’s all the same to your baby. Sit the baby on the lawn and hide, popping up behind big plants. The simple movement out from behind leaves where you were gone then you are suddenly there can be a big surprise.

4. Lawn ball. Sometimes when it is hot, the lawn in the shade is still a bit cool. Sit on the cool lawn and roll a ball.

5. Music and dance. Grab something to shake or pound and head outside. Sing your baby’s future favorite song. Make sure your baby has something to grip and shake—a rattle will do. If your baby can stand, then dance! This was one of the our favorite daily activities, and my children still remember the songs we sang. We still sing them now as car songs.

6. Take a walk. Wear your baby in a kangaroo position or on your back, so it’s easy to look around. Just get away. Point out birds and animals. Involve your baby. You’ll probably have a sleeping baby by the end.

7. Picnic. The newness of a familiar activity in a different place is fun even if you just have your lunch then breastfeed your baby.

Nearly everything is new and exciting for a baby. Look for developmentally appropriate activities that let your baby use and improve motor skills, social skills, and language.

If you share in the delight your baby feels at every new and exciting thing, you can share a summer of discovery. Really, though, all your baby wants is to be with you. As long as you are there and having fun, your baby will likely have fun as well.

Image © Msghita | Dreamstime.com

Play Outside in the Snow!

Toddler playing outside in the winter

Do you feel that temptation to stay indoors and cozy up in front of a fire for the next week? Don’t do it! Well, not the whole time, anyway. Bundle up and go outside everyday, even if you are anxious to return to your warm house.

What happens when young children aren’t tired enough when bedtime comes? You know the answer, don’t you. They keep tired parents from sleeping. Especially with little kids, outdoor activity can make us tired enough to sleep well during a mostly lazy holiday. Better yet, when you come in from the cold, it is a perfect time to have hot chocolate or wassail.

My family will be spending the rest of today with friends. If there is enough snow, we will go snowshoeing; if not, we will go hiking. Either way, we anticipate windblown cheeks and cold noses as we unwind our scarves when we return to the house and to the sweet smells of lunch. That feeling is one of my favorite parts of the holidays.

8 Outdoor Activities for Your Family Holiday

Go for a Walk. Make it a habit to walk after lunch. My family has two fuzzy dogs, so our walks through the snow mean dogs covered in little snowballs like Christmas treat ornaments. The dogs have a great time romping like puppies, and we have a great time chasing after them. No matter whether you are in town or in the country, a walk is a great way to spend a part of your vacation days.

Build a Snow Fort. If you pack the snow tight enough, your fort can last long after most of the snow is gone. Last year, our whole neighborhood contributed to one snow fort, with adults and dogs included. This can be an ongoing activity.

Make Snow Angels. Drop down onto your back in the deep snow and swim your arms and legs back and forth until you create a wings and skirt. Toddlers love this activity. The first year my husband spent in the heavy winter after growing up without much snow, I convinced him to fall into several feet of powder. I fished him out and told him, “Welcome to Winter!” I’m a bit more careful with my children, but they still do this.

Scavenge for Winter Nature Table Decorations. Are there still evergreens, pinecones, winter berries. Children will tromp from place to place not even realizing that they are actually on a walk.

Sledding. Whether you have an old-fashioned sled, an old tire, or a cardboard box lid, you can probably find something slippery around the house for sledding. We have quite a few steep hills near our house, but we have another version of sledding that involves my husband grabbing tight to the rope on the sled and hauling children around. It worked better when they were little, but everyone still wants to see who can pull the rest of the family. If you celebrate Festivus, this could be one of your feats of strength.

Moon and Stargazing. The moon is past the quarter and will be full next week. If the sky is clear, you should have enough light for a late night walk. During the most recent full moon, my son stared out the window and said, “It’s so light! I wish we could go outside.” I asked, “Why can’t you?” He had no answer, and within minutes we were all bundled up for a midnight walk under the full moon. I was back in quickly, but they just sat in their tree swings, swinging patterns in the snow and talking for nearly an hour. Little children might not be able to take a long walk in the extreme cold, but the adventure of a nighttime walk can awaken the senses.

Bundle up and make sure snow can’t sneak into boots or mittens. Stay out long enough to have fun but not so long that children become miserable. The cold helps you and your children appreciate the warm. The activity helps you appreciate the opportunity to curl up with the family without the stresses of every day.

Happy Holidays and warm fingers and toes to your whole family.

Image © Miniimpressions | Dreamstime.com