Maybe this scene is familiar? The kids beg for the latest whizmo gizmos (made of questionable content and unrecyclable plastic or electronic components that are possibly mass produced in an Asian sweatshop). You give in. And when the festive frenzy of unwrapping is finished, their favorite toy is . . . the big empty box. This year’s gifting will be different, you vow. But how? Choose instead to give playthings that are good for your children, good for the earth, and easier on your conscience.
Many toys don’t list "ingredients," so sorting out the good from the bad may seem daunting. It doesn’t have to be. Stick to reputable manufacturers and retailers, and seek out labels that tout the following eco-friendly materials, including:
Organic Cotton, Wool, Natural Fibers: Sadly, synthetic stuffed animals and dolls may be tainted with mothproofing, foam pellets, artificial dyes, and chemical stain resisters. Even cotton, when traditionally grown, uses notoriously pesticide-heavy methods. Toys made from certified organic cotton with natural dye and battings are more cuddly for your child and softer on the environment. Wool or leather may also be options if you aren’t opposed to animal products. Beans and rice are great fillers for soft toys for older children, but for toddlers, avoid these choking hazards.
Solid Wood: Old-fashioned, timeless wooden toys such as building blocks, trucks, and puzzles inspire boundless creativity and infinite adaptations. Besides, solid wood is super-durable, and it’s healthier than plywood or particleboard made with questionable adhesives and preservative treatments. Choose Forest Stewardship Council-certified, local, or non-tropical wood. Then look for child-safe, nontoxic finishes such as milk paint, beeswax, nut oils, or linseed oil.
Consider carefully manufactured toys and games, especially for babies or toddlers, who are more likely to sample toys by mouth. Many toy manufacturers set and meet high standards for materials and mechanical safety, but many don’t. If you can’t find safety information, a materials list, or manufacturer standards on a toy’s packaging or a website, steer away.
Young children’s smaller size and faster metabolism make them especially susceptible to absorbing hazardous levels of harmful substances from items they handle or chew. To be safe, avoid toys containing the following materials:
Vinyl: PVC (polyvinyl chloride) and its softening agent, phthalate, have been linked to cancer and other serious health problems, although the direct risk to children from toys is hotly contested. Nearly any flexible plastic object contains phthalates. Bath toys, teething rings, modeling clay, action figures, and even their packaging may be hazardous; avoid anything with a "plast-icky" smell that signals the presence of phthalates.
Paint and Finishes: Be wary of unlabeled imports or pre-1970 pieces, which may contain heavy metals or poisonous chemicals. If a toy isn’t clearly labeled as having a nontoxic or food-grade finish, don’t buy it. Choose nontoxic arts and crafts supplies (adult versions are more toxic), and always supervise their use.
Foam: Stuffed toys may contain polystyrene, nylon, moth proofing, polyurethane foam, synthetic latex, and toxic fire retardant (PBDEs).
Electronic Components: These may be comprised of toxic metals (such as mercury, lead, and cadmium), PVC, and brominated flame retardants (PBDE). Limit exposure to stereos and computers by keeping them out of kids’ rooms. Turn them completely off when not in use.
Gifts for the Greater Good
Consider these concepts when seeking truly thoughtful gifts:
■ Choose handmade. A wagon made from a fallen tree or a doll with a custom outfit is a priceless personal gift. A toy with a card from an artisan aid group or cooperative emphasizes the value of the person who made it.
■ Stimulate the mind. Usually it’s minimalistic toys that maximize creativity. Building sets and craft kits can be assembled in unlimited innovative ways. Chess and many other board games promote reasoning and problem solving. A book opens doors to the imagination.
■ Teach values. Cooperatively building a playhouse from salvaged items teaches intra-sibling or eco-friendly skills. Or give gardening tools and seeds, a museum membership, or a recycled-paper kite kit.
■ Opt for recycled, reused, or shared. Not every gift need be brand new. Dress-up clothing from the thrift store, a library card with the promise of weekly trips, or Grandpa’s old baseball glove are likely to become favorite presents. Added bonuses: They cost less and don’t contribute to landfill waste.
Good Old-Fashioned Fun
Many "old" playthings are coming back into vogue. Stones, beans, shells, and nuts make great game pieces for school-age kids. Beeswax modeling "clay" never dries up and is much healthier than artificial alternatives. And the magical lure of a musical instrument made from wood, metal, or bone will never wear out (although your eardrums might!). Artisan co-ops, craft shows, educational toy stores, and whole foods retailers are great places to find playthings made from natural materials.
It’s not just the materials that make a toy kid- and eco-friendly. Think "sustainable" in every sense. Ask yourself:
■ Will the toy provide wholesome play?
■ Does it sustain its maker through valuable work and income?
■ Does it have lasting value or will it be quickly thrown away?
Playing without PVC
The Consumer Product Safety Commission has recommended manufacturers drop the use of soft PVC (which contains toxic phthalates to make it flexible) for teething-type toys but compliance is still voluntary. Happily, several conscientious companies sell PVC-free playthings.
■ Brio, (888) 274-6869
■ Gerber, (800) 443-7237
■ Lego, (800) 422-5346
team- and esteem-building board games at Family Pastimes, (613) 267-4819 (Canada)
artisan-made organic soft toys, board games at Global Exchange Fair Trade, (800) 505-4410
classic wood toys at Holgate, (800) 499-1929
organic soft toys at Hugg-A-Planet and Organic Foundlings, (800) 332-7840
artisan-made toys and games at Novica, (877) 266-8422
educational and wooden toys from sustainably managed forests at Selecta
toys and blocks from paper-forest discards at Tree Blocks, (800) 873-4960
FSC-certified wooden puzzles and yo-yos at Tumbleweed Woodworks, (800) 497-3116