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The growth of environmentally-friendly policies and consumer choices means families have more opportunities to embed sustainability into their daily lives, and adopt practices that align with their health, happiness and hopes for the future. With the food we eat, methods of travel and recycling of waste taking centre stage in how we evaluate our carbon footprint, the type of toys we buy for our children aren’t always top of mind in efforts to live more sustainably. But in fact, sustainable toys are an excellent way for families to support children’s play that satisfies safety, longevity, education and inter-generational reuse.

Plastic in the toy industry still abounds, but consumer demand is pushing companies to do more in limiting their environmental impact in the manufacturing of products. For instance, in 2021, Lego announced their development of a prototype that uses PET plastic from discarded bottles, becoming the first brick made from a recycled material to meet the company’s quality and safety requirements. Even McDonald’s restaurants have pledged to phase out fossil fuel-based plastic toys from their iconic Happy Meals globally by 2025, in favour of renewable, recycled, or certified materials.

It’s better late than never that toy brands are taking more responsibility in their means of production. Of course, it’s a contrast to the brands that have been doing this from the very beginning, and infused sustainability into their philosophy for child wonderment and development. Le Toy Van is one such brand that has been a pioneer in this area since 1995, and its dedicated wooden toy range for infants and toddlers – Petilou – embodies today’s values for the discerning parent who wants the best for their child and future grandchildren. Naturally, Kiddipedia sought their advice for understanding the benefits of sustainable, non-plastic toys and why wooden toys fit the bill. Let’s see how parents can captivate their children and protect the planet at the same time!

Which types of toys are unsustainable and what are the alternatives?

Plastic as a go-to material came to dominate the mass production of toys in the 20th century, due it being inexpensive to produce, customisable to practically any shape or colour, and resilient enough for repeated play. Throw in the fact that it is lightweight and easy to clean, and the convenience and versatility of plastic toys catapulted their popularity with consumers. Plastic construction now accounts for a whopping 90% of all manufactured toys, with the toy industry holding the very dubious honour of being the most plastic intensive industry in the world.

Unfortunately, this ‘plastic fantastic’ mantra to toys has come at a terrible price in terms of environmental and health impact. As a parent, you may be horrified to learn that a 2021 study concluded that “out of 419 chemicals found in hard, soft and foam plastic materials used in children’s toys, we identified 126 substances that can potentially harm children’s health”. Phthalates, cadmium, lead and BPA are some of the more commonly cited additives to plastic that can leach out, yielding cancer-causing carcinogens, hormone disruption, intellectual impairment and a host of other nasty possible side effects. Guidelines to regulate the industry – such as BPA-free labels – are encouraging, but aren’t moving fast enough, and we’re sure you’d agree that it’s not worth the risk for curious infants and toddlers who frequently pop toys into their mouths.

The impact on the environment is no better, with the overwhelming majority of past and current plastic toys reliant on the burning of fossil fuels that spew carbon emissions and pollute the air and sea. In terms of where we go from here, you’ve likely heard of efforts to produce sustainable forms of plastic, with experimentation occurring in the production of  bio-based and bio-composite plastics, aka ‘plant-based plastics’. It’s encouraging to see intent for industry-wide change, however even so-called biodegradable plastics pose limitations to recycling and are a long way off from being the norm.

Simply rejigging plastic for the toys we give our children is clearly not the best solution, especially considering that approximately 80 percent of all toys end up discarded – generally incinerated or accumulating in landfill. And if you’re wondering about plush or soft toys, with their adorable, squishy faces; they aren’t let off the hook either. Behind the cute factor, is the reality that most are made of polyester – a form of plastic – which takes hundreds of years to biodegrade and sheds toxic microfibres. Furthermore, this synthetic fibre is not durable, leading to frequent replacement and an excess in the economy of toys.

It’s for these reasons that wooden and natural fibres are the first choice for sustainable toys, offering a non-toxic base for toy design and the opportunity for replanting to offset human consumption. Of course, not all brands are created equal. On a mission to enhance our appreciation of toys, you’ll find Le Toy Van toys are made only from repurposed wood, using ethical production methods that are carbon neutral. They have pledged to be plastic-free in their packaging by 2023, with their cardboard boxes also recyclable and compostable. Their goal is to become a brand that’s truly synonymous with nature, at every touch point.

Origin and relevance of wooden toys

The sustainability movement is reconnecting us to the idea of humans as tied to the natural world, prompting a renaissance in the popularity of wooden and other natural-based toys. The fact these materials have been overlooked by the toy industry for the past several decades, is disappointing tos say the least. With a fixation on ‘bigger and better’ plastic toys and overconsumption in the name of modernity and progress, it has steered us away from sustainable values and perhaps even an appreciation of the true essence of toys.

Wooden toys have been a mainstay of childhood for thousands of years, with the humble baby rattle and wooden spinning top among the very first recorded toys found in archaeological digs of ancient civilisations, such as the Greeks and Romans. Fast forward to when wooden toys were commercially produced at scale in the 1700s, and this period boasted the advent of the popular rocking horse and dolls house; concepts which kids continue to enjoy in various forms to this day. So, is there room to return to these roots in the production of toys that meet the needs of today’s infants and toddlers, and indeed, the environment at large?

Le Toy Van certainly believes so, pointing to wooden toys as the whole package in terms of the safety, peace of mind and value for money that parents crave: “sustainable wooden toys are environmentally friendly and biodegradable. They are long lasting, robust and can be passed on from generations to generations.” In fact, it’s the cherished wooden dollhouse that kickstarted the Le Toy Van brand, the first of many toys crafted by founder Georges Le Van that are lovingly made with intention and to stand the test of time. They, along with other respected wooden toy makers, have come a long way in keeping the tradition of wooden toys alive. Today, retail shelves are adorned with brightly coloured and more intricately designed wooden toys to mimic the real world, having evolved to be more engaging and supportive of imaginative play and kids’ attention spans.

Developmental benefits of wooden toys

In bypassing a retailer’s plastic-heavy toy section in favour of wooden or natural toys, some parents might fear that their infant or toddler will somehow ‘miss out’ if they don’t choose the motorised toy with all the bells and whistles. It can be a tough mindset to shake loose when we’re bombarded by advertisements that a flurry of lights and sound equals a happy and content child. After all, stimulation is crucial for a child’s development, right? Well, an adult benchmark of what’s stimulating in the eyes of infants and toddlers can be a little problematic. Battery-operated plastic toys might grab your child’s attention initially, but can they sustain it?

Wooden toys that are more simply designed and mimic fixtures of the real world – whether it’s household items or flora and fauna – are the preferred type in the Montessori model of early education that champions learning through play and sees toys as an instrument of learning for busy little hands, rather than a time-filler. In addition to their safety and harmony with nature, advocates for wooden toys point to the smaller mental load they present for children, along with encouragement to develop problem solving and creative thinking skills. In a technology-saturated world, such ‘slow toys’ make use of children’s ingenuity rather than relying on batteries and the press of a button to make toys come alive.

Here’s a handful of the advantages of wooden toys over their plastic and synthetic counterparts: 

  • Tactile, naturally textured surfaces for sensory development including teething
  • Guides quieter, calmer play that avoids sensory overload in at-risk infants and toddlers
  • Less distractions than motorised toys for better focus and concentration
  • Open-ended rather than ‘fixed-purpose’ toys, with multiple uses to support imaginative play
  • Different weights and sizes of wood blocks to stack teaches basic physics for cognitive growth
  • More literal, realistic design tied to cause and effect that develops a child’s sense of reality

The award-winning Petilou range of solid wood toys, tested for children 12 months and up, embodies these benefits. They’re designed to captivate young children with fun themes including woodland, marine and rainbow, and use non-toxic, water-based paints that give a naturalistic, ‘stained’ effect. They’re specially designed for little hands and are also gender neutral for limitless imagination.

Giving toys a second life and the joys of heirloom toys

As we’ve discussed above, a key benefit to wooden toys is the fact they are incredibly durable yet biodegradable, and it’s this durability that makes toys of this construction perfect for a different kind of recycling or repurposing. Toy hand-me-downs are nothing new, but it’s taking shape on a whole new scale beyond the family unit in moves towards a circular economy for toys. In order for a circular economy to succeed – the trading of toys that are no longer desired to a new home – toys ought to be durable and reliable.

Although plastics are strong, they can be fragile in the form of toys with moving parts and more prone to breaking. For instance, if a toddler was to throw both a plastic toy and a wooden toy across the room, we know which one we’d be betting on to remain intact! Although reuse initiatives for plastic toys do exist, such as the Big W and TerraCycle Toys For Joy project, there are limitations in what they can achieve in giving these toys a second life and it doesn’t resolve the problem of disposal at the conclusion of their lifecycle. Although not always the case, many toys constructed from plastic are churned out quickly to reflect the flavour of the month and get parents and kids caught in a cycle of overconsumption. If we are to be in greater harmony with our environment, we must change our attitude and priorities in regards to toy consumption.

Toys carved from wood have an everlasting appeal, and tend to be more commonly donated or handed-down due to their quality and purposeful design. If you’ve ever canvassed a collection of your child’s toys and thought about what you would keep for their future children to inherit, chances are that plastic toys either wouldn’t feature heavily on the list, or even at all. Quality wooden toys make excellent heirlooms and are truly an investment in your child’s play and that of future generations. For advice and inspiration on choosing the ideal heirloom toy, check out Le Toy Van’s list.

Making better choices for your family and the environment is made all that easier by understanding that sustainability needn’t compromise on performance. To find toys that delight your infant or toddler with the comfort of knowing their production isn’t jeopardising a healthy planet, explore the Petilou range.