Playing for keeps

Mar 26, 2020


When Craig Aitken’s 10-year-old son started assembling in-store bike stands and displays at his Brisbane retail outlet Knock on Wood Toys, the educational benefits of his children’s interactions with wood were apparent.

Watching their eldest son deftly use Allen keys and follow instructions to build various structures and wooden trikes reminds Craig and his wife Kate why they placed their faith in the long-term value, durability and practicality of working with wood.

Initially inspired after being “truly amazed to see the wooden toys our parents kept from when we were children that now our little boys are playing with”, Craig said wooden toys have been proven to enrich, educate, develop and encourage kids to be active, creative and stimulated.

Much of Craig’s joy comes from his dealings with customers from every corner of the globe, including occupational therapists, speech therapists and home-schooling enthusiasts who regularly use stacking toys, patterns and mosaics in their teachings to promote conversation, sensory development and creativity.

“Educational toys are so massively important in terms of developing cognitive ability across numeracy and literacy. The benefits are endless … there’s gross motor skill development, fine motor skill development, balance, co-ordination, movement, creativity and stimulating young minds among, so many other things,” Craig said. “Everything in life is about balance, so once you learn to balance as a child (with play), you can do anything else.”

Thankfully for kids of all ages, the world of wooden toys that Craig and his family inhabits has retained the simple blocks, Brio rail sets and music toys of yesteryear. And it has evolved to integrate ride-on toys, sophisticated toys featuring electronic componentry and products catering to STEM (science, technology engineering and mathematics) subjects.

But one thing remains the same. “Unless people need some cash and need to sell them, they will hold on to the items. The emotional attachment and keepsake value is enormous.”

Craig said his niche business, which was awarded the 2018 Small Independent Retailer of the Year, proudly protects its independence and insisting upon safe products: “I wouldn’t stock anything I wouldn’t let my children play with”.

Not surprisingly, wooden toys easily rated tops in safety research (choking hazards, toxicity or poisoning, injury risk and disease/germs) when compared with their metal and plastic counterparts.

Little wonder then that what started as an online-only business in 2013 soon expanded to a small retail shop “that doubled as a click and collect” before transitioning to the current 250-square-metre retail premises with online packing and storage at Sinnamon Park.

Today, the online part of the business accounts for about 65 per cent of turnover, with clients from Oman, Scotland, New Zealand, Russia and Brazil often popping into the store to deliver an unexpected but rewarding surprise.

Sourcing products domestically (such as Castlemaine-made spinning tops turned from Australian hardwood) and from 30 countries around the world in a range encompassing more than 80 brands, Craig said the sustainable timbers (from basswood to pine, rubberwood and high-end German timbers) used in the toys were ethically sourced and FSC (Forestry Stewardship Council) certified.

Knock on Wood Toys even uses recycled wrapping paper from The Wrapping Paper Company in Melbourne’s Braeside in an example of the industry’s commitment to environmental credentials.

“One of our suppliers, Plan Toys, goes as far as using every single piece of that timber, even the shavings, to make the toys. Their motto is sustainable play and they have a biomass power plant and the next step is they are recycling cartons they may have made as inserts for the cartons and trying to eliminate all the plastic and paper bags from inside the packaging,” Craig said.

Most of the toys use vegetable dye for colouring, with the natural beauty of timber highlighting “general wear and tear on the item, which shows it has been used and, at the same time, cared for”.

“We'd love to source more from Australia and certainly if toy makers are out there we will, providing they have been tested because for us it’s safety first and foremost and then continuity of supply.”

Although most toys are in the 0 to 8 years age group, there’s still plenty on offer for bigger kids’ playtime. In fact, Craig openly encourages it.

“When parents are looking for things (to purchase), I always encourage them to buy things they want to play with, with their children,” Craig said. “For example, I have my own ride-on (for up to 100kg) because if the parents don't get it, they won't be engaged in the play and helping their children develop in that space.

“For me, there’s no substitute for kids using their hands, and working out how to build something – which they invariably won’t be able to do with an electronic device.”