Jul 15, 2019
If you've ever despaired at the amount of plastic toys, collectables and party bag paraphernalia taking over your home, there is an alternative. Apart from their obvious aesthetic appeal, wooden toys have far more benefits than you may realise – for you, your child, and the environment.
Wooden toys are so much more than building blocks and pull-along animals, and this is nothing new to early childhood educators, who have long advocated the benefits of ditching plastic in favour of a more educational alternative.
"Plastic toys often strongly represent one object and are thus intended to be used that way by children. They hamper children's imaginations,” says early childhood educator and mum of two, Stefanie Overton.
On the other hand, wooden toys lend themselves to multiple uses, rather than one correct way to play, she adds. "For example, wooden blocks can be stacked, sorted, [used to] represent objects such as houses or people, and so on.”
Rather than the toy dictating the play, your child should lead the play, using their imagination and creativity – also known as open-ended play. Wooden toys enable this more than plastic ones do.
Another reason for avoiding high-tech toys is that they don't encourage social interactions. A child will explore wooden toys and their many uses, often involving other children or a parent in their play, helping them make sense of the world through their own observations and those of others.
Another big plus for many parents is that wooden toys are sustainable. As a material, wood is the ultimate renewable, meaning it's planted, harvested, used, then the process repeats. Not only does this process use less embodied energy than the production of man-made materials (usually sourced from finite fossil fuels), if you look at the lifecycle of a wooden toy compared to a plastic toy, the demand is far less voracious.
The temporary nature of plastic toys means a child will quickly lose interest once the batteries run out or a piece snaps off… off to landfill it goes, and the child looks to the next toy du jour.
Wooden toys, however, are in it for the long haul, often lasting more than 20 years, with families passing them from generation to generation. They are often much stronger than other toys and can be repaired if they do break.
There's also an increasing amount of coloured wooden toys available, which, painted with vegetable dyes, are completely non-toxic.
This is something that appeals to mother and preschool teacher, Clare Turner: "I prefer natural wood pieces as opposed to painted wood for early learning environments as with multiple use the paint chips. However, dyed items have the colour running through them so they last much longer,” she says.
"The range of wooden options is increasing, which means the need for plastic items is decreasing, but we definitely need more wooden choices.”
Due to the manufacturing process of plastic, it's highly possible that plastic toys could be contaminated with harmful chemicals. That's not to say all wooden toys are safe, so look for more reputable brands that maintain high standards.
If you are buying for babies and toddlers, who put everything in their mouths, look for unfinished wooden toys. Beech wood is a popular choice as it can withstand chewing, throwing and bashing, and it's naturally antibacterial.
If you do purchase painted toys, beware of cheap, imported items. Do your research and look for brands that promote non-toxic, lead-free finishes. And equally as important, make sure the wood used has been responsibly sourced. Look for Responsible Wood (https://www.responsiblewood.org.au) or Forest Stewardship Council certification, to be sure (https://au.fsc.org/en-au).
Another advantage of wooden toys is that they can often be made, maintained and repaired at home, with readily available tools and skills. Major hardware stores have brochures, and sometimes DIY classes, on making everything from a set of blocks to a doll's house or tricycle. If you'd like more hands-on help, there are many woodworking groups that are welcoming to new members. Simply search the internet for those closest to you. A homemade wooden toy can last for generations, making it a wonderful family heirloom.
The final case for switching to wood is that plastic toys do not blend well with grown-up interiors. Flick through an interiors mag and you won't find a garishly-hued truck or TV character in sight.
Shelves are styled with beautifully crafted trinkets, toys and puzzles in gentle, muted tones – and they're almost certainly made of wood. The warmth of timber and its direct connection to nature provides a calming environment, which is particularly important for children, who can be easily distracted by technology.