Choosing sustainable toys for kids is a great way to lead by example and move towards a more eco-friendly and ethical way of life. As parents, it is vital to teach your children the importance of caring for the planet and for people.
Toys can enrich children’s lives – but we don’t necessarily have to buy them. And when we do, it is important to consider where they come from and their real cost. But what are sustainable toys? What are the best options when it comes to choosing toys for children, and which options should we avoid?
Read on to learn more about enabling your children to play in a more sustainable way.
What Are Sustainable Toys? 🧸
✔️ Are made from renewable, natural materials.
✔️ Do not release carbon or other greenhouse gases during manufacture.
✔️ Do not pollute the environment in other ways at any stage of their life cycle.
✔️ Are made without consuming water or other resources at unsustainable rates.
✔️ Are manufactured as close to home as possible. (To reduce the environmental cost of transportation.)
✔️ Do not pose a health risk to those who make or use them.
✔️ Don’t cause a waste problem at the end of their useful life.
Ideally, sustainable toys should also provide additional benefits to the wider world, and specifically to the local community where they are made. For example, buying toys from small-scale craftsmen or businesses can help to foster traditional skills, and channel money back into local communities.
Tips for Choosing Sustainable Toys ♻️
Think carefully before bringing new toys into your home. Do you really need them? If so, consider the following alternative options:
- Remember that play is not all about toys; kids can have fun in other ways too.
- Before buying or sourcing any toys at all, consider the potential for the natural world to be a playground.
- Buy (or source) secondhand items.
- Make your own toys from natural materials. 🧶
- Upcycle household rubbish or other old items to make sustainable toys.
If you do decide to buy new toys, to make sure that they are sustainable you should:
- Avoid all plastic toys. (Plastic toys are made from fossil fuels. They are costly to make in environment terms, can release microplastics during use, and pose a waste problem at the end of their useful life.)
- Select soft or fabric toys made from organic cotton, hemp, or other eco-friendly materials rather than synthetic fabrics.
- Assess not only the primary materials but also dyes or other harmful substances.
- Think about durability and longevity. The longer a toy will last and be played with, the more sustainable it will be.
- Make sure you understand where the toys you are considering have come from, and what exactly was involved in making and delivering them. Who made them, and what did the process really cost? (In terms of the environment, and human/animal welfare, as well as finances.)
Why Play Is about More than Just Toys 🌄
Toys are tools for play, but not all play requires them. It is important to remember this when thinking about how to keep kids entertained.
Independent Imaginative Play
Sometimes all kids need is a little time and space to give their imaginations free reign. When left to their own devices, kids tend to play regardless of the immediate environment. Toys are not always required; a child might tell themselves stories, or, say, a bedspread could become an entire kingdom. A stick could become a spoon, a pen, or a sword. Bugs can become armies and dust motes a flurry of snow.
Contemporary parents are often guilty of over-scheduling children, making the mistake of structuring almost all their time, reducing opportunities for them to entertain themselves. Playing away from adult supervision is important, however, as it allows children to develop independent mobility, exploring the world on their own terms and creating their own identities.
Play is a natural and universal human impulse. Parents should remember that they never need make children play, and only rarely need help children play. Instead, they can simply step back and let children play, providing time and space to do so.
Play With Other People
Play with others is very important to childhood development. Sometimes all a child needs is a playmate – whether a parent or guardian, siblings, or friends their own age. Again, in play with others, toys are not always necessary.
“When parents play with infants and young children, the complexity of children’s behaviour increases substantially both in the duration of the social interactions and in the developmental level of children’s social behaviour.” It is crucial, for a range of reasons, that parents make an effort to spend time playing with their children, rather than simply providing toys. 🏸
Play with other children is also vitally important. The act of playing can overcome cultural and other boundaries, helping children to understand and empathise with those they might otherwise consider as different from themselves. This can be a significant way of creating bonds with other children, forming and strengthening relationships. Not all interactional play will require toys.
Play can also involve a lot of physicality, with or without toys. Physical play helps children develop their fine motor skills, strength, and agility. By running around, chasing, or engaging in rough-and-tumble play, kids can have fun, learn, and grow without the need for any toys at all. Numerous studies have shown the importance of physical activity in childhood for good physical and mental health.
Young children are innately active, but this natural tendency is easily overridden by external constraints, including adult supervision. Sometimes, parents should provide the necessary environment for active, physical play – then sit back and let kids do their own thing, rather than endlessly providing toys for their entertainment.
Nature’s Playground 🌳
Far more important than providing toys for children is making sure that they have plenty of time to play outdoors in the natural world. With nature’s playground at their disposal, you may find that you do not require as many toys.
Before trying to find sustainable toys for your children, think about how the natural world can provide the tools and the environment needed for learning and play. For example:
- A tree can be a climbing frame or hiding place.
- Shrubbery or undergrowth can be a jungle, a tunnel, or a secret hideaway.
- A stream, rock pool, lake, pond, or puddle can provide endless amusement and opportunities for supervised water-based play.
- Edible plants can provide the ingredients for supervised imaginative play in an outdoor kitchen. 🍒
- A grassy field, park, or meadow can be the perfect place for active play.
- A slope or small hill can be rolled down or clambered up.
- A park, garden, beach, or local woodland can be the site of an expedition or adventure – full of many amazing plants and creatures to discover.
- Rocks, shells, sticks and twigs, mud, leaves, and flowers can all enable a wide range of different play activities. 🍁
👉 This sort of engagement with the outside world normalises interaction with nature (something many kids lack), meaning that children are more likely to continue to enjoy it, care about it, learn more about it, and want to protect it as they grow up.
Sourcing Secondhand Toys
Though time and opportunities for solo imaginative play, play with others, and physical play are all important, with nature’s playground perhaps most important of all, toys can still have a beneficial role in childhood.
Toys play a significant role in children’s cognitive development. However, children may not use these toys in the ways that were intended, instead using their creativity to play with toys in their own ways. Children play longer when a wide variety of toys is available. Playful children are more physically active, creative, humorous, imaginative, emotionally expressive, curious, and communicative.vi Therefore, it is a good idea to provide a variety of toys appropriate to the age and inclinations of your child.
But these don’t need to be bought brand-new; sourcing toys secondhand is far more sustainable and eco-friendly. Much of the environmental cost of toys derives from manufacture, so secondhand options will reduce your carbon footprint and minimise environmental impact.
Sources for secondhand toys include:
✔️ Free options online from sites like Freecycle and Freegle.
✔️ Secondhand items for sale through eBay, Gumtree, etc.
✔️ Online companies which offer secondhand toys for loan or sale (eg, Toy Box Club).
✔️ Swap shops, charity shops, school fêtes, and jumble sales.
✔️ Friends, family, or other members of your community who might wish to pass on unwanted pre-loved toys.
Remember, if you are buying secondhand toys, you will still have to consider environmental impact at the end of their useful life. So even when secondhand, plastic and other non-recyclable/non-compostable toys are best avoided.
Making Toys from Natural Materials
In addition to buying secondhand toys, parents can also consider the many different ways in which they can make their own. Plenty of exciting toys can be made yourself using sustainable, natural materials, for example:
Making Dens and Garden Play Equipment
A piece of natural rope or twine can create a huge range of play equipment or outdoor toys. For example, hang a rope from a tree for kids to swing on, or make a swing hanging from a tree or wooden frame.
You could also use a length of natural twine or rope as a skipping rope, or part of an obstacle course around your garden. A simple, natural rope could be the start and finish line for a race, mark the ‘safe zone’ in a game, or be used for balancing.
A rope could be strung to form the apex of a garden den, or be used to tie the top of a tipi or wigwam structure made from branches.
Making Wooden Toys
Logs, branches, and twigs can be used to make a wide range of toys for children – some of which can be easily made with very basic DIY skills. For example, consider:
- Sawing branches into sections for natural-looking building blocks in different shapes and sizes.
- Sawing wooden disks that can be stacked to make towers, or centrally drilled to fit onto a wooden dowel.
- Carving a teething toy from smooth natural wood.
- Creating simple animal shapes for a zoo, farm, or Noah’s Ark.
- Making wooden toy cars, trains, tractors, or carts.
- Whittling twigs or sticks to make peg-like dolls (which could be dressed in scrap fabric).
- Making a wooden hobby horse or rocking horse.
- Using sticks and twigs to make dollhouse or fairy furniture, and/or a fairy house/log cabin.
Hand-Knitting or Sewing Soft Toys 🧸
There are plenty of soft toys that can be made with basic knitting, crocheting, sewing, or felting skills. For example, using sustainable, natural-fibre threads and fabric, you could make:
- A hand-knitted doll or animal (using natural wool from sustainable, ethical sources).
- A crocheted doll or animal (with ethical wool or other natural fibre).
- A felted doll or animal.
- A hand-sewn patchwork doll or animal.
- A felted playscape.
- A fabric wall-hanging with pockets for various handmade toys.
- A padded play blanket or play mat embroidered or patched with your own design.
Making Arts-and-Crafts Materials
Crafting and artistic projects are a great source of fun and learning for kids, and art sets and crafting kits can make great toys. Here are some options if you want to avoid plastic pens, plastic-heavy crafting kits, or other non-eco-friendly products:
- Make your own dyes and paints using natural pigments.
- Make your own charcoal for messy drawing.
- Cut wooden shapes, or cut shapes from potatoes or other root vegetables to make stamps.
- Make holes through shells, seeds, or other natural objects, so they can be threaded onto twine to make mobiles or jewellery.
- Collect some pretty pebbles to paint with monsters, animals, or other characters.
- If you have the right soil, dig some clay from your garden to use in fun raw-clay moulding projects.
- Make your own play-dough from flour, salt, water, and natural colourings.
- Collect natural straw, twigs, etc, to use in crafting projects.
Making Toys from Upcycled Items
As well as making your own toys from natural materials, consider doing so using materials that might otherwise have been thrown away.
Here are a few examples:
Making a Den or Wendy House Using Upcycled Fabrics
A den or Wendy house can enhance your child’s imaginative play by giving them a space to call their own. Whether you are making the den inside, or in the garden, there are a number of ways to incorporate recycled fabrics into your design. You may be able to:
- Use fabric from old umbrellas or tents to create a waterproof outdoor play space.
- Upcycle old bed sheets or linens to make a magical bedroom den.
- Make a patchwork covering for an indoor den from pieces of old clothes. 🏕️
Upcycled fabrics used to make squishy cushions could help the space feel more comfy and cozy. And how about making some beanbags using reclaimed fabric and dried beans or pulses from the kitchen? Or mini bucket-stools out of reclaimed plastic buckets?
Making Costumes and Props for Dress-Up Play 🎭
Another easy way to provide toys for children’s imaginative play is repurposing old clothes and other fabrics to make dressing-up clothes. With very basic sewing skills you can make:
- Capes for would-be superheroes and adventurers.
- Princess dresses and fairy costumes.
- Spaceman outfits and alien costumes.
- Animal masks, dragon hats, bee body-suits and more…
Upcycle items can also become props for imaginative play: for example, source old tea cups, enamel mugs, or other household items from charity shops for playing house.
Making Toys from Upcycled Furniture ⚜️
Upcycled furniture can also be used to make a range of children’s toys. For example, you could:
- Turn an old cabinet or chest of drawers into a play kitchen or play zone.
- An old coffee table could become the base for a DIY train set or toy town. 📐
- An old drawer could be used to make a sandbox or gravel pit construction site.
- An old tabletop could be painted to become an oversized game board for draughts, snakes and ladders, shuffleboard, etc…
Push-along toys are great for kids just learning to move around on their own. But rather than buying one, make one using parts from old wheeled furniture and other upcycled items. The castor wheels from old furniture can be added to other items to make them roll. You might also be able to repurpose a wheel from, for example, an old wheelbarrow.
Making Instruments or Other Toys from Old Kitchen Equipment
Old kitchen items such as colanders, pots and pans, wooden spoons, and storage containers could be upcycled into a range of items for kids to play with. For example, why not:
- Create a drum set for noisy fun from old pots and pans (or storage tins), and a wooden spoon.
- Turn old jars into snow globes, or fill them with interesting colours and textures for visual interest.
- Make puppets from old wooden spoons or spatulas so that, reaching up from below, kids can create a show at the kitchen table.
- Make a pot or colander into a helmet for dressing up.
- Turn an old baking tray into a garden, farm, construction site, beach, or other playscape by adding soil, gravel, pulses, or sand. Old forks could be garden forks for toy farmers or gardeners.
Making Toys from Household Rubbish ✂️
You can also turn all sorts of food packaging into toys for your children:
- Old plastic drinks bottles into rattles or percussion instruments. 🥁
- Syrup tins tied to strings into small stilts to balance on.
- Yoghurt pots tied to the ends of taut string into a string telephone.
- Old cardboard boxes, toilet roll tubes, etc. into playhouses or castles.
- Recycled junk into robots. 🤖
- Old bottles into spaceships or other vehicles.
- Scrap paper, flour, and water glue into papier maché toys/playscapes.
- Old coffee grounds into coffee-ground fossils. ☕
- Coloured plastic food packaging into geometric shapes for sorting or crafts.
- Coffee or tea stained paper into a ‘treasure map’, with a corresponding treasure trove of coins made from old foil and ‘jewels’ from coloured plastic pieces.
These are just some of the numerous ways that toys can be made for your kids without paying for and supporting unsustainable manufacturing practices. So instead of succumbing to the pressures of our consumerist culture and heading to the shops, show your kids how to be responsible citizens of the future by making sustainable and eco-friendly choices of toys for them.
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Shier, H (2010) IPA Global Consultations on Children’s Right to Play: Summary report.
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