Better toys & why they’re worth it

Photo: istockphoto.com/artedetimo
You get what you play for

Few things are held more dear than th¬at "forever" toy that enjoyed hundreds of hours of playtime - either literally loved to pieces, worn completely out, or remaining incredibly intact and functional for future generations. With the glut of cheap plastic and things perennially in need of "upgrade”, you might wonder where, oh where, will you find those robust treasures that nurture the young soul?

Worry not, besieged parents! We have contained herein a wealth of playtime knowledge and resources to help you find that beloved doll/game/whatcha-ma-thingy that will entrance your little ones and reassure your conscience that playthings need not be time or money-wasters. We've chosen two expert toy retailers – Sue Sinclair of Raspberry Kids and Linda Peters of Eko Bear – to help guide you in your search.

Quality Time

We wanted to highlight choices that deliver good play value even if they don't necessarily conform to the current trend of high-tech. Sue Sinclair of Raspberry Kids focuses on quality, craftsmanship and good value in her selection of toys, lunchtime accessories and much, much, much more! Sue does exhaustive research to ensure that the products she carries meet her standards for Raspberry Kids' tagline "Fresh. Healthy. Fun." She stresses that quality is one of the top features to consider in toys - "...how it was made and by whom it was made. The quality generally also determines the longevity of the product... The old adage of "you get what you pay for" holds true for kids toys as well. Having said that, you don't need to spend a fortune and you can find great products such as wooden toys that are extremely affordable."

The Science of Play

Dr. Jeffrey Trawick-Smith is a professor at the Center for Early Childhood Education at Eastern Connecticut State University where he conducts an annual study of the impact of toys on play. The toys are nominated by educators, parents and children and results are coded according to how well they prompt thinking/learning/problem solving, social interaction, and creativity. What routinely emerges is: "Basic is better. The highest-scoring toys so far have been quite simple: hardwood blocks, a set of wooden vehicles and road signs, and classic wooden construction toys. These toys are relatively open-ended, so children can use them in multiple ways..." The studies also find "...toys that have traditionally been viewed as male oriented-construction toys and toy vehicles, for example-elicited the highest quality play among girls. So, try to set aside previous conceptions about what inspires male and female play and objectively observe toy effects to be sure boys and girls equally benefit from play materials."

Cast-off the Chemicals

Linda Peters of Eko Bear is also a fan of wood and natural components. Eko Bear has a great array of eco-friendly products that are either biodegradable, made from recycled materials or materials with sustainability in mind and with colours that are safe for children. She cautions to take a pass on toys that contain BPA, PVC and phthalates and to strive for products that are decorated with water-based paints.

Packaging and plastic are high on Sue's list of things to minimize. "Why is it necessary to shrink wrap a toy in plastic that requires a chainsaw to cut through it?...We also avoid large "plastic fantastic" toys and play structures...Lastly, we avoid toys that require batteries. The cost to replace them is not just a financial one but also an environmental one."

The Device Debate

You don't have to be a Luddite – both experts believe there is some room for electronic toys as well - within limits. Sue says, "A rechargeable device such as an iPad can provide extraordinary learning and play opportunities and as a parent, I like that I control what our kids have access to..." These items are best used with an adult as an active and engaged participant. Linda adds that these sorts of toys should not be excessive or too frivolous - "I try and avoid lights and noises in electronic toys for little ones that seem unnecessary and lean towards the more educational."

Some electronic toys actually reach sound levels that are potentially damaging to hearing. Studies of these toys suggest a tendency to promote inactivity, discourage creativity and foster short attention spans - aim for moderation and look for ones that don't issue commands, but rather let the child govern the play. Beware, too, that some toys that boast about being "educational" have little advantage over the simple, staple toys that have always built creative, independent thinkers.

Giving: The Right Stuff

Finally, you want to be sure that if you are choosing a gift for someone else's child that it is suitable and will be appreciated. Sue asks the parents first what would go over well or she will contribute money toward a larger gift. She says if all else fails, gift certificates will never disappoint, or even better, choose a retailer known to be a top-seller for the specific age group you're interested in. In the same way you would regard a movie rating, Linda advises that you pay attention to the recommended age on the packaging or label. No little pieces for the orally-fixated set!

Toys have never been more accessible and the variety has never been more plentiful, or overwhelming. The upshot is that basics are still best. Quality materials are natural, non-toxic and sturdy. Good design can be simple, creative and eye-catching all at once. And don't be seduced by glitz, glamour, and all that technology if what you really want to give is a fulfilling play experience. Play itself is enhanced by toys that facilitate imagination, discovery, and autonomy rather than direct your child into "learning" this or that skill. Scores of parents have been bewildered when, after bestowing a magnificent and expensive showpiece upon their child, the child prefers the box in which it came. Self-determination is the greatest skill that play can foster.


Natural Pod

Natural Pod specializes in elegantly simple wooden play environments manufactured at their facility on Vancouver Island. Co-founder and CEO Bridgitte Alomes started Natural Pod after noticing the adverse health effects that some non-natural items had on her newborn. The designs promote the idea of "natural play", allowing children to create and express spontaneously without imposed direction or intervention. Bridgitte says the goal of "supporting the community through a process of deeper, more meaningful choices, rather than instant gratification purchase decisions" is one of Natural Pod's challenges and their experts consult regularly with schools and daycares to design play areas that engage young minds and promote learning in a safe, natural and holistic way. They take the environment and the safety of their littlest customers very seriously, with responsible manufacturing practices that include limited packaging, recyclable and compostable materials sourced as locally as possible and they are Forestry Stewardship Certified, meaning the wood Natural Pod uses is traceable to responsibly managed forests. Bridgitte loves the moments that reveal the profound effect the play environment has on children. Taking an educator on a tour through an early learning centre furnished by Natural Pod, the educator marvelled, "They were eating their snacks! Together! And no one was crying!"


Cate & Levi

After the arrival of his first child, proprietor Josh Title started Cate & Levi when he couldn't find the unique, high quality toys he wanted. His frustrations-turned-fuzzies are cute, cuddly, one-of-a-kind, hand-made stuffed animal toys fabricated from reclaimed wool sweaters that have been sanitized and shrunk in very hot water. The materials are sourced in Ontario and the toys are built with quality and responsible manufacturing in mind. He credits his father's entrepreneurial background and his mother's artistic gifts for giving him the confidence and skills to launch such a business and he is deeply proud of the craftsmanship and anti-mass-production techniques employed. Work is a place he feels unashamed to bring his family to but he also feels the challenge of convincing consumers "...to understand the value of quality and fair labour practices in a world saturated with cheap." A portion of their proceeds go to charity and they host puppet-making workshops at Camp Ooch for children suffering from cancer. Josh loves receiving feedback from his customers, such as the happy mother of a young back-packer: "Received the backpack today. I'd like to tell you that I love it but the truth is that my toddler won't take it off his back long enough for me to look at it!!! Well, from the couple of glimpses I've been able to get, I can say it's pretty adorable. Thank you."


Bamboletta

A VERY different kind of doll maker, Bamboletta dolls are all hand-made with natural fabrics and materials. Owner Christina Platt started small, 11 years ago, when an interest in Steiner – or Waldorf – philosophy and the birth of her niece coincided. Using a book on German doll-making, a t-shirt and sheepskin stuffing cut from an Ikea rug, Christina created her first masterpiece. She now employs about 30 "mamas" who receive approximately 6 months of training. The artisans use mainly alpaca, wool, cotton and mohair for their softness, weight and capacity to absorb the smells of home. The dolls portray a soft, neutral expression designed to allow the child to easily project their particular feelings at the moment of play. It isn't cheap or easy to employ local people, use fine, local materials and remain true to the philosophy behind the doll. "It's not only about the bottom line, I feel a deep responsibility to our customers to make an amazing doll handcrafted with love and I feel a responsibility to take care of the ladies that work with me." Also taking care of those in need, last year over 200 dolls were donated to organizations like Ronald McDonald House, Canuck Place and Jeneece Place. The biggest reward is being a special part of a child's world. Christina recently received a visit from twins for whom she had made a set of twin dolls in 2004: "Seeing the twins and their dolls made my heart swoon!...I feel honoured that I get to create a child's doll – their secret keeper, their companion and their best friend."


EcoParent is a national magazine for families that want to make healthier, greener lifestyle choices. Fun and inspirational in tone—and never judgmental—it is Canada's premiere publication for the conscientious parent. Food, fashion, books, travel and so much more!