Why Wooden Toys Win

I admit, when I first realised there were parents whose children played with only wooden and natural-fibre toys, my first three thoughts were: 1. Snobs! 2. Rich! 3. Jealous!

Not the most admirable thoughts, I agree. But since those first green-eyed moments, I’ve converted. And it’s not just because buying second-hand wooden toys for a similar price to new plastic ones makes me look richer than I actually am.

They look nicer.

Ok, let’s get this one out of the way first, because let’s face it – it’s true. Lots of parents probably just buy wooden toys because they’re aesthetically pleasing. It’s nice to think of your child playing with natural objects, even if those objects have been sawn, sanded and painted to be a far cry from the tree they originated from. Wooden toys don’t have the same garish effect on your living room decor that plastic ones can. When it comes to looks, I wholeheartedly think that wooden wins hands down. But is that partly because wooden just looks expensive? I’m not sure. Either way, that doesn’t make plastic toys bad. Just not usually as pretty.

Wooden toys give a better sensory experience

I *kinda* agree with this one. Wooden toys are nice to look at, simple, warm to the touch and sometimes smell woody. Mmm.

From the Mothering.com forums:

The more sensory experiences a child has, the more “connections” are made in the brain. Plastic will always only feel like plastic. Toys made from natural materials, however, offer a unique and diverse sensory experience.

Doesn’t wood only ever feel like wood? In fact, if you want your child to have the most sensory experiences, you’d think that would be an argument for both wood and plastic, and anything else you can get your mitts on.

Wooden toys encourage creative play

I’m big on creative play. Toddlers making something out of nothing – a house out of a box, a tower of blocks, a fort from a blanket, a treasure chest from a tissue box. The simplest toys require the most imagination, and wooden toys tend to be simpler. They’re not battery operated, and they don’t often make sound. They don’t dictate quite as much to the child what they are to be used for. And therefore they don’t hamper the imagination, they expand it.

Some plastic toys are the same. They’re good quality, simple, not noisy and are great for creative play. And some wooden toys are crap. I’m just convinced that the balance lies in favour of wood.

Plastic toys can be toxic.

The first time I read about this, I thought my brain was going to explode.

This was what really persuaded me that buying Mila bits and pieces from Pricebusters was not actually the great idea it seemed to be (boo).

Lots of plastic toys are softened by mixing the plastic with PVC. Teethers and rubber (plastic) ducks are particular villains, but they’re not the only ones. PVC contain phthalates (pronounced thal-ates, I didn’t know either). Phthalates are chemicals which are easily released into the air around them; the older the toy, the more phthalates are released. The bad news is:

These chemicals can be consumed by children when children suck or chew on the soft plastic and can show up in the bloodstreams of children. Laboratory studies show that some of these chemicals [phthalates] are linked to cancer and kidney damage and may interfere with the reproductive system and development.

Plastic is often also stabilised with the heavy metal cadmium. Cadmium is a carcinogen which can also be found in batteries and cigarette smoke – and yes, it also leaches out of toys. Cheap imported plastic toys are often the worst culprits. But it’s not just kids living in poverty in the developing world who are affected; this study on cadmium comes from Sweden, and the US Department of Labor describes cadmium as an “extremely toxic” hazard.

Of course, we’ve all heard of BpA (Bisphenol A) in plastic – thanks to the thousands of products marketing themselves as BpA free – but if you’re anything like me you might have no idea what it was or why it was bad. BpA is a particularly interesting baddie, and there’s a lot to know about it, so I recommend you read my other post on it here. For now, suffice to say that BpA is a toxin that mimics eostrogen and is associated with birth defects and autoimmune diseases.

You would think, or at least my cynical mind would, that if the crap in these toys is really that bad, they’d be banned. My child had one of those soft plastic teething rings, lots of rubber ducks, and some soft plastic stacking rings. I get pretty defensive at the thought that her toys are toxic.

Infuriatingly, New Zealand just seems to have dropped the ball on this one. Greenpeace fought a long battle against slimy toy manufacturers to have several chemicals, including lead, phthalates and cadmium, banned permanently from all toys in the European Union. They were eventually successful. Phthalates are also now banned from toys in Mexico, the United States, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Israel and Japan. I think it speaks volumes that toy companies loudly campaigned against these laws passing… and yet they still did.

Most countries are already aware that phthalates in toys are bad, with laws covering the euphemistic “Migration of certain elements” in toys – ie, toxins absorbed by your child. New Zealand currently has the same standards as Australia, which gives ‘acceptable levels’ of arsenic, barium, cadmium, lead, mercury and other nasties in toys. There’s a new law drafted which claims to be tougher – but it’s not even in force yet, and the ‘toughness’ refers to penalties for breaching toxin levels, rather than eliminating the toxins themselves.

Honestly, my mind boggles at how lazy this stance is. We know that phthalates, BpA and heavy metals are toxic when absorbed. We know that they’re in plastic toys. We know they leach out of those toys, into children’s bodies, and that one of the easiest ways of absorbing these toxins is to chew on the toy. And we know that there are no safe levels of lead absorption and nobody knows what level of phthalate absorption is ‘safe’ in humans, because research is only done on rodents, we’ve only seen the results of unsafe levels in humans, and some phthalates haven’t been tested at all. So despite knowing these substances are harmful, and NOT knowing how much is safe, New Zealand has forged on ahead and decided ‘safe’ levels for us all. That strikes me as bizarre. Well, bizarre and dangerous.

The one good thing to be said is that some regulation is better than none. However, having ‘safe levels’ of toxins requires all toys to be tested, and this just isn’t happening.

Until recently, product testing here has been largely reactive. The ministry says proactive testing “has generally been very limited in the past due primarily to budgetary constraints and the costs associated with sampling and testing”. Base funding in 2008/09 was just $8000.

Additional funding has been available in the last 2 years. A one-off sum of $100,000 was used to fund the ministry’s 2009 testing project. Extra resources were made available in 2010 for more testing and developing links with overseas regulators. But this isn’t new money: the ministry has reallocated funding from within its existing budget.

So what is the point of regulations that aren’t being enforced? Zilch.

How to buy safe toys

I recommend you read through the advice here at Organic Baby. They’re a shop, so they obviously want you to buy their stuff, but it still has some sensible things to think about:

  • Try to buy natural-fibre products, eg wood or fabric (so ok, maybe those au naturel parents I used to secretly scorn weren’t so silly after all)
  • Find out where your child’s toys are coming from and what safety tests they have passed (if you become really obsessed, like me, and aren’t in a position to buy all New Zealand-made)
  • Look for non-toxic finishes and paints
  • Sign up for alerts on toy recalls
  • If you do (like me) have plastic toys at home, try to stick to hard plastics – the type of plastic found in ‘rubber’ ducks and teething toys is often softened with phthalates.
  • Remember that “BpA free” is not the only marker of product safety: it should also be phthalate and heavy-metal free

You can also try to search for your kid’s toys here.

To be honest, I’m a bit gutted that I’ve found all of this out. Mila loves her rubber ducks, and now they’re in a bag in her wardrobe while I decide what to do with them. I’ve also stolen some of her favourite toys from her toy box in a feverish phthalate hunt. But I’m hoping this new awareness will be worth it in the long run, with a healthier child and home. Woot!


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