Thankfully, the momentum of ‘green’ is gaining pace. We are finally realising that Mother Earth can no longer be treated like Cinderella, left to sweep up the cinders in the basement of the home but instead must be cared for like the fragile glass slipper she wore. Thank goodness for companies reducing their carbon footprint through sustainable practices, airlines that allow us to offset a plane trip by paying a few extra dollars, supermarkets and organic food stores that invite us to purchase reusable cloth bags to lug home the weekly grocery shopping. Many of us increasingly have access to a range of organic foods grown without harmful substances and chemicals, and daily, this food is becoming more affordable. Even supermarket shelves are changing slowly to meet the demands of shoppers (the health food aisle is gaining ground) and farmers markets, filled with locally grown produce, are flourishing. Fashion design is marketing the use of sustainable fibres such as hemp, bamboo and organic cotton.
But one area that remains virtually untouched in the race for green status is the toy market. Just take a look at the sales catalogues of retailers, large and small, that are stuffed into our letterboxes weekly. There are more and more synthetic, plastic, non-recyclable toys on shop shelves. Have you visited the toy section lately? Aggghhhh! (Not to mention that many children are so used to being bought a ‘toy’ on an ordinary shopping day, that the joy of receiving a toy is often lost.)
Actually, I think this might be a great opportunity!
We can join the greening movement too. Imagine the impact we can have as the nurturers of our children’s toy boxes. It’s an untapped opportunity and a chance for us to help Mother Earth today.
For me, the greening opportunity began unexpectedly and quite organically, many, many years ago.
A friend and I, together with my then 3-year-old daughter, embarked on a year long tour around Australia in a well equipped kombi van. When I say, well-equipped, I must be honest in that three out of the only six drawers in the van were stuffed to the brim with her toys. (Of the other three, two stored our clothes and one was for the pots and pans for cooking. Can you see the imbalance here?)
These boxes were gorging on plastic toys such as a tea set, a Cabbage Patch kid, balls large and small, fake beads and plastic pearl jewellery, fairy wands and a tiara, and a skipping rope. There were a selection of golden books and a few tennis balls too. A magna doodle drawing board completed the hoard.
A month into the trip, she had played with none of it, with the exception of drawing her experiences on the magna doodle, as the world and all of what nature had to offer had become her toy shop.
Sticks became magic wands, stones and rocks were the carrots and potatoes for imaginary soups, and shells graced sand castles as windows and decorative features, with a hankerchief flag blowing in the wind. Lucky for us, Grandpa was working in Sydney so when we met up, we packed up the majority of the toys (at this stage, I still wasn’t quite ready to part with them totally) and he took them back home to Queensland. The magna doodle, her Cabbage patch doll, the books and the tennis balls survived. We emptied two boxes completely.
Ten months on, our kombi broke down at the Turkey Creek roadhouse (google it- it is one of the most isolated spots in Australia) so the magna doodle and the tennis balls were lovingly given to a young group of fascinated aboriginal children from the local mission. The doll went back home with the van. We kept only three books for the final leg of the journey through Western Australia by bus and train. With no toys to accompany us, her imagination grew daily and her use of green materials from Mother earth expanded further.
Later, when I became a kindergarten teacher with my own class, I was determined to give them the same nourishing, rich experience through Mother Earth’s playground. As a teacher in a small independent school, I was privileged to be invited to visit the children at home to spend some one on one time with them. I loved this time to bond. Children would invariably lead me into their homes to show me their toy collection and more than once I had to draw breath! Many of the children’s rooms were overflowing with bright plastic toys, often plastered with commercial images. Bedrooms were often shrines to Batman, Superman, Bratz dolls or Barbie. I often wondered how on earth they did sleep amongst the visual rubbish (and parents often commented that they didn’t!) Sadly, some of their toys were broken or uncared for, having been tossed into random big buckets when the call to clean up came.
So at school, we did something different. We created a space where where the children who came to play and work could learn the value of each thing, to restore breakages back to life, to care for their toys and love them dearly, and to know that everything has a place. We went back to basics for our toys-handmade, organic, timber, lovingly crafted- and brought the outside in- nature’s treasures abounded. In the back of my mind, I kept the knowledge of my daughter’s imaginative play experiences and vowed to create a space for these children where they too, could create, build, grow and learn, unbridled by the need to have the latest ‘in’ thing. While it wasn’t always easy or quick to stick by our homegrown values and guidelines, it gave our team immense joy when we succeeded. Parents were inspired too, and many vowed to take a serious look at their own homes and toy rooms, with a view to bring beauty, and eco-friendly goodness back into their spaces too.
Here are some of the things we did. You can do it too:
- Every item we chose was lovingly created by hand by staff on our team, found, or sourced from craftspeople in our local community who took pride in their work. Fathers and Grandfathers sawed dead branches into rough blocks that the children could then sand to smooth perfection to use in their day. Grandmothers knitted farm animals and mothers created felt dolls for the doll house. Crafty people helped by making wet felted scenes and landscapes for all the toys to reside upon. The children often helped or played around the adults working diligently. All purchases were inexpensive and rarely did I break a $5 note. I also began to collect things for my home so visiting children could also have a similar experience.
- Sensory exploration was an important factor too. We wanted children to delight in the touch and texture of these toys crafted from living materials such as timber, wool, fabric, silk, and cotton. It was essential that not only did the toys warm their hearts, but their hands too.
- We strived to value ‘perfect imperfection’. Meaning that toys and dolls often carried the mark of the maker, and were individualised, sometimes with ‘scars’ or quirks of nature imbued in their character. These toys were the antidote to the unattainable perfection of a plastic doll such as Barbie or kewpie doll, or a truck produced in cookie-cutter fashion. Playing with ‘perfectly imperfect’ toys and dolls allowed and encouraged children to create their own, imitating the simple, yet sweet, toys in their surrounds. Children were able to stitch and sew their own dolls and toys, choosing materials such as hessian, vintage fabrics, and wool scraps that were often donated to us. The children were taught simple craft skills such as blanket and running stitch and how to thread their own needles, which gave them unlimited talents in making things. They learned the value of being able to turn something old into something new.
- We placed long, low shelves made from pine timber around the room. These held carefully set up ‘scenes’ where the toys would live. Knitted pigs, horses and cows sat on green pieces of green silk grass, separated by handmade ‘fences’ built from dowel and branch offcuts. Simple dolls (such as the ones that can be found here under the category “Make-Dolls” stood inside simple castles made of rustic blocks, while other dolls sat upon mini chairs created from pieces of timber we found on nature and beach walks. Knitted yellow chickens sat upon green felt for grass while felt ducks swam upon ‘agate’ slices re-imagined as shiny sparkly lakes or ponds. Miniature sets of dustpans, brushes and brooms leaned up against cabinets filled with locally made pottery cups and plates, perfect for a surprise afternoon tea. Felt sewn cupcakes graced the cake stand, looking good to eat. Simple wooden cars stood still next to large timber trucks made by local retirees.
- Toys that were broken in the course of play were brought to a ‘fixing’ basket and the children could help to mend them. Items that couldn’t be repaired in class were sent home for medical help and returned when well.
- “Treasure hunting” became the name of the game. Opportunity (charity or secondhand) shops unveiled many an item for play including pots and pans for the sandpit, wooden bowls and spoons for home corner, and odd curtain rings, timber balls and wooden blocks for creative imaginative play. Recycling and reusing odd materials for new play experiences gave the children lots of scope for their imaginations.
- The outdoor space was purposefully left quite bare, with a large sandpit the main focus. Access to a monitored water source was essential to aid in all the play (science experiments!) that ensued. We chose ‘real’ over ‘perfection’, and some of our team had to discard a secret wish for manicured gardens completely. Instead, our manifesto was to create a PLAY space- the more opportunity for children to dig in the dirt, collect flowers for potions, and crack rocks for gold dust, the better! A space for a veggie patch was the final ingredient in our green cause. Home grown produce featured heavily in our daily program in meals and cooking days and was a great source of inspirational conversations amongst the young and old.
- Mothers and grandmothers joined our local craft group and I often ran evening workshops to inspire families to create toys for themselves, using natural materials where possible. I saw many a woman flourish and grow before my eyes as their latent creative flame began to burn brightly once more. THIS was my biggest motivator of all! Watching women grow and fire up their creative spark is truly what sustains me. I LOVE this!
- As a community of like-minded ‘green’ seekers, parents were often inspired by one another. One thing that helped our quest to ‘green’ the toy box was the unspoken commitment of families to give ‘eco-friendly’ or green gifts for children’s birthdays. Rather than spend money on a toy that is destined to end up in the world’s landfill, I gave handmade gifts such as coloured crystals or pieces of agate delicately wrapped in tissue paper, a handmade paper golden box hiding a small silver bell to use at bedtimes, or a recycled matchbox covered with material that hides a tiny handmade baby doll inside. We’ve also gifted torches (for night-time gecko or lizard hunting expeditions), gardening kits (think seeds, pots, soil, watering cans etc), baking sets and ingredients for a particular recipe, and buckets of handmade coloured playdough.
Going green with our thinking around the “toys” our children use for play not only saves the planet piece by piece but also encourages creative thinking and a life filled with wonder. Lets all be inspired to rethink the toybox in our homes.
Why not green your toybox with these ideas?
- Ask a relative with a chainsaw to cut a dead branch into small pieces that can be sanded and polished by the children and used for creative block play?
- Make a draughtsboard using vintage fabrics recycled from an opportunity shop. The draughts themselves can be white and black stones. Store it in a cotton bag for easy access.
- Knit some new dolls clothes from odd balls of wool in your cupboard or ask grandma- your children will love the new lease of life and be reinspired to care for them
- Old wooden or bamboo bowls and small sets of cutlery are great for their home corner play. Children love nothing more than playing out what they see and experience daily in our world and this gives them the opportunity to act out cooking and mealtimes
- Search out secondhand stalls and markets for board and card games. These are great for bringing the family together. These places are also an abundant source of old unwanted craft items, materials, and household goods that may form inventive toys. The simpler and less adorned the item, the more scope for imagination.
- Find eco-friendly versions of toys that children MUST have. You can still purchase metal tonka trucks that last for years, but if you must have a plastic version, why not buy one made from recycled plastic? They are cool, come in funky subdued colours, and cost only a few dollars more than one you might pick up at a large variety store. Hello Charlie has a range (Green Toys) of cars and vehicles you might like.
- Manmade toys made of plastics often have questionable environmental consequences due to the manufacturing process as well as potential toxic hazards. Children’s ‘toys’ should be in as natural form and as close to nature as possible- think timber, hemp, cotton materials, wool. Recycled is even better.
- Less is more! One good bike that grows with them is a better investment than a succession of cheaper imitations.
- Visit local playgrounds rather than buying your own equipment, or invite your local community or neighbours to share in your fun. The added benefit is the potential to broaden your ties to your local community and make new friends.
- A walk in the woods or by the sea is a fantastic way to build your play things- seedpods, sticks, stones, fallen leaves, driftwood, and shells sorted into matching baskets will inspire creative play for days!