12 Amazing Plastic-Free Toys for Summer

Girl holding a string attached to a toy boat floating in clear water

Eric Audras / Getty Images

If you’ve ever shopped for outdoor summer toys for kids, then you’ll know that most of them are made from cheap plastic. This is frustrating for parents who want to minimize their kids’ exposure to plastic, and who are concerned about the entire life cycle of the product. Many plastic toys have short life spans, turning brittle with wear and age, and they cannot be recycled once broken. The following list features unusual, beautiful, and eco-friendly toys that are utterly unlike anything you’d find at a local box store. These are primarily non-plastic, made from recyclable, biodegradable, or repairable materials. Some are perfect for the backyard, the park, or the beach. May these provide inspiration for what summer play can be.

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Cotton Swimming Aids

Two inflated Schlori swim cushions with a sea life pattern

Life Without Plastic

Say goodbye to those phthalate-laden inflatable plastic armbands that seem to pop every season and get tossed in the trash. These swimming aids were invented in Germany in the 1930s and have, apparently, been popular ever since. They’re made from cotton canvas and inflate in an unusual way:

“You must first saturate the tightly-woven canvas material with water. The more saturated with water the better they will hold air, presumably because as the material gets wet, it swells creating a near-waterproof enclosure. Then, you must make a pocket in a corner, hold it tightly around your lips, and blow through the material to fill the inside pocket with air.”
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Wooden Sloop Sailboat

Two toy sailboats with colorful sails floating in water

ZenShui / Michelle Constantini / Getty Images 

Children love floating boats, whether it’s on a town pond, in a fountain, or at the beach. Look for a real wooden boat with canvas sails and attached towline to ensure it never floats away. Wooden Sloop Sailboat, $29.98

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Canvas Teepee

Two children playing inside a small teepee in a park

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No child can resist the allure of a tent, a cozy little hideaway from adult eyes and fun place to sleep. Look for natural fabrics when purchasing a tent, such as this canvas teepee that’s handmade in New York. There are lots of (cheaper) options on Etsy, too. Eventually it will biodegrade when thrown away, rather than contribute to the enormous plastic pollution problem; and you will rest assured knowing your kid isn’t breathing in the stench of off-gassing plastic. Canvas Teepee Tent, $130

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Wooden Sand & Water Table

Kids playing at a sand table made from wood

Magic Cabin

This cute wooden play table stands at waist-height and feature a handy liner that allows parents to swap sand for water quickly and easily. It has a small footprint, making it suitable for small yards and easy moving. Wooden Sand & Water Table, $119

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Metal Bubble Wand

Bubbles floating in a backyard

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Bubbles are a classic summer game that never loses its appeal. Invest in a metal bubble wand for lasting fun, such as these beautiful handcrafted ones made from recycled copper and brass. They come in large and small, and the blacksmith says his most popular designs are puppy paws and four circles. He even has one that blows a bubble within a bubble! There is no online store, but you can contact the maker for shipping information. Metal Bubble Wands, available here

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Chalk City Road Stencils

Road sign stencils including a stop sign and two different arrows

Chalk City

This toy isn’t entirely plastic-free, but one could argue that it replaces a lot of plastic by making play road mats unnecessary. Chalk City sells stencil kits that make it easy to transform your driveway or any smooth asphalt surface into a fun play space for car-crazy kids. It used to carry a road-maker (a device that dragged two pieces of chalk in straight lines to create roads), but it has been discontinued. The idea is great, though, and it would be easy enough to make something similar from scratch. Stencil kits, $8.50 each

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Natural Rubber Ball

Rubber ball in rainbow colors with each section a different texture

Photo from Amazon

Every kid loves a ball, no matter what age. Look for a ball made from natural rubber, such as this Sensory Play Rubber Ball that started its life as a lump of sap. Free from BPA, PVC, phthalates, and nitrosamine, painted with food-grade color, it’s entirely biodegradable. Natural rubber ball, $17.99

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Wooden Birdcall Whistles

Handmade wooden birdcalls in a bowl at an outdoor market

Paulo Jose Lima Gomes / Getty Images

Fostering a love of nature is so important for kids. These awesome whistles will help them to recognize specific birdcalls and communicate with them. Dozens of birdcalls available here. Birdcall Whistlers, $19-28

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Metal Sand Toys

Metal bucket and ovel in the sand

Ross Anania / Getty Images

Here’s an adorable fancy metal sand toy set ($36.95 from the Wooden Wagon Co.) but it’s just as easy (and probably cheaper) to compile your own. Head to the thrift store or hardware store and buy a small metal spade or trowel and a metal pail or planters in various sizes. You can still find children’s metal watering cans, as well as metal sand sieves, such as this one made by German company Redecker.

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Balsa Glider

Boy getting ready to slingshot a wooden glider into the air

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Depending on your age, you may remember these balsa wood gliders from your childhood. Sold by Lee Valley Tool in Canada, these are the exact same ones, made by the same manufacturer in Massachusetts that made them so popular. They’re fragile but fun, capable of fancy loop-the-loop maneuvers and long-distance gliding. Balsa Glider, $3.50 each

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Pine Trucks

Several wooden vehicals including two planes, a motorcycle, a jeep, and a truck

Lee Valley Tool

These cute little kits take about an hour to assemble using chunky screws and pre-drilled pieces, following easy pictorial directions. The resulting toy is tough and durable, and made entirely of wood. You can use them anywhere. (My son has one and loves it, so I can vouch for its success in our household.) Pine Trucks, $12.95 each

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Swurfer Swing

Person's feet on the Swurfer, mid-swing with trees in the background


This has to be my favorite item in the entire list -- a swing that rides like a surfboard, snowboard, or wakeboard among the trees. Handmade in the US from solid wood, it has a unique curved shape that takes swinging to the next level. Even adults can hop on, with a max weight limit of 250 lbs. Swurfer Swing, $129.99