Should Parents Buy Non-Plastic Toys for Their Kids?

all-wood play kitchen for children with microwave front and center

Courtesy of Max Birdy

I've been mulling this over since reading a BBC article called "Plastic toys: Is it time we cut back?" Plastic toys are predominant in kids' toy boxes these days. They are flashy, noisy, and mesmerizing, so it's no wonder parents reach for them at the toy store.

But there's more to toys than just keeping kids entertained. Play is an ongoing learning experience, and children engage intimately with the toys they own, so material does matter.

Regular readers will know that I'm not a fan of plastic in general; and even though plastic toys are far from being single-use and can be used by the same family for years before getting passed on, I still don't like them. And let's be honest – they don't age well. A 25-year-old plastic car is far less attractive than a wooden car of the same vintage.

Plastic toys are difficult to recycle, contain many different components, are prone to breakage and, because of their relatively low value, unlikely to get repaired. I suspect every parent has guiltily tossed a bag of broken plastic toy bits – unless they count themselves among the one-quarter of parents who have thrown away a plastic toy in perfect working order. (Maybe they can't take the beeping anymore?)

There are health concerns about toxic chemicals in cheap plastic toys, second-hand ones in particular. A study last year found traces of bromine, cadmium, and lead (among other chemicals) in more than 20 used toys. Soft plastic is a known source of phthalates, a worrisome endocrine disruptor that's most harmful for infants and young children. Opting for wood, fabric, or metal is always a safer bet.

These materials are more interesting, too. Plastic toys often require batteries and perform the same actions over and over again, whereas wooden and metal toys have mechanical and physical features that make them more engaging for a child. The child is forced to interact, rather than sit while the toy performs for them.

In the face of global environmental breakdown, there are obviously more pressing issues than fretting about plastic toys (think single-use plastics), but this is still an worthwhile discussion to have, particularly if parents want to set an example of eco-conscious consumerism for their child. In that case, choosing plastic-free toys makes sense, and plenty of wonderful alternatives exist that won't feel like a compromise at all.

If phasing out plastic altogether seems daunting, start by minimizing the overall number of toys. Kids get overwhelmed when their play spaces are too full. They can't find the ones they want and they end up bored. By paring down a toy collection to include the most stimulating and attractive options, a child is more likely to spend time playing.

Then focus on keeping and accumulating toys that can be used in a variety of ways and are conducive to imaginative play. My kids have plastic in the form of LEGO bricks, but these are constantly evolving into new shapes. Much of their time is spent digging holes outside with metal trucks and shovels, making art, riding bikes and skateboards, hopping on a pogo stick, constructing blanket forts, playing with cardboard boxes, hanging out in their treehouse, swinging on gymnastics rings, and dressing up in costume while wielding homemade weapons.