Your Guide to Nontoxic Toys

The best wooden, organic cotton, and all-around safe toys for babies and kids

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For the sake of the environment—and their children’s health—some parents opt for Earth-friendly, toxin-free toys at holiday time. Here’s a bevy of nontoxic toys to consider this year.

Let’s face it: Some holiday toys are junk by January. And what’s not junk may still be unhealthy. Considering all toys “safe” just because they’re marketed for use by children can be a mistaken assumption. In July 2004, the Consumer Product Safety Commission recalled all metal toy jewelry sold in vending machines after some was found to contain lead. And then there’s polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic, which is often labeled non-toxic, but which produces dioxins in the manufacturing process and can contain softening substances like phthalates, considered to be hormone disrupters.

It may be impossible to keep all junk masquerading as toys out of the home at holiday time, but every natural toy—one that’s healthy for the environment and for growing bodies—that replaces a “junk-food” version makes a difference. Healthy toys decrease a child’s overall exposure to pollutants, create more demand for sustainable products, and reduce the environmental damage caused by pesticides, plastics and toxic chemicals. What’s more, when the natural alternatives happen to be both beautiful and fun, they’re less likely to be tossed aside. Here are toys that can endure in your family from one generation to the next—instead of winding up in the local landfill!

Wooden Toys to Treasure

Any solid wood is preferable to pressed woods, such as plywood and particleboard, which are formed with glues that give off toxins including formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. You can often see layers of pressed wood if you look at the edges of toys and puzzle pieces. Solid wood doesn’t require the use of toxic chemicals that pressed woods and PVC do. And solid wood doesn’t consume petroleum—a non-renewable resource—the way that plastics do. Wooden toys made with nontoxic paints and finishes also use and release fewer toxins. Beeswax and natural oil finishes, such as linseed and walnut oils, are safest. Since certified sustainable wood is rare right now, consider solid wood toys that are either unfinished or those that are finished with non-toxic substances. You can also look for toys made from recycled wood.

Certified Sustainable Choices:

Bingo Bed, the time-tested pounding board, is one of the most popular toys made by Holgate Toy Company, known as one of the finest designers and manufacturers of wooden toys in the United States. The 11-inch version includes eight colorful pegs and a hammer, while the nine-inch model includes six pegs. Most of the wood used in the production of the Bingo Bed is sourced from Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified vendors. 
For children ages 18 months to 6 years
$23.95 or $19.95 at www.holgatetoy.com; 800-499-1929

Another popular toy from Holgate is the Wagon of Blocks, featuring 48 smooth-sanded blocks in a durable pull wagon. 
For children ages 18 months to 4 years
$99.95 at www.holgatetoy.com; 800-499-1929

Tumbleweed Woodworks makes 24-piece, FSC-certified wood puzzles. Your children might like “Building Houses,” which highlights five different styles of architecture. 
For children ages 3 to 8 years
$20 at www.tumbleweedwoodworks.com; 800-497-3116

Here are some other wonderful wood-toy options that are unfinished or are finished with non-toxic substances:

The Pedella is a wooden duck that waddles when you push it. This fun toy is finished with natural beeswax. 
For toddlers.
$33.00 at www.organicgiftshop.com; 800-895-6045

A beautiful alder wood cash register from The Playstore will have your youngster playing shopkeeper. The buttons push down and kids can turn the crank to see the number display change as the profits roll in! 
For children ages 3 and up.
$49.95 at www.playstoretoys.com; 877-876-1111

Rosie Hippo sells a handmade toy camera that has a viewfinder, shutter button, and dials that turn. It’s made of hardwood with a child-safe mineral oil finish.
For children ages 3 and up. 
$17.95 at www.rosiehippo.com; 800-385-2620

Young Children Cotton to Cotton

Stuffed animals and dolls are the perfect toys for creative young children. Toddlers and preschoolers enjoy animating them through imaginative play, and babies like to explore the textures and shapes with their hands and mouths. But stain- and moth-proofed cotton, synthetics, and wool used in stuffed and soft fabric toys can contain azo dyes, which can be carcinogenic. And cotton crops account for one quarter of the insecticide use worldwide. Be sure that the cotton toys you buy are made from certified organic and/or untreated cotton and wool colored with nontoxic colorfast dyes. Here are some good options.

Organic Gift Shop sells Froggy Friend, an easily-animated, green cotton amphibian whose hands and feet can be dipped in water and frozen—a welcome remedy for the sore gums of a teething baby!
For infants through preschoolers.
$11.00 at www.organicgiftshop.com; 800-895-6045

Mama’s Earth features soft, cuddly, and Earth-friendly cotton stuffed toys hand-sewn in Vermont. The menagerie includes something for every animal lover: big and small bunnies, a Teddy bear, a whale, a turtle, and an elephant. 
For infants through preschoolers.
Prices range from $9.95 to $23.95 at www.mamasearth.com; 800-620-7388

Honeysuckle Dreams sells dolls that are destined to become family heirlooms. From “Rag Doll” to “Prairie Doll,” and “Dream Baby” to “Mermaid,” these colorful and imaginative cotton creations are sure to please.
For all ages.
$28 and up at www.honeysuckledreams.com; 301-217-0546

Beautiful Books with an Eco-Friendly Message

Panda Bear, Panda Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin, Jr. and Eric Carle. The text of this gorgeous book reads like a nursery rhyme about ten different animals, each of which is—or has been—on the endangered list. Toddlers might miss the point, but they’ll enjoy looking at the lush colors and beautiful creatures. 
For children ages 2 to 3 years.
Published by Henry Holt, 2003. Suggested retail price: $15.95

Where Once There Was a Wood by Denise Fleming. This just might be the most gorgeous children’s book around! Fleming’s text and stunning illustrations recall a wood, meadow, creek, plus their inhabitants—and the housing development that replaced them all.
For children ages 2 years and up.
Published by Henry Holt, 1996. Suggested retail price: $16.95

A Special Gift in the Holiday Spirit

How about giving a gift to the environment from your whole family to start the new year off right? Consider “adopting” an endangered animal! Several organizations dedicated to saving endangered species have animal adoption programs. Donate money to one of these organizations, and your family will receive an adoption kit, which typically includes a certificate and either a photo of the animal or a stuffed toy. It’s a great way to make a difference for the environment and a fun opportunity for kids to learn about wild animals.

Defenders of Wildlife: For $25.00 per species, you can choose to “adopt” one or more of a selection of 10 wild animals: wolf, dolphin, polar bear, panther, whale, sea otter, snowy owl, black bear, tiger or elephant. For $40.00 to $75.00, your family can adopt a whole animal family! You’ll receive a kit with a plush animal toy and a certificate of adoption. When ordering from www.defenders.org (800-385-9712), allow four to six weeks for standard shipping and five to seven days for express shipping.

The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International: You can adopt an infant gorilla for $50.00, a mother-infant pair for $100.00, or a majestic silverback for $300.00. In exchange for your donation, you’ll receive a photo of “your” gorilla and adoption papers. Allow four to six weeks for delivery when ordering from www.gorillafund.org (800-851-0203).

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