simple toys

you know how kids always seem to like the cardboard box more than the toy? i have seen river become more enthusiastic over a piece of fabric, or a bell, or embroidery hoops, than he has with noisy toys that light up and move. while river does have a lot of plastic battery-operated toys made in china, it is my and john's goal, when we are purchasing gifts for him ourselves, to only buy toys that encourage open-ended play, are american made, and made with natural materials, such as wood. we've thought about it, talked about it, and argued with ourselves a lot over this decision. we've come across the whole "but what if a family member gives it to him?" thing, and decided that, well, if that does happen, it's really not that big of a deal. a couple plastic toys aren't going to kill him. and as he gets older, of course, he's not going to want to play with wooden trucks and wardolfian dolls, but hey, we can at least try to give him a good start.

this wooden stacking toy was given to river from family.
while it is made in china, this is considered an open-ended toy.
melissa & doug offers a stacking toy very similar to this target-brand one.
(i'm pretty sure they were first ;-)

1) simple, imaginative play. dr. dimitri christakis defines open-ended toys as "toys that foster children's imagination, that have the potential to be different every time they play with them." a child is a sponge - soaking up everything they see, feel and hear, and turning it all into a learning experience of some kind. the first seven years of a child’s life are the most crucial when it comes to education and character development. the other day, river learned how to ring a bell. it was heavy for his chubby little arms, and it was difficult to move it back and forth, but when he did it on accident the first time, he learned - when i do this, that happens, and when i stop, it goes away. and he did it again and again. it was the coolest thing to witness. i could tell right then and there that by ringing the bell, he was learning far more than he does when he pushes a button on his toy ipod (yes, toy ipod) and it lights up and plays a melody that continues for a while. toys like these are great baby-sitters. in fact, this toy ipod is our on-the-road toy. whenever river is crying in the car and there isn't much i can do about it, i whip it out and he is happy. toys like these can overstimulate (the same way someone can only find entertainment through movies and video games - i don't want the only time river is entertained to be when he has a noisy, bright toy, nor do i want to give him a thirst for that), but i believe open-ended, simple toys encourage imagination and learning.

2) supporting american-made. not just american-made, but supporting a culture. why? the answer is simple: sweat shops and child labor in china, and the fuel and carbon emissions it takes for the toys to actually get here. no, we can't avoid all products made in china (or other countries) - frankly, we don't have the money. inexpensive products made from cheap labor in other countries are everywhere. it is almost unavoidable, especially for low income families who need affordable items to get by. but if we can support american made products in any area of our lives, than why not? it's the same with local food - it goes beyond just eating healthy. by eating local, we are supporting our local farmers and a more honest food industry (not to mention truly organic produce). the documentary food inc. said it pretty well - when you eat organic, you vote yes for organic foods. or something like that. it sounds cheesy, but it's true. whenever we purchase an independent-ma-and-pa-american-made toy for river, we are voting yes to natural fiber, american made toys! (how many times can i say american-made?)

3) another step towards being "green". remember all those recalls the last few years because the lead in the paint of these plastic toys (made in china!) was high enough to be considered toxic? not only do you have to worry about lead in paint (among other things), but also what type of plastic your child's toys are made out of. many infant toys are made out of PVC and BPA, which are known to out-gas toxic fumes that can cause cancer. the big thing these days is steering clear of BPA, so many companies are switching to BPA-free bottles, pacifiers, sippycups, etc. but not many people know about the dangers of PVC. PVC is vinyl, and most likely what your shower curtain is made out of (i know ours is). these plastics are so dangerous that they have been banned in parts of europe and canada, and even walmart has switched from using petroleum-based plastics in their packaging, to corn-based plastic. yet, many of our children's toys are still made from these dangerous plastics. and, i might add this reminder: plastic is forever. every time we buy and use plastic, we are contributing to hundreds of years of plastics piling up in our landfills.

4) living simply & buying less... stuff. because toys made in america with natural materials are a hell of a lot more expensive than plastic toys made in china, we can't buy a boat load. and this is a good thing. we are discovering the idea of living simply, believing less is more. we want river to appreciate what he has, what he is given. we also want to give him the option to be creative. he doesn't need toys to be entertained - he needs to learn to use his mind and his hands, to build, to write, to reuse, to construct, to take apart, to put back together, to learn.

one of my favorite mama blogs is totally smitten mama. she encourages this type of play with her boys, and posts great ideas for crafts and learning activities.

a great company that offers inexpensive, natural and non-toxic toys is melissa & doug (although most are not made in the US). of course, there are many, many more toy companies out there but these are [[actually affordable.]]

and i just found a blog post where a mama discusses "untoys" - coolest thing ever, and really does remind you how creative kids can get with simple toys. or rather, untoys.

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