In Defense of Beautiful Toys

When that recent New York Times article mentioned, in passing, an expensive Amish-made bassinet I bought for Maya before she was born, many of the comments pounced on it as evidence that I was a spoiled, status-seeking housewife – an amusing idea for my husband, who often has to remind me to shower. Pass the bon-bons, I say!

Of course, my whole point was that attempts to shop our way to an answer on the problem of toxics often lead to an impractical and expensive result, because, frankly, safer materials for items like furniture come with a hefty pricetag. Obviously, this is unfair to families with a more limited budget (including us, as I’ll post soon on my effort to find a truly green sofa for less than $5,000! Ouch, couch.).

As I’ve explained in this blog, for my family, we save money by prioritizing greener options on what we eat, clean with and use on our skin, because these are the entry points for chemicals. We also save moola on clothes and books, and sometimes buy used toys in good condition.

But I’ve also developed a fondness for gorgeous toys, many of which are on the more spendy side of things.

Truth be told, I’ve always paid attention to aesthetics (to the extent I have a “style,” I like mid-century modern plus eclectic patterned pillows, whatever THAT is). Champagne tastes on a beer budget, as they say. And one of my concerns in having a baby was the “crap invasion:” all that extra junk that accumulates through the mere act, it seems, of having a child.

And, wow, the plastic! (Oh, the horror!) It’s ugly, as well as full of suspect chemicals.

So since she was born, I’ve slowly tried to build a small collection of mostly European and some made-in-America nicer toys – focusing on those that are constructed according to more stringent health and safety standards, and are really wonderful to play with. I’ll be posting a list of the companies we like.

Here are what I see are the many advantages of choosing fewer – and better – toys for Maya:

1)   We buy less. With the higher pricetag, we tend to pick and choose one or two nicer items for birthdays or holidays that will be more likely to grow with her (blocks to knock down today, and build with tomorrow). That means less stuff to pick up, fewer parts and pieces to worry about, and fewer distractions. I can keep the sets together, so that they actually work as intended, or use baskets and crates to put them away until they are “new” again.

2)   I like to play with them too. My husband always says the toys are for me, and it’s totally true. Rather than a gizmo with limited buttons that do one or two things, when I buy toys that I like, I’m far more tempted to get down on the floor and build things with Maya, interact about colors and shapes, or talk with her about the animals. The blocks are inviting and fun, and the hand puppets do insist on singing a silly song. Besides, the clean-up after a toddler is constant, and I’d rather handle stuff that I like to touch and put away, over and over and over again.

3)   The natural materials are a teacher. Like every child, Maya is learning a visual and tactile vocabulary of shapes, colors and sizes. There are just more possibilities with simpler, more open-ended toys for imaginative play, or with things that imitate colors and shapes found in the outside world. The toys have more context and, often, more flexibility, and sometimes even seem like the start of something like art. (Both the Montessori and Waldorf educational traditions foster respect for natural materials as part of the learning process, so I think this must make some kind of sense.)

4)   They have fewer moving parts. Simpler and more natural toys have no batteries, fewer safety recalls, fewer moving parts, and often (though not always) fewer choking hazards. Unlike electronic toys, they have fewer heavy metals, and no annoying little tunes that threat my limited sanity. They don’t fall apart as easily. They’re quiet instead, and ask for Maya to assign them a role, to call them to a purpose herself. This is a skill she will need. It’s one thing to push buttons, but it’s an entirely different thing to know why.

5)   They retain their value. Nicer items don’t show much wear and tear. They can be re-gifted, and no one will complain. They can be kept around as brainteasers (some of Maya’s puzzles are a challenge!), or, failing that, resold on listservs and the like for half their value. If you think of yourself as renting them for a longish time, even with the mark-up, it’s actually not such a bad deal.

6)   We’re (mostly) avoiding the crap trap. Any friend or family who comes by tends to notice that the toys are nicer, and we generally avoid the unwanted, if well-intended, plastic gifts. And I’ve unwittingly harnessed the power of “no:” when we go shopping, Maya has no expectation that she gets a toy from the big box retail store. I do collect dress-ups and nice instruments for the music basket, but party favors and other cheapy stuff get tossed to keep the clutter to a barely-human minimum. (And we’re still plenty cluttered!)

7)   We’re voting with our dollars. I love the idea that our money goes towards hand-crafted, well-made toys from companies that respect our family’s safety and the environment. We do consider what we buy more carefully, and try to jump ahead of Maya’s developmental stage to ensure it gets maximum use, so I usually covet an expensive item for awhile with furtive on-line visits, and then one day take the plunge.

And about that Amish bassinet – while it’s true that Maya outgrew it all too quickly, I loved putting her in it when she was born, and having her next to me in the bedroom. Like a Moses basket time machine, it’s hand-lathed, with hand-stitched organic linens from a women’s seamstress collective in North Carolina.

Given the ridiculous money that is spent on diaper bags and nursery items just for the cute factor, I don’t really feel guilty for picking this up. It’s still in her room as a toy bin, and its still formaldehyde-free.

It was beautiful then, and it’s beautiful today, and some day, it will doubtless pretty up another little baby’s room. So I’m just saying: we could all do with a little more hand-crafted prettiness, whenever we can make it work.

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2 thoughts on “In Defense of Beautiful Toys

  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you for your blog. It is such a wonderful resource. I would love to know your take on toys made in China but that meet european standards & are made by/for european toy companies like Janod, Haba, etc. Should they still be avoided in lieu of something not made in China? Thanks in advance for your response.

    • Hi there! I think this is a fascinating question. In my own house, we have brands like Haba that are made in China to European standards. Given that the European rules are the most stringent and that products sold there must meet them regardless of where they were manufactured, this seems best. However, we also know that there is some evidence of corruption among commercial entities in China, and so in the end the companies must self-police. If a particular company is not doing a good job of this, that could be problematic.

      Moreover, I personally resent paying top dollar for nicer toys only to have companies widen their margins by seeking to pay workers less and locate in areas where environmental rules are less stringent. My favorite companies are therefore ones like Grimm’s Spiel und Holz which are all made in Germany I believe, but wow, their stuff is pricey (but gorgeous! but tres chere!)

      If you want to check on a particular brand, you can try the Rapex database: http://ec.europa.eu/consumers/safety/rapex/alerts — that’s the EU product safety arm. Haba for example, has zero recalls. But if you search under toys as a category, it does seem that most of the recalls concern cheaper toys made in China. The quality of the brand is really the key question, it seems to me, and the care that they would take that their imported toys are up to the legal standard. Hope that helps! Thanks for writing! All best, Laura

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