A Greener Easter

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Around here, the holidays of whatever sort are mainly good reasons for crafting. (We’re devout Unitarians, meaning that we go to Christmas Eve services religiously every year. Ha.)

This year, I eyed Easter on the calendar and decided, as is my wont, to de-plastic and unjunk the basket. No Peeps for us peeps. And none of that irritatingly static-y plastic grass, which is a pointless use for various poison plastics (including PVC), if I ever saw one.

I found a spare basket at the thrift store for .60 cents, rounded up green shredded paper (though paper from the actual shredder or a little tissue paper would work just fine), and picked up a few small but adorable toys from the stuff sold by Maya’s new Waldorf school, including this cute egg made by Fairyfolk and a chick finger puppet inside from Folkmanis.

IMG_6294I also allowed myself to finally buy these long-coveted pastel Tegu blocks, ostensibly for Ms. M, but really for me to play with.

IMG_6295IMG_6296I liked the idea of a real toy in the mix, and these are gorgeous, sustainably made open-ended building blocks unlike anything we have now. (I paid around $60 at a local store, Trohv, which is about half their current price on Amazon. That is still very expensive, but I believe in buying better toys for all these reasons if you can afford it, especially by not wasting your money on other kiddo junk. And I’ll get hours of fun out of them at least!)

We’re planning on dying eggs, of course, using this natural, food-based dye from Earth Paint, and decorating them with these smooth-as-silk and high quality beeswax crayons that the great mom who runs Stubby Pencil studio just sent me to try.

But that seemed predictable, somehow. So I decided to take it up a notch by making felted Easter eggs last Sunday morning. I’m pleased to report that this is totally the kind of project that is fun and manageable for a toddler, and that the only messiness involved is some soapy water, which is hardly a problem.

IMG_6269To make your own gorgeous eggs, you’ll need:

  • Some wool roving in nice colors (Fairyfolk sells it, as does Amazon)
  • Some wool or acrylic yarn in a light tone (tail-ends of knitting projects work nicely)
  • Some hot, soapy water
  • Some old pantyhose you are willing to ruin
  • A tray or towels to catch the water
  • A washing machine and dryer and laundry soap
  • Embroidery thread (optional)
  • Tennis balls (optional)

(Some directions call for you to use plastic eggs as the base, taped shut, but since my purpose was to have an Easter without plastic, I used yarn egg shapes instead. I would recommend using a thick but light-colored yarn, as the red yarn I used showed through on some eggs.)

First, set up your soapy water in a bowl on top of a towel and make your “egg” base with yarn by wrapping the yarn thickly around two fingers held together, then slipping it off and wrapping in the opposite direction to produce an oblong shape, until it is large and thick enough to form an egg even with some shrinkage. The toddler can help with this process as well.

IMG_6240IMG_6239Dip the egg baby into the bowl and squeeze to start the felting process. Next, grab a clump of roving wool and gently pull out some felt strands, flattening them a bit. Wrap the egg in the roving.

IMG_6246IMG_6253Next, wrap a second flat handful of roving around, with the fibers pointing in a perpendicular direction to the first batch (this is not nearly as hard to do as it sounds). Dip the ball and get it good and wet, forming it into an egg shape.

IMG_6251IMG_6248Decide what decoration you would like. For this one, we used a little yarn. You can also do stripes or dots with different colored roving, use multiple colors of roving to make the egg, or wrap embroidery thread around as well (as in the picture up at the very top).

Next, carefully maneuver your egg into the toe of an old cut-off stocking and use something to bind it off. (Yarn works and could allow you to re-use the nylon. I just knotted it and later cut it open, after struggling with yarn on the first try.)

IMG_6249IMG_6256When you’re done making your eggs, stick them in the washing machine on a hot setting with the tennis balls if you have them around and some soap. Check them to see if you want more than one cycle (I did mine for two), and toss them into the dryer when you are happy with the shape. Dry them until no water comes out when you squeeze, and then you may want to put them in the sun to ensure they will really get dried out. You could also sew embroidery, beading or decorative thread and ribbons on after the fact for additional cuteness.

IMG_6261IMG_6301Happy Easter!

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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