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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Green Tips for Thrifty Parents

A pretty spring dress I found for Maya for $5.00

Recycling is the ultimate green thing to do, and for parents it’s a great way to save money for other things you’ll need.

To be honest, I’ve always loved thrift stores and second-hand clothing.  As a brand new “public interest” lawyer saddled under by student loans, I would organize my seasonal “wardrobe” (read: collection of old clothes) in time to try to trade it in for new duds at one of those snobby consignment shops in DC. It was one good way to get new clothes on a lean budget.

For kids’ clothes, of course, it makes even more sense. They wear everything for a nanosecond, and, based on what I see in the thrift stores and at yard sales, there’s a lot of aspirational cuteness involved in parents’ purchases.

We also pick up books – including library-quality hardcovers – from thrift stores, and church, school and library sales. I look for nicer books, and tend to also store away copies of kiddie lit classics like Little House on the Prairie when I come across them for a quarter, both because they’re a good deal and because I’m already sentimentally imagining sharing them with my girl.

Toys, obviously, are trickier. If some gizmo has been part of a safety recall, you would never find out about it. So I look for brands I know, and stay away from electronics (with metals that can degrade) and plastic stuff. If tempted, I check it over carefully for loose parts, choking hazards and overall quality. If a nicer item is being sold over the listserv, I’ll often check the reviews online to make sure it’s as good as it seems.

Cardboard puzzles are great choices, generally, if all the pieces are there, and there are excellent deals on popular games like Chutes & Ladders. (I would skip the “wooden” puzzles, as these are often made of fiberboard, which off-gasses formaldehyde.) I also pick up nice baskets for sorting all Maya’s stuff for pennies.

And of course, there’s furniture. If you can find solid wood items, that’s really a score. Craigslist is another good source for these, as are flea markets.

Here are some more tips for going green while thrifting:

The Don’ts

1)   Steer clear of bling. Cheap children’s and adult jewelry have been found to have lead and other toxic metals in them, as have those metal decorations on sweatshirts and jeans, as well as metal belt buckles on belts that are often sewn into pants for children.

2)   Avoid large decals. Most children’s and adult’s shirts with decorative decals use vinyl, or PVC (polyvinyl chloride). (This goes for new clothes too.) The older the shirt, the more likely it’s cracking and stuff is flaking off. Embroidered designs or clothes with the images woven into the fabric itself are better ways to go.

3)   Don’t buy pajamas unless they are clearly labeled “not flame resistant.” (Even I am not going to bother asking a company if a $2 pajama has chemical flame retardants in it.) Better to find a retailer with plain cotton pjs and layer those.

4)   Shoes are tricky – most cheap children’s shoes (including the ones we buy new) are “man-made materials,” i.e., plastic. They break down over time. On the other hand, I’ve seen some great like-new shoes that are leather at yard sales and picked those up.

5)   Raincoats and rainboots are also generally made of PVC (and there is PVC-free raingear available now), so I avoid those as well.

6)   I also tend to skip stuffed animals, plastic figures and old dolls. They all seem to multiply like rabbits whenever I’m not looking in the corners of Maya’s room, and there’s only a few she cares about. Dolls are mainly made of vinyl (PVC) and other plastics. Many stuffed animals are filled with plastic pellets, which could degrade, or foam or other petrochemical-based materials, and are dust and dirt magnets.

What to Look For

1)   Fancy dresses and coats tend to get very little wear and be in great shape (but check for stains!) – and are very expensive to buy new.

2)   For girls, jumpers are a great option. If they are big enough in the shoulders and arms, they may fit for several seasons, first as a dress and then as a shirt.

3)   Look several sizes ahead and buy the good labels across several seasons. The labels’ sizes can be completely off, so when I really have my act together, I bring a current dress of Maya’s and measure it against the other items, so that I can better identify what might fit both this year and next.

4)   Allow some time. Some stores are highly organized, but more often you find a jumble of sizes and seasons, and will need to go through it to see what’s really there. On occasion, Maya sleeps through this process. More often, I have to come back a few times. But when you do find things, you can buy a bunch at a time for not a lot of dough, which means fewer trips to the store.

5)   Some stores (like our local Value Village) have savings days or sticker programs where you can save even more. These may not be posted, so inquire.

6)   Costumes for the dress-up box are always great – funny hats and boas, as well as doll clothes from the baby items. The last time, I picked up a felt “Davy Crockett” raccoon cap Maya loves to prance around in for a quarter.

Of course, wash everything in environmentally friendly laundry soap.

It’s really great to watch Maya spill finger paint all over the shirt I bought for a buck. Do you have other tips for parents on recycling, thrifting, or finding things affordably?