Updated: Mar 21
Before becoming a parent, I swore I would never let my child have a playroom full of plastic toys. I envisaged a calm, educational play space full of Grimms and Grapat toys and no artificial materials in sight. After having two children, the reality is that many plastic toys have made their way into our house, even some of those particularly intrusive ones with annoying sounds and bright lights that my daughters just seem to love so much. However, my appreciation of wooden toys still remains and they will always be my go-to if I have the choice. But what is so good about wooden toys? I decided to do some research. I found that there were five main reasons why wooden toys and resources were beneficial for children; a calming effect, their ability to promote imaginative and open ended play and learning, sensory benefits, sustainability and low-toxicity.
For a young child, the flashing lights, dazzling colours and demanding sounds of plastic toys (not to mention the visual stimulation of TV, iPads, mobile phones, video games etc) can be attention-grabbing, but can also overload the senses. Sustained exposure to high-input environments can lead to overwhelm and overstimulation, often resulting in difficult behaviours such as meltdowns, tantrums or hyperactivity. In a classroom setting, it could present as inattention, an inability to concentrate or listen, impulsive behaviour, a lack of cooperation with peers and messy work. This is even more true for children (and adults) with Sensory Processing Disorder, a neurological condition that interferes with the brain’s ability to convert sensory messages into appropriate motor and behavioural responses.
In contrast, wooden toys usually have a neutral and natural aesthetic which reduces the load on a child’s sensory system. The ‘blank canvas’ style of many wooden toys can help children concentrate and focus. Being a natural material, wood evokes feelings of nature and the outdoors. We have all experienced the feeling of calm and rejuvenation that comes from stepping out of the artificial world and into a natural environment such as a garden, the countryside or bush. Including wooden toys and natural elements in a play space can bring a piece of nature (and the calming effects along with it) into the home or classroom.
I was amazed to learn that the simple act of touching wood can have a physical calming effect on children. In a 2017 study titled The Physiological Effects of Touching Wood, Harumi Ikei found that contact with wood can initiate relaxation and have a positive neurological impact on a child’s brain. In an educational space, the ability for a child to relax and concentrate promotes sustained attention to the learning goal and is therefore immensely beneficial for cognitive development. This is one of the reasons why you will find many wooden learning tools (and very few, if any, plastic ones) in Montessori and Waldorf-inspired classrooms. Both educational philosophies also place importance on minimalist design, clean lines and natural beauty, all of which are encompassed in good quality wooden resources.
Wooden toys can aid in the learning of maths and science concepts such as weight, volume, load bearing and general problem solving. They also assist with developing motor skills and spatial awareness. Because wooden toys usually contain no moving parts, children need to manipulate them themselves, building fine motor strength. Many plastic toys are hollowed out or overly heavy versions of what they are supposed to be. This gives a false reference point for the child. On the other hand, wooden toys are varying weights, density, and sizes. Even if a wooden toy car, for example, is not the size of a real car, its proportions are more likely to be weighted realistically as compared to a plastic toy car. This allows for a realistic perception and increased awareness of items and the world around them.
Wooden toys tend to be more passive than their plastic counterparts. Without moving parts or sounds that often restrict or direct how they are used, kids need to be more involved while playing with wooden toys as their use is left up to their own imagination. As an open-ended resource, wooden toys allow children to explore at their own pace and on their own terms. For example, wooden blocks can be stacked create a tower, but they could also be arranged to make a mandala design or positioned like an obstacle course. The versatility of wooden toys often means fewer toys are needed as one resource can provide so many playtime options.
SENSORY & INTRINSIC BENEFITS
Being a natural material, wood has markings that show up in the toys they produce. This makes each one unique and interesting. Wood grain has changing structures and colours which serve as proof of its natural origins. As Grimms explains, the unique variations are proof of quality, not defects. This adds to the sensory visual experience of wood. Wooden resources also offer sensory experiences in terms of their feel, temperature (depending on how long they are played with), musical sounds, smell and even taste! The open, dry surfaces of wood prevent bacterial growth, and in fact some types of wood have disinfectant properties.
Wooden toys can be made from several different types of wood, including Ash, Beech, Birch, Walnut, Oak, Pine, Bamboo and Rubberwood. Generally speaking, wooden toys are environmentally more friendly than plastic due to wood’s biodegradable nature and its ability to be recycled.
On the other hand, plastic is an economical product that can be quick to produce. This is one reason why there are so many plastic toys available. Unfortunately, plastics are made from fossil fuels, which produce large quantities of carbon dioxide when burned. Carbon emissions trap heat in the atmosphere and lead to climate change, making plastic toys essentially bad for the environment.
According to the founders of eco brand ecoBirdy, 90% of toys are made of plastic and are used for just six months on average. 80% of these toys end up in a landfill, incinerators, or the ocean. They can take thousands of years to break down. (On an interesting side note, ecoBirdy recycles discarded plastic toys and turns them into colourful, kid-sized furniture). By choosing wooden toys over plastic ones, you are making a choice to reduce landfill and care for the environment.
While wood is also a renewable resource, it’s important to note that just because a toy is made from wood does not ensure that the wood was sustainably harvested. Sustainable harvesting means that harvesting is managed to prevent damage to eco-systems, waterways, wildlife, and the trees themselves. It takes into consideration the long-term effects of logging, rather than short term benefit of using a resource purely for profit. To tell if a wooden toy has been made from sustainably harvested wood, look for official certification of the wood’s sustainable source. This will often be advertised by the toy’s manufacturer or listed on their website. The two main certifications and logos to look out for are those from the The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Programme for the Endorsement of Forestry Certification (PEFC). For example, Savvy Kid’s wooden letter puzzles are made from FSC certified plywood.
You may’ve heard of BPA, or bisphenol A. It is an industrial chemical that is present in many plastic toys, along with other nasties such as phthalates, lead, formaldehyde, flame retardant and PVC. All of these can have negative effects on brain growth and development. Some are also carcinogenic, hormone disrupting and linked to hearing loss, ADHD and kidney damage. Yikes! Obviously these are unwanted in children’s toys, especially if they are to be handled regularly or chewed. There is no BPA, PVC, or phthalates in wooden toys making them a great choice for parents looking to avoid chemicals. However, be mindful that painted wooden toys may have traces of lead contained in the paint.
Wooden toys are also less likely to contain batteries, magnets, screws and small parts, all of which can also be dangerous to kids and especially younger children.
A toy’s popularity or availability unfortunately does not reflect its safety. However, the
Australian Toy Standard does set standards that are determined and enforced by the
Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC). These requirements subject toys to five mandatory safety standards which should be met before a product is legally marketed. Cautionary labelling should be present on all toys or toy packaging, but this is not always the case. Look for the Australian Safety Standards Logo for piece of mind.
All up, wooden toys have many benefits that will not only see them being dragged into the playroom time and time again by the kids but will also ease the mind of today’s safety and eco-conscious parents. Wooden toys may become timeless favourites handed down through the generations. Of course, mixing in a few plastic toys here and there isn’t the end of the world, especially if you choose eco-friendly brands like Green Toys, that make their toys from 100% recycled plastics. Happy playing!
*This blog is not sponsored in any way - all brands mentioned are purely my own recommendations*
Want to Dive in? Here are some more resources on the topic to explore (many were used in the research for this article):
Why wooden toys make the best playthings
Circularity, Sustainability Take Hold in Toy Industry
Physiological Effects of Touching Wood
Are Wooden Toys Really Better? Why Montessori Thinks So
Why wooden toys are better
Why choose sustainable toys?
Are Plastic Toys Safe?
Plastics & Plastic Toys
Australian Safety Standards for Toys