Safe and Natural Children's Toys

Safe and Natural Children’s Toys

little wooden car

Wooden car made by Bajo

Why We Care About the Toys We Choose

It all started a little over two years ago. Recalls on toys (particularly from China) were coming out left, right and center. Our little guy was about 5-6 months old and just starting to put absolutely everything in his mouth. I found a recalled toy among our bunch- a very non-threatening looking set of cloth baby blocks made by Baby Einstein. There was too much lead in the paint designs on it’s side. It sort of pushed me over the edge, and thus my search for something better began. No way, no how was I going to let my baby and toddler suck, bite, gnaw, lick (come on, admit it, your kids do the same things!) on highly toxic, junky plastic, phthalate-enriched, heavy-metal laced toys of unknown origins.

Add to that our growing desire as parents to stay away from all of the blinking-light, loud-noise-making, battery-requiring toys, and instead fill our home up with items that truly fostered imagination, rather than encouraging passivity. We decided that we really wanted to avoid toys that simply entertain. Instead, we wanted things that spurred them on to creative play. We also wanted to steer clear of all the tv and movie character toys out there (Dora, Disney princesses, Sponge Bob, and the likes).

ball track and roll toy

Nope, this isn’t my son, but he received this gorgeous Haba toy last Christmas

I love the motto at one of my favorite toy stores, Oompa: “No batteries. No blinking lights. No cartoon-themed toys. Period.”

Now, I’m the first to admit that we’re not purists and we do own a lot of toys (more than I’d like, actually), but we still keep a really close eye on what comes in, and we’ve been working hard to get rid of toys we’re not so keen on. As we get rid of them (donating them to charity or thrift stores), we slowly add in higher-quality toys. We will probably have a few less in the end (which actually sounds great to me), but they will be toys that go the distance through many different children (we’re going for 12, remember?) and our children will appreciate what they have more if they aren’t inundated with an entire roomful of toys.

What We Look For:

Not battery operated. Toys that don’t “perform” for you. Preferably from Canada, USA or Europe (though I know that some toys are responsibly made in other parts of the world, including China, and so this isn’t a strict rule). Something that I think will enhance and support my children’s natural creativity. Toys that are fun, interesting or appealing somehow (something bright made with non-toxic paints, or a soft and adorable plush doll, or a really unique game or puzzle). Toys that appear to be well-made and that will go the distance and handle lots of childish abuse.

blue wooden cart

A push-cart from Haba (just might be my favorite toy maker), our son’s 1 year birthday present

A few important things to look for:

  1. If it’s a painted item, you want to specifically see that they’ve used a non-toxic paint or finish, because even cute wooden toys can be painted with lead-based paints (or other paints that still have a lot of chemicals in them). Water based paints are best. Another option is to purchase unfinished wooden toys and paint or finish them yourself.
  2. Check to see if it’s certified according to European specifications. They are much stricter than any North American standards for manufacturers. Some excellent European brands to look for: Haba, Kathy Kruse, Vulli, Keptin Jr., Sigikid, Bajo. Plan Toys is another that meets their specifications.

So what kind of toys do we own?

  • Building sets- lego, wooden blocks, Wedgits, peg boards.
  • Dress up clothes, costumes, hats, purses.
  • Kitchen play- We have a wooden play kitchen, plus plenty of dishes, pretend foods, a tea set, etc.
  • Dolls- plus carriages, beds, blankets, clothing, and even a little baby doll sling I made for my daughter when I was pregnant with my son.
  • Puzzles and games.
  • Vehicles- We especially love all things wooden! Trains, cars, planes, emergency vehicles, even wooden animals with wheels.
  • Animals- We have both a farm and a zoo and plenty of animals to fill them with. We’ve just recently fallen in love with the brand Schleich, which makes incredibly detailed, very solidly made animal figurines (and other accessories). German brand, made in China, but they’re still high quality, and we’re starting to collect them this year.
  • For baby- a few simple teething toys suffice. Our little one (though she’s not quite there yet at 3 1/2 mths) has a couple of colorful wooden ones, one round wooden teether with a soft bear on it, and an organic cotton soft baby doll.
  • Musical instruments- For Christmas, we bought the older kids a wooden drum set made by Plan Toys. Last year Abbie received a child-sized guitar (you know you’ve got a musician for a father when…). Lots of tambourines, shakers, bells, etc.
  • For outdoors- We have a few balls and bikes. That seems to suffice, because there are so many things in nature that are infinitely more interesting than toys!

plan toy colorful teether

A wooden teether from Plan Toys, one of the first “natural” baby toys we bought

Where to Get Great Toys:

Oompa– Probably my favorite online toy store, simply because they have such an incredibly large selection of toys, games and puzzles, furniture, decor, dress up, baby stuff, etc. and it’s basically all non-toxic, made with natural materials, eco-friendly and adheres to our creativity-enhancing criteria. Prices are reasonable, customer service is good, and I promise you’ll have fun looking through what they sell!

Baby Naturopathics– I love this “kid and earth friendly boutique”. They carry many of the same types of toys as Oompa, and also have things like organic children’s clothing, glass bottles, etc. This store happens to be Canadian! Yay!

Amazon– Yes, surprisingly (or maybe not with how Amazon is expanding these days) they carry a great supply of safe and adorable toys! Furniture, baby teething toys, organic dolls and stuffies, wooden puzzles and blocks. Lots of the big names out there (Haba, Plan Toys, Under the Nile, etc.). We got Johanna’s Christmas presents through Amazon (a wooden teether and an organic cloth clutching doll) using our Swagbucks.

Baby Because- I first discovered this store when buying some cloth diapering supplies, but they also have a nice selection of playthings, plus baby feeding supplies, infant carriers, etc.

Tons of small, independent toy makers– Truly, there are just so many of them out there! I realized this year that Etsy is a fabulous place to look, with shops like Small Town Toys and The Wood Garden (both carry handcrafted wooden toys) or BeckyM’s shop (with the most adorable play food I may have ever seen!). You can also often find independent toy makers at craft fairs or festivals. Last year our kids received beautiful, hand-crafted and very unique wooden puzzles from a lady my Nana discovered at a craft fair. My parents found someone a few hours north of where we live who makes sturdy wooden vehicles. (So yes, my kids were spoiled last year!)

Waldorf Toys– To learn more about the Waldorf methods and philosophy, read this excellent guest post on my blog. There are many online shops selling absolutely beautiful Waldorf-style toys, such as Waldorf Treasures or Bella Luna Toys.

under the nile sleeping doll

The doll we bought Johanna for Christmas, in organic cotton by Under the Nile. Similar in style to some Waldorf dolls.

More places to find safe and amazing toys:

The Cool Mom Picks Safer Toy Guide

Safe Mama’s 2008 Safe Toy Guide (sorry, but there doesn’t appear to be a 2009)

The Daily Green: Safe Toy Watch

And another wonderful option: Making your own toys!

You can make your own Waldorf dolls, or your own teething toys (with organic cloth even). Some friends of ours once made a simple and small set of wooden blocks with our daughter’s name carved into them, and they finished the wood by rubbing them with Crisco (ok, so it’s not a fat that I would choose to eat– lard or tallow or butter are much better choices!– but it’s a far cry from varnish or lacquer!). Michele at Frugal Granola has also made play food for her daughter out of felt– so cute!

I’m not the handiest person around, so I don’t pretend to know how to make my own toys, but there are so many resources out there (books, websites, etc.) if you just take a look!

tottering towers

One of our daughter’s favorite games, Tottering Towers by Haba.

How do you feel about toys and what are the guidelines for the toys that you allow in your home? Any other resources to share with us for purchasing safe and natural toys, or even for making some of our own?

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  1. You’ve struck a chord with me! I am very passionate about this subject, too. Although we’ve never had any toy that has been recalled, I have *NO* problem giving away toys. We par it down to one toybox– a wicker crate, and other than dress up clothes, an art easel, and a wooden kitchen (and accessories) that’s it! We rotate our toys every week or two, so there are about 4 toys out at one time–that’s it. I notice it has kept up imagination and they aren’t overwhelmed with all the “Stuff” hanging out, little pieces all over the floor, etc. Most of all our toys are wooden and frankly, this is my notion, because they are MUCH more aesthetically pleasing, and we also don’t like batter/noise/etc. I also like to think of us saving toys that will last through generations–that our kids can inherit for our grandchildren! Even though they are more expensive up front, they are definitely worth their value in the end!

    Some favorites you should check out are:

    Nova :

    The Wooden Wagon:
    (we love oompa & haba, too!)
    Hearth Song:
    ETSY! has AWESOME handmade goodies and they are usually VERY well priced! I have found a wooden toy sewing machine, ironing board & iron, etc, for great prices!
    Also, a *great* resource for us (we implement a few Montessori ideas into our day) is Small Hands: This website has sooo many great little tools for our tiny helpers! 🙂

    Sarah M

  2. This is a great topic and one I’ve actually been thinking about quite a bit lately, especially with the Christmas season that is upon us. We are pregnant with baby #1 and have talked about how we don’t want to shower our kids with tons of toys. I want the toys they do have to be quality toys that will last for all of the children we’d like to have (which hopefully is a lot!).

    I want their toys to foster creativity, and I think that less is usually more. Children are natural minimalists and I certainly don’t want to encourage materialism in them by giving them rooms and rooms full of toys.

    Thanks for the great resources! I’m sure we’ll be needing them soon enough. 😉

  3. What helpful information as we face the challenge of weeding through the toy collection and being more thoughtful about what comes in, at the same time somehow convincing the present givers in the family (who can hold back grandmas?!) to do the same. My nearly 6 yr old daughter is desperate for lego, any suggestions on what is best? Thanks again for all your hard work!

    1. @Hevs, The actual “Lego” brand is very good quality. They are a Danish company and most of it is still made in Europe. They are up to European toy standards, and their site also says that their toys are up to food grade packaging standards as well (so they don’t put anything in them that food couldn’t be wrapped with, and in Europe I think that’s saying something).

      Personally, our kids really like the slightly chunkier blocks which are called Duplo. We don’t have many specialty sets yet (which have many more small pieces and might not be as good for little ones), but just a whole big bin full of colorful blocks of different shapes and sizes. Our kids (2 1/2 and 5) just adore them and can spend all day with them. I would recommend starting out with a starter set of Duplo bricks.

  4. i like the look of that toy your son got. I just last week found a wooden haba toy at the thrift store – it was in great shape. A little wooden board with caterpillar “pegs” that slide around a maze. Only $3!!! My son is getting that for Christmas!

  5. I’ve been posting a whole series lately called Toxins In Toys about our family’s change to more natural toys – which also started with all the recalls several years ago. I also am reviewing a few natural toys stores including giveaways so stop by and check it out! 🙂

  6. My husband and his students mad cars for the local hospital last year. They were really pleased to have them , in a time of recalls , because they had to be so very careful what they gave the sick kids.

    not to knock you retailers , but you can always ask you middle and highschool shop teachers to make these type of items for you , and usually at a far more reasonable price.
    Than you both get safe toys , buy local AND you can help support your educators as well.

  7. Wow, thank you so much for this post. It is a wealth of knowledge on such wonderful natural toys. We own far too many plastic whatchamacallits and my son doesn’t even play with them. When I put them all away he prefers to mess with my cookie cutters and other kitchen stuff. The only toys he plays with any more are his larger things like a rocking horse, outside bikes and soccer ball, simple wooden blocks, and puzzles. I’ve been considering getting rid of more than half of his stuff and replacing with fun educational natural toys like Lincoln Logs and Tinker Toys. Also, I didn’t realize there were so many natural options for baby toys – that’ll come in handy for me this spring when our second little one will join the family.
    .-= Jen´s last blog ..Baking With My Baby =-.

  8. Amazing! I just started reading a book last night called “Buy Buy, Baby.” The book is more concerned with the marketing aspect of the 18mo-4yr demographic and goes into how detrimental the blinky, plastic, entertaining and even “educational” toys can be to children. How wonderfully this ties in!

    Though I have no children yet, I have three nieces and three nephews all under the age of 4 and have become extremely interested/passionate/concerned about my future child’s toy habits! For Christmas this year I went to the craft store and filled up a small plastic tote full of crafting supplies (paper, glue, scissors, felt, googly eyes, pipe cleaners, fuzz balls, beads, yarn, stamps, Popsicle sticks, etc.) for each of the three families that have kids on my husbands side of the family. I hope to add to this little “craft kit” in the future and know it’s something they will love for years to come! And I have so much joy over giving these gifts from my creative heart – much more than any leapfrog product could bring 🙂

    Thanks for the great post and links Stephanie!

  9. That’s a great idea above, asking shop teachers to make toys for you. My dad gets tear-outs of the Nova Natural catalog regularly 🙂 We really enjoy a couple, handmade if possible, toys a year. Honestly, I think my kids would be less happy if they were overwhelmed on Christmas with bunches of items.
    .-= Cara @ Health Home and Happiness´s last blog ..Bulk Once A Month Cooking =-.

  10. Do you have any tips for “nudging” gift givers in the right direction. We have some well–meaning relatives that always seem to get the mindless, battery-operated toys. It is also hard to suggest things when you know they will cost them more money than the cheap plastic toys.

    1. @Sheri, I think honesty is usually the best policy. We’ve been upfront with our parents/grandparents about the fact that we are trying to buy less but higher quality toys for our kids, and we explained what that looks like. We also gave them some gift ideas, and guided them towards stores last year. My mom ended up going to town at Oompa- so the kids got a few really great items that way! In fact, I think they appreciate what we are doing in a sense because they know they are buying toys that won’t just break in a month, and it’s even reminiscent of their own childhood toys. 🙂

      Also, knowing that these toys do cost more, you could suggest that they could get just one or two things for several children to share, or just that they buy less in general. You could give ideas of less expensive pieces, like small wooden vehicles or just a few food pieces for the play kitchen. Let them know that your kids don’t need or expect to get a vast amount of presents, and that you are teaching them to enjoy and be thankful with less, so that they don’t have to worry about disappointing the children.

      If you really can’t avoid getting some of those other gifts (and I know that we sometimes have that issue still), I think it’s quite alright to hold on to it briefly, allow the kids to have some playtime with something that was bought for them with love, and then (perhaps after the giver has had a chance to see it in the home?) give it away to another child, donate it, etc.

      Any other thoughts on this touchy issue??

      1. @Stephanie @ Keeper of the Home,

        Its a tough one for sure. This year, I tried to “direct” by asking for gift ideas for that person- let’s say my Dad- I ask him what he wants, as ideas (I am not good at ideas so I usually ask people) and then saying something like this after they have given me their own ideas “if you need ideas for the kids, I have lots of ideas on things that they are really into right now”. Its always worked….I plug in a few ideas in different price ranges (keeping in mind none of my family can afford costly things) and then hope that they get the picture. I’ve also plugged into conversation before when toys topics come up, things like “we rotate the toys since we don’t like to have a lot of them around” (gives them the idea that we don’t want tons of toys) or “we really like that toy she’s playing with right now (as we are watching her play and comments are made about the fun she is having etc) since its creative and uses her imagination- we don’t see much of a point in toys that do not foster that” etc. in just a way of conversation so that they learn our values. I totally agree that honesty is the best…but sometimes it has to be sort of worked in there without coming right out with it since that would not work with my family.

        We also have donated toys before, especially ones that the kids do not play with. There is no point in having it around if its just collecting dust!

  11. I second Sheri’s question. That’s a touchy spot in our family. My mother in law tends to buy the flashy, plastic, battery operated toys….mountains of them. Then she is quite offended when she can’t find them at our house when she visits. It’s tricky. Thankfully, she has started asking for Christmas and birthday ideas lately, and I have tried to steer her in the right direction. But we still struggle with what to keep and what to give away that won’t hurt her feelings.
    .-= Keri´s last blog ..Happy Birthday Grandma!! =-.

  12. This is a great post! Thanks for sharing.

    We just received in the mail two gifts today for our two kids that we ordered from Baby Naturopathic. We ordered from Plan Toys and Haba. Thanks for sharing that store link with me last Christmas. They are great there. Now two orders and we love them! Another store that carries some things and is Canadian although they are mainly into slings and carriers and cloth diapers is Parenting By Nature near Toronto. I have oredered from them many times and also they are great. It definately is hard when these toys cost WAY more money. We bought two things, a gift each- and it cost us over $50. Thankfully we do not believe in giving a lot of toys, but that is pretty much it. We are making my daughter a book ourselves as she has learned to read and she is also getting some wool socks for winter outside play but that is it. Its hard with family- they don’t understand.

  13. Oh yes I wanted to add that really DO look around at yard sales. I was amazed when we found, such a blessing, the PLAN toys parking garage, complete with 10 wooden vehicles, trees, light stands, accessories, etc for $10 (value over $200!!!) in nearly mint condition other than some marker drawing in one spot on the parking garage! We were so happy! Also I found a PLAN toys ladybug balancing game that my daughter will get for her birthday that markets for around $20 for $1 with a bunch of other small items thrown in too at a yard sale!

  14. Thanks for a very informative and well-researched post – I found it very helpful. My 15 month old son and second on the way are the first babies on my side of the family and the first nephews and grandkids, so its been a challenge to discourage the Target or Wal-Mart run for Christmas or birthday gifts. I felt like I exhausted all of my suggestions for educational, classic and natural toys through Amazon so I am glad to discover these other sources and will pass them along. I’ve also been looking for a good selection of Schleich animal figurines for a while, so thanks! I love your blog – keep up the good work!

  15. My son is almost 6 and is crazy for legos! My best thrift store find was a huge – and I do mean huge… 20 gallon bucket of small legos for only $15.00! It was the deal of the century as legos are definitely pricey! My son asks for legos from the grandparents for birthdays, Christmas, etc.
    Another good one that we have found are the Erector sets… I am definitely keeping my eyes out at the thrift stores for these too!
    I have found many good toys at the thrift store… think about it – If the toy has made it through at least one child and found its way to the thrift store, still in good condition, it is a better quality toy than most… 🙂

  16. Oh I wanted to ask, seeing how you have a little girl too, if you have ever found a descent baby doll. I finally found a relatively suitable one last year for my daughter when the baby was born, but it took us nearly forever to find it, and even then I am not totally happy with it. I wanted all cloth, and not sporting all sorts of bottles and soothers and such. Not that I am making a judgement call on those items, but I wanted the doll to represent my own familiy’s values. Any links to share or anything? I’d love to add to her collection maybe for next year, or for our other daughter, but it seems most dolls are plastic, or at least plastic faces, and even if the plastic is “safe” its just not the same. I’ve looked into making them but I don’t have the ability or time really. Surely some WAHM out there or something does! If you know of anything, let me know…

  17. Oh my goodness, I saw your topic and was going to post straightaway about the Schleich animals! My son is almost 2 and he absolutely adores horses. I had been looking for about 6 months trying to find a soft horse he could chew on and not break, you know? We found the Schleich section by accident in Target and oh, heaven! He now has 4 toy horses and is getting a family of them for Christmas. I love these horses, I wish I had them when I was a kid. And looking at their other toys, how cool are they?! Knights and elves and fairies? Beautifully detailed horses, dogs, giraffes, wolves, elephants, etc etc etc? Can I just sign up for a toy a week?

    I can’t say enough good things about that company. I love that the horses are detailed enough to truly look REAL (they seriously have this sparkle in their eye that makes them look like they’re about to spring to life any second.) They are chewable and pliable, but not cheap-looking. And yet inexpensive. And seriously, when I found them it brought a tear to my eye – especially when my son latched onto his pony and didn’t let go for several hours. *sniffle* I love Schleich.
    .-= Kris´s last blog ..Here’s the thing =-.

  18. Just curious why you don’t allow the kids to have character-related items? My daughter got some hand me down Disney Princess books that at first I wasn’t thrilled about, but then couldn’t really figure out what I had against a book…she LOVES them. They tell a good story, have colorful pictures and really aren’t much different than any other book she has. She asked to be Cinderella for Halloween, so I made her a Cinderella costume. She has never seen the movie and we don’t have tv, so she doesn’t watch cartoons, but she loves the stories and pictures.

    So I really think character items can be done a wrong way and a right way and probably can in fact be positive items.

  19. Interesting that you’re going for 12! Our goal is currently 10. 🙂 But we figure, at that point, what’s a few more? 🙂

    Anyway, I’m not as strict as you are about the toys. Not as strict as I probably should be. For example, our play kitchen is made of plastic. But I try to avoid the loud, light up, musical toys. We have a piano (a real one) that my daughter loves, and a drum set (real) and several other real instruments (I’m a musician too). We have the play kitchen and I let my kids borrow tools from my kitchen a lot. We’re looking into a nice, wooden swing set for next year. We focused on a water table, a bike, and a few balls for outside. Swings are a favorite. We have a lot of dolls and such accessories too. I need to get more wooden toys but I feel like at least the toys we have do foster imaginative play. A small table with chairs is high on my Christmas list for my kids this year!
    .-= Kate´s last blog ..Buying in Bulk and through Coops =-.

  20. Back at the beginning of my blog I posted an article about changes we’ve made as a family. I actually showed this article to my mom and mother in law as a way of explaining what we were thinking. Just kind of said “hey, I wrote this up just for my own benefit, thought you might be interested in reading it too…” Feel free to just send your MILs the link, lol.
    .-= Christy´s last blog ..Nesting: Filling the Freezer =-.

  21. Mrs. Stephanie,

    I really, really enjoy reading your blog and I would like to invite you to participate in a carnival, ‘Tis the Season – keeping Christ in Christmas, that a friend and I are hosting during December. Tomorrow is the first day over at my blog, One Southern Girl

    Hope to see you there!

  22. Thanks for the link! 🙂 We’ve have the same method of toy “switch-over” at our house over the past couple years, too. I just purchased some great little Schleich vehicles as stocking stuffers!

    Michele 🙂
    .-= Michele @ Frugal Granola´s last blog ..Living A Simple Life-Part 80: Three Years =-.

  23. Hi! I’ve been reading your blog for a while now and just love it! We have lots in common. 🙂

    I was curious what you think about the Schleich figurines being made of PVC? I was so excited to see how real looking (my son is obsessed with animals, but then again, are any boys NOT?!) and affordable they were but so sad to see they’re made of PVC. I’m glad that they’re durable but not comfortable exposing my children to any sort of known toxins.

    What’s your opinion?

    1. @Allie, Actually, Allie, I didn’t know they were made of PVC! How sad! I assumed (wrongly, obviously) that because they are a German company that they would have to meet the European toy standards which I don’t believe allow toys to be made with PVC (and maybe I’m wrong on that?). Now I need to look into it more… 🙁 Thanks for bringing that up!

  24. I think we are going to be heading back to a time where the quality of the toys is way more important that the quantity. I think those who are crafty and can create will be in a good position to start a toy business creating those heirloom type of toys that we don’t see anymore.

  25. My kids have literally played for hours with a few sticks, pebbles, or a sand pit, or climbing trees. Why does play have to involve plastic with flashing lights and noisy sounds?

    Our kids playroom sounds like the one in the article, loads of LEGO, blocks, handmade toys, wooden toys, soft toys, muslin play cloths and baskets of sticks, logs, blocks and rocks. These toys last forever, forget the plastic junk and opt for something natural and made lovingly.

    You should also try and buy locally to reduce the carbon footprint of the toy.

  26. thanks so much for the information, it’s funny how the important information is never stored inside as common sense.

    I enjoyed the tips especially on paint and it’s toxicity, to think all these years of having these kids put their mouths on toys.
    .-= swat cats Tim´s last blog ..Swat Kats Episode 4 | S01E04 | S1E4 =-.

  27. Great post, and great looking toys too. Toys are indeed so important in a child’s development, so one must consider all aspects when choosing the right toys. thanks for this!
    .-= Andy@Children Bikes Kids Trikes´s last blog ..Ray Ban Sunglasses 3350 White Metal =-.

  28. Hi Stephanie!

    I just found you blog and I love it. Thanks for all of the awesome information.

    I have been trying to find a nice wooden kitchen for my daughter that isn’t full of fromaldehyde and I was wondering if you have come across one. I saw that you have one in your home for your kids. Any recommendations? I live in Canada so hopefully it would be something I could get here.


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