The other day I had a fellow parent come to visit with their child for a play date (someone please come up with a more palatable term other than a “play date”!). The parent looked around at the bevy of toys we have stacked and strewn for our child and remarked, “Wow, you sure have a lot of wooden toys.” My response was sheepishly in the affirmative, as I was waiting for the next question, which was logically “Why?” Well the follow-up question was not uttered, but it did cause me to reflect for a moment and wonder–why do we have so many wooden toys, and why have we consciously shunned all that tri-colored off-gassing, plastic garbage that everyone else has in excess?
Well, maybe I have answered my own question, but obviously not effectively enough for everyone else. When my wife and I first began to purchase toys for our child, while still in utero, the thought of exchanging our lives for a riot of plastic, beeping, battery-ingesting toys was just too distasteful. We opted for a few folksy wooden items (a wooden pull-along snail, a wooden teething ring, and the old stand-by, wooden blocks) and slowly, and somewhat compulsively, built up a wooden toy kingdom with exponential enthusiasm. Now, we are surrounded by enough whimsical wooden playthings to start a sizable bonfire, or maybe build a second house. Can’t do either of those things with plastic toys!
But modern plastic toys, with ferociously high-tech features, are created to primarily amuse and distract children, and are often about as overstimulating as a Starbucks gift card. They are rarely about real learning and promoting genuine creativity. Plastic toys are not nearly as durable as wooden toys, and tend to loose parts, break often and needlessly become long-term landfill residents, rather than being passed down to following generations. Not to mention the fact that many conventional plastic toys have been frequently recalled for safety violations (lead paint anyone?) and subject to much scrutiny over issues of off-gassing, potential toxicity, and multiple hazards that are too numerous to go into on this page.
Sure, not all wooden toys are inspirational gifts from the gods and it does take the elimination of a tree to create them, but in my experience, the level of quality, creativity, and inspiration contained in the bulk of wooden toys available (European and otherwise) makes plastic look like, well, cheap plastic (note: many forward thinking toy companies are now sourcing wood with more sustainable methods, relying on trees that quickly regenerate). Wooden toys have been known to inspire inventive and truly imaginative play in children. This may be due to the versatility inherent in most wooden toys and the lack of dictated play required by so many beeping and whirring plastic toys. Some studies have shown educational wooden toys build critical lateral thinking and problem solving skills and help build fine motor skills. I could go on and on, but I will spare the lot of you.
This is not an attempt to administer a sanctimonious rant on the virtues of wooden toys and evils of the synthetic. More than anything, it is a gentle reminder that, while wooden toys are often more expensive than their plastic counterparts, they prove to be a wise investment.
I invite you to agree, disagree, or just share your experience on this issue of plastic vs. wood, and how you have been served or underserved by choosing one or the other.
Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, N.Y. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.