Again, Why Do We Buy Wooden Toys?

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.


Adrian A.
Adrian A.4 years ago

You can try here I bought a helicopter for my son. It is so cool :)

Jennifer A.
Jennifer Arrow8 years ago

I totally agree in principle, but in practice I've found that my baby and I often prefer (and feel safer with) the plastic version of many baby toys. I just blogged about this, and mentioned of cases where the nearly identical plastic version of a toy was a much bigger hit.

Megan Poettgen
Megan R8 years ago

My favorite toys growing up were ones I could picture passing down to my kids... Although I honestly didn't play much. I had my dolls, and stuffed animals, but mostly I played imaginary games with a few dress up pieces(that eventually got discarded as to cumbersome).

Teresa Wlosowicz
Teresa W8 years ago

My favourite toys were made of PLUSH, but anyway, I didn't like to play very much. I preferred drawing.

Marianne Good
Past Member 8 years ago

Thank you!

Ellinor S.
Ellinor S8 years ago

Wood toys rule.

Jeneva Storme
Jeneval S9 years ago

Most of my favourite toys as a child were wood -- Tinkertoys, Lincoln Logs, building blocks, number and letter blocks, and a wooden cobbler's bench with wooden pegs I could pound through it with a little wooden mallet. I loved that little wooden mallet.

Katherine I.
Katherine Isham9 years ago

One imaginative toy that can't be had outside of plastic with a reasonable price tag (or durability): dolls....there's some fabric ones out there, but they aren't very realistic and personally, as a kid I liked dolls that looked like real people. It would be neat if they did make realistic dolls out of wood. Wood BJD, anyone?

Jeni Grant
Jeni Grant10 years ago

I think the wooden toys are a great idea! It allows children to have imagination. Children have lost the wonderful creativity and learning that comes with imagination. The toys that are in the stores do just about everything for the children. They don't get to think and figure things out for themselves. I felt sad when our daughter picked up a toy in the store and said "What does it do?" That was a wake-up call for me. Jeni G.

Michelle T.
Michelle T10 years ago

I don't have kids yet, but when I do, I will most likely purchase some wooden toys of good quality (if I can find any). My question is, what is the best way to clean wooden toys? I make most of my own cleaners, so is there a solution I could whip up for dunking toys in?