Tips for Choosing Environmentally Friendly Toys

With this guide to environmentally friendly toys, you can make toys and align your purchases with your goals for eco-friendly living.

sock puppies

Even a smelly old sock can become a little friend with some basic sewing and imagination.

Photo by Kate Blincoe

Content Tools

In The No-Nonsense Guide to Green Parenting (Green Books, 2016) author Kate Blincoe explains that it’s not about being perfect — it’s about giving it a try, feeling the benefits for your family, and having fun while you do it. This guide provides essential advice on food and eating, eco-buying, learning and playing, family-friendly foraging, growing plants and food with your family, green days out, activities and parties, green parenting in the city, and balancing your green ideals in a busy life. Kate’s pragmatic approach will inspire you to balance green living with the realities of raising children. In this excerpt you will learn several strategies for keeping your children's play green.

Chances are you have a toy mountain in your home. It may be Everest-sized or a more modest Kilimanjaro. It may be confined to one room (I wish) or spread willy-nilly around your home.  Either way, it matters to the environment exactly how your toy mountain is created and managed.

What’s it made from?

For environmentally friendly toys, we all know that wood is the way forward. It is the best choice for the environment because plastic contains oil-based petrochemicals and won’t biodegrade in landfill. There is often a wooden alternative to plastic dominoes, building blocks, digger tractors, tools. Tactile, more durable and undeniably more attractive, wood will pass the ‘hand me on’ test long after plastic toys have broken. Wooden toys can be more expensive, but because they last so well can often be found secondhand.

Also look out for toys made from other renewable substances, such as natural rubber, organic cotton, wool or plant-based bioplastics. Avoiding plastic altogether is nearly impossible, so choose durable, quality plastic that will last for years – for example, Lego is practically indestructible. Make sure you opt for one of the safer kinds of plastic, with fewer harmful chemicals. These will be labeled with a pet symbol of 2, 4, or 5. For the best safety standards, check it is free from Bisphenol A (BPA) – an industrial chemical. Some toys are made from recycled plastic, such as old milk cartons.

Where is it made?

All toys sold across Europe must conform to strict safety regulations, but there have been instances of imported toys being recalled. Look for manufacturers based locally to reduce the air miles on your products and ensure high ethical standards. If buying from abroad, check that it is a Fairtrade item.

Be aware that imported toys may contain lead. It is used in paint and plastic to enhance flexibility. Even low levels of lead in children’s blood have been shown to affect IQ, the ability to pay attention and academic achievement.

Can I buy it secondhand?

The beauty of used items is that they have a much lower impact on the planet. Try eBay, Preloved or Freecycle and don’t forget the thrift shops.

Buying secondhand can save you time too. Take a wooden playhouse or cabin bed, for example. Instead of having to construct one from zillions of panels of flat-pack, you may only need to break it down a little to transport it.

Can I make it?

Homemade toys may sound a bit 1950s, but it is the creations that children have had a hand in that really capture their imagination. Most household rubbish can be reused to make toys exciting enough to occupy an afternoon – bean-filled shakers, water-bottle rockets, cereal-box masks, cardboard-box cars and trains. And that odd sock is just crying out to be a puppet. When they’ve had enough, just recycle it.

Battery power

So many modern toys require batteries, so invest in a charger for reusable batteries, or look out for toys that don’t use batteries, such as friction toys.

Toy swap

Kids seem bored of their toys? That’s not a reason to buy more. Arranging to swap a few items with a friend for a week or so can work really well. The key is to prepare your child for this – there is nothing like enforced swapping to make a child feel possessive.

Many libraries have toy sections where, for a small fee, you can borrow toys to take home. Look out too for toy libraries organized by local groups offering anything from baby walkers to digger trucks.

When you’re done

Pass unwanted toys on or sell them online or at a car-boot sale. Your local playgroup may be interested in toys and books if they are in good condition.

Quiet the consumer monster

Following Christmas and birthdays, the mood in our children tends to shift. There are too many toys and an undeniable sense of entitlement: a growing belief that the constant acquisition of presents should be a normal state of affairs, not a twice-yearly luxury.

We can’t escape our material world; indeed it brings us many pleasures. But with a little thought our children can grow up mindful of their privileges. If you’re interested in learning more about how consumption impacts both on the environment and our well-being, Happier People Healthier Planet by Teresa Belton is a thought-provoking read.

More from The No-Nonsense Guide to Green Parenting:

Sensory Bottles for Babies
Gooey Silly Putty for Preschoolers
Making an Eco-Friendly Jump Rope


Reprinted with permission from The No-Nonsense Guide to Green Parenting by Kate Blincoe and published by Green Books, 2016.