We’re all aware of the need to make more eco-friendly choices. But while wooden toys made from sustainable sources might be better for the environment than plastic, they can also boost your little one’s social, creative and problem-solving skills, according to research by the Center for Early Childhood Education in Connecticut. “Some toys have a powerful influence on children’s thinking, interaction with peers, and creative expression. Other toys do not. Some of the toys that look most interesting to adults are not particularly effective in promoting development,” says Jeffrey Trawick-Smith, Professor of Early Childhood Education at Eastern Connecticut University, who is studying how different toys impact children’s behaviour.

Deciding what sort of toys and materials you expose your child to is a choice every parent should consciously make, says Education Consultant and new mother Maggie Moffat Baxter. “As a new mum myself I am starting to consider the environment I am creating for my child to learn, grow, and develop in,” says Moffat Baxter. “This will consist of the items you present to your child, starting with their early days of learning how to grasp toys, and moving on as their skills evolve to more stimulating toys such as iPads and cricket sets. 

“However, as I start to curate my son’s exploratory surroundings, I am left with a dilemma: how many plastic toys do I let in? We all know the negative connotations, and plain facts, of plastic in general, but how about what they lend to child development in their playroom?

Here are a few points to consider:

Basic is better
Professor Trawick-Smith at the Center for Early Childhood Education has been analyzing the types of toys that elicit a good balance of play behaviours and has found that the toys scoring highest have been the simplest ones: hardwood blocks, a set of wooden vehicles and road signs, and classic wooden construction toys. “These toys are relatively open-ended, so children can use them in multiple ways,” says Professor Trawick-Smith.
Elli Kasbi, founder of UAE-based children’s retail store Elli Junior, which specializes in sustainable toys, clothes and interiors, agrees: “At home with my kids, we try to not encourage plastic toys as I know wooden toys are tactile, safe, less distracting and more interactive,” says Kasbi. “My favourite wooden toys, which my children have loved, include building blocks (the best way for babies to learn the alphabet and numbers in a simple way using less colours and shapes), and a baby walker – this acts as the perfect support for babies who have started learning to walk, but also works as a toy in itself.”

Natural is more tactile
The texture and grain of natural materials like wood encourage children to engage physically with the world around them, says Moffat Baxter: “The Waldorf educational approach would argue that natural-material toys stimulate the learner in a more organic way by presenting more life-like, simple items for them to interact with,” says Moffat Baxter. “Consider a doll made of plastic and one of natural materials- which one would a child cuddle more? That being said, there are fantastic plastic toys at the ready in every toy shop in the city that any child will point at and ask for.”

Read more: Forest schooling in the UAE

Wood lasts (in more ways than one)
“Wooden toys are made to last and future siblings will be able to use the same toys (a bonus for all mums out there!),” points out Elli Kasbi. “Wooden toys are also more durable so I never might spending a little more on them as I know they will stand the test of time. You might even be able to pass them on to your grandchildren!”
Maggie Moffatt Baxter expands on this: “It’s interesting to consider how these toys not only stand the test of time physically, but culturally as well. I remember my Fisher Price plastic phone with a dial that I would get my finger stuck in, as well as receiving a camera that clicked for my 4th birthday that I was obsessed with or a Skip It for my 6th birthday. But these items are simply out of date these days. Kids today wouldn’t have a clue what a phone is without a screen, a camera that you can’t immediately edit, or a game that isn’t connected to a controller. However, the wooden blocks that my aunt used in the 60s and was passed on to my brother and I, and will be shared with our children, are still going strong. That doesn’t diminish how much I loved that camera though and how many hours of enjoyment it gave me. Ultimately, I’m sure I could find a phone like the one I had online, but playing with the blocks is still relevant, whereas the phone is not.” 

Connected to the longevity point is of course reducing waste and creating sustainable toys that can help to preserve the environment. “At Elli Junior, our goal is to have a 100% sustainable company so we can support and encourage a better world with less waste, reduced consumption and reduced energy consumption,” says Elli Kasbi. “Wooden toys are made with the intention of having a much longer lifespan than average and most products have the added benefit of being used for several different age groups and genders. We work with solid-wood products that are non-toxic, so they are also harmless for your child [whereas there are concerns about the potential harm from chemicals leaching from plastic toys].”

Read more: See how this Indian expat family lives a sustainable lifestyle in the UAE

Imagination and inspiration
“Simple wooden toys inspire a child’s imagination or creativity – unlike plastic toys nowadays that are full of light, sound and colour, leaving little to inspiration,” says Elli Kasbi.

Maggie Moffat Baxter agrees: “Plastic toys are usually more complex and complete- made for purpose if you will. A Barbie, for example, doesn't have many more uses than its intended shape and state. That’s not to say it won’t bring great enjoyment to your child. Many wooden toys, however, are more up for interpretation and require more engagement and imagination during play. Blocks can create a house, or a farm, or a school. A wooden car without batteries and lights, requires the child to make the sounds of a siren and horn. And a bamboo blanket can be a cape, tent, or dress depending on the day.”

Gender neutrality
Results from Professor Trawick-Smith’s TIMPANI toy study, which looks at how young children in natural settings play with a variety of toys, have found that toys traditionally viewed as male-oriented – wooden construction toys and toy vehicles for example – elicited the highest quality play among girls. Wooden toys can equally benefit either boys or girls.

“Ultimately, there is no right or wrong approach to which toys your child plays with,” adds Moffat Baxter. “The most important thing is that they are playing and building skills in general. And it definitely does not have to be an all or nothing approach. But now that you have this knowledge maybe next time you’re buying for a birthday party or considering a treat for your child, you’ll question the materials the toy is made of as well.” 

Read more:

 8 ways to lessen your eco guilt (even while living in the desert)

Cloth nappies: Why making the switch from disposable diapers is easier than you think