Plastics, Playtime and Our Poor Planet

My son Vincent playing with one of his favourite toys, a wooden helicopter I purchased from a market in Puerto Morelos, Mexico.

While growing up I remember that my mom and aunts always commented on how lucky I was to have so many toys. I was a privileged child that is for certain, but I don’t think I had an unreasonable amount of toys. However, compared to what both of my parents had when they were little, I had tons. Both of my parents could list the amount of toys they had while growing up on one hand, and they remembered each individual toy fondly. They still had some of their toys as keepsakes as adults. I have come to realize lately in the age of “Tidying Up” with Marie Kondo that perhaps my parents were the lucky ones. They had the opportunity to truly appreciate and care for the few toys that they had. They had the opportunity to use their imagination to invent new toys and games from their surroundings, their toy box was nature. Now looking at my own children I am ashamed, and often overwhelmed by how they have accumulated so many things (many of which are plastic) in their very short life span. What toys and games will stand out in their memories? Or will they be reminded as adults of the cost that over consumption and consumerism has had on their planet?

According to an episode of “Wasted: Greening the Plastics-heavy Toy Industry” on CBC radio, plastic toys account for 90 percent of the toy market and the majority of those plastic toys cannot be recycled in North America. Plastic toys are made as inexpensively as possible and as a result they end up in the garbage at the end of their short life cycle.

What can we do so that the toys we do buy for our children have longer life cycles and can be passed down and enjoyed for many years to come and don’t end up in a landfill?

When making a new purchase for my home I always ask myself, will this item last and will I be able to give this item a new home one day? Is it going to be a keepsake that I will take with us to our next home? Like most parents I do not want to deprive my children of toys to play with, but I also don’t want to create little consumers who constantly want me to buy them new toys, toys that I am later going to have to remind them to tidy up, or worse, toys that will end up broken, in a landfill.

One corner of a shelf in Audrey’s room is filled with dolls and stuffed toys from Thailand and Mexico. These affordable market treasures are plastic free and will always remind her of her travels.

I had the privilege of teaching kindergarten for four years before becoming a mother and one lesson I learned from a very wise administrator of mine was that less is more in the classroom. She encouraged me to pack up half the toys in my busy classroom and put them away and rotate the toys so when the children were losing interest in a toy, I would rotate it out for another one and it would be like Christmas for my students. I found that with fewer toys in our classroom that my students were more engaged in play. In addition, in my sparse classroom I noticed that the children didn’t spend the majority of their playtime pulling all the toys out to see which toy they wanted to play with. My need to fill every shelf and space with something to entertain the children was actually distracting them from play and just encouraging them to make a big mess. I use this same mentality in my children’s play areas in my home.

Vincent’s toy shelf. I try to keep his toys sparse and visible. The plastic race car track was a hand-me down as well as the piano, tambourine, and many others.

Another discovery I found when teaching kindergarten, and I find it to be true with my own children as well, is that the recycling bin is the best toy box of all! I set up a makerspace with a box of recycled materials (cereal boxes, egg cartons, plastic lids and containers, newspapers and toilet paper rolls) I would add a box of maker tools for them (paint, glue, tape, crayons, yarn) and they would play and create amazing things.

Sometimes you would be amazed that the things you already have around your home make amazing toys.

Of course a big empty box is always the best form of entertainment.

My husband believes that our children have far too many toys and I will agree they do have plenty, however, when I examine Audrey and Vincent’s playroom there are a few things that I truly believe cuts down on its environmental impact.

More than half of the toys they play with are all second hand toys. Most came from my cousins children and even though they are 16 years old they are still in great condition. This shows me how important it is if you do buy toys that you buy safe, high quality toys that will not break and end up in the garbage. Well made toys can be passed along to other children when your child outgrows them. Almost all the secondhand toys we were given that have stood the test of time and many little hands enjoying them are wooden.

When I do buy new toys for my children I try to always buy wooden toys and avoid plastic toys. They last longer and have less of a detrimental impact on the environment. We also have a few items in our playroom which are made from recycled plastic or plant based materials, hopefully these types of toys will become more common. Green Toys make toys that from 100 percent recycled materials and they are only made from one type of material so they can be recycled when their life span ends.

This stacking toy made by Bioserie is made of plants.

If you are looking at your playroom and suddenly feeling guilty…please don’t! Instead, here are some quick steps you can start taking to minimize the environmental impact of your playroom. You probably will notice that you are already doing many of these things and remember a few small changes can make a world of difference for our planet.

1. Less is more, your children do not need everything, and too many toys will be distracting for them and actually hinder productive play.

2. Buy or ask others for second hand toys, or borrow toys from friends. Create a toy rotation with a group of moms who have children who are similar in age to yours.

3. Try to buy wooden toys, or toys made from recycled plastics or plant based materials. Choose toys that you think children will want to play and grow with. A kitchen set, a train and tracks, blocks and LEGO, some wooden animals, and musical instruments are all toys that have remained very popular at our house.

4. Use recycled materials around your house, and encourage your children to get creative!

5. Avoid toys that are part of a fad that your child will want to collect tons of and then will quickly forget about them once a new fad has begun. Also avoid toys based on a television show that your child will outgrow as soon as they outgrow the television show.

6. Pass toys on, as soon your kids no longer are interested them and encourage others to do the same. Why have them sitting around your house? By passing along toys you are preventing others from buying new toys.

7. Make a dress up box out of clothing items you no longer use or old Halloween costumes.

8. Make toys out of things you already have in your home (muffin tins, bowls, measuring cups, pots and pans, wooden spoons, fridge magnets and baking sheets…just to name a few) Pinterest has hundreds of great ideas!

9. Repurpose things in your home for furniture for your child’s playroom and avoid plastic bins and shelving when possible.     

10. For birthdays and special holidays ask family to give experiences as gifts or money to help buy one high quality toy.

11. Buy toys and gifts for your children that are handmade by local artists as they are more meaningful, memorable and support small businesses.

12. Let your children become bored. Children do not always need to be entertained or stimulated by toys, screens or people. Boredom can create beautiful things!

A peak at Audrey and Vincent’s playroom. The wooden table, the wooden crib, stroller and baby high chair are all hand me downs and over 16 years old! My husband turned a bookshelf on its side and made a toy shelf and bench.

Our inspiration for this blog and for taking care of our planet is our children. However, sometimes we forget (myself included) that giving our children everything is terrible for the Earth.  Our parents grew up with less than we did and we grew up with less than our children have. Consumption is growing with each generation and our planet suffers greatly from growing consumerism. We want our children to have as much, or more than we had growing up, however, I think we all need to start realizing that less is in fact more. Giving our children everything is not benefiting them, or our planet.  Remember our children need us, and a clean planet to enjoy, not material things.

Charlotte Layton

5 thoughts on “Plastics, Playtime and Our Poor Planet”

  1. I love this Charlotte! Rotating toys definitely works! and less is definitely more… I find that when you have fewer toys the kids tend to be more organized as they understand that there is a place for every`re such a good momma!

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. A very thoughtful posting with excellent suggestions … but I stayed for the pictures of your darling kids! (my great niece and nephew!) lol!

  3. Pingback: Navigating the Green Rabbit Hole – Earth Mamas International

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