Minimalist Approach To Toys Maximizes Child’s Play and Minimizes Environmental Impacts

Baby playing with an empty box and toy blocks

Granted I live in a small house, but I can’t stand clutter. So when we found out we were having kids, I immediately asked our families to respect our rule: no “new” toys (and frankly, to vet used and thrift toys by us first). I knew I wanted to raise them in a house where we appreciated what we had, encouraged learning with play, used our imagination, danced to music and supported a minimalist environment so we could impart environmental lessons, naturally.

I am so proud to say that I have a very supportive family that gets it and respects it. My family now has wicked honing-in skills on selecting toys for my kids. I know, I sound like a strict, crazy lady, but… actually, no, I am a strict, crazy lady and my house, sanity and kids’ imagination are better off for it. And so is the planet! When you think of toy aisles in stores you picture: plastic, waste, unethically-made and not made to last. You hear it all the time, “they don’t make them like they used to.” So of course, more and more toys end up in the landfill.

Plastic toys, which tend to be inexpensive and vibrantly colored, account for 90 percent of the market, according to a plastics trade magazine. And while they pose the same risks as any other plastic item, these cheap playthings often have shorter life spans than high-quality toys and are pretty much impossible to recycle. 

There’s A Huge Problem With Kids’ Toys That No One’s Talking About

I truly believe, and so do the experts, that toys should be limited to:

  • quality over quantity
  • fewer is better
  • used, thrift or sustainably- and ethically-made
  • old-fashioned, battery-free
  • including open-ended activities (i.e. cardboard boxes, blocks, sand, paint)

The definition of play, really, is that it’s a hands-on experience. That’s why the old-fashioned toys have more play value than a lot of what you see on the shelves these days.

Kimberly Bezaire via “Why it’s time to bring back classic toys
My babe years ago outside just getting messy with an open-ended activity wearing a Bambo diaper.

Here is a list of all the toys that are kept in my house (unless specified, everything is thrift or handmedown or mine from when I was little):

  • Green Toys vehicles and a garage
  • locally- and sustainably-made wooden blocks (new)
  • classic Lego
  • Magformers
  • a dozen or so board games like memory game, Scrabble, Smath, Dominoes, Go Fish, Snakes and Ladders, Sum Swamp, Bananagrams, Boggle (and some others to play with as we age) along with other card games and dice
  • Little Peg People figures, wooden truck and faux cameras
  • craft bin with markers, pencil crayons, colouring books, sharpeners, glue, scissors, kite paper, etc.
  • homemade Play-Doh and stainless steel tools
  • puzzles (we adore puzzles)
  • play kitchen paired with a bin that has old pots, pans, utensils, wooden blocks, and weird bottles, etc. that I rotate in and out of the kitchen
  • play clothes
  • about a dozen stuffed animals (new and old)
  • two babies and play cloth diapers and blankets
  • Hape train set and track (new)
  • books and books and books (new and old)
  • each kid has a special shelf in their room with gems, rocks, small felted toys I made myself and little found trinkets
  • word searches and crosswords
  • Yoto player (new… we won it as part of a library reading program!)

Too many toys mean they are not learning to play imaginatively either.

Claire Lerner via “The Fewer Toys Children Have, The More They Play

A few tips to keep the toys in your house easy on the planet, easy on your budget and easy to do so you’re not overwhelmed by busy-work and playthings:

  • talk to your family. If you all do present-giving, then ask that they be limited to:
    • experiences
    • paying for extra-curricular activities (i.e. swimming lessons)
    • upgrading clothes (we often give the grandparents lists of what we’re on the hunt for so when they pop into thrift stores, they can be on the lookout)
    • used or handmedown toys or books (that’s how we got a lot of our items above)
  • treat your kids to experiences rather than stuff yourself
  • consider sourcing items from online buying groups like eBay, Kijiji and social media shopping groups
  • use community swaps or toy exchanges with friends and family
  • borrow toys from libraries (we visit our library weekly!)
  • just don’t buy them!

Have a new baby on the way and you’re feeling overwhelmed? I highly suggest CanDoKiddo – a paediatric occupational therapist and development nerd. She inspired me to play with items like ice cubes, rosemary sprigs, Tupperware, old bracelets and more when my kids were babes.

We’ve been playing with the same toys for years. Sure baby ones and toddler ones have left, and some smaller Lego has come in, but there’s nothing old about playing “restaurant” and serving “cupcakes” with wood discs in a thrift-find muffin tin. In fact, what an easy project this is for someone who wants to tackle being kinder to the planet, themselves and their pocketbook.

Here’s a few more articles I thought I’d share if you want to learn more about toys and their packaging, the money spent on them, toxic chemicals found in toys and the limited amount of information related to regulations:

I only link to products I use or love. I do not receive any compensation.

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