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

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*), and where they’re stored when not in use:

  1. Toy closet (it hides our electrical panel) measuring 1.75′ x 4.5′ in our basement:
    • locally- and sustainably-made wooden blocks (new)
    • four Green Toys vehicles (fire truck, recycling truck, school bus, helicopter) plus a tractor and an interactive alphabet truck (battery-powered toy)
    • musical instruments
    • craft supplies (recyclable or compostable only)
    • Magnadoodle
    • wooden toy barn
    • one bin of Duplo Lego and one little bin of classic Lego
    • vintage pull-along raccoon toy (they’re emotionally attached to this!)
    • a couple board games and memory game
  2. Chest of drawers in our living room (4 out of 12 drawers)
    • Little Peg People figures and two faux cameras
    • toy animals for barn (stored in a repurposed takeout container)
    • connecting toys (stored in a repurposed takeout container)
    • two Lite Brites (battery-powered toy)
    • craft drawer with crayons, markers, pencil crayons, colouring books, sharpeners, glue, scissors, etc. and our main Play-Doh bin
    • Barbies*, My Little Pony* and their respective clothes and accessories*, purses, wallets, cashier’s box paired with Canadian Tire money and expired cards
    • puzzles (we adore puzzles)
  3. Living room and kids’ desk*
    • stored under the desk are even more puzzles, because, we love them!
    • three thrift wicker baskets near our sofa with books and dinky cars
    • one tunnel
    • 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
    • vintage suitcase with play clothes
  4. Kids’ bedrooms
    • about a dozen handmedown stuffed animals* inclusive of odd, new ones
    • books
    • two babies and play cloth diapers, blankets and my sister-in-law’s old toy cradle
  5. Travel toys:
    • compact chalk-and-white-board with built-in carrying case for markers, chalk, paper and colouring books
    • mini Play-Doh set with old cookie cutters (stored in a repurposed takeout container)
    • Bananagrams
    • Melissa and Doug Water WOW!
    • pencil case made in the Philippines from old juice boxes purchased at Ten Thousand Villages

That’s it! Oh, and the bathtub has the same toys my daughter got as an infant: stacking cups, one seahorse made of natural rubber, a Green Toys water-plane, a jug, a colander and a couple emptied bottles.

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

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

Maybe it’s time for a household audit and pull a Marie Kondo. 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
  • just don’t buy them!

Have a new baby on the way and you’re feeling overwhelmed? Check out when “Mom of the House” interviewed me on my minimalist lifestyle. Want even more geeking out on how less toys and household items can stimulate your baby? 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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