ORIGINALLY POSTED: December 07, 2009
As gifts for my children go, it has always been the ones with the bright colours, shiny lights and freaky, technicolour sounds that have put me off. When my boys were small our house seemed to multiply plastic noisemakers in the dark. I wasn’t sure why I didn’t like them exactly; I just knew that they weren’t my favourite of all of their items to play with. More importantly than that, the shiny plastic toys were not favourites of my children either. They seemed more drawn to the wooden truck my great-uncle made just for them, the utensils in the kitchen and boxes from anywhere we could find them.
When they were little I never really thought too much about why they didn’t like the toys people purchased for them. Everyone around me told me this would happen though. “They’ll like the box far more than the gift in it, “ was a common refrain around birthdays and holiday seasons. It was true and yet it was several years before I started to wonder why this was the case. Surely there was a reason behind it.
So, what is it about natural toys that hold such great appeal? Is there a significant benefit to wood, bamboo, cotton and metal versus plastic? And when all is said and done, where can parents find natural fibre entertainment options for their children?
I had a chance to speak with Autism Consultant, Paulette Cormier (of Rainbow Connections in the GTA) about her opinions and observations regarding the types of toys she uses when working with families and why her experiences resonate beyond children on the autism spectrum.
APPEAL OF NATURAL TOYS FOR CHILDREN
The biggest draw of the less flashy entertainment options for your children is the ability for the child to use his/her imagination freely. You can envision your toddler accompanying you to the grocery store to collect the necessary food items for dinner. What happens when this same child comes home and finds an empty box he can push around the living room, loading it with pillows, blocks and any other items he may feel he needs to “buy” so he can “make dinner” too? A smaller box with small wooden blocks can be a bowl of soup, a mixing bowl for baking cookies, a cash register at a store, a parking lot filled with cars, and a farmyard full of animals. When we buy them the plastic food, plastic cash register and plastic shopping cart we limit our children from creating these items themselves.
According to Paulette, “pretend play is necessary for brain development and pre-packaged toys these days leave nothing for children to have to think about and pretend with.”
The other appeal is the energy these materials carry. Anyone who has used a wooden spoon to cook with or has sat upon a wooden chair knows that each feels “better” to us than their plastic counterpart. If **we** can feel it and we, as concrete-thinking adults, have a tendency to block out that kind of “mumbo-jumbo” then just imagine the energy these once living materials offer our developing children.
BENEFITS OF ORGANIC TOYS
When I asked Paulette why natural fibre toys are better and what benefits they have she was quick to emphasize some of the key points she has noted. The first comment she made was the one the stood out strongest to me. “Things that are simpler and less flashy tend to focus on interaction between the people rather then on the entertainment value of the commercially produced items.” It’s true. Have you ever watched a family play with organic “toys” versus their commercially created counterpart? Wooden and paper puzzles feel good, have great memories associated with them for many of us adults and seem to draw us in. I often see babies and children sitting alone surrounded by loud, flashing plastic toys. Pull out the wooden blocks or hand-knit stuffed animals and adults seem to sink to the ground with big smiles on their faces.
Paulette also pointed out what she sees to be some advantages in terms of brain development when the toys have not been manufactured from leftover *petroleum products. She highlights the following:
• Everyone learns when we receive new information
• We receive the information necessary for learning when the teachable tool has an energy to it (such as in the case of wood, bamboo, **organic cotton/fabrics and metals)
• We learn by assimilating old information and referencing it with our new experiences
• We learn best when things are quiet instead of noisy and flashy so that our brains can focus more completely on what it is that we want and need to learn
• Simple toys promote children using their imaginations more which, in response to the increased brain function promotes brain development
It simply must be said that pre-built toys leave little to the imagination. As parents we understand this but don’t necessarily think about how our decisions effect our children.
WHERE TO FIND TOYS THAT DO ALL WE WANT THEM TO DO
One place to start is your local Waldorf School. Waldorf schools focus on imaginary play, natural products and learning through doing. Their school stores are often rife with entertainment options for everyone from the very young to the very old.
Silk scarves can be capes, slings for dolls, fairy wings, costumes, ropes, etc. If you are a sewer then take some time to visit your local fabric store and ask about sample silk swatches.
Paulette reminded me too that places like Winners and Ikea often have exactly what we are looking for. We just need to go and look. Ikea has great wooden blocks, wooden train sets, and child-sized versions of our kitchen utensils. They often have canvas too that you can buy and your child can paint for you with lovely watercolours.
I remember finding some wonderful wooden puzzles at Winners when my boys were small and now the local store is carrying a line of eco-friendly wooden and bamboo baby toys like shape sorters and rattles.
Finally, it can’t be said often enough that books are an incredible gift for your child. The books we buy not only encourage our imaginations to run rampant within us but they create wonderful snuggling opportunities for you and your child. Sit down with your baby and make a habit of reading together every single day. Have you ever gone into the little, independent bookstore in your community? Most of us charge straight for Indigo/Chapters and Barnes & Noble without a thought to the small place on the main street. The bookstore owner will have many suggestions about books that are sure to spark an interest in your child.
If you aren’t near a bookstore or would prefer to order books online but are unsure where to start to create a list of perfect books, then I must recommend visiting the No Time For Flash Cards web site. Allie goes out of her way to offer craft suggestions and book reviews. I promise, you’ll lose yourself in her site and will want to buy one of everything she writes about!
At the end of the day, as we approach another hectic holiday season, bigger, brighter and noisier don’t necessary mean better. More than “things” for your children this year perhaps give them YOU. You are the toy they will most remember when they grow up.
PS – for some great gifting ideas check out the Non-Toxic Kids blog!!
POSTED BY SAM