Every time I go on a frantic search for that one extra AAA battery to make the kids’ newest toy operate, I realize how much plastic occupies our house. We have plastic drums, Legos, dolls, cars, action figures, and the random magic wands, Slinkies, Silly Putty eggs, and game pieces that seem to appear from nowhere. This seems to be indicative of the majority of toys sold at toy stores as well. Most toys are either made of plastic, designed to promote the latest movie, or require at least 6 batteries of various sizes (usually the sizes I don’t have on hand).
As consumers of toys, we should ask ourselves: What will happen to these toys is 20 years?
Children typically play with a particular toy for only a few years of their life. What happens to the toy once your child has moved beyond it? Will the toy be discarded, to fill up a landfill, or might the toy be passed along to another child to play with and love, and then another? As most toys aren’t as beloved as the Velveteen Rabbit, odds are they get thrown away, misplaced, or given to a cousin, who then destroys them. Although 70% of parents report passing along toys to someone else, many of those only make it a few years before they plastic breaks, the stickers peel off, or the button won't push in anymore.
Much of the current trends in the mass-marketed toy world started with the Star Wars toys of my own youth. Everyone wanted a Millennium Falcon or Hans Solo action figure. Toy companies realized how successful it could be to tie a line of toys to a popular movie. Now, every movie marketed to children has an accompanying toy line as well. This season, Disney’s Frozen has marketed the talking snowman so much that most people thought the movie was actually about the snowman (the women behind me while I watched the movie kept asking when the snowman was going to show up). Although Star Wars has shown continued success in marketing toys, I wonder how many of the many movie-based toys now produced will have any cultural relevance at all in 10 years. Or will they become the toys that are the first to be cast aside by the next round of kids? Will children in 2024 clamor for a talking Olaf? Not likely.
This year, then, instead of buying the trendy toys enjoying a brief five minutes of fame, I suggest buying toys with more of a shelf life. What does this mean?
It means buying toys less likely to break, less tied to the current electronic technology, and less tied to a character that is simply a money-maker for a movie company. It also means buying toys that are made with natural materials, made with an eye toward sustainability.
In a study in the journal Developmental Psychology
, a study in which the authors were looking for sex
differences in toy preferences, the authors found that both boys and girls played with Lincoln Logs longer than any other toy. Lincoln Logs. How retro is that? When given an array of toys (including X-Men action figures), children of both sexes prefered simple wooden sticks with notches cut into them. Talk about a shelf life. And you definitely don’t have to worry about lead paint from a factory in China.
The benefit of this, beyond reducing our footprint on the planet, is that these types of toys promote creativity and imagination, pretend play, and language skills. When toys require more than simply pushing buttons, children then have to engage their minds. There is also something magical about playing with toys made from real materials, not just plastic pieces. It is the difference between holding a real book and a e-reader. These types of toys are also focused on teaching specific skills (such as hand-eye coordination) and having fun, rather than increasing the profit margin or driving up ticket sales.
I also recommend talking to your children about where toys come from. It is important to raise children to be socially-minded consumers as well. For a much more detailed description of this issue, I recommend reading Anna Seacat's website about how to raise socially-minded children.
There are great resources out there for parents for buying “green” toys. In the world of internet shopping, simply search for "Green Toys" or "Sustainable Toys." The options are seeminlgy limitless. At least with these toys, the toys can live longer than your child's attention span, the box office whims, and your battery stash.