There really is life-changing magic to tidying up. Marie Kondo, her book, her Netflix series, the #Konmari method? It's all sparking joy in my life (though I am not even remotely interested, nor do I have time to meticulously fold every pair of underwear). The joy of tidying up has caught on like a flu bug in a daycare. Those of you who know, you know! I have applied the same selective, minimalist, joy-sparking principles to choosing toddler toys.
We were warned before having a child to watch out – the toys and gear would take over our home. I am proud to say that so far we've escaped this toynado effect. (I coined that term myself – perfect, right?!) I haven't always been a minimalist but as Josh and I continue to find avenues to simplify our lives, buying, owning and storing less stuff is one of the ways we've managed to achieve this.
We have a relatively small home and don't have much storage space. My brain short circuits when there are piles of clutter everywhere.
When it came to toys, I set out a few specific guidelines:
- No new plastic toys: We have been mostly successful with this as it was extremely important to us. More on this below.
- No toxic stuffed animals: This was also a big one. Everyone wants to buy stuffed animals for your kids, but the majority are filled with polyurethane foam or polyester stuffing (plastic). This poses a few problems. They may either contain flame retardants and other endocrine-disrupting chemicals or be plastic which leaches endocrine-disrupting chemicals (again, more below). I didn't want my son snuggling up to a heap of plastic, or chewing on plastic 'fur'. You can read more about plastic here.
- No single purpose large toys: We don't have a big rocking horse, for example.
- Multi-purpose and task-oriented: The majority of our son's toys are multi-purpose, imaginative and can be enjoyed by him for at least six months or more. They typically involve some sort of task or activity that invites him to mimic what he sees us doing around the house.
- No toys that make an incessant amount of noise. I'm an introvert – more on that and motherhood here.
- Nothing that requires batteries (holding strong on this for as long as possible!)
- Optimally the toy has some skill/learning associated with it, along the lines of the Montessori philosophy.
What does that leave us?
Yes, as you may have guessed, we have a lot of wooden toys. So let's talk about why I care about this so much.
The Problem With Toys That No One Is Talking About
Most toys are made of plastic. By most, I mean 90% of the 20.6 billion toy industry which is growing by 5% year over year. In 2014, the US generated 33 million tons of plastic, and only 9.1% was recycled. Most plastic toys end up in the landfill. And once they are in the landfill, they leach chemicals into the earth, and they don't go away – every piece of plastic ever manufactured remains on our planet.
Setting aside the argument that recycling plastic is an unsustainable way to address the abundance of plastic that we have on our planet, most plastic toys can't even be recycled.
In addition to the devastating environmental impact of the mass consumption of unicorn-poo-moji-pooping-slime-accessory kits, Hatchimal garbage-generators, Shopkins, Emoji stuffies, and all the stuff covered in sequins, there is a health impact that too few are considering. Remember how mothers were outraged when BPA was discovered in baby bottles and it was rapidly removed (and then replaced with a virtually identical toxic substitute)? It was recently published that this hormone-disrupting component of plastic is also on receipts. But what about all the toys? Plastic is plastic is plastic. It is not inert. As I wrote in this post, "One of the main chemicals in plastics is bisphenol A (BPA), a known endocrine disruptor. This led companies to make products that were BPA-free; unfortunately, the evidence is showing that these BPA-free alternatives can be just as damaging."
A couple of plastic toys isn't a big deal. A basement, bedroom, living room, and daycare full is something worth raising concern over. Let's get back to the fun stuff: toys and the amazing options that are available.
Spark Joy With SecondHand Toys
There is nothing that fills me with more joy than a great find! And most of Finley's toys, I would consider great finds. Here's where most of them came from:
- The Curb! This is the best of all. We live in a family-friendly, community-driven neighbourhood and many families in the area will simply put no-longer-needed toys out at the end of their lawn for a neighbour to take. From the curb we've picked up a full-size pushable car that Finn loves to cruise in, a like-new kid's Ikea kitchen, a whole bunch of block books and wooden puzzles, a wooden train set, ice skates, and a chalkboard/drawing easel.
- Garage Sales: We're often out walking in the early mornings on weekends so we tend to get first dibs at local garage sales. Josh is a power negotiator and loves a good "g-sale". From local sales we've picked up a toddler-size wooden table and chair set, a bunch of Montessori-style wood toddler toys (like fruit and veggie cutting, a clock with removable numbers), books, a sled (and also gardening gear!)
- Friends & Family: We will gratefully accept all offers and most of the time, we are thrilled by the spoils! We also don't keep everything just because it was given or offered. We take only what we may need/want and either give back or donate the rest.
- Facebook Marketplace: When it's too cold for garage sales, this is my go-to. It's better in larger cities or more densely populated areas. I limit my searches to around 3km from my home. This makes it easy to buy, and pick up and offers some level of connection – usually, there is at least one mutual friend. As I belong to a lot of neighbourhood groups, I will also post searches for things I specifically need – often with the words 'In Search of' or 'ISO'. For example, I might post "ISO: Toddler Learning Tower" and when I did, I ended up with loads of suggestions, and also a few names of handy people who could build me one.
- Kijiji: Not my absolute favourite but it is still alive and well. This was how I ended up getting my toddler learning tower, and as luck would have it, I actually bought it from a farmer I worked with ten years ago when I volunteered on a local farm. We negotiated on the price, I threw in a couple signed copies of my books and the deal was done.
- Libraries and Toy Libraries: Our son is at the local library nearly every afternoon and we are in a forever rotation of books. He has his clear favourites but the novelty of a new book is amazing. Many communities now also have toy libraries which is a great place to try out new toddler toys, especially if your kids are at the age where they tire of things quickly.
Navigating New Toys and Gifts
I am not at all opposed to accepting gifts from friends and family. Out of all of his books, our son gravitated towards the one Sesame Street book we had, and specifically, to Elmo. How do they all love Elmo!??! He hadn't even seen a video of him before his obsession took hold. Finley's sweet nanny gifted him a Tickle-Me-Elmo. Of course, I happily accepted the gift. My son loves it, and we set the ground rules that it doesn't go into his crib with him, and when he's done, we'll pass it along to someone else.
When we want something new for our son and can't find it in the above locations, we first try and find it at one of the local kid's stores in our neighbourhood, or see if they can order it for us.
Pretty much everyone in our family respects our toy guidelines, which I am not shy about sharing (clearly!). I believe strongly in not creating unnecessary waste - whether from it's a plastic toy that will exist on this planet in some form or another forever and ever, or the incredible amount of packaging waste that new toys come in.
Clearing The Clutter
In their first two years, babies go through everything so very fast – sleepers, clothes, toys. The easiest thing to do is to try and not accumulate too much. A baby doesn't need much at all. Most importantly when it comes to not letting your home become the victim of a toynado, every few months, move out what no longer serves you, or is no longer being used. It is much easier to tackle in respectable (and even profitable ways!) when it's done in manageable amounts.
- Resale shops: We take our son's clothes that aren't totally destroyed to our favourite local resale shop (in Toronto, it's called Tokki). This is the fastest growing sector of the fashion and clothing industry and it's amazing to buy and sell baby/kids clothes.
- Pass along: Ask around to friends and family. If you keep your stuff organized, you can just take pictures of what you have available and ask those you know with appropriately aged kids if there's anything they need or want. If they decline, it's not personal.
- Donate: There is a high need in many communities for newborn supplies – sleepers, swaddles, bottles, and toddler toys. Check in with local shelters, refugee support centers, midwifery clinics, or contact your local government rep for drop off locations.
- Sell, Sell Sell!: Don't ever feel bad about selling your old stuff. I do it all the time and it's super fun and I've met wonderful people this way. I've found that posting things to my neighbourhood Facebook Marketplace has been a great way to sell stuff. I do Porch Pick-Up, meaning I leave what I am selling on the porch at a designated time and the buyer leaves payment in my mailbox. I've sold my bassinet, sleep nest, baby carriers, a carpet, a bicycle and even some clothes.
What I Recommend: Favourite Toddler Toys In Our House
- Wooden kitchen. There are many versions. Ours was a curb find from Ikea.
- Pushcart with blocks. We're going on two years with this toy and while it first helped Finley learn to walk, he now builds with the blocks and totes his other toys around.
- Wooden/metal instruments. This was a curb find for us, but here's an example.
- Wooden fruit + veggie set. We got ours at a garage sale and had no idea it would be such a winner.
- Cookbooks. Not technically a toy but from a young age, Finn would take down the books, stack them and together we flip through them and call out the foods we see.
- Crayons and paper.
- Small dustpan and handheld broom.
- Large Lego-like blocks. Yes, this one is plastic but since it lasts forever, you can absolutely find a set used.
- Books and more books!
- Learning Tower - this is what Finn uses to stand at the kitchen counter with us. I got the one by Little Partners off Kijiji, but there are lots of Etsy options as well.
- Music - not technically a toy but it keeps him entertained so I'm sticking it in here.
- Homemade gluten-free playdough.
- Garbage Toys! This was a favourite while we were travelling. We'd save corks, containers, toilet paper rolls, and boxes. Throw in some crayons and tape and the options are endless.
Most of all what our toddler likes to play with is the stuff that we already have. He likes spatulas and measuring cups, he likes to pull out and sort through baskets of hats and scarves. He likes trying on our shoes, and moving couch pillows and blankets around. He loves exploring the toys when he visits other people's homes, loves picking out new books at the library and dives into the activities at his drop-in school program.
Of course every child is different, every family and family dynamic is unique and we all must do what works. What I have noticed with our son is that the toy or activity itself, at least at this stage, remains fairly secondary. The most joy is sparked for him and for us by just being present and engaged together.