(image from Willow Tree Toys)
So. . .it's pretty creepy about the whole toy recall thing. I'd love to say our house is filled with only handmade or European/American made toys, but it's not. We have a lot of amazing wood/fabric toys and all. . . but we also have some bad stuff too. And with 80% of all toys made in China (I just read this figure today) how can we not?
I have been thinking about this issue a lot. It was on the front page of our local paper yesterday. Toys and what they mean, where they are made, and all that's tied up with them; consumerism, mass production, cheap labor. . . all that. It's all complicated and depressing. But, in trying to work through this in my head instead of getting stuck in it, I thought about all the great options out there - different options than buying toys from the Big Box stores and other likely places and I'm trying to think positively. I hope all these recalls (with toys and food) will help manufactures and companies think more about not only what they sell, but what conditions must be like in China (and elsewhere) that allows these mass produced items to be so inexpensive - without thought of the health of the user or the maker, just the price point.
I would gladly buy less and spend more on a single item, so many of us would rather do that. Like with so much of the scary stuff regarding kids and health I need
to keep it all in check. Making these types of lists for myself and
thinking of it as a challenge to creatively come up with solutions, not
obsess on the dangers, is where I need my head to be - and then I move on and make cookies. Like
chocolate chip with orange zest. Here's some ideas.
Making toys yourself:
I love making toys and I know many crafters love it too-what's not to love? Kids seem to love knowing who made their toys and more importantly, they seem to love knowing toys can be made - not bought. It's hard for me to hide toys while making them because I just don't have much alone time (ever) so sometimes part of the gift for me is making the toys with the girls. Then I just wrap them up later and give them, and the girls love them just as much without the surprise component. Here are some posts I have about making toys at home. Most of these don't have tutorials - they are just finished items, but I think they could be reproduced pretty easily. A toy is the sum of it's parts, and it's fun working with good materials, so I try to use the best supplies I can afford, thrift or find. Making a handmade toy with icky raw materials that are made in China would defeat the purpose of all this.
(This might be an incomplete list of all the toys I have made, but my categories are a mess.)
-Make your own toys from patterns, like from Wee Wonderfuls. Also there are lots of doll kits available online, with supplies and directions included. I have used kits from Magic Cabin and learned a ton. There are doll kits here too.
-Search for tutorials online for toy making.
-Swap labor to get handmade toys from others. My brother is making a wooden doll cradle for Delia. I drew the plan for him and he got all the wood and has the wood tools to make it. Asking a friend or family member to make a toy for your child is wonderful. They will be flattered and you will get a cherished handmade family heirloom.
-Look at blogs with a new perspective. It's amazing what I miss-and then notice later. If you look around craft blogs specifically looking for ideas for toys, you will be astounded. There is so much out there - just grab a pencil and paper, take notes, and start surfing.
Rethinking what a toy is:
My fondest memories of growing up are of doing things with my parents. Not of the toys I had. Baking cookies that were in the shape of Richard Scary characters with my Mom is one of my favorite all time memories. So was any craft project I did with her. Giving kids kits, raw materials, and then the promise of a project is a great gift. Like fabric and thread with a pattern. Wood scraps and a miter box, with real tools. Pots and soil and some seeds. Tickets to a play or concert. Wrapping up cupcake mix layered in a jar with a recipe - that type of thing. I think this works better for kids older than toddlers, but toddlers need very few toys. I could go on and on here because I love thinking about the toy/learning connection with everyday objects. I post ideas about using everyday items as toys ala Montessori-style here.
Buying handmade toys from someone you know (or can e-mail):
One of the nicest toys we bought last year for the girls was a wooden moose marionette puppet handcrafted by an artist through Robert Mahar Drygoods. We special ordered it and knew exactly where it came from and who made it - and it is magical. You can buy handmade toys locally at most craft bazaars and 24-hours a day online. I love supporting my friends by buying their creations for gifts, especially when I am burnt out on making my own.
-Etsy has an entire toy/doll category and all the items are handmade. They had over 8000 items listed in the Toys section when I looked just now. I shop there a lot and love knowing I am supporting a craftperson.
-Robert Mahar Drygoods sells handmade toys by craftspeople and artists, and has a crazy cool section of items.
-Look for toys by artists directly. Like the rubber stamps from the Small Object. Or a print from an artist on flickr - artwork framed up would be a lovely gift for a child (just avoid the potentially nightmare producing, I have been told by other children that we have some scary art in the house. uh-oh.)
Buying mass produced toys:
Here are some places to buy mass produced toys that aren't made in China
I just talked to them on the phone about this and they are so cool. We have ordered from them quite a bit. They have over 1000 products and only 10 are made in China. These are clearly marked on the website.
Willow Tree Toys:
I just exchanged e-mails with them. They have a ton of lovely items and this link here will take you directly to the country of manufacturing - so you can search within that criteria.
The Wooden Wagon:
I haven't talked to them - but the "about" page makes it pretty clear they are a European focused toy seller. I cruise this site often, they have lovely holiday folk art - not just toys.
Oompa toys: This natural toy shop has a great wish list function. (Perfect for the grandparents!) They also have a blog and have set up a "made in Europe" category. Their very helpful blog provides is a lot of information about where European toy parts are sourced, and gives a toystore owner's perspective, who is also a mother. It's a great place to get some information like safty reports.
I haven't talked to them, but in the catalog almost all the toys list a country of origin, and most are not made in China.
**I'm sure there are a gazillion other natural toy sites out there, these are just some I have ordered from before, or feel comfortable with.
Gently swaying family and friends to stop giving junky creepy toys to your kids:
This is a hard one. We have been so lucky in that all the girls best gifts have come from family and friends, they all love the old timey/euro wooden toys as much as we do, but many of my friends have horror stories of freaky toys that would make anyone crazy and also possibly deaf. Not to mention the risk of lead poisoning. . . I have gleaned some tips from some Waldorf sites on trying to somewhat control the types of toys received as gifts:
-Give catalogs/online site links that have safe toys to family members.
-Suggest money for a college fund instead (this might get a mixed reaction, but you never know.)
-Suggest a special activity in lieu of a gift.
-Recommend books and/or music as gifts.
-Suggest that they get that one "special most-wanted toy" for your child and then make sure it's one you are comfortable with.
-Return the toys that freak you out. Especially if the kids are young. The kids won't notice.
-Mention the made in China situation to family members now, before the holidays, and let them know it concerns you and that you are researching alternatives - so it's not a new thing to them.
I'm almost done with this post:
In an e-mail I exchanged with Willow Tree Toys, they point out that although a toy is made, let's say in Germany, you can't be sure that the raw materials that German company used were not from China - so this can all make you a bit crazy if you dig deep. This goes for so many of our everyday type items. Even if you make your own toys - where do your raw goods come from? Where are your kids books printed? I know I can't be all crazy about this, it could go on and on forever. There aren't easy answers here, but I do think we can make reasonable choices and then move on. They write:
As you probably are aware, the vast majority of toys are made in China.
Even most toys made in the U.S. and Europe have Chinese parts or
components in them. While we do carry toys from China, we insist that
the factories are owned and controlled fully by the U.S. or European
manufacturer. We carry Melissa and Doug toys made in China and they own
the factory and employ U.S. personnel in the factory to ensure that
their high safety are met. We carry Haba products, some of which are
now manufactured in China, and again, they own the factories and
control every step of the process.
We are a family owned company and are committed to the safety of children. We have two young children ourselves and would never sell a toy that we would not be willing to give to them. We insist on safety assurances from every toy manufacturer and will not sell any toy without that complete assurance. We turn down products that cannot provide us with the safety information we demand.
That having been said, we do sell a number of wooden toys that do not contain any Chinese parts with the exception of a screw (when applicable). It is possible that the screw or wheel of the toy was made in China. You can view our U.S and European made toys here.
It is virtually impossible to find toys today that do not include some Chinese component. With the cost of labor today, it is unlikely that manufacturing will be removed from China. However all of the recent bad press will certainly bring attention to the safety issues and will likely result in better inspections and safer toys. Since it would be extremely difficult/impossible to avoid all Chinese products, my suggestion is to keep doing the research and make sure that you are buying from reputable companies. The company's safety reputation will help insure your child's safety more than the origin of manufacture. Insist that companies you do business with use Chinese factories that are owned by U.S. or European citizens and are overseen by zealous safety representatives.
Okay, whew! I hope this helps. I feel better, anyway.