According to Envirowise, the government-funded consultancy, children receive more toys every year than ever before. Research in 2005 discovered that 80% of children under 12 received more than ten toys per year. Just six years prior to that, 67% of under twelves had the same number of toys bought for them annually. This figure was only 46% 28 years ago. The evidence is clear that our offspring really are the owners of more toys than ever before. We may not want to hark back to the days where children only played with corn dollies. However, with today’s overflowing toyboxes it really is hard to identify what playthings will still hold value in the future.
The Museum of Childhood in London has one of the world’s most extensive toy collections. Its oldest objects date back to the 1600s but the vast majority are from the past 100 years. Catherine Howell, Collections Officer for the museum, says, “With such a plethora of toys on the market now it is very difficult for the museum to decide what to collect in order to reflect modern childhood.”
Their contemporary collections consist of the top toys for the year donated by the Toy Retailers Association, and a selection of merchandise based around a current popular character from film or television. When looking at the quality of the material or production of the toy Catherine says, “This is not an issue for the museum. It is important for us to collect across the range and spectrum from the expensive and well-made to the cheap and cheerful.”
However, cheap materials, such as plastics, have worrying environmental consequences. A staggering 8.5 million unbroken toys are put in the bin every year. Those products that are made from plastics, and especially PVC, are particularly damaging to the environment when they are disposed of. According to Ethical Consumer’s research it’s also becoming increasingly rare to find toys that don’t require the use of batteries. Unlike plastics, batteries can be recycled, although the provisions for doing this are sporadic around the country. It is also acknowledged that the use of technology shortens the product’s life. How many of us have tried to repair an electronic toy and found that it is either impossible, or the cost of repair is more expensive than actually replacing it?
“The evidence is clear that our offspring really are the owners of more toys than ever before.”
No matter what type of toy we buy we nearly always end up battling with the packaging that it comes in. For many of us this is exacerbated at Christmas when it is estimated that up to 800,000 tonnes of household waste comes from toy packaging alone. Kathryn, mother to Isabelle (8) and Jack (6), says, “It would drive me mad every Christmas and birthday. Not only did the children get lots of toys but they all came in lots of plastic packaging with annoying tags that would take ages to remove. We try where possible to recycle the packaging, but have yet to find anywhere that enables you to recycle the plastic covers that many of the toys come in.” The toy industry insists it is making positive steps to combat wasteful packaging. While it is acknowledged that a certain amount of cardboard or plastic, or both, is needed to keep items safe and to stop them breaking, a spokeswoman from the British Toy and Hobby Association (BTHA) says, “We are conscious that packaging needs to be reduced. As well as environmental concerns our members also have a vested interest in reducing packaging in order to transport more products and fit more boxes on the shelf.” The BTHA already provides guidance to members on packaging reduction. Over the next 12 months it will also be looking at how toy manufacturers can reduce their carbon footprint by using greener materials in design and production.
No plastic policy
But how can we fight the tide of toys that seem to overwhelm our children’s bedrooms and toyboxes? Following the guidelines of Reduce, Reuse and Recycle, we could look at decreasing the number of toys that our children receive. Some families have a no plastics policy, preferring instead for birthdays and Christmases to be celebrated with good quality toys made from sustainable materials and using ecological methods of production. Other parents commit to buying just one present for their children. Alison, mother to Lily (8) and Adam (5) says, “We tend to ask for contributions towards a big present e.g. last year it was a trampoline and in the past it’s been membership to a local country park.”
How many toys do children really need anyway? One way to look at reducing toys is to consider how many dolls, teddies, cars and other playthings they really need to stimulate their minds. In her book, Toymaking with Children (Floris Books), the Steiner-inspired author, Freya Jaffke suggests that a child up to the age of three only needs a few items such as knotted dolls, carts, a simple pram, bricks, a wooden spoon, a basket of conkers and a rocking horse. They should be made from natural materials with a simple design. Toys found in nature can be some of the most stimulating playthings. We recently cut up an old tree branch into blocks for our children to play with. They have had great fun building houses and bridges with the wood. Children are also renowned for making the most mundane objects into wonderful games and toys. Symon, father to Matthew (9), Felix (6) and Anya (4) says, “The most fun our kids have is playing with an old plastic drainpipe in the back garden, building with it and rolling cars and marbles down it.”
But what do we do with all those unwanted toys that have fallen to the bottom of the toybox? Our children may be fed up with playing with them but by donating to charity shops, Freecycle, or selling at NCT sales they could get a second lease of life. Similarly buying pre-loved toys ourselves is a great way of making sure they are reused in new homes. Most parents I talked to often bought toys from secondhand sources. Many were also happy to buy Christmas and birthday presents from NCT sales or on e-Bay. Another option is to try out Toy Libraries where children can borrow, rather than purchase, objects. There are over 1,000 of these libraries throughout the UK. For a small membership fee children can borrow musical instruments, dressing-up outfits, games and, in some cases, outdoor equipment.
Make do and mend
But what happens when our children’s toys get broken? Unless they are well-loved and can be repaired many will end up in landfill. Even with those toys that can be mended it is so much easier, quicker and often cheaper to buy a brand new one. Some dolls and soft toys can be sent off to the few toy hospitals that are located in this country. Jill, mother to Rosa (5) and Connie (3) says, “When I was small, Mum and Dad sent off my old doll, Polly, to have her eyes fixed at the toy hospital. I’m sad to say, I probably wouldn’t do that now and if Connie’s doll was broken, I’d probably just try and buy an identical one.” However if a toy is beyond repair there are inventive ways of keeping it out of the landfill site. Nicola, mother to Lola (11) and Nell (9) is author of Homemade Kids: thrifty, creative and eco-friendly ways to raise children (Vermilion). She is gradually collecting all her daughters’ broken plastic toys. “I hope to do a big holiday project where we transform everything “made in China” into a new creative artwork,” she says. “I’ve seen fabulous metre high dogs and Daleks made out of nothing but broken plastic bits and bobs and reckon we would enjoy having a go making one ourselves.” It’s a depressing thought that in the future our children’s vast consumption of toys may be remembered more for their waste than their value as playthings.
TOY FREE NURSERY
Is it possible for our children to go without toys completely? In the 1990s a Munich nursery decided to operate for three months of the year without any toys at all. “Der Spielzeugfreie Kindergarten” (the nursery without toys) allowed the children to just use tables, chairs and blankets as their playthings. The children made dens, ran around in their new space, made up games and shows and just used their imagination. When the toys were returned to the nursery staff noticed that the children communicated and worked better with each other. For further information on the Munich toy free nursery there is a German language book, `Der Spielzeugfreie Kindergarten’, by Regula Eissing (published by Don Bosco Verlag)
V&A Museum of Childhood, Bethnal Green, 020 8983 5200 vam.ac.uk/moc
National Association of Toy and Leisure Libraries natll.org.uk
The Doll, Teddy and Toy Hospital no longer takes on new repairs but has a list on its website of other UK based toy hospitals toyrepairs.co.uk.
Tree Blocks £39.95 – 36 pieces in a draw string bag order line: 01725 517085 www.myriadonline.co.uk