When parents reach for wooden toys, they are in fact helping their children engage in an important “work.” That is, the developmental work of play.
“With flashing, plastic toys, kids are passive observers, not active participants,” says Suba Jagannathan, mother, toymaker and the owner of Mirus Toys in Vancouver.
Conversely, simple wooden toys, Suba believes, tap a child’s imagination the way plastic, electronic toys often don’t: “Their imaginations are really awesome. If we give them the stories, they can repeat them, but if we give them the opportunity, they will make up stories, and surprise us over and over again.”
[ Related: Duck Runner, a classic-toy trip down memory lane ]
A study out of Eastern Connecticut State University supports Suba’s belief: When it comes to encouraging problem-solving, creativity and positive social interactions, simpler toys are better.
According to the authors of the 10-year Toys that Inspire Mindful Play and Nurture Imagination (TIMPANI) study, “A simple wooden cash register in our study inspired children to engage in lots of conversations related to buying and selling — but a plastic cash register that produced sounds when buttons were pushed mostly inspired children to just push the buttons repeatedly.”
Suba, a former computational biologist, bought a used scroll saw while expecting her first child, wanting to create toys that were safe, creative and STEM-focused. She believes beautifully made wooden toys preserve the magic of childhood.
Redmond toymaker Dale Thompson agrees:
“If you’re going to make a wooden toy work, you’ve got to turn on your imagination,” he says. Thompson is a founding member of Wooden Toys for Charity, a group of retired craftspeople who build wooden trucks, doll beds and block sets for nonprofit organizations.
“My father made a box of wooden blocks,” he recalls. “No fancy paint, just cut out on the saw and sanded a little on the corners. By the time they came to my kids, those blocks were worn, scratched and smooth from small hands rubbing them around on the floor.”
Dale adds: “When I ask my kids what they remember about being little, they all remember that box of blocks.”
Wooden toys: safe, sustainable
In addition to being more durable than plastic toys, well-made wooden toys are often safer and more sustainable than plastic. Numerous studies have found that children can absorb harmful chemicals like phthalates, which disrupt normal hormone development, from exposure to plastics. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, “The toy industry is the most plastic-intensive industry in the world.”
Suba recommends high-quality hardwood over plywood or reclaimed wood.
“Some wood is heavily treated for outside use with pesticides and other chemicals,” Suba says.
Also, paint on toys that may enter a child’s mouth should be in compliance with the Consumer Product Safety Act. Mirus Toys sources their wood from American-grown maple and hickory, and tests all paints to be well within the safety guidelines for toys.
Washington makers of wooden toys
Tom’s Woodshop, Silverdale: Produces sturdy, long-lasting trucks, ferry boats and rocking horses.
Northwest Alpine Woodworks, Marysville: Known for tow trucks, cranes and train sets.
Manzanita Kids, Seattle: Custom name puzzles, teethers, and other imaginative-play toys from American hardwoods.
Mirus Toys, Vancouver: A team of women woodworkers builds Montessori-style toys. Bestsellers include a beehive puzzle and a beautiful perpetual calendar.
Autumn Creek Custom Toy, Clear Lake: Heirloom-quality pretend-play toys from tool sets to kitchen items.
Originally published December 2021