10 October 2010

A defence of natural play

A few people recently have commented on the collection of lovely toys we have now, and looking at these pictures from this week I know just what they mean.  We do actually have quite a bit!  And it is all very lovely.  So, a little toy-sharing post.  :)
I joke that with my first child I bought a load of stuff, with my second child I bought green and handmade replacements, and when my third was born I made a few bits and gave a whole LOAD to charity.

The story of our toy shelves is similar.  With our first baby we were given a lot of plastic, and bought some ELC-type "educational" wooden toys.  With our second, we got rid of all the plastic and started to swap out many of the wooden toys for more open-ended things and small-scale handmades.  With the little one, well, we got rid of a lot more and I have mostly made new things myself.  We probably still have a fair bit of sifting to do even now.
I love the sensory quality of wood.  I love the adaptability of little building things and figures, and the odd role play tool (doll, sling, crib, playsilks, kitchen and pans, play food).  I love the timelessness of simplicity and the years of joy that will be found in these simple games.  

There are so many reasons to free the imagination from the paths of modern commercial toys. There are just so so many reasons to choose toys that have been handmade with love from natural materials.  This is not a negative choice, a choice from fear about plastics and pollutants and "bad influences" - it is a choice FOR something wholesome and good.  That's why we have one or two wonderful plastic toys still.  (Lego from when hubby was small, and a Bilibo bucket.)  We have to take care with the choices rather than thinking everything from one philosophy, brand or shop is all going to be wholesome (or necessary).  :)

It is tempting sometimes to think that we need *all* of it though, or as I often find myself saying "just one more".  To begin with especially the temptation was to go a bit overboard, and not really question the need for the purchases because they are "good" purchases.  Especially when we first ditched the junkfood toys.  Mostly, though, I think the balance in our house is a good one.  We have things that will last us for many years, and about half of our toy space is taken up with things that we have made ourselves or that are purely collected bits of nature.
We have three wicker baskets that are filled with 100% natural "toys".  One of shells, one of pine cones and large seeds like acorns and conkers, and one of medium sized flat smooth stones for building with.  They are played with all the time, and cost nothing!  

A good toy is something lasting, simple, and gives sensory pleasure.  Does it look and feel pleasing?  This isn't a question I asked myself when Jenna was small, but it drives most of my choices for them now.  Caricatures and garish colours, harsh noises and smooth cold plastic are not for me - they have their place, but I can think of many things I would prefer to bring into my home.  A wooden treasure box.  A small polished bowl.  A string of beads.  A smooth stone (too big to put wholly in mouth, not big enough to injure feet when dropped).  Large shells.  A simple doll of bunched cloth.  These are the things that start a baby’s journey out into the world of all those things the grown ups do every day.  And they will last for many years, and be put to many uses.
Play isn’t something you can buy, and it’s not just an optional add-on to childhood.  It is essential, the creativity and learning as our children physically engage in the world through their imagination and all their senses, it is just incredible to watch.  If you give your child one thing this Christmas, give them the gift of time spent at rest with no plan or instruction.  If you want to give even more, spend time yourself feeding their imaginations with wonder in the great outdoors and in telling and retelling stories and poetry.  ;)  We can all afford to give our children these gifts - in fact we can't afford not to.
One of my dearest friends, as a gift to his newborn son, wrote a story.  Just a simple, wonderful, wholesome, sweetly funny story.  Something about the love that bore that idea touches me every time I think of it – and the image of my friend earnestly reciting, to his grown friends, the story he wrote for his son…  Some day all our children will recite that story to us.  And I will bet on it making him cry.  (Love you, Mr Symes!)
When I see a scene that Jenna has set up and been playing with, I have one of those "aha" moments that we really have made good choices for her.  Her personality comes into it too, and I suspect as the others grow I will find they all have their own styles of play and prefered activities, but I do strongly believe that imitation and imagination are irreplaceable and innate.  And that they are best cultivated in free play, free time, and an enriched comforting safe and simple environment that VALUES imagination and allows children to join in the day to day life of the grown-ups who live there.

I can't claim to have totally stopped buying beautiful natural toys, but my allegiance has sort of switched to Etsy and other small scale artisans.  Myriad still has the best all-in-one-place range of beautiful simple toys, but the postage is high for me unless I am planning to place a large order - and since we have plenty of toys, I can't remember the last time I wanted to place a large order!  But here and there, in preparation for Christmas and birthdays, some little things find their way to me from here and there.  Even shipping from the US is often cheaper than shipping from a company in this country - though it is much less green.

Some sellers I love:

And one I haven't ordered from (yet): Just Hatched (because I have to share the beautiful moon and leaf puzzles - and strongly suggest that if any of you are going to order from them that we could share postage costs)!

I actually think, though, that we are reaching toy saturation point here.  What we have is played with, endlessly, and well-loved.  I'm just not finding that *more toys* are adding much to the play value (though I am sure I will sucumb to more little wooden folk)!
We are by no means a perfect Waldorf family (or a perfect Natural one either).  We don't really aspire to be.  But we do our best to consider what we really need, we love natural materials, and we care about being good stewards of our resources.  What I have in my home, what I allow into my children's lives (in my function as their gatekeeper to the world) is a reflection of the journey I have been on as a parent for the last six years.  Part of this lies also in the giving of archetypal images rather than specific characters (more on this perhaps another time when I puzzle out more of my feelings about media and where it fits into our ideals as both autonomous educators and "natural" parents).

I think, as scary as that seems right now, that my journey may be taking me towards purposeful simplicity and decluttering of my space...  And this includes Christmas (although we have never spent very much on presents).  I am aiming for one or two small presents in each stocking this year (apart from art materials and clothes) and a couple of small things to share between them in the treasure chest for later in the day.  This means a budget for ALL gifts for EVERYONE on our list, of £150.  Including crafting materials (that we don't already have in the house), children's presents, and stockings.  Realistic?  I hope so.  :)

*** Disclaimer:  I feel I need to add to this that I am not in any way criticising anything that, as YOUR children's gatekeeper, you allow into YOUR home - or actively choose to have their as it has value for you and yours.  I am sharing my philosophy as some thoughts and feelings I have been puzzling out and some joys I have been experiencing in recently seeing so much creative play between my little three.  :)  So, there is no instruction implied in these words, apart from the following - LET THE CHILDREN PLAY!  Thankyou.  ;)  ***


  1. Thank you for ths post, with the gift giving season coming up its a reminder of what really matters. When I split from my 1st husband I was at art school and very hard up for cash and the kids didnt get as many 'things' as a lot of other kids around them, but I can honestly say it didnt do them any harm and hours of fun was had with toilet roll tube skittles and a scrunched up paper ball. One of O's favourite 'toys' just now is a big cardboard box. There is no doubt in my mind that having a vast amount of plastic toys can hamper creativity in play. I usually start buying for Christmas early and so far I have bought 2 hand made wooden puzzles and 2 books, I have also knitted a caterpillar lol. Thats the road we intend to take. Its going to be difficult to hold back the tidal way of plastic from everone else though.

  2. Just a quick question. My DD had a plastic kitchen we were given but unfortunately it's not cracked so I was thinking of getting her a wooden one. I've seen the website with the cooker and sink that you have and a love them but she's 5 now and I'm not sure whether they'll be too small or will get that much use. How do you find your kitchen set? Is it worth getting for an older child?



  3. Hun, yes, yes, I will share postage with you, I desperately,desperately want the moon puzzle and I love the woodland animal sets too :-)

    Thank you for this post too; I've been looking at our toy shelves and starting to think I'd like to get rid of some of the wooden toys that feel too prescriptive or simply aren't well played with and replace with more open ended simple toys.

    I think I initially fell into the trap of buying a wooden toy, just because it was wooden (from charity shops and carboot sales I mean) and so I have some toys that are rarely ever played with.. and frankly some wooden toys I have aren't especially well made or even beautiful..and I tend to think of them as cheap and nasty as plastic can be.


  4. I don't know if its any use to you but Bums-n-roses is going to be doing an Ostheimer and Grimms/holz preorder soon for Christmas - usually 25% off with postage at cost - updates are via the facebook group.http://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/Bums-N-Roses/372152174613

    Carla (Long Eaton)

  5. Carla, thankyou for the invitation! And thankyou also, to all of you for taking the time to comment in such depth about your own feelings about play and the roles of the toys we choose. :)

    Michelle, long in depth answer! Jenna is a tall six and the kitchen top is just just below her hip height - the back of the unit still comes almost to her shoulders. So it is starting to be a lower play height for her, though she is still comfortable to stand washing dishes or stiring a pot at the units. Probably by the time she is seven she will be stooping to it slightly.

    I am unsure whether I would buy it for a five year old unless I knew it could be passed on, purely based on the cost, but it really will be able to be passed on (the wood is fabulous quality) and it is taller than similar units I have seen. It is about *perfect* height for an average four year old.

    I just asked Jenna if she thinks the kitchen is babyish, and when she asked why I asked if she thought a five year old would like it. Well, she started to cry thinking I was going to give away her kitchen! When I explained, she said that no, it is a grown up kitchen and she feels like a real mummy when she uses it. The main reason we chose that one above others was the sink, which can be filled with water as it is a large heavy metal bowl. :) That and being given a large chunk of money and told to buy the children something special with it!!

  6. Thanks. I'm so sorry Jenna got upset, poor little thing. My DD is a smallish 5 so we'd probably get a few years wear out of it. Unfortunately we haven't got anyone we could pass it on to but if the wood is that good quality I would imagaine it would be easy to sell on when she's grown out of it. We'll have a think but thanks for your answer.

  7. Hehe aw no she was so tired, but had to wait for Morgan to be asleep before she went up to her bed! I hope that helps with your search anyway. :) If it helps any further, in the pictures I've put up there are two of Roo, who is about one year old height, and her chin can easily rest on the unit surfaces so she has to stand on tiptoes to stir things. *cute*

    Something else has just occured to me also, if you do get that kitchen, be scrupulous about wiping spills on the hob top, as the metal plates will tarnish over time if they regularly get damp. :) Even so I am certain we could sell ours on at a good price (though how it will be in six years or so LOL). Another thing I'm working on, taking the best possible care of what we have without compromising on the principle to say yes as much as possible. :) xx

  8. Well timed post Sarah as I keep looking at some of the things we have and have an internal groan. I too bought wooden things because they were wood, rather than really thinking about why we were getting more toys!
    Think a good sort out is needed this week.

    It seems we were reading each others blogs at the same time ;o) - can't wait to meet you xxxxxx

  9. I have been pondering over the plastic v. wood thing since buying toys for Ingrid and I'm not sold on either. She loves her little people, all plastic, and never plays with her wooden toy toaster...But I like that you point out it's not so much what it's made of but does it get played with and make you happy? I found that a bag of blocks and a wagon full of rocks and sticks from outside have been the most played with toys lately!

    Thank you also for making me see that parenting is a journey, that you did things differently with Jenna but she's not missed out on things because of it. I feel like my parenting style has changed SO MUCH since Ingrid's been born and sometimes I feel bad I didn't do it "right" from the beginning...

  10. What a wonderful post... I love to be able to peek into other families' lives and toy boxes especially ;)
    Our story is very similar. My first son had every plastic, obnoxious toy possible. By the time he was 2, we were fed up with them (and he was bored) so we donated them all and never looked back.
    Not surprisingly, I let both boys have a bag of potatoes while I was making dinner the other night. They are still scattered throughout the house - in their play kitchen, in vehicles, etc... and they've spent more time playing with those potatoes in the past 2 days than their "toys". Love it :)
    Thanks for mentioning our shop in your post. Just Hatched was born out of the heart of just what you speak of in this post... wanting beautiful and peaceful toys for our kids and our homes. Best wishes!

  11. Amber, that's just it isn't it - natural play to me is more about the open creative possibilities and allowing the child to project their journey and action onto the toy rather than the toy dictating the game. Perhaps with the toaster it is the same? That it is just too prescriptive for her to find joy in it? Just a thought. :)

    I prefer wood for so many reasons, but the past few years have taught me to stay selective even in the best of toy shops, to know my own child, and to keep it simple even when I'm tempted to have one of everything. Many of our play people are broken because we bought cheap wooden ones, wheras the playmobil my mum has from my childhood is still going strong (though I still wish I'd bought Ostheimer quality wooden people from the start LOL).

    Amanda, thankyou so much for taking the time to comment over here, it is a pleasure to direct friends to such a lovely place. xx


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