why all the fuss about wood or why natural materials make better toys than plastic ones

natural materials like wood, wool, even beeswax are warm whereas plastic, metal, glass are cold

why does this matter?

around 1957, psychologist harry harlow conducted a series of terribly cruel but very relevant experiments on rhesus monkeys. in one such experiment, baby monkeys were separated from their mothers and held in an isolation chamber. the infant monkeys were presented two options of surrogate mothers – a milk bearing metal mother, and a barren cloth mother. despite the fact that the metal mothers provided food, the infant monkeys clung to the fabric mothers for comfort.

physical materials and their warmth giving properties have a strong psychological impact on children, which should not be ignored.

even in steiner / waldorf schools, children are given beeswax as the only form of modelling clay / wax up till the age of 9. part of the reason for this is that beeswax needs body warmth to become supple enough to use, and so working with beeswax feels warm to the child rather than working with clay (which feels cold)


natural materials offer a rich sensory experiences 

it has long been said in steiner schools that young children are “whole sense organs” – taking in every stimuli from the environment and feeling it in their whole bodies. modern research has also recently caught up and shown that children are heavily oriented to the senses.

children take comfort and joy in the feel of wood, cotton, wool and metal. plastic toys on the other hand are flat and regular and do not give children the rich sensory experiences that natural materials do. they are cold, lacking in warmth and comfort. Exposing children to toys made of natural materials provides the rich sensorial experiences they need, richly developing their sense perceptions and helping them develop a healthy standard with which to judge synthetics.


natural materials simply last longer

the best toys are not “fads” that fade away from one year to the next or even one generation to the next. they’re built on a solid understanding of the nature and needs of the child, and toys that are built keeping this in mind should be made so that they can be passed on from generation to generation, really standing the test of time.

children also grow attached to toys, and develop deep emotional bonds with them. as they grow up, this relationship (like other relationships) changes and grows, and is beautiful to watch.

for all this to happen, the toys need to last! and unfortunately, mass manufactured plastic toys seem to break quite quickly – perhaps by being accidently stepped on, pulled too hard or fought over. wooden toys and toys made of other natural materials, on the other hand, last so long that although they may be slightly more expensive in the beginning, end up paying for themselves with all the years (and sometimes generations!) of play they provide.


exposure to plastics maybe harmful

some plastics contain certain chemical compounds called phthalates – contact with phthalates (especially through mouthing toys) can lead to some health issues like asthma. So why take the risk?

wooden toys, being natural (and if polished responsibly) do not present any of these dangers.

note – if you must buy plastic toys, do check that they’re BPA and phthalate free.


imaginative play 

often wooden toys are simpler than their plastic counterparts (someone once said that a play should by 90% child and 10% toy, not the other way around). the simplicity and ruggedness that wooden toys provide encourage children to think of how else they can use the same materials – ie. they inspire creative / imaginative play.

recent research has shown that children who are encouraged to enter the world of imaginative play regularly, prove to be more creative a few years later, have a richer vocabulary, are less impulsive and aggressive and often become leaders among their peers.


the environment the environment, the environment 

we’re at a stage right now that if we’re not thinking (and acting) consciously about the environment, we’re in big trouble.

plastic in general, and plastic toys in particular are especially harmful for the environment. since plastic toys contain many small parts that are difficult to separate and therefore are difficult to recycle, they usually head straight to the landfill – where they continue to lie forever… 

for wooden toys on the other hand – there are many sustainable choices in the type of wood that is used – scrap wood, pruned wood, sustainably harvested wood. and even when disposed, wood can be recycled into new toys, building materials, paper, board, amongst many other things. making it a far more environmentally responsible material than plastic.


simply beautiful 

both montessori and the waldorf / steiner pedagogies talk about the importance of creating a beautiful environment in a child’s early years. they believe that children excel in beautiful spaces, and natural materials go a long way to making a space beautiful.

even recent research has proven that being in a natural space increases wellbeing, builds self-worth and reduces stress. young children are naturally drawn to living things and the natural world – and in our urban worlds – bringing a little nature into our homes via the toy choices we make does a world of good for our children. 


many parents today are opting for eco toys, wooden toys and toys made from other natural materials, but this is just the tip of the iceberg… (a trip to the local toy shop will tell you that :) and there’s a long way to go as yet…


1 comment

  • Lukas Nguyen

    It’s very impressive blog to read and thanks! for sharing with us…

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