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soft toy without lead paintDo recent safety recalls have you reeling? Parents everywhere are feeling betrayed by Dora, Thomas and many of their friends after learning that millions of popular toys pack a toxic wallop. So how do you find a safe, educational toy for your kid?

Educational toys

First, parents should understand that “all toys are educational,” according to Danielle Kassow, Ph.D., research associate at Talaris Institute in Seattle. “Playing with rocks and sticks is educational.” According to Kassow, the key to learning from play is the human interaction. “Children are learning every moment of their lives. The best kind of learning is through human interaction on a daily basis: cuddling, singing, reading, taking a walk.”

What about claims that toys make kids smarter? “Don’t buy a toy because you think it will make your child smarter,” advises Kassow. “Children are born with a genetic blueprint, but parents have the greatest influence on how they develop. You can’t make your child smarter. You can only give a child optimal experiences to enhance learning.”

Safe toys

While parents need not spend a lot of money on educational toys, how can they find safe toys? Safety is not merely a matter of avoiding the “Made in China” label. Parents should be looking for not only where, but how, toys are made. Toys made from natural materials are more likely to be safe, but are no guarantee of safety. Some wood is chemically dried and coated with toxic lacquer. Look for wooden toys dried naturally and coated with substances like beeswax and vegetable dyes. Fabric toys may contain toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde. Avoid toxins by seeking toys with the European Öko-tex certification or similar assurances.

Try shopping at specialty toy shops with owners who have done their research. Many can answer questions about the toys they sell and the companies that make them. “To ensure safety, we work with artisans and manufacturing companies whom we have viewed in person, researched and tested,” says Stacy Harbour-Van Hoy, co-owner of Nico & Zoe, in West Seattle. “We work with those we feel we can trust.”

Social conscience

Chinese toy factories do not have the same safety oversights we’ve come to expect in the U.S. But some say we can’t blame it all on China. “Factories in China are pushed to make things cheaper and cheaper by American corporations,” says Sarah Furstenberg, owner of Clover Toys in Ballard. She says buying these cheap toys negates hard-fought and -won safety laws, living-wage laws, and other protections for workers and consumers. “American consumers are throwing that all out the window when they are buying toys made by companies that avoid these laws by making toys in countries that do not offer these protections,” says Furstenberg.

Toys made by artisans, who earn a living wage, in small shops, with safety regulations firmly in place, will no doubt cost more. “I am willing to pay a little more for a toy if I can be sure that it is safe,” asserts Silje Sodal, a Lake Forest Park mother who admits to being a bit angry about the recent toy recalls. The question that remains is how much more are consumers willing to pay. A handmade doll — while truly of higher quality — may not be preferable to a preschooler, and may cost several times as much as a doll that is mass-produced.

Furstenberg’s answer? “Less is more.” Rather than quantity, she focuses on quality toys that will last. “My kids, ages 10 and 13, still play with wooden blocks and other toys we have had for 10 years.” She may have spent more on them, but for parents who have watched a child lose interest in a cheap plastic gadget minutes after bringing it home, expensive toys with staying power can start to look like a bargain.

The Ravenna neighborhood’s Planet Happy Toys has created an entire toy store around the idea of social conscience, offering toys that are natural, organic, fair trade, green and otherwise taking into account the health of the planet and the children who use them. “It takes a lot of research,” admits Bridget Brown, owner of Planet Happy Toys, which features a “showroom” where kids can come to try out the toys as well as drop in for crafting or weekend seminars on topics such as recycled art and meditation.

Local toys

Perhaps the best way to know what you are getting is to buy from local artisan toy makers. Pat’s Toys are made in a workshop near Chehalis and sold at the Olympia Farmer’s Market. The toys — fewer than 2,000 a year — are all made from “wood and nails,” according to artisan LeRoy Imbodem, who wrote in his high school yearbook 60 years ago that it was his life’s ambition to have a toy shop in Chehalis. The wood is naturally dried and then fashioned into log trucks, dump trucks, blocks and other toys. 

In local toy shops, you can find artisan toys from Seattle companies, including elf shoes and pouches for playing “dress up” from Dainty Jane’s; ribbon tutus from Morganopolis; kid-sized teepees made from wood and fabric; and dolls, taggie pillows and felt play pasta made by Zoe’s Baby. You can also find octopi made in Anacortes from recycled sweaters by Socktopi, and handmade sock animals from SockadoodleDo, based in Everett.

It may seem that all of these concerns about safety, social justice and the environment make toys more complex than ever before. Yet, they need not be. “Parents are a child’s favorite toy,” says Kassow. She encourages everyone to get back to basics and invest more time than money in children, because that’s what they really need most anyway.

Tera Schreiber is a freelance writer and mother in Seattle, who has found one of the joys of parenting includes playing with quality toys.

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