As much as I'd like to ignore holidays devoted entirely to acquiring stuff, I cannot. I live in the modern world. And my almost four-year-old - who isn't a stuff-ist, actually - would notice. So would other relatives and friends.
So here's my top ten list of what to think about and look out for when gathering holiday presents for any small family member or friend.
1. Give Without Giving Stuff
Can you gift items that aren't stuff? Tickets to shows or a series of classes are a personal favorite. We always ask the grandparents for these. They support local theatres and businesses, are a great shared experience, and, in the case of classes, are really a gift that keeps on giving, especially in a long winter when getting out to go to a class (soccer, dance, music, etc.) is a much needed break from being indoors at home. Bonus: tickets and classes do not clutter the house, they do not later become landfill fodder, and they do not contain potentially harmful chemicals you do not want your children playing with! (See 15 more ways to give without giving stuff.)
What can you recycle, regift, or purchase second hand? There's nothing wrong with eco-wrapping up some hand-me-downs. Kids like things that are new to them, they don't always have to be entirely new. Just keep in mind that the chemical concerns with new toys also exist with older toys, especially in flexible plastic items that might be vinyl (more on that in a moment). Gently used sports equipment is always a good bet - bikes, trikes, ice skates, scooters and the like make great second hand gifts. (Though check any bike flair accessory kits on HealthyStuff.org. They have more than a few that get a high hazard rating.
3. Give Books!
I sound like my own mother but books are a marvelous, wonderful, fabulous present. Have books that your kid has grown out of? Swap with friends who have kids younger than you do. Or donate them to a local school or library. Or Freecycle!
4. Purge Before You Binge
Before you shop, do not forget to purge. Go through toy bins with your children to see what is no longer in use, and what might be good to hand-me-down to others. Make sure to dispose of items you can't reuse or recycle in the most mindful way possible. Do not toss electronics before checking if they are safe to toss. Many municipalities now have electronic waste collection days - check around to see when yours does.
5. Research Twice, Buy Once
Do not go into a store without pre-shopping first or you will wind up with something possibly questionable you didn't really want in the first place. Shop small stores that carefully curate their selections. I avoid plastic and favor eco-friendly wood toys to just about anything, and organic fabrics for plush toys. Do not post in comments that you feel sorry for my kid because she doesn't have plastic toys! She loves her toys! Avoid plastic and electronics for as long as humanly possible. I do not have a teenager yet so have not dealt with i-Phone begging (phew) but if you're managing an age group wild for electronics, check everything on Greenpeace's Guide to Greener Electronics before purchasing.
6. Avoid Plastic
When you cannot avoid plastic, think again. My daughter is begging for a pram for her babies. Cheap plastic ones abound and HealthyStuff.org's latest safe toy results make it look like the main issue with plastic doll strollers is chlorine (I assume from PVC) which they refer to as a "medium" hazard. But there are (granted, more expensive) wood, metal-and-fabric, and even wicker versions on the market if you take the time to look for them. Plastic can be avoided, it just takes more scouting work. It's worthwhile. A disproportionate number of the toys that have been recalled over the years are plastic. Yes, some of them have been painted wood. But on average, plastic has been where most of the worst stuff lurks.
7. Double Check Healthystuff.org
Before shopping, and especially before buying plastic or painted wood toys - head to HealthyStuff.org to get a sense of what the issues are. They have been testing toys - plastic and otherwise - since 2007 using XRF technology for lead, arsenic, mercury, cadmium, PVC, and bromine (this is found in flame retardants). From their just-released 2009 results: "According to our research, lead has been steadily decreasing in toys. In fact, the number of products with lead exceeding current federal standards for lead in toys (300 ppm) decreased by 2/3 (67%) since 2007. However, one in three of all toys tested (32%) this holiday season still contained one or more harmful chemical including lead, cadmium, arsenic, and mercury."
Certain plastics are deemed safer than others - #2, #4, and #5. But it is the rare toy that is actually labeled with what kind of plastic it is made of. My general rule of thumb is to avoid flexible plastic - that tends to contain hormone disrupting chemicals as well as other undesirables. I also avoid anything with a scent - synthetic fragrance can also contain hormone disruptors.
8. Buy Safe Costumes for Dress-up Games
Dress up and role-playing is crucial for children. It's so fun and you can practically see their brains expanding as they make things up. But costumes and costume jewelry can contain lead and other undesirables. Keep dress up gifts minimal: Will scarves cut it? They can wrap and twist into any sort of outfit - princess, knight, doctor, rock star, what have you. If not, look up the jewelry or outfit you're considering on HealthyStuff.org. Also, if your child wants to play grown-up, this is one instance where reusing some of your old stuff - like an old cell phone or a keyboard from an old computer - isn't a good idea. Buy a wooden play phone instead. It won't contain the flame retardants the old electronics do.
9. Give the Gift of (Safe) Art
Pay attention to art materials. Glues, paints, modeling clays, stamp pads, markers, and more all can potentially contain a scary mix of VOCs and more you don't want kids breathing or putting on their skin (formaldehyde, xylene, dyes, and even synthetic fragrance). Read labels to find the good stuff. Look for soy- or beeswax-based crayons, beeswax modeling blocks, natural dyes, companies willing to disclose all ingredients and so on. Make your own playdough (this makes a wonderful gift!).
10. Don't Forget to Play
What's the point of all of this careful research and shopping if not play? As I type, I'm listening to my daughter hysterically laugh with the teenager who lives across our hall. She's so much more playful than me when I'm busy and have work to do, which is why my daughter loves her. It's a free holiday (or any season) lesson: sometimes the gift of time is the best thing anyone can give or receive. I'm going to join them.
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