Play Matters

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We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing. – George Bernard Shaw

It’s 11:41 p.m. on a Thursday as I lie in my bed listening to the murmur of my kids from the next room. They are very involved in their play — something that often occurs in the late hours of the night when one might typically expect children to be sleeping. But they play so well together in these late-night moments, creating elaborate stories, developing characters (tonight it’s a city of talking Matchbox cars), working through conflict, working on their communication skills, developing dialogue, and more. Who am I to interrupt them just because the clock says it’s nearly midnight?

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Play is the work of the child. – Maria Montessori

According to Dr. Peter Gray, a research professor of psychology at Boston College and acclaimed author:

Human children, who have the most to learn, play far more than any other primates when they are allowed to do so. Play is the natural means by which children and other young mammals educate themselves. The most important skills that children everywhere must learn in order to live happy, productive, moral lives are skills that cannot be taught in school. Such skills cannot be taught at all. They are learned and practiced by children in play. These include the abilities to think creatively, to get along with other people and cooperate effectively, and to control their own impulses and emotions.

Additionally, counseling psychologist Gayatri Ayyer says,

Research shows that playing is paramount to our physical, intellectual and socio-emotional development. The play I’m talking about here is the unstructured, spontaneous and imaginative escapades that we had in our childhoods; not the structured and organized sports of today. The benefits of playing are immense. They learn different academic concepts, the rules of behaviour with peers, manners, friendship, decision-making, conflict resolution, cooperation and competition.

Eventually I may ask them to wrap up their game for the night, but for now I am grateful that tomorrow (like most days) we have nowhere we must be in the morning. For now I will enjoy the sweet sound of my children getting along, the sound of imagination, the sound of play.

Play matters.

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Think Before You Buy

I recently mentioned my frustration at the toy advertisements arriving in the mail just in time for the holidays. You’d think with all the buzz about living eco-friendly and green, the big toy makers might catch on and stop making single function, zero imagination toys. But no. The Target catalog is lined with page after page of toys that do just one thing, are made of plastic and generally need batteries. There’s a mysterious absence of toys that encourage creativity.


Dance Star Mickey – He walks, talks and dances (and entertains your kid for about 5 minutes before he’s tossed into a corner)

Why sell toys that kids can use for several different purposes when you can sell one that does X, one that does Y and one that does Z? The more focused the toy, the more toys they can sell and the more money they can make! Nevermind that simple toys are better for children. They can’t be mass produced and where’s the money in that? And who cares about all of the trash the toys that are played with for a week or two until they break or kids tire of them produce?!

I’m not saying “down with all plastic toys.” All I ask is before you shop for toys or presents in general this holiday season, think before you buy. That’s all. Vote with your dollars.

Another way to make a difference this holiday season is by participating in Give The Gift of Green through One Million Acts of Green Facebook Application. There are several cute e-cards with various Acts of Green on them that you send to your friends on Facebook. I just sent one to Lisa from Retro Housewife Goes Green pledging to turn off my computer when I’m not using it. The card adds, “That’s only 14 minutes per day, but it’s a start.” Ain’t that the truth?! It takes just a minute and helps spread the green message. It’s fun, easy and for a good cause. :)

If you haven’t yet checked out One Million Acts of Green, I encourage you to read my intro post and learn more about how you can start logging and sharing your Acts of Green.

Disclosure: Rockfish Interactive, in partnership with Cisco, is compensating me for my considerable time on this project. However, my ideas, words, and opinions are my own and are not influenced by this compensation.

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If Parents Don’t Protect Their Kids from Harmful Chemicals, Who Will?

Being a parent today seems to require a hyper-vigilance to make sure your child is protected from unhealthy — sometimes even toxic chemicals — in their toys, clothing, eating utensils, furniture, household items, and more. Between lead-based paint, PVC and phthalates in toys, bisphenol A (BPA) in water bottles, flame retardant in pajamas and recently cadmium — a carcinogen — in McDonald’s Shrek glasses, there’s a lot to keep moms and dads on their toes.

The question becomes: What is the best way to keep your child safe? How can a parent know that something they (or a friend or relative) buy for their little one isn’t going to cause them harm? Even if you make your own toys, buy them handmade by an artisan or buy supplies for your children to make their own simple toys, how can you know that the materials are all safe?

The fact is there is not enough being done in the United States to protect anyone, but especially children, from harmful chemicals.

According to the CNN article Toxic chemicals finding their way into the womb, “The EWG [Environmental Working Group] study found an average of 232 chemicals in the cord blood of 10 babies born late last year.”

They are chemicals found in a wide array of common household products — a list that is as long as it is familiar — shampoos and conditioners, cosmetics, plastics, shower curtains, mattresses, electronics like computers and cell phones, among others.

“For 80 percent of the common chemicals in everyday use in this country we know almost nothing about whether or not they can damage the brains of children, the immune system, the reproductive system, and the other developing organs,” said Dr. Phil Landrigan, a pediatrician and director of the Children’s Environmental Health Center at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. “It’s really a terrible mess we’ve gotten ourselves into.”

Environmental attorney and mother Patti Goldman believes, “When it comes to protecting our kids from toxic chemicals, parents need a system that meets us halfway. We need to shift the burden from families to the companies who are manufacturing and distributing the chemicals used in these products.”

The potentially good news is that new legislation called the Safe Chemicals Act of 2010 was recently introduced by Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) on April 15. This new act amends the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act and would “require manufacturers to prove the safety of chemicals before they are marketed. Of particular concern are carcinogens, to which the public remains dangerously exposed and uninformed.”

“America’s system for regulating industrial chemicals is broken,” said Senator Lautenberg. “Parents are afraid because hundreds of untested chemicals are found in their children’s bodies. EPA does not have the tools to act on dangerous chemicals and the chemical industry has asked for stronger laws so that their customers are assured their products are safe. My ‘Safe Chemicals Act’ will breathe new life into a long-dead statute by empowering EPA to get tough on toxic chemicals. Chemical safety reform is not a Democratic or Republican issue, it is a common-sense issue and I look forward to building bipartisan support for this measure.”

In the meantime, what is a parent to do?

  • You can start by checking out the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission Toy Hazard Recalls list to see if any of your children’s toys have been recalled.
  • Vote with your dollars. Buy toys from manufacturers or artisans you feel you can trust.
  • Stay current on what’s going on in the movement to protect children from harmful chemicals by reading Healthy Child Healthy World
  • Check the Environmental Working Group’s Cosmetic Database to find out what personal care products – shampoo, soap, lotion, sunscreen, toothpaste, diaper cream, etc. – are safest for children
  • Watch the EWG’s video “10 Americans
  • Visit Safer Chemicals Healthier Families – A nationwide effort to pass smart federal policies that protect us from toxic chemicals.
  • Take Action! by reading about the Safe Chemicals Act and send emails to your representatives and senators, email Congress, and don’t forget to tell your friends about the act and ask them to take action as well!

Cross-posted on BlogHer

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Where do your kids’ toys go to die? Children, consumerism, toys and trash

A few weeks ago I overheard a woman say (online) that she cleaned her basement and subsequently “threw out 10 bags of broken, crap toys!” The comments that followed applauded her efforts. I’m not sure if they were happy that she cleaned the basement or that she discarded numerous toys, but I couldn’t help but feel saddened that so many “broken, crap toys” were on their way to the landfill.

I can’t say I’ve never thrown out a broken toy myself, but generally speaking I try to make an effort to acquire toys that are the antithesis of “crap” and, thus will stand the test of time and, once they’ve lived out their time with us, can be given away to someone else (or saved for my kid’s kids…someday). Of course some less than stellar toys inevitably make their way into our house, but 10 bags of junked toys seems like a lot to me.

It had me wondering, is this scenario the norm or the exception? What do you think?

According to Earth911, “Recent studies show nearly every household purchases at least one toy a year (often more), and toy sales in the U.S. in 2007 totaled to $20.5 billion.” How many of those toys make their way into the landfills?

I have to admit that I feel guilty every time I throw a broken anything into the trash. I know that throwing something away doesn’t really make it go away. There is no “away.” It just means that it’s going to sit in a landfill or in an ocean somewhere for years and years and years. That bothers me, which is why I try to avoid it. (If you haven’t yet watch The Story of Stuff, I highly recommend it.) This is also why this weekend I was trying to Freecycle a bunch of stuff that we’re no longer using.

I wrote a bit about my process for getting rid of stuff in the post “Decluttering your house, the green way.”

Even if I know the garbage can is my last option for stuff, I still feel bad about throwing it out. I hate to think about it ending up in a landfill and staying there forever, but then I also have to be realistic and not completely beat myself up over it. It’s a good reminder to make wise choices when buying things and think:

* Do I really need this?
* Is it good enough quality that it will last for years or will it break after a year and have to be replaced?
* Should I save my money for a little while longer and buy a better quality item that will last me longer?
* What will I do with it when I no longer need it (or when it breaks)?

Of course this is a bit harder when you have kids (and toys) and it’s not always practical to go through this list every time you buy something, but it’s a good practice to get into and will help to avoid unnecessary purchases in the future. It can also help you avoid buying cheap, plastic toys that might as well go directly from the assembly line to the landfill for as long as they are usable. But don’t get me started about those. ;oP

Good toys vs. Junk toys

Jennifer Lance wrote Green Family Values: No More Junk Toys! and offers some tips on how to tell a good toy from a junk toy:

How can you tell a junk toy from a good toy? Field naturalist Alicia Daniel offers the following list of questions to ask when selecting toys:

  1. Will this toy eventually turn into dirt-i.e., could I compost it? Stones, snowmen, driftwood, and daisies-they will be gone, and we will be gone, and life goes on.
  2. Do I know who made this toy? This question leads us to search for the hidden folk artist in each of us.
  3. Is this toy beautiful? Have human hands bestowed an awkward grace, a uniqueness lacking in toys cranked out effortlessly by machine?
  4. Will this toy capture a child’s imagination?

So what do you do with the old toys?

Earth911 has some tips for recycling toys including:

  • passing them on to other family members
  • donating them
  • repairing broken toys
  • or selling them.

They also list the benefits of recycling toys.

Think before you buy

I think the best advice though is to think before you buy. I know not every single toy purchase can be a thoughtful/practical one, but if you can change that so the percentage of thoughtful purchases is increased by 25%, 50%, 75% or more, think of how much crap that will keep out of the landfills. Also, you might want to consider the carbon footprint and the safety of the toy. How far did it have to travel to get to your toy store? If you live in the United States, could you buy an American-made alternative instead? There have been a lot of recalls of toys in the past several years. When you buy well-made, quality toys, you reduce the risk of a recall.

Children and consumerism

Mrs. Green from My Zero Waste in her post A Plastic Frisbee for the Landfill wrote:

I have to say, this is something that concerns me about 21st century life – the massive volume of ‘pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap’ toys that our children are growing up with. They last a few days at best and then become ‘rubbish’. Our children are bought up to look for the next fix and move on to the next thing, like good little consumers. I wonder how we can ever solve the landfill issue until we pull back from so much mindless consumerism. We try and stay away from it as much as we can, but we can’t live in a vacuum or turn our child into the village freak.

I agree. I don’t want my children to be turned into mindless consumers, which is why I support the Campaign for a Commercial-free Childhood, but I also realize they cannot live in a vacuum and I don’t want them to be ostracized by their peers.

So, what’s the solution?

Think before you buy, have a plan in mind for what to do with a toy when your child is done with it, and remember: everything in moderation.

One of my favorite Native American proverbs is, “We do not inherit the Earth from our Ancestors, we borrow it from our Children.” Yes, a cheap plastic toy might make your child happy for a few minutes or weeks, but how happy will it make them in 20 years when their generation is responsible for cleaning up the mess that resulted from all of those cheap plastic toys?

Related links:
Second Chance Toys: Rescuing and Recycling Plastic Toys for Needy Children
Tips for Choosing Eco-friendly Toys
Simple toys are better for children
Toys from Trash

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BPA, its everywhere you don’t want it to be

This weekend as my friend Melissa was showing me her cool pressure canner and all of the foods she’s canned with it, we started talking about the presence of BPA in most store-bought canned goods. The presence of BPA (bisphenol-A) in canned goods is something I’ve known about for a while, but one of those things I try to ignore because I still buy a fair amount of our food in cans, including all of our beans (black, pinto, Great Northern, kidney, garbanzo, etc.), tomatoes, tuna, salmon and some soups.

After reading this NY Times op-ed piece, Chemicals in Our Food, and Bodies by Nicholas D. Kristof, I’m rethinking my canned good buying habits.

Consumer Reports magazine tested an array of brand-name canned foods for a report in its December issue and found BPA in almost all of them. The magazine says that relatively high levels turned up, for example, in Progresso vegetable soup, Campbell’s condensed chicken noodle soup, and Del Monte Blue Lake cut green beans.

The magazine also says it found BPA in the canned liquid version of Similac Advance infant formula (but not in the powdered version) and in canned Nestlé* Juicy Juice (but not in the juice boxes). The BPA in the food probably came from an interior coating used in many cans.

*Which you are already boycotting anyway, right? ;) No? Here’s the Nestle Boycott list.

What’s the problem with BPA?
It’s a synthetic estrogen (an endocrine disruptor) and has been linked to everything from childhood behavioral problems and breast cancer to obesity, infertility, and genital abnormalities, and possibly diabetes and heart disease as well. In other words, it’s a chemical you likely don’t want in your or your children’s bodies, yet “more than 92 percent of Americans have BPA in their urine.”

So sure, I’m buying mostly organic foods in those cans, but what good does it do us if the organic foods are chock full of BPA? Ugh.

Julie at Terminal Verbosity recently wrote about the new findings and has some suggestions on how you can reduce your BPA exposure.

  • Stop buying canned goods” – Use your crock pot to make beans or soups instead. Both generally freeze well.
  • Check your hard plastic food receptacles” – Or switch to glass food storage containers (I recently got a set at Costco for a under $40 I think.)
  • Beware plastic toys, especially teethers” – You’d think our children’s toys would be safe from this chemical, but nope, they’re not.

Julie has further information on these suggestions and links in her post.

The more I learn, the more I think I’m finally going to have to bite the bullet and start cooking my own beans and freezing them. I know it’s not hard (Tara @ Feels Like Home has tips in her post How To Prepare Dried Beans), it’s just one more thing that I don’t want to add to my list, however I think the health payoffs are definitely worth it. We’re exposed to enough harmful chemicals in our environment without having to eat them too.

Edited to add: If you’ve ever been concerned about possible lead leaching into your food from your crock pot, you’ll want to give this a read! Check out another post from Julie where she has several of the leading brands of crock pots tested for lead. (Spoiler alert: it’s good news!)

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Tots, toys and toxic paint don’t mix

As parents, we do the best we can to ensure our children have the very best start in the world. We may breastfeed them, make their baby food from scratch, buy organic and whole foods, childproof our homes, teach them not to talk to strangers, and a myriad of other things. We trust that when we buy age-appropriate toys for our children, that they will be safe and not pose a choking hazard nor contain toxic elements like lead-based paint. Apparently we are trusting the wrong people.

Photo courtesy juhansonin
Photo courtesy juhansonin

Stephanie of Adventures in Babywearing wrote an interesting post yesterday about her desire to start making homemade gifts for children in light of the recent toy recalls – first with Thomas & Friends and lead paint, then with Fisher Price toys and lead paint and now with Mattel and a concern over magnets and again, lead-based paint. (Are you sensing a disturbing trend here?) All of which, I must add, are made in China. She then brought up the possibly lesser-known fact that Melissa & Doug toys are also made in China.

For those of you unfamiliar with Melissa & Doug, they make educational (including several wooden) toys. We only recently discovered them, but are big fans of them in this house.

I bought Ava the Melissa & Doug Cutting Food set for her birthday this year. She likes to play with it, as does her 8-month-old teething brother Julian, who loves to chew on the pieces of food. I figured they are made of wood, so they’ve got to be better for him to chew on than plastic (with who knows what kinds of chemicals in it). But in light of this scare over toys made in China perhaps I am wrong to assume that.

I checked the label on the bottom of the Melissa & Doug Cutting Food crate to verify that they were made in China (which is true) and also saw “All Melissa & Doug* products are carefully crafted by hand, using non-toxic coatings, and meet or exceed all U.S. toy testing standards.” That is a relief. However, the fact still remains that even the toys you are buying because you think they seem more natural, like wooden toys from Melissa & Doug, are being mass produced (under apparently sub-par safety standards) in factories in China. According to an MSNBC article, “…about 80 percent of toys sold worldwide (are) made in China.” 80 percent!

So where do we go from here? What can we do to product our children?

1) Stay on the lookout for product recalls Since most of us can’t afford to get rid of all of our children’s toys and start anew, we need to be on the lookout for any new toy recalls. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission site is a good source for recall information.

2) Sign petitions to help bring about change. After the recalls for the Thomas toys and then the Fisher Prices toys, MomsRising created an online petition to let Congress and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) know that, “Testing children’s products for toxic chemicals must be a priority. No more toxic toys and children’s products!” You can sign the petition here.

3) Buy “green” or Made in the USA toys — Here are a few resources to help you get started. Willow Tree Toys sells European Waldorf wooden toys that encourage creative, imaginative thinking. While some of their toys are made in China, they state, “We have received safety assurances from the toy companies represented in our store. The products are lead free, non-toxic and have passed all European and American safety tests.” You also have the option of searching their site for toys made specifically in the USA or in Europe. Green Toys Inc. “makes a line of classic children’s toys constructed of bioplastic made from renewable, sustainable resources like corn (yep, you read that right). This will help reduce fossil fuel use and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improving the overall health and happiness of the planet. All Green Toys Brand products are manufactured and assembled in the USA!” Still Made in USA is a site with a list of several toy and game companies that are Made in the USA. I’m bookmarking this one. What a great resource!

4) Test for lead paint This might seem a bit extreme, but it’s always good to know your options. If you want to test any of your children’s toys (or anything else for that matter) for lead paint, there’s a kit – LeadCheck Lead Testing Swab Kits – that you can purchase. I’m sure other kits are on the market as well, but this is the first one I came across. Also thanks to Steph, I found out about a new blog called Not China Made.net“an exploration into the dangers of trading with China.” There is a lot of eye-opening information over there (some of which I’d already heard about) that will certainly make me think twice about buying China-made products. To help spread the word about the blog, they are currently having a contest and offering a $50 gift card to AmericanApparel.net. Remember, whether it be toy recalls or anything else in the world, knowledge is power. Be vigilant, arm yourself with information and help protect your kids.

*Edited to add: I wrote to Melissa & Doug last night to express my concerns about toys made in China and lead paint and here’s what they had to say about their product…

Hi Amy – Yes, we definitely appreciate and understand your concern. Please be assured, we test for lead VERY frequently. It’s quite possible to make great quality children’s items in China, which meet all safety regulations, but the key point is that you have to test and inspect very frequently to be sure that your factories are always following your instructions explicitly. I assure you that’s exactly what we do. From our experience, the key to doing this correctly is not simply to insist that your factories follow your instructions, but then to go one step further and to AUDIT, INSPECT, AND TEST very frequently. That is the most important part of the process, and it’s something our company has always taken VERY seriously. Thanks again for asking, and for your support also. Your Dedicated Customer Service Team Melissa & Doug, Inc. 800-284-3948 Monday-Friday 8:00-5:00 EST

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