Wooden toys make kids smarter… right?

“They have to use their actual imagination!”

“They don’t contain hazardous chemicals!”

“They don’t have broken pieces and dangerous parts!”

“They last much longer!”

I’ve heard all of these claims and then some and have even read forums where women scoff at anyone who buys anything BUT a wooden or felt toy for their child. I chuckled because it seems like yet another case of exaggeration and consumerism (on both sides). So I decided to research wooden toys, why people think they’re better, and decided to explain what I found out about a lot of the claims.

“They force kids to actually use their imagination.”

This one is pretty easily debunked. This has nothing to do with whether or not the toy is made of wood and everything to do with the toy itself. If you hand a child blocks painted the same, some plastic, some wood, the child will not notice a single difference. It won’t MAKE a single bit of different to their imagination play with them either. What is more accurate of a claim is that wooden toys often lack all flashing lights, talking voices, moving parts, and things that “play for you.” This is a statement about the toy itself – it has nothing to do with what the toy is made of.

It reminds me of when we bought my son his kitchen set. I was telling my grandma how he’d make the beeping sounds of microwave buttons, the whirring sound of it running, and yell, “BEEP! It’s done!” a few seconds later. He’s make his menu we had to choose from (those he always hid a fish head in whatever we ordered), put on a chef hat and declared himself “Chef Great.” He washed all his dishes and even had to “throw away food that had gone bad” from his fridge. His little stove would flash red lights and make sounds like water boiling and them boiling OVER with the pot, and the pan would make frying sounds. When I said the last bit, my grandmother said, “It’s a shame children don’t have to use their imaginations anymore.” Ahem. Sorry Grandma, but one piece that has lights and makes sound (okay two, the phone beeps too) doesn’t ruin an entire toy nor negate EVERYTHING ELSE he imagined. Besides, I enjoyed the lights and sounds more than he did anyway.

I will totally agree thought that there are toys that do way too much and are therefore worthless. The Pizza Elmo for example (god I hate that thing). A toy that sings, dances, moves… sounds AMAZING to a kid, right? And it totally is… for 10 minutes. But when you discover that you can’t bend any arms or legs, it’s slightly fragile, it’s song plays all the danged time and is irritating, it becomes nothing less than a waste of money.
Toys totally CAN do too much, but most toys that aren’t beneficial for the imagination get shunned by the kiddo pretty quickly too. So again, wooden toys aren’t inherently better because they don’t “play for the child.” There are plenty of toys made of plastic, felt, etc. that are just as good for kiddos. It’s all dependent on the individual toy – regardless of it’s composition.

“The grain and rough textures are much more stimulating than smooth plastic.”

I won’t deny that. I will say, however, that very little plastic toys I know of have no textures, pieces, or variety. In fact, manufacturers seem to be very aware and often advertise varying textures. My son has blocks that came with a hippo that eats them that have rough bumps, ribbons, fur, ridges, and some even have pieces in them that look like food that you can shake around, little cranks, buttons that squeak, etc. This is yet again a case of exaggeration and misleading statements. A completely smooth, detail-lacking plastic toy would lack stimulation for the senses, it’s true… except that ‘smooth’ is a sensation all on it’s own, so unless that’s ALL the child has, it’s meaningless. Chalk this one up also to a case of the individual toys, and not the composition. You could even say that the ability to mold plastic into varying shapes and textures, both flexible or stiff, would give plastic the lead here. Could, but I won’t claim that, because I think it’s variety that wins out – hard, soft, fabrics, plastics, woods, even metals, grass, Mommy’s hair… all beneficial.

“They aren’t toxic like plastics.”

You can’t win this one that easily either. It all depends on how the wood has been treated, painted or stained. Melissa and Doug – one of my favorite manufacturers of wooden toys, especially their kitchen sets – recently had to recall things I was INCHES from buying for my son because of paint contamination. (If you claim that it’s because they went mainstream, I’ll slap you. Same if you claim that that’s why you should make all your own wooden toys.) Companies are aware of concerns with plastic as well, which is why it’s rare you see anything NOT labeled “BPA- and PVC-free” now. I’d also like to add that when my baby chews on a plastic toy, paint doesn’t come off in her mouth like when she chews on a painted wooden one.

“They’re much more durable and longer-lasting.”

WELL-MADE wooden toys most certainly will outlast their plastic peers. Trick is though, they have to be well-made. Cheap wooden toys can fall apart just as easily as cheaply made plastic toys. It’s really a simple case of “You get what you pay for.” I have to admit, though, I’d never buy an outdoor wooden toy. Here in Washington state, pressure-treated and sealed wood still takes a beating and most people end up having to replace their fences every couple years (!!!) unless they spent a TON of money on them, and also take the time to sand and reseal their fences ANNUALLY. Plastic wins for outdoors up here for me, no ifs, ands or buts about it. If you buy well-made things, they last longer. Period. Plastic does deteriorate much faster than wood, but both are mostly dependent on treatment of the item. What makes hand-me-down wooden things so special is often that they were hand-crafted by a long-lost relative – you can’t hand-craft plastic toys.

“They don’t have dangerous sharp parts or broken pieces.”

I don’t even think I really need to spend too much time on this, but for the sake of being thorough, I’ll talk about it anyway. ANY toy that is falling apart is dangerous. ANY flimsy toy can break easily. ANY toy that you give your children should be checked for safety and repaired or tossed if it’s broken or dangerous. Older wooden toys have the unique risk of splinters. Again, buy quality toys, take good care of them and reduce the risk – regardless of material.

“They’re better for the environment.”

Ding-ding-ding! We have a winner! Wooden toys are often made from tree farms, so renewable resources. Plastics are made from oil. In the production of either, plastics create more waste as well. Honestly, there’s not much more to say here. Wooden toys are better for the environment than plastics.

Here’s one I heard about why plastic wins:

They’re easier to disinfect.”

That may be true, since a lot of them can be wiped down with soap and water or even popped in the dishwasher. I know hospitals with playrooms only use toys they can run through a dishwasher. Most decent quality wooden toys should be perfectly fine being cleaned with hot, soapy water too, even if it may mean hand-washing. If they’re not sealed, they may need to dry out a little before play. Putting them in the sun can help speed up drying. I hardly see this as a reason to not buy them. After all, stuffed animals can’t just be thrown in the dishwasher either but you still buy THEM, right?

Overall, it’s more about what you buy than what it’s made of. There’s definitely benefits to buying wooden toys and they certainly have a timeless quality and can look pretty sitting on a shelf too, but they’re not inherently better (or worse) than anything else.

Buy high quality toys.

Make sure your child’s toys are safe by frequently looking them over (easily done while cleaning them).

Buy toys that don’t try to put on a show.

Take good care of your child’s toys.

Don’t worry that because you bought the plastic blocks with bright colors instead of the wooden ones that your baby lost IQ points they might have gained. More likely the person who tried to convince you of that lost some of theirs along the way.


About Christie Haskell

I'm a Pagan, pierced, latte-sipping liberal mom to two kids and a cat. I've been on Good Morning America, HuffPo Live, and featured in a lot of online publications like New York Times Motherlode, and print publications like Kiwi Magazine. My articles focus a lot on parenting, food, and social health issues. I'm really opinionated and love to back those opinions with facts.

7 Responses

  1. Rebecca

    Great job on the research. My only thing that I have to add is that plastic is and estrogen. The more exposure to it the more estrogen you are exposed to. Make of that what you will.

    My kid got that exact kitchen this week from a friend. 🙂 Love it!


  2. Stasha

    Nice research, thought of a couple of things while reading. First, as for wooden toys being safer, it is not only the paint that needs to be considered. Not all wood is safe! There are many, many varieties of wood out there that are toxic if chewed. And as for wood being more environmentally friendly, sure that is true, IF we are talking about something made from tree farm trees. Unfortunately, manufacturers are often much more concerned with their bottom line than making sound environmental choices. And I know we all know what can happen to the forests when the people involved are more interested in profits than the environment they are stealing them from!


  3. Wooden toys are made mostly by Rosewood or Ivory wood which are totally eco-friendly in India and its also been recognized world over , it has been a traditional practice followed here in India , These wooden toys have been with us from centuries and have affected each and every generation in their own unique ways. in many countries like India wooden toys are passed on to the generations as they are unbreakable they stand against time and the toys used by father is used by the son


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