Defining an eco-friendly toy is a fraught task that inevitably invites criticism from those who have their own priorities and exacting standards. What most of us can surely agree on, however, is that the heavily-packaged and battery-powered plastic specimens that fill most toy shop shelves are not by any real definition sustainable.
What they often are, however, is cheap. Our research into eco-friendly playthings has revealed a definite if unsurprising theme, namely that being kind to the planet costs more than opting for the cheap and cheerful disposable option. Green purchases, therefore, need to be selective, and here we’ve tried to help.
We’ve included eco-friendly toys that are made with clear concern for the environment in terms of materials and/or production processes, but we’ve also featured things that will engage young people with their planet and that will last, as what could be more sustainable as a toy that lasts for generations?
There are items in this selection to suit different ages and interests.
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Mud and bloom box
Our little testers loved getting this box full of nature-based fun through the post, and what better way to encourage eco-awareness in the next generation than to get their fingers dirty?
Each box contains two packets of seasonal seeds and some pellets of organic compost, complete with sowing instructions, plus some green craft activities and fact sheets such as bird-spotting guides.
Ours featured delights including poppies and cucumbers to grow, a guide to making a bow and arrow (hours of parent-assisted fun for our four-year-old) and some clay for making ceramic eggs to place in a hand-made nest of twigs and leaves.
Boxes start at £10.95 if you sign up for a year’s worth of monthly boxes, and are £11.95 on a pay as you go basis. Sibling boxes, which include two of most things, start at £13.95. Aimed at children aged three to eight.
The Little Green Sheep baby gym
This baby gym does not have all the bells and whistles that you find – literally – on many of the more garish, plastic-based baby gyms, but it is a lovely heirloom gift for eco-minded new parents and their little ones.
The frame is made from sustainably-sourced beech wood, finished simply in beeswax, and can hold up to four detachable charms from a range that includes such virtuous items as mango-wood teething charms and organic cotton animal rattles. No mat is included, so you will still need something for baby to lie on.
'Earth heroes' by Lily Dyu, published by Nosy Crow
This is a lovely hardback book that tells the stories of 20 men and women who are working to help the planet. They include the ubiquitous Greta Thunberg but also some who you probably won’t have heard of, such as an Innuit climate campaigner and the founder of an Indian tiger education programme for children.
Our young testers love the proliferating trend in books cataloguing real life heroes, and the great thing about this one is that it is a positive and empowering – rather than scary and negative – children’s resource about climate change.
Serious parental eco-warriors can get happily enraged about perceived injustice in who does and doesn’t make the cut as an Earth Hero; everyone else is likely to learn something and feel a bit better about the world.
Shirley sheep hand puppet
This brand's gorgeous hand puppets would make for a lovely baby present. Alternatively, if your budget stretched this far, a small collection of them would provide young puppeteers with the means to stage some supremely endearing shows.
We particularly like Shirley Sheep who, like her colleagues, is made from organic wool and minimally-coloured with eco-friendly dyes. The puppets are fairly traded too, having been designed in England and then produced by craftspeople in Kathmandu. Each one comes in an organic cotton drawstring bag.
Okonorm watercolour paint set
Not the cheapest, but this set of 12 watercolour paints from environmentally-friendly German craft supplier OkoNorm is a planet-friendly alternative to chemical versions. The paints are made from highly-concentrated plant extracts plus food colouring, and although they look a little disappointingly muted on first inspection, the colours increase in vibrancy once they meet a wet brush.
These are marketed at children aged three and above, but the relatively small discs would get pretty quickly splodged into a mess by very young children, so might be better for kids aged around six and above. Replacements for exhausted colour blocks are available for £1.65 each.
Green Toys tugboat
This is not just any plastic bath toy. Instead, this pleasing little floating tug boat is made from recycled American milk bottles and is free from any toxic nasties such as BPA. The cardboard packaging is printed in soy inks and is both recycled and recyclable. With a removable top half, chunky handle and wide spout at the front, the recipient is likely to get as much fun pouring bath water over themselves as they are pushing the boat through waves of bubbles.
BigJig Toys crazy golf set
BigJigs doesn't major in eco-credentials, but this sweet crazy golf set is made from sustainably-sourced wood, decorated with water-based paints and – unlike cheaper plastic kits – is likely to endure the attention of rumbustious young children.
It comes with two wooden clubs and two balls, plus a set of mini obstacles and some paper score sheets. A good one for small kids to work on their dexterity while getting some fresh air, and well-made enough to last and become a hand-me-down, which makes it a much more sustainable choice than something cheap, cheerful and disposable. It's marketed at children from the age of three, but this probably a bit small for anyone over six.
The Den Kit Company make a pizza for the birds kit
This kit is an ingenious way to engage children with the birds in their garden or – at a push – on their balconies or window ledges. It contains two small discs of wood and three refillable bags of different bird seed, the idea being that kids can make a mud pizza “sauce” with which to coat the pizza “base” and then top it with seeds before retreating to a safe distance to see who comes for a nibble.
There are some basic bird identification cards in the set too, to help with logging regular customers. While the initial set might seem pricey for the amount of bird food supplied, the bags can be cheaply refilled and our testers loved the idea of preparing a meal for their feathered friends.
Babipur alphabet jigsaws world map
This is the sort of jigsaw that you want to leave out on the dining table. It looks gorgeous, with chunky pieces made from sustainable solid wood, painted in non-toxic paints, but more importantly is both fun and educational to complete.
Can you slot the Caspian Sea into place without resorting to Google Maps? Marketed at children aged six and up.
The Den Kit Company pirate den kit
Yes, this kit contains a plastic groundsheet. But if sustainability to you means electricity-free, low-impact play with toys that will last and will engage children in the natural world, then look no further.
This is a lovely set, and aside from the groundsheet contains a calico tarpaulin; hand-made ash mallet; jolly pirate bunting made from unbleached cotton and natural rope and pegs. It's great for imagination-boosting adventures in the garden, for those lucky enough to have the outside space, or for taking on camping trips and rural days out.
It's not suitable for children under six thanks to the pegs – and, presumably, the potential for them to clobber siblings with the mallet – although it should be fine for younger kids to play in the den under supervision once it is up.
Wild Thing Toys bluebell Fairtrade doll
This brilliant (and pleasingly un-pink) doll was an instant hit with our three-year-old tester and is full of character as well as being Fairtrade certified. She can be cleaned with a damp sponge or cloth (though not in a machine) and the manufacturer says that if you remove her cape, she’d be suitable from birth onwards (it's best for those aged three and above with the cape).
Bluebell is one of a set of charming woodland characters from the same company, which uses hand-loomed cotton and environmentally-friendly dyes in its products.
The verdict: Eco-friendly toys
The Little Green Sheep baby gym would be a lovely gift for a newborn, and the Earth Heroes book will likely be devoured by older children who are already eco-aware. However, for the excitement its arrival generated, as well as its educational value and time-filling qualities, our best buy is the Mud and Bloom box.
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