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11 best kids’ wooden and plastic-free toys that will inspire their imagination

Put away the screens and get away from flashing lights and grating sound effects with these alternatives

Rebecca Moore
Friday 09 October 2020 10:23
Look for those made from FSC-certified forests
Look for those made from FSC-certified forests

Parents rejoice… the plastic toy pandemonium seems to be waning with more and more wooden toys filling our nurseries and playrooms.

And sales seem to be on the rise too, with John Lewis & Partners’ annual nursery trends report from 2019 stating that sustainability is a key trend, with sales of its wooden toy range up 15 per cent compared to 2018.

Without the flashing lights and grating sound effects, wooden toys really allow children to engage their imagination.

But just because there’s no need for batteries doesn’t necessarily mean they’re planet-friendly play.

Look for toys made from wood from FSC-certified forests, or other sustainable materials (here’s looking at you Plan Toys) and choose items free from chemicals, especially if you’re buying a toy for a baby.

With the help of our two-year-old and four-year-old testers, we put a range of toys through their paces looking closely at the materials used, the design quality and aesthetics and cost but giving most points for those that truly held their attention and allowing imaginations to run free.

You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps to fund journalism across The Independent.

Brio classic figure eight set

There’s something so nostalgic about a wooden train set, and you really needn’t look beyond Swedish toy brand Brio for the finest set, after all it has been creating quality products since the end of the 1800s.

This 22-piece, classic figure of eight set has been manufactured to such a high standard and is made from FSC-certified wood. In the box you’ll find an engine with two wagons, a station and crossing bridge, 14 track pieces and three trees to dot about.

The design is Scandinavian in style; simple and clean but wonderfully usable. Our two-year-old tester loved the magnetic train and loved whizzing it around the smooth track.

Little Dutch rainbow stacker nature

Get a little closer to nature with this Montessori-inspired wooden toy, beautifully designed in the Netherlands by sustainable brand Little Dutch. In 2020 the brand launched its pure and nature toy collection all inspired by the natural colours and only using FSC-certified wood from sustainably managed forests.

Designed to allow those aged 12 months+ to use their imaginations, there are eight arches that fit on top of each other. When not in use there’s a lovely rainbow to place on a nursery shelf or child’s bedroom window, but once little ones start unstacking, they can use them to make all kinds of shapes like tunnels, towers and mountains. Finished with non-toxic water-based paint we love how sustainability is at the core of this wooden toy.

Plan Toys wonky fruit and vegetables

Have you heard of Planwood before? No, didn't think so. The clever team at Plan Toys make this ingenious eco material by compressing sawdust produced in its Plan Toys factory so that nothing goes to waste, and that’s exactly what the brand has used on this incredible wonky veg set.

Our four-year-old tester loved “chopping” these in half, and it was a great way to educate on them on ways to reduce our food waste. There’s five fruit and veg pieces that stick and unstick with the hidden Velcro, and you’ll also get a natural rubberwood knife. It’ll come as no surprise that they only use organic colour pigments and water-colour dyes, too.

Limited edition silver rocket from Janod

To celebrate 50 years of wonderful wooden toys, French brand Janod has given its rocket a makeover taking it to new heights. The five parts of the rocket are easy to assemble as they’re magnetic, and our two-and-a-half-year-old tester loved seeing them cleverly stick together. There’s also a spinning propeller which little ones will love fiddling with as it blasts into space.

Bigjigs Toys Noah’s ark

Bigjigs Toys is a go-to brand for wooden toys, and just in time for Christmas 2020 it’s launched a 100 per cent FSC certified range furthering its eco credentials. Ideal for preschoolers, it’s time to welcome aboard the animals, two-by-two, naturally.

There are 12 animals in total – our favourite being the towering giraffes – plus Noah and his wife, who enter the ship via the foldable ramp. The pastel shades are beyond sweet and everything is perfectly size for those aged around 18 months to two years.

Smart Games castle logix

It’s not always easy to get young ones to play on their own, but our four-year-old tester got really stuck into this 3-D wooden puzzle from Smart Games. The booklet presents 48 castle challenges for your mini mastermind to construct. We did find that many are more suited to older children (they suggest ages three to eight, although we’d recommend four plus), but it’s a great way to tap into preschoolers cognitive skills, particularly testing logic and problem solving.

You get four wooden blocks with holes and three wooden towers sticks of different length, and it’s lovely to watch your little ones build away. If things get too tricky, you’ll find the solutions in the booklet, which we admit came in handy a few times.

Cachempil by Djeco

Say hello to mother hen. A traditional stacking toy for those aged 18 months plus, the fiery coloured wooden rings, which have been painted with water-based paint, are the perfect size for small hands and are smooth to the touch. Designed in France by the toy geniuses at Djeco, this toy is a brilliant unisex choice and looks pretty perched high on a shelf. Our two-year-old tester is a farmyard fanatic, so this pleased her no end. But the best bit? This broody hen is sitting on a hidden egg – a little surprise once you’ve unstacked!

Kid’s Concept tool box

Little ones are guaranteed hours of imaginative play with this wooden tool box from Swedish brand Kid’s Concept. With 20 pieces to get stuck into, we love how refreshing the colour choices steering away from the stereotypical boy-led tones. DIY is a doddle with the included hammer, saw, chisel and screwdriver, and the box cleverly has pre-made holes to allow little ones to practice tightening washers around screws, which fully occupied our two year old tester. All the pieces feel sturdy and are finished to a high spec using water-based paint. 

Great Little Trading Company ambulance doctor’s set

A lovely take on a doctor toy set, this really is two toys in one as you get a lovely wooden ambulance to carry the 12-piece play set in, which makes a great toy to push and pull on the floor. The medical kit is well thought out too, allowing some imaginative role play with the help of a toy stethoscope which stretches to be worn, a syringe with built-in plunger, thermometer, ear/eye scope and more.

You’ll also get plenty of remedies with vitamins, cough mixture and a tube of antiseptic cream. We loved the sweet doctors' notepad too, which garnered plenty of scribbles from our four-year-old tester.

Houses of Parliament in a box toy

There’s no denying that the Houses of Parliament is a hot topic right now, so why not keep your wooden gifts topical too? Made from 100 per cent beech wood – even the packaging is made from recycled paper and printed with vegetable oil based ink –  the set includes the Elizabeth Tower or better known as Big Ben, the Victoria Tower, Westminster Hall, and the Oliver Cromwell statue but also sweet touches like the River Thames and green trees to dot about. There’s a handy booklet inside that explains the different pieces, great for budding historians or London fanatics.

JoJo Maman Bebe wooden toy camera

Budding photographers can get snap happy with this brightly coloured toy camera. Featuring three push buttons on the front, a shutter on the top which you can push and twist, and a rotating kaleidoscope lens there’s plenty of fun to be had. The fabric loop handle is handy when on the move and there’s even a mirror on the back for "selfies". It’s super sturdy and offers plenty of play for a tenner!

The verdict: Kids’ wooden toys

Sometimes you can’t trump the classics and we love Brio’s figure eight set as it’s Scandinavian in style, made from FSC certified wood and most of all ensures hours of play. We were also impressed with Little Dutch’s Montessori-inspired rainbow stacker for its sustainable qualities and Instagram worthy appeal.

For more gift ideas, check out our round-up of the best kids’ play kitchens and remote control toys

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