Everything’s bigger and better in Texas, goes the saying. But even in Dallas, where we grownups like our toys flashy and fun, parents are turning back time and providing kids with simpler toys, popular generations ago. They’re even reaching for natural, “green” toys in ever-increasing efforts to go organic. There’s something for everyone: the nostalgic, the organic and the just plain stylish.
The days of ineffectually piling a heap of flashing, buzzing toys in a woven basket in front of a graveyard of garish plastic ride-ons in the corner of your living room are gone, gone, gone. Today’s contemporary homes are filled with streamlined organizers, fresh color schemes, sleek European accessories – and natural, classic toys that are as much a part of the décor as they are the play flow. Modern parents are discovering that natural and classic toys make safe, attractive choices that are as much a joy to see around the home as they are to play with.
European lines are especially popular among families who embrace contemporary design. Dana Johnson of Three Sisters Toys reports that toy lines such as Haba and items like Spiel and Holz’s abstract wooden stacking shapes are flying off the shelves. “Parents see that these toys blend in with the décor – or at least they’re not so much of an eyesore,” she explains.
Johnson sees two different groups of parents in the market for today’s natural toys: design-oriented parents searching for trendy, upscale boutique toys such as the German Haba line; and green-leaning parents interested in open-ended, imaginative toys incorporating natural materials, such as the Spiel and Holz multi-use toys. Items such as Waldorf dolls have remained relatively contained among families with more natural, organic sensibilities, although Johnson notes she does see their influence in the growing number of soft rag dolls with simplified facial features on the market. The greatest market overlap occurs among the funky, eclectic Euro toys, where function, value and design intersect to delight parents and children alike.
Fred Arnow of The Grandparent Zone, which sells wood and other natural toys, adds a third group to the natural and classic toy market: the swelling population of Baby Boomer grandparents who’d like to share their own childhood toys with their kids and grandkids – what Arnow calls “legacy toys.” You’ll spot this trend at mainstream retailers like Pottery Barn Kids, where designers emphasize not only the beauty but also the quality and play value of classic toys. “It’s important that our toys stimulate play – whether it’s pretend or imaginary,” says Sarah Plamondon, spokesperson for Pottery Barn Kids. “Classic colors and patterns adorning simple wooden shapes easily captivate a baby’s attention, promote concentration and bolster the development of motor skills. Babies and grown-ups alike enjoy the simple function, classic look and timeless appeal of wooden toys.” Eco-sensibility is part of the package: PBK’s summer collection will include classic play furniture made from Forest Stewardship Council-certified, responsibly harvested eucalyptus.
The scare over lead contamination and toy recalls has driven scores of parents to natural and classic toy manufacturers. Parents continue to be vigilant about lead contamination, Johnson notes approvingly. She describes how she recently neglected to note the country of origin on web site descriptions for a recent batch of new arrivals. Parents pelted her with phone calls seeking more details, until she posted the missing facts.
Style is an undeniable hallmark of the classics. “One of our suppliers has on his site lots of stories about people buying puzzles and wooden games and then gluing them together to make a piece of art and hanging them on the wall,” Arnow says. “It’s artistic, but it’s also the throwback to remembering when you were a child and played with the same game, and wishing you had kept it then, but you didn’t … So if you can acquire it now, you’re going to keep it.”
The value of the contemporary classics transcends mere aesthetics. Parents quickly come to appreciate the quality of toys that are made to last. “Once their child starts to play with them, parents will see that they have more play value,” Johnson notes. “These are toys that children would continue to play with, not something that has just one purpose and that they will play with for five seconds and then toss aside.”