The game of life: Introducing children to sustainability

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Introducing children to sustainability of through toys could forge a better generation, writes Dimitrios Tsivrikos, consumer and business psychologist, University College London. The throwaway culture associated with cheap, poorly manufactured plastic toys, encourages children to disregard the processes and resources that go into their production.

Childhood is a crucial period in our lives in which we are taught certain behaviours and exposed to ideas that will influence us throughout our lifetime. It’s a time when our minds are the most malleable and we are continuously learning about the world. Indeed, to bring about future social and behavioural change, it is necessary to promote such values and social norms early on. For this reason, the toy industry has the potential to become a key facilitator of sustainable living, as it allows sustainable practice to be seamlessly embedded in the everyday lives of children.

Today, manmade plastics such as PVC dominate the list of materials used to produce children’s toys – from Barbie to Lego, children are well acquainted with plastic toys. There are a variety of issues regarding the influx of plastic in the toy industry. In terms of the environment, though some plastic can be recycled, a study found that less than one per cent of the seven billion pounds of discarded PVC was recycled in the US each year. What’s more, the throwaway culture associated with cheap, poorly manufactured plastic toys, encourages children to disregard the processes and resources that go into their production, as well as the value of long lasting items. These plastic toys require the use of crude oil during the manufacturing process, which pose further risks to the environment and the health of the workers involved.

Nevertheless, there are companies who strive to produce fully sustainable toys, both in the materials and the manufacturing processes they choose. One such company is PlanToys, who have created a range of children’s toys from organic rubber wood, using natural glue and dyes that are free from toxins and chemicals. In addition, they ensure that all workers experience a pleasant office or factory environment and use natural energy sources such as solar power.

In this way, the company is creating a sustainable business from an environmental and health point of view, however the values that it subsequently disseminates to the children who play with their toys should also be noted. For instance, one of their products the ‘Green Dollhouse’ has built in features such as a wind turbine, solar panels and recycling bins. Research has shown that when children engage in pretend play, they learn about role taking, develop narratives and explore customs. Therefore, encouraging children to engage with pretend play involving sustainable lifestyles will provide them with a positive framework, which they can act on and use the norms introduced to them at an early stage to shape their future behaviours.

Involving adults in child’s play can make it an even more effective mechanism as adults are able to structure the play and reinforce ideas about social customs. Moreover, PlanToys directly targets its toys at the appropriately-aged children based on their level of development, for example aged four is when imaginations start to develop and hence when items such as the dollhouse should be introduced.

These wooden toys are far more basic in nature, as they lack the battery powered electronic nature of most modern toys.

This lower stimulation that the wooden toys offer is beneficial for the children as it allows them to be more creative and develop new cognitive skills that will equip them to become better problem solvers and think in an imaginative way. Thus from a child’s development perspective, sustainable toys may be less high tech but they are nevertheless valuable tools.

Another way in which sustainability can be promoted through toys, is via the access to the parents as potential buyers of the products. While researching and purchasing sustainable toys, parents will be educated in the importance of using sustainable materials and processes, which will hopefully influence their behaviours and in turn their children’s. Children are the generation who will be the most affected by sustainable initiatives and it is therefore crucial to engage them as early as possible – this is an aim that can be accomplished using sustainable play.

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Dr Dimitrios Tsivrikos is a business and consumer psychologist at University College London. A leading broadcaster on consumer behaviour and psychology, he is a frequent guest on the BBC, Sky News and Channel 4, as well as a scientific consultant for The Guardian, Sunday Times and periodicals such as Property Week, and Esquire.
  • Kylie Barton

    This is great. As a green-thinking person something that I had not thought of. Play Toys seem to have a great range, and I have now found Babipur too which are a UK ethical baby supplies manufacturer. As well as these larger outlets, there are lots of independent green mummies out their contributing to the greener-baby space. My friend creates soft toys in the shapes of vegetables with the vitamin content written on – to educate mum and baby (https://www.facebook.com/VegumsToys/). The next generation is so important for sustainability, yet they often get forgotten in the discourse.