Waldorf Toys: Choosing the Best Educational Toys for Your Children

Written by Simple Homeschool contributor Sarah Baldwin of Bella Luna Toys and Moon Child

As a Waldorf kindergarten teacher, one of my favorite “parent evenings” to offer was on the subject of toys and play. Over the years, I don’t think there was a single parent who walked away from such a meeting without a new consciousness about choosing healthy playthings for his or her children.

At the outset of our meeting, I explained how a young child learns about the world through all her senses. Unlike adults, a baby or toddler does not rely solely on her sense of sight, and make quick judgments about things based on a visual perception.

When it comes to toys, a baby will grasp a toy, feel it, smell it and put it in her mouth. Did you know that along with the fingertips, ours lips are full of nerve-endings and one of the most sensitive parts of our body?

Experiencing Toys Blindfolded

Well, I didn’t really blindfold them, but I asked parents to close their eyes and not to peek. Then I would hand each parent a different toy.

I would randomly hand out an assortment of toys from a typical child’s toy box–a Barbie doll, a metal toy car, an action figure, a baby doll with plastic head and limbs, Legos, plush animals, a My Little Pony, toys that make noise, and so forth.

Other parents would be handed toys typically found in a Waldorf early childhood classroom–things like a smooth river stone, a Waldorf doll made of cotton and wool, carved wooden animals, play silks, a wooden toy car, a handmade puppet or a shell.

I asked the parents to feel each toy, smell it, touch it to their cheek, and taste it (as a young child would) if they dared! After the adult had an experience of one toy, he would hold it up and I would place the opposite type of toy in his hands.

Sharing the Experience

At the end of this exercise, parents would share their experiences. Typically, parents would describe feeling tense, repelled or confused when handed one of the plastic or synthetic toys, and to describe the feeling of comfort or relaxation they would feel after being handed a natural toy.

After having the experience, parents made important discoveries and had plenty to share with one another.

I invite you to try it. The element of surprise will be missing, but try experiencing different types of playthings with your eyes closed, and see what you discover.

Make a Story

In the second part of the evening, I asked parents to get down on the floor and play.

In one part of the room, I had laid out a pile of the toys typically found in a child’s toy box on the floor—an assortment that might include a Barbie, action figures, plastic dinosaurs, Happy Meal toys, metal cars and so on.

In the other room would be a pile of wool puppets, stones, wooden tree blocks, play silks, wooden animals, pinecones and so forth.

I would give each group of parents 15 minutes to play and come up with a story using their toys.  After 15 minutes, I would ask each group to switch places.

The results were almost always the same. Parents described having a hard time coming up with a cohesive story with the plastic toys. Observing them play, I noticed how loud the adults in this group would get. Invariably, the plastic dinosaurs and action figures would become aggressive and start attacking the other toys. (What else can one do with a brawny action figure?)

The stories that evolved from parents playing with the natural toys, on the other hand, were usually more like fairy tales—stories of daily life, family and animals; sometimes adventure and magic. It was always interesting to observe how quiet and absorbed in play this group of adults would become.

Waldorf Toys © Sarah Baldwin

Observe Your Own Children

I wish I could give you the same hands-on experience through cyberspace. Words can never be as powerful as direct, experiential learning. But if you have the opportunity, observe your children and how they play with different kinds of toys. Play with them and try to create stories of your own. Observe for yourself the different qualities of play that various toys inspire.

Suspending Judgment

I’ve tried to stress to parents over the years that choosing toys is not about “good toys” vs. “bad toys.” Rather, it’s about bringing new consciousness to selecting children’s playthings.

  • Is it beautiful?
  • Does it feel good?
  • Does it leave room for the imagination?
  • Will it inspire creative play?
  • Is it open-ended? (That is, is there more than one way to play with it?)

If you can answer yes to these questions, you will be providing your child with all the tools needed for years of healthy play!

What are the qualities you look for in choosing toys for your children? What are the favorite toys in your house? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

About Sarah

Sarah is an author, mama to two teenage boys, and Waldorf early childhood educator. She is also the owner of Bella Luna Toys, an online shop offering wooden and natural toys inspired by Waldorf education. She writes about childhood, play, parenting and Waldorf education on her blog, Moon Child.

Comments

  1. Great post, Sarah! What wonderful things to keep in mind when selecting the toys our children use. Toys are, after all, the tools of childhood. And who wouldn’t want the best tools? Thanks for the reminder!
    Amanda Morgan’s latest post: Let the Seasons Move You

  2. susan junge says:

    Thanks for sending this around. It is a beautiful picture of how to learn about playing in a wise way… for those of us adults who may have forgotten what is engenders growth in the experience of play!

  3. I really like what you say about it not being about “good” vs. “bad” toys, because I think some parents fall into the trap of feeling guilty about some toys choices made in the past (or perhaps gifts given to them).

    Instead, to focus on being a consciousness to the selection process, and perhaps the toy downsizing/decluttering process, is a much more positive way to look at playthings.

    It is interesting your observations about the noise levels, too. :-)
    Kara @Simple Kids’s latest post: Homemade Play Dough and Silly Putty- Easy Crafts for Busy Parents

    • Exactly, Kara! Even after I did this exercise for the first time and had a new appreciation for the sensory differences between, say, an action figure and a cotton and wool Waldorf puppet, we still always had Legos (among other non-Waldorfy toys) in our house.
      Do the Legos feel good? No. (Have you ever stepped on one? Ouch! I nearly required a Lego-ectomy from my foot once.) But I observed my children playing creatively for hours with them. Hence, they stayed.
      Sarah Baldwin’s latest post: Waldorf Toys- Bringing New Consciousness to Choosing Children’s Toys

  4. Lovely , lovely post. I am actively involved with my daughterś Steiner Kindy and would love to host a night like this next term. If I do, Iĺl let you know how it goes. :) My favorite thing about the blocks in the classroom is their smell….divine!

  5. Well said. I remember one year in my preschool room, a mother returned with her son on the 2nd day of school with a bag of toys she wanted to donate to the class… plastic and batteries. Her son liked the school, she said, but complained our toys didn’t do anything. I explained to the mother why I chose the toys I did and thanked her but declined her offer. It took her son a little while to “detox” but he was soon building elaborate structures with the maple blocks and taking leading roles in fantasy play. At a conference a few weeks later, the mother commented that her son was becoming less aggressive at home and was having far fewer incidence of acting out. By Christmas the mother had purged her house of all the types of toys she had so generously offered us at the beginning of the year. Too often as parents, when critiquing a toy, we will ask “what does it do” rather than “what does it do for my child”. Your 5 judgement questions sums it up beautifully! I’ll be linking on Facebook.
    Kimara’s latest post: Knitted in the Round 12 Baby Doll – Part 2 – Adding Hair and Face

    • That leads to a whole other discussion of what to do with unwanted gifts from well-meaning friends and family. But that’s a subject for another blog post!

      Your story reminds me of a little boy who visited my classroom one spring. He had snack with us, then asked “Where’s the toys?” The other children looked at him like he was from another planet. One little girl responded, “They’re all around you!”

      Coming from a mainstream daycare setting, he didn’t recognize the baskets of play silks, tree blocks, shells and handmade dolls as toys. But within weeks of enrolling, he had no trouble finding ways to play.
      Sarah Baldwin’s latest post: Waldorf Toys- Bringing New Consciousness to Choosing Children’s Toys

  6. Pat Shannon says:

    Something that makes it easy for me to choose for the small children in my life, is the question of what do I, myself, want to look at? What will I keep in my home long after the little ones have grown and gone? What pleases, comforts, amuses and calms me? What items tell a story of an adventure together in the woods or at the shore? What toys or dolls remind me of long afternoons of creative play? A basket of colorful silks, a wooden truck full of smooth river stones, a cloth doll wearing several necklaces of bright finger knitted yarn. Those things will remain in my home, always.

  7. My children play with a variety of toys and have no problem coming up with stories using any of them, Legos included! I’ve never witnessed them feel tense or seem repelled by the “artificial” stuff.

    They put marbles and grass in their metal cars and push them through the dirt… which has been shaped and molded to form riverbeds, complete with plastic dinosaurs and chicken feathers fashioned into people along the waterway. My son’s ugly, plastic GI Joe man is a kind and loving hubby to Barbie as they pile their marble children into the back of a shoebox car and go camping near the backyard woodpile.

    We’ve found a happy medium. I hope others can, too!

    • I agree Jennifer. While the natural toys are lovely I think children are capable of finding joy and imagination through any medium. I have observed my son playing peacefully and quietly with lego and a range of things he collected from around the house. He loves his playmobile and comes up with lots of stories for his pirates and knights. While plastic may not be ideal it is simple, durable and takes a bit of a beating if left outside or washed in the sink! I also think it is worth considering that so much of the ‘waldorf style’ toys are insanely expensive and way, way, way out of reach for many families. I certainly am moving past thinking that one expensive wooden figure is better for my son than a collection of plastic figures that allow him to create a complex and engaging story for himself.

      My son also enjoys playing with nature, will play with a stick for a long time or make a play house out of leaves. He makes houses out of blankets (not silks) and has costumes I made for him that he enjoys enormously. They are made of cotton and satin not silk and consequently are more durable. My son also LOVES the vehicles we have in abundance and I noticed today that when in a lovely toy store my younger son was drawn to a wooden kitchen, a piano, but mainly vehicles which he adored playing with, none of them were wood. I’ve purchased wooden vehicles in the past and found they always return to a metal, matchbox style care that can fit nicely in their little hand.

      I don’t think children are limited and I am not sure that a lot of these toys aren’t for the parents rather than the child. I adore the waldorf stuff but am always amazed by my children’s ability to see beyond what I see and that what they are attracted to often doesn’t match with what I would like them to enjoy.

      • Again, I wish to stress that the point of this exercise is not to pass good toy/bad toy judgment on playthings. Rather, it’s to observe how children are playing and to think about the sensory experiences we are giving them (I think this is especially important for babies and toddlers, who are just discovering the world.)

        And one needn’t spend a fortune (or anything at all) on “Waldorf toys.” One can cut some tree branches into pieces and sand them to make natural tree blocks. Collecting baskets full of shells at the beach, pinecones from a walk in the woods, smooth stones from a river bank, or even a pile of sticks in the backyard costs nothing! Making a knot baby doll with a piece of cotton flannel and some wool stuffing for a head is very inexpensive. And lets not forget pots and pans, and wooden spoons!

        Cotton, like silk, is a natural fiber and feels good against the skin. Cotton and wool blankets are wonderful for building houses and forts. Most of us already have them in our houses. And cotton play cloths have just as many uses as silks, but are less expensive.

        When my boys were growing, we never had a plastic-toy-free house. They often played happily, as described, with metal cars, Playmobil figures and Legos, along with their silks and more Waldorf-y toys. Both happily co-existed.

        But as I brought new consciousness of child development and to the qualities of different kinds of playthings, the more objectionable toys in my kids’ toybox, like action figures and monster toys, gradually disappeared without fanfare. (Does anyone remember Street Sharks? Those were the first to go!) When I did have money to spend on toys, I started choosing different kinds of things, and the transition was very gradual.
        Sarah Baldwin’s latest post: Waldorf Toys- Bringing New Consciousness to Choosing Children’s Toys

  8. Great post, Sarah! I fell in love with my son’s Waldorf School back in N. Calif. where we attended Parent/toddler classes. My son immediately made himself at home with the natural toys. So, I slowly transitioned him out of some of the plastic items at home and hid the blinky-nosiy ones that friends gave us ;-) When we moved to London one year ago, I found a Steiner School and he is starting preschool in November. I am a bit concerned though, because, although he mostly has wooden toys at home (farm stable, Engelberger figures, etc, play silks, felted items, musical instruments) he also has Duplo legos, Tinker Toys, Mr. Potato Head… I am worried he will be looking for some of the plastic items there. Hopefully he will become accustomed to the toys available.
    Pure Mothers’s latest post: Earth Day Exploration

  9. What an awesome post. Seriously, I just printed it out to go in my binder. We don’t have any kids yet, but this will be useful both when we do have kids, and when buying toys for other people’s kids.

    My favorite toys as a kid were actually plastic horses/dogs/occasionally other animals, of whatever size I could find. The most annoying toys I had when playing like this were my Barbies, because they couldn’t “do” anything. I couldn’t make them ride the horses (except gymnastics barbie with the bendy joints), so they usually ended up being the evil Ice Queen, or something similar. My horses could be used a bunch of different ways, they weren’t locked into one role.

  10. Dipti Lakdawala says:

    Thank you for the lovely article ,Sarah, an eye opener for parents and teachers too ! Next time I do a workshop with parents will give them an opportunity to play with both kinds of toys. I normally always let the parents play with the natural toys for about 15mins and then exchange experiences later.
    Would like to share something here. My son went to a conventional school [ no waldorf schools those days in my city] and he had tons of plastic and metal toys [ bought by us and by friends and family]. he played with them, but his favourite one was not the big blue car ,that he could ride on, but the ‘ BOX ‘ that it came in !! He would jump in it and play for hrs ,with all kinds of cloth [ my saris and dupattas,and sticks, almost anything handy from the kitchen and I would watch in facination at his imagination :)
    Now with my 2nd child, who went to a Waldorf school, [ by then one started here,and my daughter being the first child of the school] my understanding of the whole natural vs plastic toys makes so much sense. I can also see the difference in the way both approach things in their adult life.
    I want to share 1 more example of a construction site in front of my appt. In India, workers bring their children too at the const. site. I stand in my balcony and love to watch those children play with big bamboo sticks made into seesaws by resting them on piles of bricks, a piece of wood tied with a string pulling it, and a child sitting on an empty cement bag being pulled by a rope tied to it, Amazing how they play with all the natural material scattered around the site. I can spend hrs in my balcony watching these children play !! This only proves how imaginative kids can be with anything they can lay their hands on. Thank you again for all the insights !!

  11. I love the contrast between the stories made up with the two types of toys. We love the simple, imaginative, natural toys most of the time here too.
    Alicia’s latest post: Simple green toys to make or gather

  12. Thank you for this Sarah! I think the questions under Suspending Judgment would be a great little list to give grandparents who would like to buy toys for the children. I really wish the grandparents would not buy them anything over some of the things given to them. They could save themselves so much money :) It is really a thing of ignorance though. They’ve got good intentions. Your exercise is a great way to enlighten people. Thanks for sharing!
    -Susana
    http://www.montessoricandy.com

  13. Even though I agree with the sentiments in this article, it’s of little surprise and unfortunately slightly misleading to come to the conclusions within. The parents involved in a Waldorf “parents evening” most likely already have an affinity towards natural toys. Placing a Barbie doll in one’s hand or a dinosaur in a room for play will simply conjure up the feelings and thoughts that the subject parent already held (most likely dislike and distaste) for the non-natural toys. Again, I don’t dispute the correlated quality and magic behind natural toys, and the discomfort and unease with plastic toys that I and many other people share; it’s just not a causal relationship.

    The reason I chose to point this out is because I fear this assumed causal relationship can lead to guilt, stress, or even frustrations amongst parents who desire to do well by their children, but cannot because of unnatural family gifts, hand-me-downs, or simply money.

  14. There are so many types of educational toys. It is amazing to watch little ones play with any kind of toy. Unfortunately, I tend to forget to just stop and watch my girls play. It is too easy to get caught up in our busy life. I plan to carefully watch my girls interact with their toys tomorrow.

  15. Sometime we forgot and just bought any toys for our kids. And we think more expensive is better. But we forgot that kids can learn better and just with simple toys. Toys that could develop their imagination, problem solving etc.
    kodinz’s latest post: Nerf N-Strike Stampede ECS Review

  16. Good post. We always have to be careful in choosing toys for our kids, it have to be educational toys ang a toys that can develop their skills and potentials, we have to watch our children while playing. Thank you for sharing this
    Rachel Smith’s latest post: Finding Nemo Drawstring Pouch

  17. I strictly recommend not to hold off until you earn enough cash to order all you need! You should just take the business loans or bank loan and feel comfortable

  18. Alexis Scarborough says:

    Hi there,

    In reading your post I was very excited to see a photo that included some wooden toys from my childhood. I have been looking for the company for a long time. The photo I am referring to has children playing with wooden figures among which are a plain wooden pine tree and a little hutch made of the same wood. I own the entire fairy tale forest and would love to know where these came from! Please email me!

    Thanks!
    Alexis

  19. Alexis Scarborough says:

    In the second picture there is a little hut, a tree and a bridge that all belong to a set I have had for 25 years. Do you know who makes these? I have been trying to find out forever!

    Thanks!
    Alexis

  20. Alexis Scarborough says:

    Any idea where the hut bridge and tree in the second photo are from?

  21. Alexis Scarborough says:

    Oh my! I kept thinking my message did not go through and now it is posted three times! Sorry!

  22. Such an inspiring story! Thank you for sharing this with us!
    Irina

  23. Picture Words by Marie’s Words is a multi-sensory game for all ages. It may be used in such a diverse number of ways. While learning vocabulary and other English content, Picture Words will give hours of fun for individuals or groups of students and/or adults. It makes a unique gift for kids, and parents will appreciate its educational qualities, but kids will like the fun it provides!

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