Toys end up in landfills and incinerators each year as kids outgrow their once prized items. Here's how to select more eco-friendly gifts for children all year long.
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As children progress through each birthday, holiday, and other life events and milestones, they often accumulate a growing collection of toys. And before you know it, there are toys filling closets, bookshelves, playrooms, and plenty of other free spaces around our homes. Then, inevitably, our children's interest in these toys wanes as the months and years go by.

Though plenty of parents bring unwanted items to thrift stores, a whopping 80 percent of toys end up in landfills, incinerators, or even worse—in the ocean where they often endanger marine life. Discarded plastic toys in particular become part of the 14 million tons of plastic that finds its way into the ocean every year. 

With pollution around the Earth becoming an increasingly pressing problem that we all must begin to address in our everyday lives, parents can play an important role in being part of the solution. In addition to raising eco-conscious children, we can select gifts for special occasions that are more environmentally friendly, durable, or meaningful. To help with that effort, we've rounded-up gifting suggestions from some of the leading voices in the eco-living movement. Here are gift ideas for children that can help reduce the environmental impact of gift-giving.

Give Secondhand Toys

When it comes to finding a gift for a child, often our first impulse is to go shopping for something brand spanking new. For many, this effort includes hopping on the Amazon, Target, or Walmart website to order a gift that will be boxed up and mailed. But as you start shifting your mindset to a more eco-conscious lifestyle, including when selecting gifts for children, remember that the most sustainable option is often a secondhand item, says Amity Hook-Sopko, executive editor of Green Child Magazine.

"By buying gently used toys, you're essentially eliminating the environmental impact, including the packaging waste and transportation footprint," says Hook-Sopko. "By searching a local marketplace, mom's group, or swap site you can find gently used and sometimes never opened toys."

There are even online websites dedicated to selling gently used second-hand toys such as Toycycle and GoodBuyGear.

And remember, as an added bonus to shopping this way, secondhand toys are often far more budget-friendly.

Opt For Battery-free Toys

Parents can also green their gift-giving traditions is by selecting toys that do not require the use of batteries. 

"Not only do battery-operated toys tend to overstimulate young kids, but the environmental downside is also worth considering—Americans create 150,000 tons of battery waste each year," says Hook-Sopko. "And once the toy breaks, many people throw it in the garbage, which can cause fires, emit dangerous fumes, and contribute to climate change."

If you do want to choose toys that require batteries, simply investing in rechargeable batteries, which last longer, can make a big difference in the long-term environmental impact of the gift.

Give Experiences as Gifts

Another approach to gift-giving for children (and people of all ages) that's growing in popularity as we seek to be more eco-conscious is purchasing an experience for a loved one, rather than a tangible item.

"Experience gifts are by far the most eco-friendly option," says Kristen McCalla, of the website Earth Friendly Tips. "Examples of experience gifts can include tickets to a day at the aquarium, an annual pass to the zoo, passes to an amusement park or water park, music lessons, or tickets to a sporting event."

Not only do experience gifts eliminate waste, but they're also fun, educational, and provide opportunities for bonding, creating cherished memories for everyone, says McCalla.

Give Wooden Toys 

In addition to being impressively durable, wooden toys are a far more Earth-friendly and often safer gift option, than plastic toys.

"Because of their longevity and timeless look and feel, wooden toys can often become heirlooms that get passed down through the generations," says McCalla.

One important caveat here—when shopping for wooden toys, it's important to look for toys that are made from sustainably harvested wood or renewable bamboo, to ensure the toys are not depleting already fragile forest resources around the globe. It's also a good idea to find out whether the toys are painted or stained with water-based, non-toxic paints, says McCalla.

"Adopt" an Animal in a Child's Name

Symbolically adopting an endangered animal in a child's name is another meaningful gift to give. Not only does this type of gift eliminate waste altogether, it provides the opportunity to engage children in issues critical to the future of planet, while also financially supporting the many non-profit organizations on the front lines of protecting our dwindling biodiversity.

There are many, many noble, well-vetted organizations that offer an opportunity to symbolically adopt animals and in exchange, receive educational emails, photographs, and even "adoption" papers to help your child remain engaged in that gift all year long. One of the most notable organizations providing opportunities to "adopt" endangered wildlife is the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, which fosters baby elephants and rhinos that have been orphaned as a result of poaching activity, human-wildlife conflict, habitat loss, or other pressing issues.

Yet another organization doing noble work to save wildlife is The Orangutan Project, through which you can symbolically adopt orangutans for as little as $10 per month, helping to support orphaned or injured orangutans at rehabilitation centers.  The World Wildlife Fund also sponsors symbolic species adoption opportunities and the adoption choices range from beluga whales to cheetahs, penguins, and much more.

Contribute to a Child's College Fund

Giving a child the gift of money for their future completely eliminates landfill waste, as well as the carbon emissions associated with shipping items through the mail. Though admittedly, this can be less engaging for the child on the receiving end, UNest, a college savings app, is working to change that. 

In 2020, the platform enabled electronic gifting, which allows friends and family to make monetary contributions to a UNest account for special occasions and leave a personal message for the child on the platform when doing so. "Gifters can choose any occasion, Christmas, birthdays, Easter, and they can leave a fun note for the kid, to make it personal and interesting," says UNest's founder and CEO, Ksenia Yudina.

UNest is also working on introducing the ability for gift-givers to attach video messages when making contributions to a recipient's account, which would ideally engage the child even more.

Early data shows that making monetary gifts rather than buying another toy that may ultimately be discarded is indeed having an environmental payoff. "Already gifts sent through the UNest platform saved 28.7 tons of toys and packaging from ending up in landfills," continues Yudina.

And fin-tech platforms like UNest may be uniquely poised to lead the shift to eco-friendly money gifts, as they have the ability to gamify the experience of giving money by allowing the embedding videos or the incorporation of emojis in the personalized messaging when loved ones make financial contributions as gifts. All of these efforts are designed to make the experience more engaging and memorable for the young recipient.

Select Toys That Encourage Imagination

It's hardly any secret that toys requiring imagination tend to hold a child's interest for a more significant period of time. LEGOs, for instance, can be reused again and again and again to build something new and different. Many children return to their LEGO collection endlessly over the years. Gifts of this type, which are designed to spark creativity, can be a far more meaningful and worthwhile investment for parents, while also being more eco-friendly.

"Toys that encourage a child to use their imagination often stay in rotation longer," says Hook-Sopko. "Wooden blocks, trains, Lincoln Logs, costumes, and art supplies have stood the test of time because there's no single way to play with them."

While LEGOs are traditionally made from plastic, the company began incorporating some plant-based options a few years ago, notes Hook-Sopko. There is now a line of LEGO plant accessories and creatures made from sustainably sourced sugarcane, which can be used with the traditional LEGO bricks. In addition, in June, LEGO announced that it is experimenting with prototype LEGO bricks made from recycled plastic (though they are not yet available for sale.) In the meantime, LEGOs can be recycled through the company's Replay program, which allows parents to ship unwanted or unused LEGOs back to the company after which they're given to children in need.

Yet another toy designed to inspire imagination and have less impact on the earth is the Eco-Kids Busy Box($28.95), sold by the family-run company Eartheasy, which is focused on helping customers live sustainably. The Kids Busy Box is filled with creative, kid-friendly arts and craft supplies like finger paints, sidewalk chalk, and colored pencils.

The Busy Box is just one of many children's gifts sold by Eartheasy that has been created with the goal of minimizing the item's impact on the planet. Additional fun options include the Pollinator's Delight Flower Seed Grow Kit ($10.95) and the Owl Stuffed Animal Making Kit ($24.95), a DIY kit that in addition to including 100 percent reclaimed wool was designed to allow the shipping box to be turned into a house for the stuffed owl.

"In general, we believe it's important for parents to give earth-conscious gifts because we, as a species, have crossed too many of our planet's boundaries. We are using more than our share of resources, polluting beyond our planet's ability to recover, and poisoning the very environment we depend upon," says Eartheasy editor Shannon Cowan. "We believe any purchase should be thoughtfully considered, including its end-of-life."

Cowan says the site recommends that buyers ask the following questions when purchasing something: Where will this product end up when it's no longer useful? Can it be repurposed or composted? Or will it persist in the environment, eventually causing harm? 

"As parents, we are stewards of our children, but we're also guardians of the planet they'll inherit," Cowan adds. "We must think beyond our own generation to envision what world we want to leave behind."