By Guest Blogger Allison Sloan

Excerpted with permission from Mothers & Others’ Shopper’s Guide to Healthier, Greener Toys.

Crafting: Making the world a beautiful place, both indoors and out

While parents love to encourage their children to be creative and artistic, it’s important to be aware that some arts and crafts supplies contain dangerous substances – and that safer substitutes exist. In May 2000, when the news broke that traces of cancer-causing asbestos had been found in Crayola, Prang, and Rose Art brands of crayons, the incident demonstrated how potentially harmful substances can turn up in the most unexpected places. Although the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) later concluded that the asbestos fibers did not pose a hazard – a view contested by some pediatricians – the CPSC required that all manufacturers stop making their crayons with talc by mid-2001. Without talc, which can be naturally contaminated with asbestos, crayons are now asbestos-free.

Some other things to be aware of are paints, thinners, glues, and fixatives which can contain solvents, lead and other heavy metals that are capable of damaging children’s developing brains. Be sure to read labels before allowing kids to use an art material. Avoid any that bear a “Warning,” “Caution,” or “Danger” label. Choose instead those with a nontoxic certification seal from the Art & Creative Materials Institute (ACMI). Happily, plenty of non-toxic arts and crafts supplies exist.

Safe, Green Art Supplies and Activities

With beeswax crayons parents can rest easy, knowing their kids are coloring without asbestos or heavy metal dyes. Kids can also color their world with natural pigment paints. With the gift of a reusable papermaking kit, they can recycle your junk mail into their own personalized paper. And budding sculptors can mold modeling beeswax or natural play dough into any imaginable shape.

With a loom, or a crochet hook and instruction, kids can spin out wool or cotton placemats, or potholders. A beginners’ knitting kit provides materials and instructions for kids ages 6 and up to knit their own bath puppet or bean bag. A candle-rolling kit, of pure beeswax honeycomb with lead-free wick, is sheer pleasure; however, candles should be burned only under adult supervision!

A good idea, before you purchase any kit, is to ask whether you really need it: Does it teach real skills or is it just a gimmick in fancy packaging? Can a child make the item with just the components, such as candle wicks and beeswax sheets, purchased locally? Is the kit reusable, or will it become useless junk when its ingredients are all used up?

Green Crafts: Crafty Environmentalism

Crafts can help children gain appreciation for nature. Plus, stringing a necklace of nuts from the tagua palm tree in Ecuador’s endangered rainforests will support conservation efforts there. Kids can enjoy the beauty of gemstones, minerals, pressed flowers, and marbles when using them to fill a kaleidoscope. They can provide food and habitat for native songbirds by crafting a certified sustainably harvested wood nest box or bird feeder, or by starting maple, fir, elm, and other tree saplings in windowsill pots. They can recycle newspapers into biodegradable plant pots in which to grow their own seedlings.

Learning About the Earth Through Games

Board games, the ultimate reusable toy, can provide kids with hours of entertainment together with parents, siblings, and friends. Also, most are made from cardboard, hence recyclable. Many cooperative, environmental-theme games are also available — if not from your local toy or bookstores, then mail-orderable.  A great green & eco-friendly game is Word Chase, it’s even printed with soy-based ink on recycled paper.

For more creative, fun craft ideas, kids may also appreciate the following books:

Garden Crafts for Kids: 50 Great Reasons to Get Your Hands Dirty, by Diane Rhoades
The Harvest Craft Book, by Thomas Berge
Earthways: Simple Environmental Activities for Young Children, by Carol Petrash
Ecology Crafts for Kids, by Bobbe Needham

Other Resources:

Art and Hobby Supplies, a fact sheet by the Washington Toxics Coalition. You can purchase the full version by writing WTC, 4649 Sunnyside Ave N, Suite 540, Seattle WA 98103. Ph: 206-632-1545.
List of Art and Craft Materials that May Not be Purchased for Use in Grades K-6. The California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment put together this list to guide teachers and administrators in stocking their art rooms.

Art & Creative Materials Institute (ACMI), a manufacturers association, created a labeling system to certify art materials nontoxic.