A joyful toyless Christmas – gifts that keep giving!

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As the end of the year charges up to meet us, the usual southern hemisphere heat, rush and chaos has descended.  Schools have finally finished, summer holidays have begun, kids are tired, the weather is scorching (but the water temperature is still cooler than we would like), and the end of year Christmas party season is upon us.  In our house this time of year includes a kids birthday just days before Christmas!  I am sure you will have noticed that 2020 has been an extraordinarily strange year, and now to make it even stranger as we approach Christmas, I am reading about Covid related shortages of toys!  This year has been full of tragedy for so many around the world.  Over a million people have died, essential workers are stretched, businesses have collapsed, people have lost their jobs, and doctors, nurses and epidemiologists are our heroes.   Here in New Zealand we have very little to complain about.  We have been blessed that other than a 6 week lockdown and a brief return to level 3 and 2, we have been blessed to be able to continue our lives largely as normal.  Reading the news brings us back to the covid19 reality of the rest of the world.  

In light of the global situation a few shortages seem pretty unimportant, and perhaps we need to get some perspective here.  Kids don’t really need gimmicks and toys if we are truly honest about it.  I think most of it comes from the adult idea about what makes us happy (and most of us have been sucked into consumerist ideas of happiness without even realising) and a desire to show affection in a visually tangible way (look how much I got you, look how big it is, and please notice how expensive it was…. That means I love you).  But if you stop and think about it, do you want piles of expensive toys that kids will grow tired of five minutes after it is assembled, or after every button has been pushed?  Adults have this funny idea about the “magic of Christmas” as if it has to be created.  But really there are many ways to experience joy and there are many ways to spread joy that you can achieve without resorting to Kmart, empty toy shelves and the immense pressure to purchase toys everywhere you go.

Here are some ideas you might not have considered to help you bring joy without toys and to create fun and experiences that will continue giving joy for years.

  • Sports equipment – good quality – listen to what your kids are interested in and buy things that will last for years.  That way if your kids move on from it you can pass it on to the Sallies (or any charity shop), sell it online or give it away to someone else.  Cheap stuff usually breaks and ends up in the landfill and that is something we all need to be trying to avoid.  Spend more on less and get quality.  Ideas include rugby balls, bike repair kits, cricket sets, tennis racket.
  • Cooking equipment – decent stuff you’d buy for yourself – cake decorating things, icing bags, books of ideas and techniques.  Choose stuff that will last, and encourage your kids to take care of it so it lasts a lifetime!  In the past we have given our kids measuring spoons, cups, and baking molds.  We even gave them small saucepans so they could use their own equipment.  Cookery books for kids are a great idea.  Even giving interesting ingredients will go down well.
  • Gardening things – Create a bit of garden for them to plant things in, or if you haven’t got space for a garden bed, try a wooden planter box. Perhaps buy the materials and help them to make it for themselves.  Give seeds, and seedling pots, plants, watering cans, garden trowels and hand forks.  Help your kids to discover the joy of gardening and learn together as a family.
  • Tool box and tools – again don’t be tempted to buy the cheapest stuff at the hardware store.  There is nothing fun about tools that don’t work properly or break when you are using them.  Seek advice and get something that will do the job well and will last if it is dropped!  I am thinking of builder’s pencils, tape measures, hammers and nails, a set of screwdrivers, a handsaw, little socket sets and the like.  If Mum or Dad or Grandpa like to tinker on the car or build things in the garage, then a toolbox with tools is a great Christmas or birthday idea.  I have seen simple pre-cut kitset bird tables, bookends, and planter boxes for sale and if you can’t find one or make up the pieces yourself, the chances are that you can find someone who can whip a kitset together for you in their garage (or try your local Menz Shed).
  • Books!  Do I need to say more? Books are a great gift for all ages and interests.  Books for information, how to guides, stories, facts, classics, books about sport, animals, monsters, technology, gardening, cooking, crafts, famous people, the list is endless.  Books are amazing.  Our kids all read, and they read ALL the time.  The secret to getting kids to read is to get them great books, to read to them and with them.  Read good stories out loud to the family after tea instead of turning on the TV.  Choose wisely, and look for literature rather than meaningless cutesy stories or that latest movie fad.  Go online and look for a list of great children’s authors and hunt out something really enduring.  Books by local authors often make more sense to kids because they feel familiar culturally. In our case, there are a vast array of amazing authors right here in NZ. Librarians are great at recommending books if you are stuck.
  • Craft supplies – Give gifts of fabric, elastic, soft toy patterns, eyes, buttons, needles, thread, sewing scissors, safety pins, knitting needles, and wool in exciting colours.  French knitting (you can make your own with a toilet roll and 4 popsicle sticks) or get a wooden one that will last and not disappoint. Crochet needles, knitting needles, felt, googly eyes, little beads.  Tee shirts and t-shirt paint! The list of possibilities goes on.  Don’t feel you have to buy kid themed things or pre-packaged boxed activities.  Adult things work better as a rule and are usually made to last. 
  • Art supplies – real art supplies. Go to a place that sells proper art things for adults and get them proper coloured pencils, sketch pencils, fine line pens (for outlining) gel pens, erasers, good quality metal pencil sharpeners, a paint box with a couple of good quality brushes, some sketch books, art pads, pencil boxes or oil pastels. Giving kids a creative outlet and something to experiment with is invaluable to developing creative minds and new skills.
  • Give adventures and experiences.  Take your kids tramping (if you’re outside of NZ you might know this as hiking, rambling or such like), buy them tramping gear of their own, go camping, take them to places like wildlife refuges (Pukaha Mt Bruce, Zealandia), museums (Te Papa), the zoo (Orana Park, Willowbank), a seal colony, etc.  Take them fishing. Go for a swim at the beach or the river and make a real expedition of it.  Make memories.
  • Games and puzzles for the family.  During lockdown board games and jigsaws were rediscovered by people everywhere.  A great game will bring hours of fun and entertainment.  They can be played by groups of friends, families, and all age groups.  Jigsaws are another family friendly activity that is worth considering.  We still get wet days in summer and often a puzzle is the perfect way to occupy kids.

All of these things make great presents for kids, and all of them will keep giving joy for many years.  If you buy quality you might end up with a little less under the tree, but what you give will last and can be passed on to others in the future instead of breaking and ending up in the landfill.

A couple of other ideas that might be fun to try out if you have a bit of time are gingerbread biscuits or if you are ambitious, what about a gingerbread house?  Try helping your kids to make the family Christmas Crackers.  A few funny jokes on bits of paper, small gifts, chocolates and Christmas decorations are all you need.  Write Christmas cards with the kids and post them to their friends.  Have you ever noticed how much kids LOVE getting a letter in the mailbox?  Make Christmas decorations one afternoon.  Get creative and see how many things you can find on a walk that you can decorate for the tree.  Help your kids to sew simple drawstring bags or hair scrunchies to give away as gifts.  Make lavender bags!  

Above all, take time out for yourselves to slow down and enjoy time together.  We are so often running around here, there and everywhere, or plugged into our devices, that we miss the simple joy of spending time together. 

These ideas have created joy in our family for years and I really hope and pray that they give you ideas for your families as well.  Sometimes less is more and I really do mean that.  Kids can actually create magic out of their imaginations, they don’t really need the latest Hollywood movie themed noisemaker or dress-up to have fun.  All they need is love at the end of the day.  And Love is what Christmas is all about.

Something to sink your teeth into…..Bamboo toothbrushes and more!

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A selection of the bamboo toothbrushes we have tried.  No complaints at all.

Today I am writing about toothbrushes.  Something we all take completely for granted as an essential item these days.  Apparently 3.6 billion toothbrushes are produced each year (worldwide), almost all of them plastic. Most of those toothbrushes end up in landfill, but many are washing up on beaches. Each toothbrush lasts between 1 and 3 months and is then discarded.  In the course of an average 75 year lifespan you can use and discard between 300-900 toothbrushes (depending on how frequently you replace them).  In our household of five we go through at least 20 toothbrushes a year.  These figures are astonishing.  Recycling options are starting to become available but many people are unaware of this.  I didn’t realise that toothbrushes and toothpaste tubes can be recycled until I noticed a collection point for them at kindergarten.

In researching this post I became curious about the history of the toothbrush that we take so much for granted these days.   When did toothbrushes and tooth brushing become common?

Here is some fascinating information for you.

The Egyptians were making something called “tooth powder” as far back as 5000 years BC.  It apparently consisted of ash from ox hooves, myrrh, eggshell fragments and pumice.  It was likely applied with a finger as there is no record of a tool.

The earliest known actual “device” for cleaning teeth comes from ancient Babylonia between 3500 and 3000 BC, and was called a “chew stick”.  A chew stick is basically just that, a chewed stick with a frayed end that was used to clean teeth.  Different types of aromatic twig were used, presumably to freshen the breath.  Sometimes one end was sharpened into a toothpick.  Chew sticks are still used in parts of Africa today.

The Chinese used chew sticks as well, and it also seems that they developed the earliest actual “brush” around 619-907AD during the Tang Dynasty.  They used boar bristles (!) attached to a bamboo stick or bone.  Writings from 1223 describe monks using horse hairs in a bone handle to clean their teeth.  Chinese toothbrushes were introduced to Europe by travellers and became popular in the 17th century.

One of the earliest accounts of an actual “toothbrush” is found in the autobiography of an Oxford antiquarian (person who studies, collects or sells antiques) called Anthony Wood. He writes that in 1690 he paid a J. Barrett for a toothbrush.

In 1780, William Addis of Clerkenwald, England decided to produce a more modern toothbrush (while he was imprisoned for starting a riot).  He used a bone, drilled some holes, tied bristles (obtained from a guard) into tufts and glued them in the holes!  On his release he began manufacturing his toothbrushes and became wealthy doing it.  He left the business to his son when he died and the business continues to manufacture toothbrushes today (Wisdom Brushes).

Europeans loved the toothbrush and it became the height of fashion to own one during the 1800’s.  During the 1900s, bone handles began to be replaced by celluloid handles.

During WW1 the War Department began enforcing hygiene orders to combat a number of problems caused by men living in close proximity.  A soldier was expected to brush his teeth daily.  By the end of the war daily brushing had become a habit.

In 1938, DuPont Corporation began manufacturing nylon bristle brushes.

The toothbrush we are familiar with became common somewhere between the end of WW2 and today.  I couldn’t find out exactly when the majority of toothbrushes came to have plastic handles, but by the turn of the 21st century moulded plastic handles are the norm.

And that brings us to today’s problem of plastic toothbrushes and the impact they have on the environment.

In the supermarket today you can buy any number of brightly coloured plastic toothbrushes.  Each brand claims to have its own unique attribute essential to dental hygiene, from angled bristles, gum massagers, tongue cleaners, ergonomic handles, electric toothbrushes, vibrating toothbrushes and goodness knows what else.  But all of them are plastic.

I found a plastic toothbrush in the seaweed at the beach earlier this year.  I saw one in the gutter recently.  They don’t all end up at the dump.  Once discarded it is out of sight out of mind.  Yet it will take hundreds of years for them to degrade.  They are here for the long haul whether we like it or not.

That toothbrush in the sand got me wondering.  Surely there must have been something before plastic and if so perhaps there could be alternatives available now.  I sat myself down and googled it.  Guess what?  There are alternatives out there.  Bamboo toothbrushes!   To find an alternative to the plastic status quo you’ll need to visit somewhere like Commonsense Organics, or shop online.  I decided to trial some and see what I thought.  I got bamboo toothbrushes for the family in several different brands.  After a full 6 weeks of using them I can honestly say that they are reasonably priced and perfectly functional.

All the bamboo brushes that I have come across come with soft bristles. This is because (although some people like firmer bristles) soft bristles are recommended by dentists because they don’t damage gums.  All the brands of bamboo brush I have come across make both adult and children’s sizes.

I’ve been using The Humble Brush and I really like it.  It is the only brush that seems to also be socially responsible as well as environmentally friendly (at least as far as I can tell).  Every purchase goes to fund projects for children in need through the Humble Smile Foundation.  My brush was purchased from Commonsense Organics, but they are also available online.

My kids (aged 7 and 4) have been enthusiastically using Mama Bear brushes.  They both love them and are very excited to have ditched another plastic product.  The handles are round and this seemed to be easy to grasp and manipulate.  To be honest I think it is easier for little hands to use these than the bulky plastic junior brushes we were buying.  I am not sure why the handles of the plastic brushes have to be so chunky, but these bamboo brushes seem to be easier all round.  We purchased these online from the Cruelty Free Shop.

My 14 year old daughter tried out the Environmental Toothbrush  (also purchased online from the Cruelty Free Shop) and really likes it.  She prefers the handle to the plastic brushes she was using.  Usually very hard on her toothbrushes, this one has lasted the same length of time or perhaps slightly longer than her old plastic ones.  I think she was taking more care of it because she liked it so much!

My husband has just started using a Go Bamboo toothbrush tonight after finally putting his old plastic one out for recycling (yes you can recycle plastic toothbrushes).  He seemed pretty happy with it.  Another friend of mine has been using this brand for a week or two since I gave it to her to help with a “rubbish free week” challenge.  She is also very positive about it, particularly the soft bristles. These brushes were purchased at Commonsense Organics.

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An up-cycled toothbrush in it’s new life as a plant label.  I found it easy pulling out the bristles with pliers.

Because they still have nylon bristles you have to either pull out the bristles with pliers or break off the head and dispose of the bristles in the rubbish before composting the handle.  I am perfectly happy to do either in order to reduce the amount of plastic I send to landfill each year.  I have decided to up-cycle the bamboo (once it is de-bristled) by using them as plant labels when I grow seeds for our garden.  You can write on the handles with ballpoint or vivid just fine.

So all in all I can’t imagine ever going back to plastic toothbrushes.  The bamboo alternatives are brilliant.  As far as I am concerned I will continue to reduce plastic by sourcing bamboo toothbrushes for my family.

So there you are.  All you need to know about bamboo toothbrushes.  I encourage you to give them a go.