Choosing Toys for a New Baby

What’s a first time, design conscious grandmother to do as she shops for a right toy? Consult Rudolf Steiner, of course.

Queen Elizabeth might not be leafing through the Land of Nod catalog right now, and she certainly isn’t surfing the Internet for Baby’s First Cell Phone, which is how I, a first-time grandmother, rode out last week’s heat wave.

My 14-month-old grandson recently picked up the TV remote, held it to his ear and began to chat in baby talk with an imaginary person who seemed to speak his language with equal fluency and wit (inferred from the laughter that punctuated his end of the conversation).

That incident was the starting shot of a marathon search for a “real” toy cell-phone, which is only the latest foray in the ongoing mission to keep my grandson happy, stimulated, clothed, and coddled in high—my—style.

Grandparenthood unleashes the primal shopholic in the best of us, but I discovered, it also presents an opportunity to survey the creativity and craftsmanship that sometimes finds its way into a marketplace glutted with schlock.

On the news that my son and daughter-in-law were expecting their first child, I took myself to Lord & Taylor, where my mother had bought the layette for my first-born. To my horror, all of the onesies, tees, spit-up rags, etc. were either insipid pink or white-bread blue, and most of it—even in size “preemie”—had cute little slogans declaring its wearer to be “Daddy’s little princess” or “Nascar Driver.”  That’s right, sexual stereotyping ab ovo had snuck back into our culture probably around the time my onetime Che wannabe friends started to vote Republican.

As I rifled through the cloyingly sweet baby garments—most of them, I suspected, machine-sewn in Asian sweat-shops by workers not much older than babies themselves, I resolved to knit as much of the layette as I could in the 7 months remaining before the birth of the baby.                                                                             

So, even before the first grainy ultrasound image of the fetus graced the screen of my iPhone, I started to rampage my favorite knitting supply retailers in search of yarn precious enough to touch the flesh of this mortal-to-be.

On some fundamental level, I was foraging for twisted stands of flora and fauna to connect my urban grandchild to a romanticized vision of nature and imagined network of family farmers, home-spinners, and back-to-the-earth bricoleurs.

While any naturally occurring fiber had been good enough for the hats and booties I had been knitting over the years for the dozens of babies born to my friends‘ children and my children’s friends (who all had the breeding jump on my kids), minimal standards like “pure cotton” and “washable wool” (provenance ignored) did not set the bar high enough for Numero Uno. I was looking for buttery softness, purity, pedigree, rarity, sustainability, and the hand of an artisan in every hank, ball, and skein of yarn I surveyed.

The ideal yarn, if I could find it, would be hand-spun royal alpaca, sourced from an organic farm in Bushwick. Instead, I had to settle for Mongolian yak, Himalayan cashmere, and organic cotton from Peru.

My criteria for judging toys spring from the same half-baked ethic that governs my choice of yarn. It is derived from my very sketchy understanding of Anthroposophy, the movement founded by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). Based, somehow, on his reading of Goethe, Steiner developed a kind of spiritual gestalt, which covers the whole of human experience from hand-carved cradle to biodegradable grave.

Among the institutions and industries spawned by Steiner and his acolytes are Waldorf schools, Weleda skin care products, a sui-generis branch of homeopathic medicine, an organic farming method called “biodynamic agriculture,” and, most recently, a burgeoning chain of Steiner-inspired retirement communities (just in time to cash-in on the boomer generation’s slow march to the Elysian fields). Steiner also developed an aesthetic to go with his philosophy. The Steiner-designed Goetheanum in Basel, Switzerland, stands as a living monument to his recondite architectural principals.

I like to attribute my antipathy to plastic, cartoon animals, synthetics, happy faces, flashing lights, or battery-operated anything to my received ideas about Anthroposophy. More likely though, it’s just in my DNA to be a dour Luddite, and I blame it on Steiner, whose esoteric philosophy/theology I only half-gleaned from friends who went, or sent children, to Waldorf schools.

According to the Steiner mystique toys are meant to stimulate make-believe; right angles are to be avoided, and only natural materials to be used in their fabrication. Wood and beeswax are the two essential elements of the Waldorf supply closet. This rainbow stacker is the quintessential Waldorf toy.

My search for the perfect toy phone was my first encounter with the age-old dilemma of pleasing the kid without sacrificing my own high-minded standards.

Now, if I were ONLY considering my grandson’s preferences (what does he know, anyway?) I would have tossed the first Fisher-Price cell phone that popped up on my computer screen into my Amazon shopping cart and checked out.  After all, Fisher-Price must test drive every new tschochke they produce on actual children before bringing it to market. They KNOW my grandson loves brightly colored plastic, anthropomorphized buttons and knobs with happy faces and blinking eyes. Even worse, he is delighted by that high-pitched kindergarten teacher’s voice that chirps “Hello, how are you?”  or “Good job,” every time he pushes a button. Even if the canned perky voice said, “Please hold,” with a Bangalore accent, he’d be happy.

After rejecting the Fisher-Price Laugh & Learn Smilin' Smart Phone, I asked myself “What would Rudolf Steiner do?” and googled “Waldorf School Supplies” to find out. I should have known, the Steiner folks don’t believe in giving kids playthings that thwart their creative imagination, so the most technologically advanced item in the Waldorf catalog is a set of birch pick-up sticks.

Next I googled “wood cell phone,” and within a nanosecond hit upon the holy grail: “My First Wood Cell Phone,” produced by The Original Toy Company.  Even the most orthodox anthroposophist might permit her kid to make-believe with this one. The simplicity of its ovoid case forgives its multi-colored plastic buttons, which compress when pushed but don’t talk back. The only noise emitted by this suitable-for-putting-in-mouth fake phone is a ring tone. Even as landfill, this handsome toy would not compromise my ideals: the perfect gift for my perfect grandson.

So, why didn’t I buy it? because it was what I wanted, not what he would most enjoy. He’d know immediately that it was a fraud, nothing like what Mommy cradles to her ear, which shows her pictures and responds to her voice. More importantly, as soon as he is old enough for recrimination, he would look back on “My First Wood Cell Phone” as a “typical present from Grandma,” the very person his own father used to scorn for being “Amish.”

Instead, I compromised and bought him a “Flip and Peek Fun Phone,” produced by Infantino.  In the demerit column: It’s plastic, made in China, and needs batteries. On the plus side: it comes in neutral gray; it’s compact size mimics the proportions of a real cell phone; it’s less clunky than the wood phone, has a mirror on the inside of the flap, and sports no happy faces or cartoon animals. According to the ad copy, the “Flip and Peek Fun Phone” can teach my grandson English and Spanish, but his mother presciently didn’t put the batteries in, so my grandson’s new toy phone is, at least, mercifully mute.

And what would I recommend to Queen Elizabeth for Prince George’s first play cell phone? I’d go for the Original wood model. It’s more fitting for a prince, and why should the long-reigning Queen of England care what her great-grandson might one day think of her?

Flip & Peek Fun Phone


Dorie Baker, an expatriate New Yorker, recently retired from the press office of Yale University; she’s on Facebook, Twitter, tumblr, Instagram; find her at @doriebb.

Recent Products