Is plastic in Early Years settings really so bad?
We all know the environmental impact of plastic, especially single-use plastic, like the gloves and aprons you often find at changing tables. But what about open-ended plastic resources, like Duplo for example, that last generations?
Filling your setting with brand new plastic toys and resources might not be the most sustainable way to go, but banning it completely might not be either. A mass-produced plastic car from a fast food meal might not scream ‘eco-friendly.’ But if we throw that in the landfill so that we can replace it with a wooden alternative, where does that leave us?
It can be tough to strike the right balance sometimes.
Well, here are three things to think about, if you’re thinking about swapping out plastic…
Well, it depends how you look at it.
Natural materials tend to have more variation in texture, smell, and look. They support children’s connection to the environment, they’re more sustainable, and won’t stick around for millennia like plastic will.
But there are benefits to plastic toys too.
Little Barn Owls Farm and Forest School is a treasure trove of natural resources, reggio-inspired small parts, glass jars, water-colour paints… and LEGO. Group Operations Officer Charlotte Bateman explained that, as long as they fit with the philosophy and values of your setting, plastic toys are fine. Lego works for Little Barn Owls because it’s practical, it’s open-ended, it’s durable, and it’s packed with learning opportunities. It just also happens to be plastic.
There are also recycled plastic toys, and of course, you can buy pre-owned to give a plastic toy another lease of life. This keeps the plastic out of the bin and is more sustainable than buying new.
And, plastic toys can be open-ended, depending on what you choose for your setting.
Of course, you don’t need to run out and fill your setting with plastic. But if plastic is what you’re working with, it’s actually better to keep using it as long as you can, rather than just throwing it out.
If you’re thinking of swapping out your plastic resources, the most important thing to consider is why you want to make that change.
Famly’s very own Matt Arnerich spoke to Kate Peach, owner of Each Peach Day Nurseries, about how tricky it can be to know what’s a really worthwhile change to make at your setting, or in your practice, or what’s just ‘the latest thing’. Kate explains that ultimately, it comes down to the needs of the children in your setting.
”There’s this wave at the moment of very beige nurseries,” she says. “And that trend, increasingly so with social media, means people think ‘I need that! That’s what my nursery needs! We need to change it!’”
And, while new trends in practice can be enticing, it’s important to consider if they’re right for the unique children in your setting and their enabling environment.
It’s also worth considering that it can provide a sense of familiarity and stability to have certain toys and experiences that children can feel secure will be there, when they get to nursery. Where a child’s home-life might be turbulent and unpredictable, knowing that their favourite toy will definitely be waiting for them at nursery can make all the difference. So, tossing out a toy without thinking can be a big disappointment for children sometimes.
Michele Barrett, the headteacher at Randolph Beresford Early Years Centre and Vanessa Nursery, explained that their ‘core experiences’, which are what you might call continuous provision, are the same all the time. The team build on children’s interests by adding to these resources to develop and extend learning. However, the children have confidence in knowing that something familiar won’t just disappear.
”Children won’t come in and find Duplo, then come in again and the Duplo’s all gone. When they’re thinking about coming into nursery, they think, ‘I liked playing with that yesterday, I’m going to find it today,” says Michele.
Finally, if you do decide to make the leap, it needn’t be a clean sweep.
You could just choose not to buy any more plastic toys or resources, but let the children can continue to enjoy the ones you already have. Children (and often their parents) need support with transitions, and a change to their toys, resources, or the look of the setting can be a big one. Take things slowly, and keep a few favourites to ease in the change over time.
If you’re already in the process of swapping out plastic for wood, you may have a lot of brightly coloured bits and pieces on their way out of the door, so take advantage of that learning opportunity.
Passing on old toys and equipment is a great way to teach children about recycling and donating useable things you no longer need to charity. Obviously, broken toys can’t be given away, but try to keep as much out of landfill as you possibly can.
There are also plenty of ways to reuse your old plastic in the setting. If you’ve swapped out plastic drawers for open baskets, those trays can still be used for other things. Those trays could become a floor-height sensory tray for the baby room, an easy way to carry all the children’s water bottles into the garden, or even a mini mud kitchen! You can also reuse things for the same purpose. The plastic cups you’ve swapped out for glasses at mealtimes could become picnic items, or a new set of stackable toys.
And, while we’re on recycling, you can even reuse plastic rubbish. A cleaned plastic soap pump can hold paint, for mark-making, or become a potion bottle. Bottle tops can be used as loose parts, or for craft. You can even use clean, empty plastic containers to stock a role play area, like a shop or home corner.
The thing to remember is, while an all-natural, neutral coloured, plastic-free setting has its benefits, it's the practice and relationships with children that matter most of all. If you don’t have the budget to make big changes, think about how you use the toys and resources you already have. Because that’s the most sustainable thing you can do.
You can watch the video here:
Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.