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Toys, Animals and Nature: An Eco-Critical Gaze into the World of Play

Plastic toys and their impact on the environment (as I have discussed at have led to several toy-manufacturing companies looking forward to more eco-friendly materials and practices. A toy is deemed “green” if its impact on the environment is little to none. Toys, through their unique placement as subjects (in the minds of the children) as well as an object (the real object itself), offer a learning space that is both informative and imaginative. Research conducted by the Timpani Toy Study emphasizes the importance of animal figurines, labelling them as the highest scorers among selected figures in the realms of imagination and creativity. Such a score is universal and based on a collection of data from pre-school children of different genders, ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds. While Smith and Jones (2011) identified strong links between language learning and symbolic play with animal figurines, such figurines also aid children in verbalising and engaging in role-plays of fantasy with their peers. Animal figures as a sign of ‘natureculture’ make them distinctly post-human – – adding to the agentic capacity of toys, viewed through a lens of object-oriented ontology, which can challenge dominant humanistic discourses of power. I myself attempt to use eco-friendly materials while creating webcomics through toy photography at but that is a blog post for another time

However, animal figures transcend their role as vessels of embedded societal narratives to bridge the gap between the child and the environment. This figurative bridge is not linear and one-directional but marred with overlapping narratives. The animals being represented have changed over the years. Whereas a standard set of animals contain lions, tigers, zebras, giraffes, elephants, bears and other common creatures, nature ‘toobs’ and polybags by companies such as Schleich, Wild Republic and Safari Ltd. throw in okapis, koala bears, poison dart frogs, komodo dragons, harpy eagles, moray eels and orang-utans into the mix. Several of the aforementioned animals occupy spaces on the IUCN Red List, with small information booklets offering notable information.

The toy market for animal figurines is an intensely competitive space – new digital technologies, ways of casting and materials have begun to offer more scientifically accurate alternatives to existing toy figures. The materials used often seem to be counter-intuitive to the form they are moulded into, being created out of toxic materials such as plastic which takes time to break down in the environment. The toy companies provide an answer through the adoption of newer, more eco-friendly materials. Wild Republic manages to accomplish this through their host of phthalate-free playsets. Phthalate, as a material that makes plastic durable, is often added to toys to increase their longevity but at severe repercussions to the environment.

Furthermore, Wild Republic opts in for eco-friendliness, not only in the creation of their toy lines – aptly named with prefixes such as ecokins and eco-expedition among others – but also through their packaging. Their very website spells out the presence of 80% recycled cardboard in their packaging, the use of soy ink, a biodegradable alternative that is used instead of plastic inner packs and the elimination of single-use plastic.

Filling in my own Wild Republic penguin figure has been made of 100% recycled water bottles, while 50% of these stuffed animals contain eco-friendly beads made of eco-friendly ingredients.

Schleich animal families are the newest trend in the toy market which serves up edutainment in healthy doses. The very company policy endorses “responsible cohabitation between humans and animals”, offering up environmentally sustainable and healthy alternatives to chemical-laden toys which are venomous not only to the surroundings of the child, but also the very child itself who, often aged around three years ago and is, more often than not, prone to putting figures in their mouth. Furthermore, on its official website, Schleich writes:

“The Schleich group and the WWF have been cooperation partners since January 2016. Through this collaboration, Schleich would like to actively support the protection of endangered species. The traditional Swabian company has been supporting the WWF’s work in Germany and Austria in protecting biodiversity for at least three years. While Schleich brings endangered species like elephants, rhinoceroses, lions and other species into children’s rooms, and wishes to cultivate enthusiasm for animals and nature in doing so, the WWF works to protect these animals through various projects the world over.”

Toys occupy a unique place in a post-human network of relationality, especially in the case of figures based around characters from films featuring anthropomorphic animals. A film which comes to mind is Rio, a story about the last two Spix’s macaws who were brought together to propagate their species. Notwithstanding the anthropocentric attempt at conservation, the movie spawned a sequel featuring a host of endangered animals (in both films), and its success eventually spawned tiny figures of the characters, several of whom were sold as parts of a MacDonald’s happy meal. When further discourse regarding the possible extinction o the actual creatures in the wild came to be, I remember having created the following piece:

Source: My work at Toys made to embody a comic in a digital space with underlying narratives of extinction and conservation with references to a film, serve to establish the distinct post-human method of story-telling. For more of my work and its adherence to a post-human philosophy, visit here.

Here, the toys act as mouthpieces for conservation in two layers – firstly, through the sale of figures about the film, which, children would likely have watched and likely be influenced by. Secondly, in their own constructions of play, the embodied narratives of conservation are likely to seep in. Toys that unite a character on the screen with cold plastic and a child’s vivid imagination become a focal point of Donna J Harraway’s discussion about materials (Staying with Trouble: Making Kin in the Cthulocene), and become a composite medium of storytelling with a didactic environmental message:

“It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what ties tie ties.”

Figures and models not only inform us about the ecology of our age but also that of the distant past. Figure manufacturing companies such as Papo, Schleich, Safari Ltd., Mojo Fun, Geoworld, PNSO and CollectA bring out new figures each year, with enthusiasts ranging from the youngest kid to the oldest adult collector waiting eagerly for their collections. Dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures have come a little way – both in the popular imagination and scientific discourse – from being exotic, monstrous beasts always locked in a battle to unique creatures with their own life cycles which inhabited a different Earth

Despite the temporal and scientific inaccuracies with the meme, it perfectly encapsulates an eco-critical entanglement of the child, toy, creator of said toy, and the idea leading to its creation.

A dinosaur toy in nature creates ancient prehistory, a diorama sixty five million years old – uniting the past and present through the medium of toys. My work specifically concerns dinosaur figurines, uniting two of my oldest interests into ones – and can be located here. Such creations are not limited to scientifically accurate figures but also depictions of prehistory in popular media and toy sets.

Lego is one of the leading toy companies in the world, with each tiny brick transcending and uniting different playsets. The desire to create, build and rebuild proves to be a gratifying habit, not merely for the child, but the adult collector alike. Lego, through its toys and movies based on the same, offers resistance to ordered structures of power both literally and figuratively, and the company has even been deemed to be switching to more environmental-friendly alternatives to plastics. The authenticity of Lego bricks is located in the unique click that you may hear upon bringing any piece from any set to fit another, emphasizing an absurdly high degree of micromanagement.

Materials from sugarcanes are used to create model trees, thereby blurring boundaries between the representation and the represented, to truly situate it in an area of post-human liminality.

The desire to create a harmonious balance of human beings with nature, not as opposites but as entities locked in a continuum is emphasized through the medium of toys. Such toys, and their very packaging, become useful literal and figurative instruments of negotiating with the environment, as emphasized by the images below.

While the first show the intelligent re-use of a plastic car to grow shrubs – thereby situating nature, culture and technology in a continuum – the second shows an artistic creation, a toy in its own right, which has been created by the compressed parts of existent toys; truly post-human through its dissolution of boundaries to create something anew.

Finally, the third and fourth images, by a contrastive highlight, bring out the irony in the manufacture of a plastic turtle – of creating a toy from a material that had choked the real animal whose image human beings have tried to reproduce.


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