Archive for Kids

Recycle your way back to school

Love it or loathe it, that back-to-school feeling is about to take hold. And with it come the exhortations to buy, buy, buy: new clothes, new shoes and endless amounts of new stationery.

I am not yet sure what the lists advise in my new schools, but I continually marvelled, back in Canada, at the requirement for countless pencils, dozens of glue sticks and endless duotangs. I may be fooling myself, but I remember actually looking after my pencil case and its contents, removing the need for a late August buying frenzy.

Indeed, I discovered in my recent move, that I still own pencils that date back to school days (it’s the tell-tale name at the end which gives this away). The kids marvel at the idea of naming a pencil, but I vividly remember this pre-school ritual and the relief I felt at having a nice, short name to speed up the process.

I try to promote the idea of taking care of items, in general, and using them for as long as they are functional (even if they are no longer shiny and new). My kids are probably scarred for life as a consequence. But one thing that helps me is if I purchase better quality kit in the first place.

As an example, my kids love Staedtler Wopex pencils. They claim strong eco credentials, feel good (slightly rubbery and heavier than the average pencil), write well and sometimes make it through the school year and back home for the summer (adding to the lifecycle benefits).

Compared to the pencils that are virtually given away at dollar stores across the nation, they are expensive (around $1 or 70p each), but the leads break only occasionally which is a huge plus. The stationery-phile in me loves them and the colours are great. They come in HB/2H and 2B.

Next on the list are (ring) binders. The heavy duty plastic ones are a bit tempting (I have several) and do last a long time, but then what?? Cheap plastic or vinyl covered files are a horror: they offgas, leach toxins and end up in the dump after just one school year (if the dump will take them). Not a good buy at all.

By far the best option, in my view, is recycled heavy duty paperboard binders. In the US, my favourite ones are from Naked Binder. They are simple, solid, highly functional and recycled/recyclable in full. They cost about $7-9 each depending upon size. Kids could have fun drawing on them, but I love them pristine.

The snag is that while the company does ship to Canada, this is not cheap. So stock up if you are in the US or share an order with friends.

In the UK, Paperchase sells a similar file, though only in lever-arch size. It is not quite as lovely to hold as the Naked binder but gets good reviews. There are various other options you can try: let me know what satisfies.

And remember that recycling your file at the end of its lifetime is also important. Avery recycled files make this particularly easy as the metal fittings unscrew from the paperboard cover. Both parts can be recycled (too few people keep scrap metal for recycling, but it’s an easy thing to do, even if your local council does not collect: I took a big pile – including a dismantled Avery file – to a Habitat ReStore in Canada before I left).

This post is getting too long, so I will finish, though I could obsess about pens and pencils for ever.

I should mention, though, that I was sent some great recycled newsprint pencils and coloured pencils by Treesmart a few weeks back. You may have seen these: they are made (in the US) of tightly wrapped newsprint, which is fascinating when you sharpen the pencils as it comes away in many ribbons. The pencils are a good weight and have nice leads, although I find them a tad thin for my big hands. The small pencil crayons are cute for younger kids.

The good news is that they have excellent green credentials and you can buy 48 pencils for $15, though this brings me back to the question of what anyone would possibly need 48 pencils……


Getting a comb through your (kids’) hair…

I believe I am not alone in my struggles with my kids’ hair. Brushing is apparently the highest form of torture. And to make matters worse, it’s quite hard to explain, cogently, why I (and the world at large) actually cares about neat hair.

So, the bar is pretty low in my household (I can see my friends shaking their heads in agreement). But I do at least try to ensure that, post-shampooing, a comb gets through the flowing locks of my four daughters.

My little ‘helper’ in this regard is Acure leave-in conditioner with Argan oil which I spritz on the girls’ hair to give me a better than even chance of success.

I empathize with those who think leave in conditioners are dumb and excessive, a symbol of consumerism run riot (on par with lip exfoliation products?). But my guess is that people of this persuasion don’t have kids who scream at the mere sight of a comb. (Full disclosure here, in case my kids read this: it’s only one who is really comb-phobic…)

The Acure product is well-priced ($9.99 per bottle from the Acure site or $8.62 from the mysteriously cheap iHerb, which is where I get it since they ship swiftly and cheaply to Canada). And it’s fully functional. If truth be told, I only really use it at the swimming pool when matted hair and industrial strength chlorine conspire to make my life really tough. But it does the trick and once a week the comb runs through the hair.

I hope that it does a load of other good things, such as strengthening and conditioning. But just combing it without misery is enough to make me like it.

Argan oil is, of course, totally trendy these days. I’ve tried it in pure form on my face and have not loved it. Maybe it is the magic ingredient in this stuff. Who knows? But something makes combing easy, without making the hair greasy. The remainder of the product ingredients are on the website and all look pretty plant-based and benign.

The conditioner smells citrusy, but not too intensely so, which is all good too. In my youth I was happy to have my entire head smell of (fake) green apples, but I lost that willingness a while back. I’ve tried other natural de-tangler products and the smells were sometimes quite overwhelming (kid-oriented often equates to bubblegum or grape).

To finish up, I just want to mention that I have often been asked to recommend a shampoo on this site, but I remain unable to do that. I have tried and tried to find something that I really like, that is natural, well-priced and kind to my always-dry scalp. But I have not yet succeeded. When I think I am close I either find a nasty ingredient or my scalp starts itching!

So I remain a shampoo dilettante: any recommendations?

Quick: before Christmas comes

I love Christmas: the coziness, conviviality and the kids’ joy. But, like many of you I suspect, I hate the excess and the pressing need to identify unmet needs (amongst people who really have none) just so I can fulfil my gifting obligations.

Personally I love giving experiences, but I have yet to persuade my four kids that a stocking full of promissory notes and gift cards to the local coffee shop really cuts it. Small indulgences are required: preferably ones that can be wrapped, used and then disappear leaving a relatively small footprint.

One thing that will be in the stockings of the young Foxes this year is a selection of products that I have received over the past two months in my regular package from the Natural Beauty Box (T.N.B.B.).

T.N.B.B. is one of a number of companies operating in the monthly cosmetics and skincare subscription space, though by no means all companies offer natural products. You sign up for anything from one month to one year and then wait to receive a nicely-packaged goody-bag of natural cosmetic sample sizes (not sachets) through the mail. They even throw in some full-sized products from time to time.

Samples are guaranteed to be at least 95% natural and 50% organic. This may not satisfy complete purists, but it is good enough for me (especially in comparison with some of the horrors my kids have been known to bring home).

Inside your pretty gift bag you will also find coupons in case you like the samples (reminding you that this is, of course, partly a marketing exercise).

T.N.B.B. does not tell you what you will receive in advance, but that is half the fun. Who doesn’t love getting an indulgent surprise in the mail from time to time?

So I have been saving up my precious bottles to scatter amongst my girls’ stockings. For me this is a great solution to the pre-teen lotion love (which I remember so well from all those years ago).

Yes, there is excess plastic (think little bottles) but, on balance, I am not too worried as I am not channelling toxic fragrances and chemicals to my kids.

Here in Canada, subscriptions vary from $15.75 to $20/month – shipping included – depending upon how long you sign up for. And the really good news is that subscriptions are available not only in Canada but also in the US (same price), the UK (OK: same price in pounds as in dollars, but UK folks are used to that…), and worldwide ($32/month).

And if you are looking not for stocking-stuffers but for a more substantial one-off Christmas present, you are also in luck. The Natural Beauty Box is selling a December Deluxe Beauty Sac stuffed with at least five full-sized products and five samples.

The cost for this is $49.99 (inc. shipping). I just ordered one for my niece: fingers crossed. My only gripe is that there appears to be no ability to include a gift message when you place the order (or did I miss it?).

Another gifting option, of course, is to be more generous than me and instead of splitting the boxes, give the one you love their own subscription. Voilà, the gift that keeps on giving.

Glass plates: Another great alternative to plastic

If I have learnt anything this week, it is that I am getting old. My youngest made her way to full-day school for the first time and tomorrow is my birthday (before you ask, I am very ancient). But what surprised me most was that when a friend asked for suggestions on baby shower gifts, I had no ready answers. Have I really moved that far beyond the baby years?

Shortly after giving her a lame, holding response, I realized what I should have recommended: Brinware plates.

I wish these had been available when my kids were in the early stages of eating food. Back then I struggled to avoid plastics and melamine. It was tough to part with those hard plastic plates that seem to do so well in the dishwasher, but when I learnt that the full name of melamine was melamine fomaldehyde and that cats, dogs and infants were suffering from melamine poisoning it became easier.

The challenge lay in finding alternatives. Many ceramic bowls and plates have come to a sad end on the hard stones of my kitchen floor.

I didn’t know it at the time, but what I needed was a tempered glass plate with a non-slip silicone `sleeve’. Thankfully the folks at Brinware have provided us with just that option and made it pretty, to boot. The glass in the plates is not only tough, but etched with cute designs from owls (my favourite) to frogs, pandas and butterflies. And the sleeves, which can be removed for washing, come in some of my top colours: orange and green (I am hoping that purple will come soon).

Since my kids are now older, I have been using the plates without the sleeves. That frees the sleeves to be employed as useful all-purpose small toy displays and even frisbees, at a pinch. Meanwhile, the plates – which are gently curved to keep the food in the right place – wash well in the dishwasher, though without rinse-aid (which I seldom use these days) the glass does get a bit blotchy, as you might expect.

Brinware plates cost about $10 each and can be purchased on line or from various US retailers. The sole Canadian supplier is Jess’ Crunchy Store, a great little on-line business out of Kitchener, Ontario. If you act fast, Jess currently has the plates on sale at 20% off: you get two for C$17.59 (shipping and taxes extra).

If you want to reach the free shipping threshold of $79 at Jess’ store, you might also want to try the silicone placemats (also from Brinware, but I have not tried them) or the lip balm that I recommended in a recent post.

So there you have it, Alessandra, a great baby shower gift suggestion: sorry it is late.

Hours of fun for the whole family

What I love about summer is having more time: for friends, for feasting and for family games.

The family game thing is tough, though: some love them, some hate them. Personally I am in the former camp but my husband is usually a reluctant participant. Not so with our new family favourite, Pucket.

We discovered Pucket in the UK this summer. It is a wooden board game that originates in France and has recently been reintroduced in the UK by a charming fellow (a supreme Pucket master) called Dave.

To win the game you have to sling all 8 of your pucks (akin to backgammon pieces) through a small opening in a barrier in the centre of the Pucket board, with a catapulting rubber band. The challenge is that your opponent will be aiming at the same hole at the same time from the other side, leading to frequent clashes (which bear names such as cardinal’s revenge and neptune’s kiss in Pucket lore).

If it sounds confusing, I assure you it is not. Try watching this youtube video of the masters at work.

Pucket’s beauty lies in its simplicity and universal appeal. In a matter of seconds anyone from a pre-schooler to a game-on granny can get going. And while each individual game lasts only a matter of minutes, Pucket is addictive (you always think you can do better) so a whole afternoon can be whiled away with serial Pucket challenges.

So, I hear you ask, what makes Pucket an eco product (that works)? The answer is a bit sketchy because, on the negative side, the boards come from India which means they consume a good deal of transportation fuel. Dave and his partner Ben are upfront about this and have chosen to respond to this issue by favouring sea transportation over air freight. They also offset their shipping emissions.

On the plus side, the boards are handmade by artisans and the company uses only fair trade suppliers (externally verified). They are doing their best to ensure that the wood that is used is sustainably sourced. And the boards should last a long, long time (assuming no destructive player rage).

Pucket is available at a number of shops in the UK and on line for delivery worldwide through the website at a cost of £40 (about $60). Delivery in the UK costs £7. Delivery to North America is a relative bargain at only £14.50 (about $23), giving you an all-in north American price of about $85 which could be worse, given the fun you will have.

And the best news is that for a limited time (until the end of 2012) ecoproductsthatwork readers can get a discount of £3.50 with the code MFPAFD, just click here to get started.

Green toys: Natural cosmetic kits

As the mother of four young girls, I am constantly battling dollar-store lip-gloss – hidden in party loot bags – and fluorescent bath products laden with chemical nasties.

As the girls get older, I have no doubt it will prove harder for the eco-warrior in me to maintain the upper hand. But I am doing OK thus far.

One of my big allies in this battle is an award-winning Canadian company, Kiss Naturals, that sells kid-friendly make-your-own cosmetics kits.

The kits save my children from following in their mother’s footsteps and learning the hard way that if you squeeze rose petals and place them in a jar with pretty much any other liquid or cream, the whole thing fairly quickly goes rotten, sludgy and stinky. No amount of pretty calligraphy on the homemade cosmetics label can counter this inevitability.

There are several kit options. So far, in our household, we have tried the lip-gloss, lip balm and bath fizzie kits. All have worked very well, though my connoisseur middle daughter tells me she likes the lip balm kit the best. The price range is $17-$25 depending on the kit.

Instructions are simple (six year olds might need help, but ten year olds don’t) and I like the fact that there is enough material in each package to make several items: this is a gift that keeps on giving (in the best sense).

All the ingredients are demonstrably natural (so lava lip-gloss consists of two types of base oil, glycerine and natural colours/flavours). Packaging for the kits themselves is minimal (and recyclable) but the folks at Kiss Naturals suggest you repurpose and make it into a memory box after.

The products that result look quite professional (so, for example, proper roll-on dispensers are provided for the lip-gloss). Even fashion-forward kids are satisfied. Last but not least, several bulk and refill items are available on the Kiss Naturals website (which also has an informative FAQ section).

This famiy-run company is based in Quebec and all the kits are assembled there. They are sold quite widely in Canada and the US and by (prices are a bit higher in the UK). For a full list of stockists – including my favourite Ottawa option, Bloom Artisansee here. You can also order on line direct from Kiss Naturals (prices are the same as in shops but shipping is extra).

I wholeheartedly recommend these kits as gifts. Unlike some of the craft sets that come into my household, everything we have tried has been actively used and appreciated.

And the good news is that some of you have an opportunity to try a kit for free. When I contacted Kiss Naturals to ask for some photos for this review, Marie kindly offered a giveaway for my readers.

(This will be the first time I have done such a giveaway, though they are relatively common on other blog sites.)

I have six kits to give away. If you are based in the US or Canada and would like to try one, email me your name, address and choice of kit (see the website). What do you have to do in return? Two things.

The first is to help me with my site. By that I mean encourage your friends to subscribe to my feed (tell me who you have signed up in your email) or send me some product review suggestions: which eco products do you find really work? The second is to like the Kiss Naturals Facebook page.

On May 31st, I will pick the top six most helpful people and Marie will send them a kit of their choice. Hooray!

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