A big welcome to this week's featured sponsor, Nest European Toys + Home! Nest is a Canadian company that stocks all sorts of handmade toys, as well as other goodies for the home. The stuff for the kiddos has all the charm you would expect out of Santa's workshop, and there are plenty of tidbits for the grown-ups too!. (This mama loves these lamps, for example.) Lisa, co-owner of Nest, recently answered these questions from me.
Me: Tell us how and why you got started with Nest.
Lisa: This isn't maybe the kind of answer you're expecting, but it's our story. We'd both spent a lot of time in Germanic countries growing up: working, studying, visiting family. We moved back to Canada, and settled in Ottawa where I worked in a wind energy consultancy for a year and a bit. After working on computers all my life, and even some time with programming languages, I had to throw in the towel to repetitive strain from the long days with intensive keyboarding and mousing. After taking some time to heal and re-think things, and with a personal experience with the RSI, I started to think about the little neighbourhood shops in Germany that sold assistive mobility aids and gear for exercise for elderly people (and people dealing with RSI or in need or ergonomic equipment).
The stores there are outstanding in their selection - it's not like what we typically see here: there you have a lot oriented towards staying fit and physiotherapy, as well as for making daily tasks accessible, with aesthetically pleasing and more ergonomic selection. So my idea initially was that I thought it would be great to open a store like this here, importing so many of the things made in Germany.
Eventually, I realized that while I liked the idea for an ergonomic shop, what maybe had more of a calling for me at the time and place that I was in my life, was the model of the European toy store... wooden toys, aesthetically pleasing, the toys from my own childhood and the ones that I had seen during my visits to shops there for my new nephew while we'd recently been living in Germany.
I always had a strong bent towards sustainability, so I started to really get my head into different suppliers and materials used. What were the toy industry standards, and who was going above and beyond those standards, in terms of safety and quality?
When we talk about eco-friendliness, we need to consider that a certain amount of energy goes into manufacturing anything, and to justify that energy, the product should have a good lifetime. If it's a computer or piece of technology that will soon be obsolete, it should be recyclable. If it's a toy, well, why not make it sustainable and heirloom to last for generations? And why not source from companies that are using some of the incredible energy-saving measures that are more common in Germany, such as combined heat and power generation (the waste heat from electricity generation goes towards heating water/space)?
And everything should be biodegradable within a few thousand years. Plastics lighten the load on the world's mining resources and are practical in certain applications, but the global production of plastics is now NUTS. It's very short-sighted. We produce plastic for items we use for mere seconds to a few months, and then what of it? There is no real end of the road for plastics. After recycling and re-using, then eventually we can bury it or burn it, and neither is reasonable for the volume that we're producing globally now for their end of life. What I really started to envision was a store with not just toys, but also things for the home that would give people options to live more sustainably without sacrificing a little luxury and beautiful things.
Internationally, toy safety standards are varying by country, but many companies refer to the European EN71 toy standard relating to water-based paints and other safety standards. However, for us, this standard was not enough to just meet. We wanted companies that exceeded it. Many of the toys from companies that say they meet EN71 still have a strong off-gassing smell, or they just don't seem like something that I would want my children to put in their mouths. Environmental regulations in general may not be as strongly held or enforced everywhere, and I was wary of lead in paint and quality control for the raw materials sourced.
Also, I wanted to deal with companies where I had some confidence about where the wood came from, and if it was sourced sustainably, and their general ethos and commitment to ecology. I wanted to see genuine and thorough commitment. For me, it's not enough to say, at least we are doing this, and it's a start. Every little bit counts. That may be true, but why not go all the way when the stakes are so high, in terms of ecology these days?
We decided to source product made in Europe, mostly Germany, but also Austria, Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, etc., We had to have a focus, and we'd stick with what we knew best, having spent a lot of time in Germany. The Germans have a long tradition of toymaking, and we find the quality superb. For example, the LIKEaBIKE runner balance bike is the original balance bike, made in Germany. Nowadays, you can find many cheaper knock-offs, and in the store the consumer might not see the difference, but we hear from many parents that the quality is just not the same. After the knock-off bike falls to the ground a few times, it is dented and damaged, whereas the LIKEaBIKE can stay in a family for 3 or more children's use, and still be passed on. They're incredibly durable and well-made. The only thing that may wear out after years is the handlebars, but LIKEaBIKE has replacements. More importantly, with the cheaper made bikes, when a child is going down a slight hill and picking up speed, the front wheel will wobble and become unstable, and the child can easily fall. The LIKEaBIKE is so stable and sturdy and reliable. It's not cheap, but for parents with more than one child who'll be using it, it's a great investment. And people who own one, usually go on to special order their child's first pedal bike, the LIKEtoBIKE.
Well, in the beginning, John-Paul told me that he would help me with 'manly things' like moving boxes, but I knew he was hooked one Christmas when I came in the shop, and he told me straight away quite seriously, "Trains. I have been researching wooden trains." He left his day job, and we're both in it together now. Which is great, as we really complement each other. I'm detail-oriented, and he's big picture. Both vitally important. We're busier than we've ever been. The webshop keeps us working long days, for sure. But it also means we can work around our family, which makes us feel very fortunate indeed.
Me: Many of your toys are sourced from small businesses and at-home moms and dads--how do you discover new products to carry in your shop?
Lisa: We're always on the look-out. Sometimes people find us. We've spent a lot of time in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland 'researching' :), and often this led us to not just medium or large companies, but companies where it is a husband and wife team (like the clacking crocodile, or wooden cube puzzles). For our North American suppliers, I like to look on etsy, for one. So many people doing such delightful things.
Me: One of the features I love about your website is that it has the option of searching by different age groups--newborns, toddlers, 3-6 years, and so on, all the way up to grown-ups. Can you tell us what your favorite product or toy is for each age group?
Lisa: Oh, wow, great question!
Premature: Ruskovilla silkwool baby shirt & silk knit bonnet. They are incredibly soft and stretchy. A very fine silkwool blend that stretches to go on and off so easily. Warming and breathable over a range of temperatures. If it's cold, the long soft wool nappy pants too. Our son wasn't premature, but he wore only Ruskovilla silkwoolies for the first 6 months of his life! We hadn't planned it; they just went and off so gently, and were so soft on him, that we couldn't be bothered with struggling with sleeves and snaps of other clothing. Plus, the lanolin in wool has the property of reacting with oxygen in the air to literally self-clean. We found we didn't have to wash them often. We really liked having this undyed entirely natural fabric next to his skin for his first 6 months.
Newborn: Weleda calendula oil, and hemp/cotton wipes. The calendula oil was perfect for our early days. We didn't want to bathe our son when he was first born. His skin just seemed so delicate, I didn't even want to put him in water and strip his natural oils yet. Even with washing though, meconium stuck to their skin doesn't come off so easily with soap and water. But with the calendula oil, it was possible to gently remove it. We started using it at diaper changes to remove poo and this was really perfect, but then we also noticed that when we applied some oil to his bum after the diaper change, then the next poo wouldn't stick to his skin, and subsequent diaper changes were so much easier. I had a bottle for diaper changes, and then another for his cradle cap or to quickly and easily slather on him after baths when he was older. It absorbs in very quickly. I felt comfortable using it on him knowing that it is from Weleda of Germany, with the same product ingredients for decades, recommended by German midwives. Weleda grows so many of their ingredients biodynamically on their own farms. And our little hemp/cotton wipes are very soft and thin, really perfect for wetting and using to wipe down their gums after feeding to keep their budding teeth clean.
Infant: JP says the cherry rattle, I say the rainbow tumbler. Well, they both have such a soft, gentle clackety-clack. We always try and be mindful of toys that are easy on the ears! And they're both so well-made and smoothly, finely sanded. For both of these, I have no worries about choking hazards. This is important to me to have baby toys that if they were to come apart at a glue line or somehow else, no parts would be a choking or swallowing hazard. (For the tumbler, the balls are too big to be a hazard). The tumbler is really one of the most perfect toys for an infant. My only caveat is not to start them on this one too young, as young ones can be so strong, they could pick it up at 4 or 5 months probably, but they might whack themselves in the head with it, before they get more arm control. The cherry rattle on the other hand is ideal beginning around 4 or 5 months. And I would add Ruskovilla at all ages!
Toddler: For when they start to walk, pull toys. It is just so precious to see them pulling their little crocodile or doggie across the room with them. We love the crocodile pull toy and get along little doggie.
3-5 years: Xyloba! The marble run and xylophone in one. They're so beautifully made, and the quality of the sound is exquisite. It could be a little early to start them on it, but you can always begin with just a few pieces and one xylophone. I always suggest this kind of scaffolding to people for items with many parts, just begin with a few blocks out on the table or floor, and let them gain skills.
6 years+: Now this is even harder to choose just one... the handheld rhythm track is so cool. I love any of our toys that encourage balance. You have to really find the strength and balance right from your stomach muscles. It's such a whole body-mind experience. Likewise the labyrinth balance board. I have to add the 3-d tangram, Egyptian hieroglyphic blocks (they come with an awesome book for learning and practicing hieroglyphs), and the cable car kits. The cable car kits are a lot of fun! Inside and outside the house. I like how they're something that gets children and adults absorbed in working together.
Pre-teen: Diabolo! It takes some time, but kids at this age are up for a challenge that takes more time to learn now. Likewise with the boomerangs. They both take a little while to learn, and the adult can be there to help with finding youtube videos for the diabolo to help encourage them, and reading the manual with them at first, reminding them of their form while they've got the sticks and diabolo in hand. Also, I have a soft spot for the magnetic kit with my physics background. Our science kits rock in that they're not like so many that you see: my criticism of them - they're "out-of-the-box", do this, then do this, then do this, now you're done, here's your hunk of plastic, throw it out eventually. They've got suggestions to guide you, but they also give you the basis for so much exploration and discovery beyond that. Real learning takes place, and real absorption.
Teens: The diabolo and boomerangs again, but also the leather soccerball. It's the kind that they'll have for decades. As an adult, it could sit on a holder in their office somewhere, you know? It's so beautifully made, it just calls you to play. It wants to be handled. Also, some planning could be necessary to provide a supportive structure to go through the book together, but "What Colour is your Parachute for Teens" is a great book to spin-off reflection and conversation with your teen.
Grown-ups: The sand pendulum. It's a little meditation to watch it. It really pulls you in and settles the mind. Likewise for the optical illusion spinning tops. For reading material, I highly recommend every parent read: "Raising Financially Fit Kids".
Me: Your storefront looks so pretty that I feel like I want to make the trip to Ottawa to visit. What is a typical day like for you there?
Lisa: We actually closed our storefront in May! It was difficult to do, as we got to know so many of our customers, see the kids growing up, get that personal contact and feedback in the shop. But with our young family, we realized that we had to make this choice now as these young years are so precious. Now we run the webshop, and we're open 24/7 to the world. Our biggest surprises have been how personal it still is with many of our customers online. We get to know them and a little about their families, and it still feels like 'a shop' to us. Also, one thing that's really lovely, many of our local customers still call or email to ask if they can come and pick up their orders in person. So, even though we don't have the retail storefront, we still feel like 'shopowners' and know so many of our customers by name. We talk and help with suggestions and product info, or custom orders.
Me: Anything new coming up for Nest that you're particularly excited about?
Lisa: Oh yes oh yes oh yes. We always have our wishlist! Some great new castles and dollhouses, more science, exploration, and math kits that lend themselves to learning through play. More arts & crafts materials and hobby kits. More beautiful and functional things for the home: wooden mills and flakers, feather dusters, and some more gorgeous wooden furniture. We're going to be bursting for Christmas this year. Our busiest time of year, for certain!
Lisa is generously giving away a set of language blocks from Nest. The winner can choose a set of classic wooden blocks in any of the languages Nest stocks, with options including English, Chinese, Norwegian, Egyptian hieroglyph....really, I think they have a block set for everyone! To win, go visit Nest and come back and leave a comment about your favorite toy or home treat. The winner will be chosen on Wednesday.