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The Globe and Mail

Old-school toys hold new appeal for parents

In an age of virtual pets and playgrounds, the toys in the Alomes household are decidedly more turn of the century than turn of the millennium. Four-year-old Arc plays with wooden cranes while his baby sister, Arla, teethes on a ring made of maple and cherry wood.

So yesterday was just another day in their Vancouver home, while across the continent, panicked parents scrambled to determine whether their children were playing with one of the 83 popular plastic Fisher-Price toys recalled because they were covered with lead paint.

"Every time we hear about one of these recalls, we think, that's why we do what we do," said Bridgitte Alomes, who founded Natural Pod, a business selling toys of wood, cloth and other natural materials, with her husband a year ago.

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The recall late Wednesday of the 967,000 individual toys manufactured in China and sold in North America since May was the second biggest this year involving toys. Twenty of the 83 items were sold in Canada, including a Dora the Explorer backpack and the Sesame Street Sing 'N Giggle Tool Bench.

The move came six weeks after RC2 Corp., maker of the popular Thomas the Tank Engine, pulled 1.5 million of its Thomas & Friends toys off shelves upon discovering that paint used to decorate them by their Chinese manufacturer contained lead.

Uncertainty about quality controls and the ability of government consumer watchdogs to keep unsafe products off store shelves have driven some parents to forgo flashy toys and embrace playthings from a bygone era.

"It's kind of like where we would run wild in the wilderness we can play wild with things from nature," said Brenda Isherwood, a Vancouver mother whose boys play with construction blocks, animals and vehicles made of wood.

"I want to make sure chemicals are not leeching into his system," Ms. Isherwood said of her one-year-old son. "We think as consumers that our products are safe, and then guess what, there's a recall."

While the recalls and the mass distribution of poisonous pet food have shaken consumer faith in Chinese-made goods, there is little reason to think parents are shunning mass-marketed plastic toys made overseas.

"Parents like their kids to play with both types of toys," said Adrienne Citrin of the Toy Industry Association. "A lot of these [traditional toys]have never really gone away. They continue to be on store shelves and children love to play with them. Retro is back, but it's not really a movement."

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Admirers of traditional toys, who run the gamut from the Birkenstock set to the style-savvy, say the playthings' simplicity encourages children to use their imagination in ways not offered by mass-marketed toys. The items, while sleek and minimalist by design, can come with a hefty price tag. Wooden bicycles at Natural Pod run up to $295, and a wooden fire engine costs $135. But parents say the peace of mind in knowing their children are playing with quality products is worth the expense.

"Imagination is left intact when you don't have the details of plastic toys," said Annette Wintjes, who has been producing cloth dolls out of her Makings store in Maple, Ont., for 23 years. "They can imagine anything with wooden blocks and cloth dolls."

Mattel, which owns Fisher-Price, estimates it caught two-thirds of the 967,000 toys before they hit store shelves, but figures about 300,000 were sold in the United States. It is not clear how many were sold in Canada, but 42,000 toys were bound for the country.

"It is very disappointing for us," said David Allmark, general manager of Fisher-Price. "Hopefully, mom will realize that we have acted extremely quickly to expedite the return of this merchandise. She should feel comforted that we have processes to establish where there are issues."

Safety standards for toys are considered among the most rigid for any product in Canada and the United States. But it is left to manufacturers, importers and retailers to ensure toys meet legal limits set in both countries.

Health Canada spokeswoman Renée Bergeron said the agency is monitoring the recall of the 20 types of toys sold here and that no illnesses related to them have surfaced. She said the agency routinely tests products on the market, but conceded that chemical hazards cannot often be spotted with the naked eye.

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Julie Vallese, spokeswoman for the U.S. , which first announced the recall, said toys are the most heavily regulated products in the United States.

"I don't think we're at the point where 'Made in China' is a warning label," she said, "but parents should be ever more vigilant of their children when they play."

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