Natural, imaginative wood or metal toys are beautiful, last a lot longer than plastic toys, and avoid the health concerns that plastic toys have. However they can be very expensive. One way I have found that saves money and avoids plastic toys is to either improvise using stuff I already have on hand or buy old toys.
For instance my children’s play kitchen used to be an old twin bed headboard. We simply added an upper and lower shelf, some ‘cupboard’ doors, and drilled a hole for their ‘sink’, a stainless steel pet food bowl. We used no-VOC Colorhouse paint, and we let our daughters help paint it.
For their oven or refrigerator, I purchased a vintage bread box. They love using the turn latch, and also sticking their magnets on their fridge!
Old metal trucks, beaten up and well loved, are cheap and can be found in most thrift stores or antique shops. When buying vintage toys, I use the 3M lead check swabs to make sure the paint used does not contain lead. I have not found any old toys with lead yet, however I usually stick to toys that are 70’s or later and I’ve heard there is less chance for lead with these later toys.
Finally, my children love to make their own toys as well. Bits of scrap wood, or paper or fabric become baby blankets or airplanes, or doll clothes. Books make great blocks for building houses. Old cooking magazines are great sources of play food.