For Chris Franke, building meaningful toys that withstand the passage of time has become a passion. He and his wife, Helen, who make their home in Fayetteville with sons Oliver, almost 4, and Elliott, 1 ½, have several handmade items that have been passed from generation to generation, including rocking chairs, toy trucks and train sets.
“Toys from our parents’ and grandparents’ generations were made from metal or wood and built to last,” he says. “Their value has also increased, if the price tag on that ‘vintage’ toy at the flea market is any indication.”
And the one thing they all have in common? No plastic. “Wooden toys are timeless, durable and foster the imagination,” he says. “Wooden toys don’t require batteries and make sound effects, creating a quiet environment where a child’s imagination can run wild, undistracted by the chaos of the world around us.”
Just over a year ago, Chris and Helen followed this dream and launched Olive Branch, a custom woodwork company that creates wooden toys, games and gifts. Named for Oliver, it originated from the first toy workbench Chris built for him.
“It sits right next to our first play kitchen,” Chris says of the workbench, “and there is not a day gone by where they don’t play with each. Oliver is currently helping me redesign their play kitchen, requesting all sorts of add-ons and upgrades.”
The kid’s play kitchen with hutch and matching refrigerator are the best-selling items in their shop. Other possibilities include a kid’s play cutting board and wooden toolbox and games such as tic-tac-toe and ring toss.
“We try to create truly customized, one-of-a-kind products for each customer,” Chris says. That includes 25 paint color choices and options such as microwaves, dishwashers and even a farmhouse-style sink.
To kids, of course, the toys are just fun. But whether or not they realize it, they are also learning.
“To a child, play time is work,” Chris explains, “and the best thing a parent can do is bring consciousness into daily activities that foster a healthy imagination and a safe environment to do so. Child-sized versions of household items like a play kitchen or play workbench allow children to imitate adults and build life skills and improve hand-eye coordination.”
Chris, who still holds a full-time day job as an environmental scientist with a large consulting firm, describes the eco-friendly factor behind Olive Branch as the company’s driving force. “We do everything in our capability to use the most responsible, and sustainably-sourced materials,” he says. “I firmly believe in fostering relationships with local small businesses, and knowing the ‘cradle-to-grave’ supply chain of everything I create.”
To that end, he says, they buy all lumber locally through Schaller Hardwood Lumber Co., in Springdale, Ark., which is Forest Stewardship CouncilTM certified.
“You have to fully understand where each component of the toy originated, how it arrived in your home, and what will happen to it at the end of its life,” Chris explains.
“‘Made in China’ means the raw materials were likely sourced from other countries, manufactured into a toy in China, shipped on a 30+ day voyage across the ocean, transported via freight to a distribution center, and on to your friendly neighborhood big box store where you purchase it before bringing it home. The environmental footprint from this process is staggering. While you may donate or sell it, giving it a life for one more child, chances are it won’t be around for generations to come. The plastic toys of today will almost certainly break or be tossed within a few years, creating more environmental problems in the landfill.”
Although more attention is being paid to well-made consumer products that last, wooden toys are also generally safer, not only for the environment, but also for the kids playing with them.
“People tend to think that toys are safe, and free of toxins, because a government agency regulates them,” Chris explains. “Most toys are made from plastic, or some wood-like material such as particle board, or trade product like DurafoamTM – described as durable and realistic-looking ‘wood’. Each of these materials is an engineered product that requires workers in protective suits and respirators to manufacture using all sorts of toxic chemicals for bonding agents, dyes and preservatives. It’s often cheaper to produce a toy synthetically than use natural ingredients.”
While there are companies, like Green Toys, which manufacture 100 percent post-consumer recycled toys here in the United States, Chris says sustainable and eco-friendly toys like theirs are still a niche market.
The company hopes to launch an online shop this year, but for now, products may be ordered from Olive Branch’s Etsy shop.
Chris says, “While I would love a much larger shop space, our garage is more than sufficient for the time being, and I love having the luxury of staying connected to my kids during the day.”