By Katie O'Reilly
There's a fine art to setting a mindful example while also providing some good old-fashioned fun.
That's why Sierra scoured toy stores, tech startups, kids' outfitters and adventure companies for unique gifts that are gentle on the planet, but that also provide developing minds with truly exciting fodder. Behold some of 2017's most ethically conscious—and awesome—toys, games, gear and more.
We're all about encouraging kids to unplug, but at the same time, we can't ignore the fact that ours is an increasingly tech-dependent world. So, it doesn't hurt to instill the fundamentals of coding, engineering and STEM-centric problem-solving at a young age. The DIY Piper Computer Kit ($299) teaches kids aged 7-12 to assemble their own computers, and then code and program them. How? Through step-by-step instructions provided within the 3D worlds of popular computer games including Minecraft and Raspberry Pi. (So no, yours will not be the dreaded "boring" educational gift). Because the Piper set gives kids an active role in the technology they use (as opposed to one of passive consumption), teachers have been utilizing it more in school settings. What's more, Apple Co-Founder Steve Wozniak endorses it.
The best way to get kids jazzed about nature, science and gardening? Growing a plant of one's own, of course. When his fifth-grade teacher gave him some seeds, Mark Chipkin grew his first plant—one that very memorably responded to his touch by dancing "like an animal." The experience got Chipkin so excited about the wonders of nature that he says it helped launch his career as a science teacher. He also went on to create TickleMe Plant greenhouse kits ($20), which contain everything kids need (soil, seeds, six pots and simple instructions) to grow indoor plants that are particularly interactive. Once they sprout, they close their leaves and lower their branches when tickled (or, as Sierra editors can attest, even merely touched). The kit also comes with "10 Fun Activities" for the TickleMe plant, as well as packaging (made from recycled plastic) that acts as a mini-greenhouse. For an added eco-bonus, the soil is made from discarded coconut shells.
Nurture budding chefs' and foodies' interests with a cool gift that gives back: The Kitenge Child Apron ($20) from KAZI, a company that features goods crafted by African artisans, and whose profits help provide sustainable income to East Africa's rural poor. Normally wrapped around the heads or bodies of women in African villages, the multi-colored patterns used to create the Kitenge aprons (which are also available in adult sizes) showcase unique style, and carry special significance.
Foster an appreciation for the art of wood-carving at a young age with the gift of the Morakniv Rookie ($20), created by Swedish knife-makers who've been making professional carving tools since 1891. With a rounded safety tip and finger guard to prevent slipping—along with a small, spindle-shaped handle for small hands—this knife is specially designed for children.
Made from sustainably-harvested birch wood and non-toxic water-based inks, Modern Moose natural wood clocks ($49) teach kids the analog-era art of telling time. Available in the images of moose, sharks, foxes, suns and more, these old-school pendulum wall clocks also make for fun nursery and playroom decor.
For a classic toy that may well instill a planet-saving ethos, look no further than the Tonka Mighty Builders Rugged Recycle Truck Play Set ($30). The 25-set package comes with batteries, a 4-piece take-apart-and-build recycling truck, a driver figure, safety cones, a trash bin and 17 durable "Tonka Kid@Work" building blocks so kids aged 1+ can mix and match parts with other Tonka playsets to create their own vehicles. We vote this gift "Most Likely to Spark Some Formative Conversations About the Importance of Recycling."
Keep little feet comfortable year-round with 100 percent boiled wool, which is naturally moisture-wicking, temperature-regulating and breathable. Giesswein is an Austrian houseshoe-maker known for hand-crafted wool products that use zero synthetic glues, are colored with vegetable dyes, and dipped in natural latex. And they have a playful line of adorable (and machine-washable) children's slippers created in the images of dragons, reindeer, polar bears and many other adorable creatures. What's more, their non-skid soles are safe for wee ones, as is the secure fit. This dirt- and water-resistant gift, suitable for indoor and outdoor play, is ideal for preschoolers required to wear shoes indoors, and available in babies', toddlers and children's sizes up to 10. Our favorite is the Klein Leine model ($51), which turns kids' feet into doggies busy chewing bones.
The image of a shiny new bicycle beneath a garlanded tree has become iconic of the year-end gifting bonanza. Now, you can keep the trikes and little bikes of yesteryear out of landfills, thanks to Yuba Bikes, which offers the first kids' cargo bicycle built to grow with its rider—from 15 months to age six. The Flip Flop Balance Bike ($120) lets you start tots out on a low-frame setting. As they grow, you can flip the frame over to a higher setting (and even flip it back down for a younger sibling). Kids can load up the cargo hold with their adventure accoutrements of choice—be they rocks, toys or snacks. Best of all, the Flip Flop comes in a rainbow of solid colors and, for animal lovers, Giraffe and Cow prints, too.
Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA Magazine.
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By Bob Jacobs
Hanako, a female Asian elephant, lived in a tiny concrete enclosure at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo for more than 60 years, often in chains, with no stimulation. In the wild, elephants live in herds, with close family ties. Hanako was solitary for the last decade of her life.
Hanako, an Asian elephant kept at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo; and Kiska, an orca that lives at Marineland Canada. One image depicts Kiska's damaged teeth. Elephants in Japan (left image), Ontario Captive Animal Watch (right image), CC BY-ND
Affecting Health and Altering Behavior<p>It is easy to observe the overall health and psychological consequences of life in captivity for these animals. Many captive elephants suffer from arthritis, obesity or skin problems. Both <a href="https://doi.org/10.11609/JoTT.o2620.1826-36" target="_blank">elephants</a> and orcas often have severe dental problems. Captive orcas are plagued by <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank">pneumonia, kidney disease, gastrointestinal illnesses and infections</a>.</p><p>Many animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.09.010" target="_blank">try to cope</a> with captivity by adopting abnormal behaviors. Some develop "<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2017.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stereotypies</a>," which are repetitive, purposeless habits such as constantly bobbing their heads, swaying incessantly or chewing on the bars of their cages. Others, especially big cats, pace their enclosures. Elephants rub or break their tusks.</p>
Changing Brain Structure<p>Neuroscientific research indicates that living in an impoverished, stressful captive environment <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">physically damages the brain</a>. These changes have been documented in many <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.903270108" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">species</a>, including rodents, rabbits, cats and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">humans</a>.</p><p>Although researchers have directly studied some animal brains, most of what we know comes from observing animal behavior, analyzing stress hormone levels in the blood and applying knowledge gained from a half-century of neuroscience research. Laboratory research also suggests that mammals in a zoo or aquarium have compromised brain function.</p>
This illustration shows differences in the brain's cerebral cortex in animals held in impoverished (captive) and enriched (natural) environments. Impoverishment results in thinning of the cortex, a decreased blood supply, less support for neurons and decreased connectivity among neurons. Arnold B. Scheibel, CC BY-ND<p>Subsisting in confined, barren quarters that lack intellectual stimulation or appropriate social contact seems to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1590/S0001-37652001000200006" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">thin the cerebral cortex</a> – the part of the brain involved in voluntary movement and higher cognitive function, including memory, planning and decision-making.</p><p>There are other consequences. Capillaries shrink, depriving the brain of the oxygen-rich blood it needs to survive. Neurons become smaller, and their dendrites – the branches that form connections with other neurons – become less complex, impairing communication within the brain. As a result, the cortical neurons in captive animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.901230110" target="_blank">process information less efficiently</a> than those living in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/dev.420020208" target="_blank">enriched, more natural environments</a>.</p>
An actual cortical neuron in a wild African elephant living in its natural habitat compared with a hypothesized cortical neuron from a captive elephant. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Brain health is also affected by living in small quarters that <a href="https://doi.org/10.3233/BPL-160040" target="_blank">don't allow for needed exercise</a>. Physical activity increases the flow of blood to the brain, which requires large amounts of oxygen. Exercise increases the production of new connections and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw2622" target="_blank">enhances cognitive abilities</a>.</p><p>In their native habits these animals must move to survive, covering great distances to forage or find a mate. Elephants typically travel anywhere from <a href="https://www.elephantsforafrica.org/elephant-facts/#:%7E:text=How%20far%20do%20elephants%20walk,km%20on%20a%20daily%20basis." target="_blank">15 to 120 miles per day</a>. In a zoo, they average <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0150331" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">three miles daily</a>, often walking back and forth in small enclosures. One free orca studied in Canada swam <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-010-0958-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">up to 156 miles a day</a>; meanwhile, an average orca tank is about 10,000 times smaller than its <a href="https://www.cascadiaresearch.org/projects/killer-whales/using-dtags-study-acoustics-and-behavior-southern" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">natural home range</a>.</p>
Disrupting Brain Chemistry and Killing Cells<p>Living in enclosures that restrict or prevent normal behavior creates chronic frustration and boredom. In the wild, an animal's stress-response system helps it escape from danger. But captivity traps animals with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1215502109" target="_blank">almost no control</a> over their environment.</p><p>These situations foster <a href="https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000033" target="_blank">learned helplessness</a>, negatively impacting the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/6391686" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">hippocampus</a>, which handles memory functions, and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.02.024" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">amygdala</a>, which processes emotions. Prolonged stress <a href="https://doi.org/10.3109/10253899609001092" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elevates stress hormones</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.10-09-02897.1990" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">damages or even kills neurons</a> in both brain regions. It also disrupts the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2005.03.021" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">delicate balance of serotonin</a>, a neurotransmitter that stabilizes mood, among other functions.</p><p>In humans, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">deprivation</a> can trigger <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">psychiatric issues</a>, including depression, anxiety, <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mood disorders</a> or <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1073858409333072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">post-traumatic stress disorder</a>. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00429-010-0288-3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Elephants</a>, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0050139" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">orcas</a> and other animals with large brains are likely to react in similar ways to life in a severely stressful environment.</p>
Damaged Wiring<p>Captivity can damage the brain's complex circuitry, including the basal ganglia. This group of neurons communicates with the cerebral cortex along two networks: a direct pathway that enhances movement and behavior, and an indirect pathway that inhibits them.</p><p>The repetitive, <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2014.05.057" target="_blank">stereotypic behaviors</a> that many animals adopt in captivity are caused by an imbalance of two neurotransmitters, dopamine and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2010.02.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">serotonin</a>. This impairs the indirect pathway's ability to modulate movement, a condition documented in species from chickens, cows, sheep and horses to primates and big cats.</p>
The cerebral cortex, hippocampus and amygdala are physically altered by captivity, along with brain circuitry that involves the basal ganglia. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Evolution has constructed animal brains to be exquisitely responsive to their environment. Those reactions can affect neural function by <a href="https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/311787/behave-by-robert-m-sapolsky/" target="_blank">turning different genes on or off</a>. Living in inappropriate or abusive circumstance alters biochemical processes: It disrupts the synthesis of proteins that build connections between brain cells and the neurotransmitters that facilitate communication among them.</p><p>There is strong evidence that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0577-11.2011" target="_blank">enrichment</a>, social contact and appropriate space in more natural habitats are <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-1090.2003.tb02071.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">necessary</a> for long-lived animals with large brains such as <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0152490" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elephants</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/13880292.2017.1309858" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cetaceans</a>. Better conditions <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5543669/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reduce disturbing sterotypical behaviors</a>, improve connections in the brain, and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/cdd.2009.193" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">trigger neurochemical changes</a> that enhance learning and memory.</p>