In other words, as weird as it may sound, you need to treat the tools kids use to compose or color the same way you'd treat the food they eat: with attention to the ingredients they're made from and the impact they're going to have on your kids' health.
That means looking for supplies free of lead-based pigments, synthetic fragrances, solvents like methyl alcohol and toluene, formaldehyde, and other nasty chemicals you'd never serve as part of a meal or snack. Here are links to responsible supplies that won't make your kids sick when they do take a bite or decide to paint a Picasso on their arm.
Pens – Pens cross the environmental line in two ways. Their ink usually contains chemicals that have no human health benefit; and they're usually made from throwaway plastic. In fact, a pen is one of those school supplies that subliminally teaches kids it's ok to waste, since we're so used to buying them in packs of 10 or 20 and tossing them into the trash even before they're completely used up.
Fortunately, DBA Pens have come to the rescue. The DBA 98 is 98% biodegradable, made in the USA using wind power, and filled with an ink made from water, nontoxic pigments, vegetable-based glycerin, and sodium benzoate, a food-grade preservative.
A decent alternative is a refillable pen, like the ones we sell in our Amazon store. While I can't vouch for the safety of the ink, at least a refillable reduces plastic waste. Plus, it's easy to find refillables at most office supply stores.
Pencils – Fortunately, most pencils kids use today are made of graphite, not the more dangerous "lead" that they're commonly described as. The most eco-friendly pencils are also made from recycled paper, wood, or cardboard. (NOTE: Some pencils are being made from recycled tires, but consumer reviews thus far indicate that they're not easy to sharpen or use.) Given the fact that a pencil can be used almost completely, and can be more easily recycled than plastic in some communities, it generates less waste than a pen or marker. If kids have an option, using a pencil is better than a pen. Using a reusable mechanical pencil, which replaces the "lead" but not the entire pencil, is a good option for older kids; there's no environmental benefit to using a throwaway mechanical pencil.
Crayons – I'm a big fan of crayons made from beeswax or soy, rather than the usual petroleum-based paraffin. The colors and texture are rich, and they pose no health or environmental threats to the kids who use them.
Markers – Look for markers whose low- or no-toxicity has been certified by the Art and Creative Materials Institute (ACMI) or the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM). Even then, give markers the "sniff" test. If you take off the cap and find the odor overwhelming, don't use the marker, and definitely don't give it to your child: chances are, it contains xylene, toluene or other chemicals that cause nausea, headaches and in some cases have been linked to cancer (why they're still allowed in any kind of marker or product is beyond me!). Choose water-soluble, no VOC markers if you can find them, or colored pencils as highlighters.
Are you a do-it-yourselfer? Give this "make your own fingerpaint" recipe a try (and let me know how you like it, ok?).
We've compiled links to these and other eco-friendly school supplies on our "Back to School" store on Amazon (NOTE: we earn a small commission on purchases here that help pay our research and writing costs.) Have we missed a safe product you love? Let us know.