Parents often complain about the overwhelming clutter of toys in their home, and yet they have a hard time letting go of the toys they have and/or they keep acquiring more toys.
Let’s look at ways to think about the toys that we take into our homes, which we decide to keep, and how to decide when it’s time to let go.
Toys as a cure for boredom?
I often hear:
“My daughter gets bored of any toy after just a few minutes, so I need to keep getting new toys to keep her busy.”
Kids learn what they are taught. And the more we reinforce it, the more ingrained the learning. If every time your baby fusses, you give her a new toy to entertain her, you’ve trained her that the way to happiness is more new toys. And you’ve trained her that your job is to keep her entertained at all times.
On the other hand, if your child complains about being bored, and you don’t “rescue” her by offering new entertainment, she will learn that she can entertain herself. I know that many of my kids’ most creative moments followed after they said “I’m bored!” I didn’t fix it for them by handing them new toys. Instead I left them to their own devices to figure out a new game or project. Suddenly, the “same old toys” took on new life.
For young children, like toddlers and preschoolers, they may not be able to invent a new game on their own, but you can offer “invitations to play.” You can put out old toys in new combinations, or allow them to play with various household objects. For example, they may not have played with the blocks in the living room or the toy horses in their bedroom for a long time. But if you put those toys on the kitchen table, suddenly they’re building a stable, and when they want a ramp, they grab a wooden ruler from the desk.
Children throughout history and across cultures have had a fabulous time playing with whatever materials were available to them. And the fewer the materials, the more creative they have to be. What’s the best all-time toy? The stick. (Check it out – it’s in the Toy Hall of Fame and in this list of the 5 best toys of all time, and here’s a great blog post on all the things a stick can become.)
Could less be more?
I have worked with many parents who said things like:
“My child never focuses. He flits around the room, from one thing to another. I keep getting new toys, hoping to find one he likes enough to play with it for longer.”
I recommend that they instead put away half the toys in the room and see what happens. Almost always, they find that the child slows down, calms down, and focuses more.
Having lots of toys in their environment can be very over-stimulating for children. Feeling surrounded by choices can create an internal pressure to play with everything, and stress over choosing which thing to play with next.
If we add in auditory clutter (such as background TV) or visual clutter (whether it’s piles of unfolded laundry or carefully curated artwork and decorative displays), it’s even harder to focus. “Experiments show children who play in rooms where a TV is broadcasting… spend less time with individual toys and shift their attention more quickly from one activity to another…” (Source) “…children in highly decorated classrooms were more distracted, spent more time off-task and demonstrated smaller learning gains than when the decorations were removed.” (Source)
Parents.com has a nice article on helping young children learn to focus. But an easy place to start can be having a calmer, more focused play space with a smaller number of quality toys, not a lot of décor, and some quiet time.
Can we learn to appreciate what we have?
“Their grandparents love to buy them things, and my sisters give me all their kids’ hand-me-downs, so there’s this never-ending flood of toys. I’m overwhelmed, but every time a relative comes over, my kids expect to get a toy.”
Another benefit of focusing less on acquiring more stuff can be more time to focus on gratitude for what you do have, especially if we make gratitude a conscious focus of our family life. (Find great tips for this on Hip Homeschool Moms and check out this post on Momastery titled “Give me gratitude or give me debt“, it’s about taking a moment to notice all the amazing things in our homes (running water!! a refrigerator with food in it!!) and worry less about all the things that magazines, catalogs, and advertisements tell us we need to be happy.
We’ve got a great little independent toy store in my home town. At least it looks great from the outside. But we’ve never been inside. My 3-year-old and I walk past it all the time on our way to the park, the farmer’s market, and the fountain that he likes to splash his hands in. I suspect that if we ever went in, then he would want all the toys in there, and would sob whenever we passed in the future. It’s easy to get captivated by consumer products – after all, that’s what makes our capitalist society run. But, he’s happy with the toys that we do have, and I’m grateful that we can walk to the park, the market, and the fountain – those are the memories of his childhood that I want.
If I decide we want new toys, then there’s always our Buy Nothing group to check with first. It’s a Facebook group where people freely give away anything they don’t need anymore. (Check their website to see if there’s one in your area!)
Some day, as your child gets older, they may notice that other kids have more toys than they do. This can result in some yelling and some tears and some “you’re so mean” moments. But, it also opens up an opportunity for discussions with your child about your family values, what you choose and why. It can also tie into financial literacy, and helping educate them about how to make consumer choices that work for them.
What about developmental stimulation?
“I worry that he’s not going to get all the stimulation he needs to reach his potential, so I buy all the stuff that’s supposed to help with brain development.”
One of the ways marketers convince us to buy their toys is by telling us a toy is “developmentally appropriate” or “stimulates language development” or “encourages creative thinking” or “will guarantee your kid will get into Harvard.”
I promise you… there does not exist “the one best toy that all kids need” in order to learn and grow. Our kids can, and do, learn from everything in their environment.
As we choose toys and activities, it helps to think about choosing toys that help with all the areas of development. I also think about the theory of multiple intelligences to ensure my children and my students have opportunities to develop them all. Look at the toys you own: Does your child have toys that stimulate gross motor development? small motor development? Pretend play? Artistic expression? Musical appreciation?
Here is a handout on choosing toys to develop multiple intelligences. And here’s my post on how this theory plays out in real life – in other words, what toys does my three year old own for each category, and is that working for us?
Also, I don’t worry about having in my home everything my child needs to develop. Think about your community resources: the library (ours check out videos, CD’s, stuffed toys, and puzzles – not just books), indoor playgrounds (our local parks departments all host them in their gyms on winter weekday mornings – they set out lots of ride-upons, balls, and other great toys for big motor play), other parks programs, zoos and pet stores, and children’s museums. (Check out this great article on why we need children’s museums.)
“I spent all this money on special toys for Christmas, and she still hasn’t really played with any of them. But I’m going to hang on to them for a little while longer to see if they catch her interest. But we’ve just got too many toys now!”
A friend of mine is in the process of selling her house. So, she packed up most of her toddler’s toys to keep the clutter in the house at a minimum in case an agent wanted to show the house. She made 5 plastic tubs full of toys to store in the garage. She gets out one tub at a time, that has a small collection of toys in it. She says her toddler will happily play with that one small collection of toys for days on end without complaining or getting bored. And even better, she’s even started to put away all her own toys in the bin at the end of each play session. Every once in a while, they put those toys away and bring in a new bin. If there’s any one toy from bin #1 that’s really popular at the moment, then they keep it out, and swap one of the bin #2 toys into bin #1 to take its place.
My friend says that in the new house, she plans to continue this method, because it’s working so well for them.
Also check out: Elizabeth Pantley’s advice on buying toys for babies and toddlers. These articles on Why Fewer Toys will Benefit Your Kids, and Seven Ways to Build Your Child’s Attention Span (which include minimal “entertainment” and more open-ended toys). Dr. Toy is a helpful website that reviews toys.