Tag Archives: consumerism

How Much is Enough? How Much is Too Much?

Although there are plenty of families in America who struggle with the basic necessities of life like putting food on the table, many other parents have access to a huge array of options. Toys to buy, media to watch, vacations to go on, and activities to enroll in. The job of marketers is to convince us these things are ‘necessities’ and things “you can’t afford to pass up”. Sometimes they play to our fears of the future: “Playing with this toy will help your child get into college.” Sometimes they play on parental guilt: “Help your kid have a great Christmas – show them that they’re loved.” Sometimes they sell joy: “You work so hard – you deserve to have FUN!”

And here’s the thing. Lots of those toys and media are fun! Lots of fun! And going on vacations as a family can lead to fabulous connecting moments and can be part of a child’s memories of belonging in a loving, happy family. And lots of those classes and activities really will help build your child’s knowledge and skills, and help them reach their potential.

So how do we decide which options to take? What is enough? What is too much? Every family has to make their own decisions, based on their child’s needs and their own goals and values.

What do kids need, in order to learn?

Often parents choose toys and classes as enrichment tools to help their child learn and grow. When we go back to the basics of brain development, we know that children learn through: novelty and repetition, guided play and free play, and down time to process it all.

New toys and media offer novelty – lots of interesting stimuli to take in. But if kids are continually bombarded with new things, and not given the chance to play with the same thing over and over, they don’t gain the benefit of repetition, which is mastery. If a child only has access to a few toys, he may complain of boredom, but he gets really creative with those toys!

Classes, camps, activities, and sports teams are all guided play and guided learning. They help your child gain new knowledge and learn new skills. But kids also benefit from free play – just having free time with friends or siblings to goof off and play any game they can think up. And they need rest and quiet solitude to absorb everything and make their own connections.

Kim John Payne, author of Simplicity Parenting, talks about 4 keys to raising “happier, calmer, more secure kids”: the environment, rhythm and schedule, and unplugging. Let’s look at each.

Environment: De-cluttering to make space for creativity.

If there are too many toys, a child doesn’t focus on any of them. They flit from one to the next, never really settling down to play. Their little brains are overstimulated by all the choices. If you keep giving them more toys to “get them engaged” they will get even more distracted.

It is better to focus on having a small number of really excellent toys. Here are some things to think about and look for when choosing what toys to have in your home.

  • Think about toys that build diverse skills: if I had only a few toys, I’d want one in each of these areas: big motor skills (balls, bikes, tumbling mats), small motor skills (puzzles, shape sorters, craft supplies), imaginary play (dress-up clothes, toy kitchen), music toys, art supplies, a set of magnetic letters, some dice for math skills, something to nurture (doll, stuffed animal), and toys for playing outdoors (bucket and shovel).
  • Choose open-ended toys that can be played with in lots of ways and passive toys where the child has to be creative to use them. Things such as blocks, cardboard boxes and tape, puppets, measuring cups and containers. Minimize toys that can only be played with in one way, and active toys where you press the button and it does all the work.
  • Elizabeth Pantley recommends these criteria for choosing toys: long-term play value, durable, washable, solid simplicity, challenge (will teach but won’t frustrate), appropriate for your child’s current developmental abilities, stimulates creativity, engaging, versatile, fits your family values, novelty (different than what you already have), and fun.
  • Spend less time in stores, less time looking at catalogs and shopping online. When you shop, it’s easy to fall in love with toys and end up bringing more home than you need.
  • Try setting up a “toy rotation” system. Make bins of toys, where each bin has about ten toys in it. Keep one bin out to play with and store all the others in the garage or a closet. Whenever the whim strikes (once a week?), swap out the old bin for a new bin.
  • Let your child get bored of their toys…

Think of boredom as a ‘gift.’ Boredom is often the precursor to creativity. Think of a bridge between ‘doing nothing’ and deep creative play. The bridge is almost always paved with (the frustration of) boredom. “I’m bored!” Now *that* is when something interesting usually happens.  – Kim John Payne

Rhythm: Increase predictability by introducing rhythmic moments for connection and calm.

Read my handout on rituals and my post on daily routines. And here are some thoughts on making birthday parties more manageable.

Scheduling: Give kids the gift of unstructured time

You might have the option to enroll your child in anything from art classes to aikido, from piano lessons to pottery, ballet to baseball, soccer to Spanish, gymnastics to geo-caching, wilderness survival to web design. There are so many cool and exciting things to learn! (And, you can’t help but think… it’ll help someday when they fill out college applications…)

Plus there’s the things you have to do – doctor’s appointments, picking up the siblings from their activities, grocery shopping. And more things you want to do – movies, playdates, dinner out, outings to the playground, sporting events, farmer’s markets, hikes in the woods, vacations to the beach…

All of these are cool. And all of them are learning experiences. Just choose your activities wisely. And make sure you remember to make space in the schedule for down-time, and quiet contemplation, and spontaneous, creative play. And for self-care for them and for you: sleep, calm meals around a table, snuggling up with a book.

Unstructured time gives children the opportunity to explore their inner and outer worlds…  they learn to engage with themselves and the world, to imagine and invent and create.  Unstructured time also challenges children to explore their own passions. If we keep them busy with lessons and structured activity, or they “fill” their time with screen entertainment, they never learn to respond to the stirrings of their own hearts, which might lead them to study the bugs on the sidewalk, build a fort in the back yard, make a monster from clay, write a short story or song, or organize the neighborhood kids into making a movie.  These calls from our heart are what lead us to the passions that make life meaningful, and they are available to us… when we are given free rein to explore and pursue where our interests lead us.” (Dr. Laura Markham)

Unplugging: Reduce the influence of adult concerns, media and consumerism on children to increase resilience, social and emotional intelligence.

When allowing your child to use screens (TV, computers, smartphones, tablets, etc.) make conscious choices about the content and about how much, when, and where to use them.

Spend more time outdoors, relaxing, playing, and discovering together.

Allow for quality family time:

Families can benefit by doing things whose only purpose is the joy of spending time together, like playing Monopoly, shooting hoops (with no coaching), drawing pictures, or taking a walk. Being unproductive together tells the child that the parent likes the kid, as he or she is.  (Source)

Learn more:

How Many Toys is Enough?


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.

We do want to think about a diversity of experiences for our children. This is the best way to stimulate brain development.

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.)

Rotating Toys

“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.

More Resources

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.

photo credit: r0Kk via photopin cc, geirt.com via photopin