Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Can Too Many Toys Do More Harm Than Good?

As parents, it is natural for us to want our children to have everything they need.  Beyond the basics of love, food, clothing, and shelter, we also try to provide our kids with plenty of books, toys, and games.  But can there be too much of a good thing?

Even when my eldest child was an infant, I was amazed at how many toys, games, puzzles, and books were accumulating in our home.  Well-meaning gift givers generously gave us more and more, and soon I was wondering where to put it all. We bought toy organizers with neat cubbyholes, under-bed storage boxes, and closet shelving units, but soon even all of those were full.

Even with all of these organizing tools, I started to feel overwhelmed with the sheer quantity of kid-stuff accumulating in our home.  I began to regularly purge toys from our home, sometimes with the help of the kids and sometimes when no one was around.  There were so many toys that most of the time, no one even noticed when some were removed. Every birthday and Christmas, another large influx of toys, books, and games would flood our house.

Were our kids any happier for having so many things to occupy their time?

No, the kids weren't happier for having more and more things to play with.  I noticed that our kids had no respect for their belongings.  When they were too rough on their toys and broke them, there were always more to play with. Our children often fought over toys.

We spent an inordinate amount of time cleaning up the toys that had been gotten out, played with for only a few minutes, and discarded as they went to look for something else more stimulating. My kids seemed to spend more time trying to set up their many toys than actually playing with them. How can a child enjoy playing with 50 matchbox cars at once, when it takes many minutes just to get them all lined up perfectly?

What is wrong with having so many toys?

In the brilliant book, Simplicity Parenting, Kim Payne writes,
"Too much stuff leads to too many choices... As adults... we love the notion of choice. And we love to give our children choices - like gifts - about everything they see, want, or do... We think that these choices help them on the road to becoming who they are...
I strongly believe the opposite is true. All of these choices are distractions from the natural - and exponential - growth of early childhood... Children need time to become themselves - through play and social interaction. If you overwhelm a child with stuff - with choices and pseudochoices - before they are ready, they will only know one emotional gesture: 'More!'
...To a child, a mountain of toys... means 'I can choose this toy, or that, or this one way down here, or that: They are all mine! But there are so many that none of them have value. I must want something else!' ...
The number of toys your child sees, and has access to, should be dramatically reduced... As you decrease the quantity of your children's toys and clutter, you increase their attention and their capacity for deep play.... A smaller, more manageable quantity of toys invites deeper play and engagement. An avalanche of toys invites emotional disconnect and a sense of overwhelm.
The overall purpose of toys in our home is to stimulate creativity, not to overwhelm our kids with too many options.  I realized that there were really too many toys in our home and this led to:
  • our children not appreciating or taking care of what they have,
  • our home being cluttered, and  
  • our children being robbed of their imaginations when they felt they had to have specific toys in order to pretend (for instance, not being able to "cook" without a play stove).

How have I reduced the quantity of toys? 

Over the last few months since I read Simplicity Parenting, I've made more of a concerted effort to reduce the number of toys and games in our home.  I've reduced the number of toys coming into our home by requesting "no presents please" for our birthday celebrations.  While my husband has looked on with a doubtful eye, and most often while my kids were not watching, I've systematically dug through all of our toys to get rid of the excess. 

Broken toys have been discarded, and many toys in good condition have been donated to a local shelter.  Some toys have been put into storage bins in the closet, such as the majority of my daughter's stuffed animals. Those toys get traded out periodically. We now have roughly half the amount of toys we had a year ago.

How have our kids reacted to having less toys?

By and large, the kids have not even noticed that there are less toys in our home.  With less toys, there are more opportunities for the kids to use their imaginations instead of relying on structured toys that must be played with in a specific ways. My kids often now come up with their own play scenarios that keep them busy for 30-60 minutes, such as making a store where they go shopping with their baby dolls.

With fewer toys, there is less mess in the house to deal with.  The kids seem to bicker less, and their attention spans for playing with individual toys have increased.  Since we are now rotating some toys in-and-out of storage bins in the closet, my kids seem to really engage with the toys for longer periods.  Toys that were mostly neglected when they were always available now receive lots of focus during the time they are out of the closet.

Interesting observations from a vacation with almost no toys

We recently went on vacation for a week to a nearby small town in the mountains. For a week, the only toys my kids had to play with were a handful of matchbox cars, a few pony figurines, crayons with a few coloring pages, and two card games (Uno and Mille Bornes). There were also no electronic distractions such as TV, videos, or internet. Rather than being bored by the lack of selection, my kids thrived with such a small amount of toys!

One striking observation for me was that there was almost no bickering the entire week we were on vacation.  The small amount of bickering that did occur was related to the few toys we had brought with us. Because there were less toys to play with, my kids naturally gravitated to the outdoors.  They watched the birds outside.  They played with rocks, sticks, lizards, tarantulas, and dirt. They were happy and I never heard any complaints about the lack of toys. 

This experience has inspired me to reduce the number of toys in our home even further. I am once again going to dig through the toys we have and send some on to new homes.  I would especially like to reduce the number of toys now being stored in our closets.

Do you feel overwhelmed with too many toys? What strategies have you used to reduce the number of toys in your home?


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Rebecca said...

I love that your children wanted to be outside in nature more since they had limited toys to play with and no videos etc. to attract them to the inside.

JennK said...

Completely agree with all the above. My experience has thus far been the same as yours..

Unknown said...

I agree. When my child has less toys to play with, she has to use her imagination more. Thank you for this reminder!

Jess said...

Just found your blog recently while searching for some new recipes (we follow a mostly primal diet, with some WAPF mixed in). Love it so far, and after this post I'll be a regular :) Simplicity Parenting is my #1 parenting book. I always give it as a gift when I'm invited to a baby shower (which is a bit ironic in itself...). Even though I pared down the toys substantially after reading this book for the first time, I still find I periodically need to go through them and pare down again. I'll often do this at night after my 3-year-old son has gone to bed, and he always seems to have such a nice, peaceful playtime the following morning. Just like you said - he doesn't need to sort through and organize his toys first, he can just start playing! If I'm going to do a larger sort, my son helps, and I'm always amazed at how easily he decides to put something in storage or even to throw things away.

Sarah Smith said...

Welcome, Jess! We had a whole-family toy cleanout last night, and I was so happy that we filled two big boxes that can be taken to the local shelter. Both of my kids were willing to make a few small sacrifices for the "kids who have no toys".

Christi said...

As always I love your blog posts! My daughter just turned two and we have always focused on quality of toy not quantity and things that lead to imaginative play vs electronic toys. I also rotate toys, I will put the toys we are not playing with in an ikea bookshelf, in bins and rarely does she go in them. She gravitates towards our open shelfs that have a small quantity of toys. We live with my in-laws and keep a tight rein on what toys she has in the house...otherwise it would be toy explosion :)I will have to read the book.

Anonymous said...

I agree...toys have become a major issue in our home. I have a mother-in-law that will not stop buying things for my child. Every week she gives her "surprises" that equal out to almost one toy a day. Since last year she must have received a toy box full or more of just toys, not including Christmas items. Its confusing to me so I can imagine how it is for my child. It has become ridiculous and is effecting my child's personality. All she wants now is more toys when you walk in a store. What use to be one small thing from me, if she behaved in the store, which she use to appreciate, she no longer does, she wants more than one thing.My daughter isn't appreciative of most things she gets or doesn't know the meaning of "thank you" anymore. The toy giving has become out of control more recently this past year when my mother-in-law had a bad scare in the hospital. Now this has become a touchy subject. She is a shopaholic and I do not want it to rub off on my five year old. It already has begun and I am at my wits end. She is now sneaking her toys and candy because she knows how I feel. She thinks this is no big deal. I think this is effecting my child's social behavior in school now. Please, I would love some advice. My husband is in the middle and it has put a lot of strain on our marriage.

Sarah Smith said...

I am in a similar situation. I've found it helps to:
-Periodically clean out the toys in the house and get rid of lots. Sometimes it works best to do this when the kids are otherwise occupied, such as napping, watching a video, playing outside, etc.
-Teach my kids that there is such a thing as too much, and encourage them to want to share their extra toys with kids-in-need, such as the kids at the local homeless shelter. They are amazed to learn that there are kids with no toys, and will usually contribute some to the pile.
-Try to re-direct the person who is buying the frequent gifts. They are just trying to show love to the grand-kids through buying things, so suggesting some alternative things that can be bought may be a good start. For instance, clothes, books, one-time-use craft projects, gift-certificate to the zoo, etc.
-If possible, try to have a detailed conversation with the frequent-buyer to fully explain your reasoning for wanting less toys around. If conversation won't work and emotions run too high, perhaps a letter where you can really think about what you want to say and say it in a nice way.
Good luck!

Anonymous said...

I cannot agree like everyone else. You are forcing them to become regular 9-5 workers by applying all of this control on them from an early age. And yes I find being a 9-5 worker a very bad thing in this society. I'm not sure how many people have noticed this, but so to say 'spoiled kids' tend to think different from the masses and THIS is what kids should learn. When you give them their own world, where they control, that will make them leaders in the future. They will not care what anyone else says or thinks, they will do as they prefer and their word will always stay on top. Don't take away any of their dreams. Teach them early on, that if they believe they can get something and want something they will get it. This will help them push their limits. Don't let their lives go to waste by following the boring 'school, job, marriage, kids, death' path. It is horrible. It might be safe but it is worthless. The Universe is 14 billion years old and everyone only gets about a hundred years if they are lucky enough. After that you will NEVER exist again as does no one. Don't count on afterlife. I suggest you to teach your kids to live each day to their fullest, as it were their last. Because you never know what happens. Stay hungry, stay foolish.

juleZ said...

Wow, exactly how I've been feeling. Not everyone shares my idea but I'm determined I'm going to get clutter free!!! The biggest challenge is living in a small space, which makes out more important to keep it cluttet free. I see all the same characteristics with my 2 boys and I've blamed it on too much. I want them to be able to sit with one toy/game for more than 30 seconds. Thank you for sharing your story, glad I'm not alone!

Anonymous said...

This is so freeing and wonderful to hear. I pray the Lord will give me the strength and time to implement this wonderful plan. Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for the article. I will show this to my wife and hopefully, we wont buy too many toys.

Unknown said...

Kids always want more toys but their parents should get them creative toys because, children play and study together.. thanks for sharig beautiful blog whit us.
Buy Kids Toys

Unknown said...

LOVE this article ! I have barely any toys for my son too. It was mostly bcos I am not into organizing & didnt want to deal with the mess of organizing too many toys. I intuitively always felt like it might not necessarily be a good thing especially once I introduced play dough to my son & he kept asking for 'MORE' !!!! Everyday it was 'more' ! then for a few weeks NO playdough. We came up with the rule "one & done" - this worked great to keep him focussed & happy.

Anonymous said...

It is sad you do not see your own blaring contradictions. Simply by removing an afterlife, (in my case heaven) you are placing children in a box. You are not allowing them to make for themselves the most important decision of their lives. Do you believe with all your heart that Jesus truthfully was who he said he was? The research screams yes. (I recommend reading "Case for Christ" written by Strobel) Become educated, chase your dreams, and seek the truth. It matters in the end.

Sherip Shervashidze said...

Fully agree with the content of the article, children do not need tons of toys at all, occupying space and wasting resources