In a new study by researchers at the University of Toledo, toddlers who were given fewer toys played more creatively and were more engaged in their play than those who had many toys available. Mums and dads, this might be the time to remove that chicken robot, mustache plushie, emoji bingo set, and Spider-Man drone from your Amazon shopping cart. I’m sorry.
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Researchers placed 36 children between the ages of 18 and 30 months in different open play sessions, one with four toys in the room and the other with 16 toys. The toys varied — some were battery-operated, some had wheels, and some were made to teach a concept such as shapes or counting. In the environments with four toys, kids engaged with the toys 108% longer, and played with them in a greater number of ways. Their play was deeper, more sophisticated, more imaginative. When kids were surrounded by lots of toys, they tended to move more frequently from thing to thing to thing.
Anecdotally, we’ve long known this happens, right? Parents who’ve moved to a new house and haven’t yet opened all their boxes are shocked when their kids play for hours with a random assortment of pots and pans, transforming them hats, drums and podiums. (“Maybe we should just get rid of that giant box marked ‘KIDS’ CRAP,’ eh?”) Caine Monroy probably would have never built an entire arcade out of cardboard at the age of 9 had he owned an arcade. I love watching my four-year-old daughter play delightedly with whatever she happens to find in the junk drawer (don’t judge). Plus, aren’t we all more focused when we’re sitting alone with just a journal and pen rather than in front of 62 open tabs?
No one is saying we should ban toys, but simplifying may do a lot of good. If you’re buying (or borrowing) toys, look for ones that are open-ended — blocks, dress-up accessories, little kitchen tools, playdough and toy cars. Put toys in rotation. Have a small, dedicated space for toys (and donate whatever doesn’t fit.) Give the gift of experiences rather than things. Destroy anything that keeps beeping or blinking or has evil strobe-light eyeballs.
You can do this. Don’t let the toys win.