The fewer the toys children have, the more they play

“Leave them. They’ll have some there. Let’s travel light,” said my husband, referring to our son’s set of buckets and spades.

Thirty-six hours, two plane trips, a ferry ride, two shuttles, and a taxi later, jet-lagged but beyond excited, we arrived at our island in the middle of the South Pacific.

I’d been dreaming of returning since my husband proposed here a decade ago; visualizing the joy of sharing this happy place with my then three-year-old son.

We wasted no time; dropping our bags in our room and heading straight to the beach for a dip in the ocean before heading to the dive shop to collect some snorkel gear.

They’ll have a set of buckets and spades, I thought. Nope.

So, we headed to the gift store. Nope.

The next day, we went to the local market. Buckets and spades? Nope.

Shoot. We messed up.

How was my son going to play all week? How were we going to entertain him? What kind of parents don’t bring toys to the beach?

I felt like a failure…only my son wasn’t bothered.

Without skipping a beat he started playing in the sand with shells. He used his snorkel to dig holes and build caves and castles and tunnels. He found sticks and drew dinosaurs. He gathered empty coconuts, filling them with sand and water to make mud. He played with hermit crabs, floated leaves in the waves and spotted fish from the shore.

A few days later, we found a set of buckets and spades. We decided not to buy it.

Our son was having too much fun, his imagination running wild. We felt as though we were witnessing his creativity expanding with each passing day.

They say that the fewer toys kids have, the more they play. It seems that they were right. So, let’s dig a little deeper to understand why that is.

Remove the toys and kids play more

Two decades ago, a German project called, “Der Spielzeugfreie Kindergarten” (the nursery without toys) wanted to see what would happen if they took toys away from kindergartens. All toys from participating classrooms were removed for three months.

One of the teachers, Gisela Marti, said: “In these three months we offer the children space and time to get to know themselves and because they are not being directed by teachers or toys, the children have to find new ways to master their day in their own individual way.”

The aim was to nourish self-confidence, imagination, creativity, problem-solving abilities and socialization.

Their days were deliberately unstructured to avoid children being rushed from one activity to the next. Instead, they were free to do what they wanted and how they wanted to do it.

A video of the children was taken each day. On the first day, the children appeared confused and bored as they peered apprehensively around their big empty classroom.

But, by the second day, the kids were playing with chairs and blankets, making dens by draping blankets over tables and weighing them down with shoes.

Soon they started running around the room, chatting and laughing excitedly. By the end of the third month, they were engaged in wildly imaginative play, able to concentrate better and communicate more effectively.

Stages of toy discovery: exploration versus play

Kathy Sylva, Professor of Educational Psychology at Oxford University, concluded after studying over 3000 children aged three to five that “when children have a large number of toys there seems to be a distraction element, and when children are distracted they do not learn or play well.” Her research shows that children with fewer toys whose parents spend more time reading, singing or playing with them surpass those from even more affluent backgrounds.

Dr John Richer, Pediatric Psychologist at John Radcliffe hospital in Oxford explains that when children receive a new toy they go through two stages: exploration followed by play.

During exploration mode, a child asks: “What does this toy do?”

And in play mode, a child asks: “What can I do with this toy?”.

It is during play mode that creativity, imagination, initiative, and adaptability thrive. When children are confronted by too many toys, they spend more time exploring and less time playing.

Ironically, it seems that by providing fewer toys, we provide more time for play.

The potential impact of too many toys

Claire Lerner, Psychotherapist and Director of Parenting Resources at Zero to Three specialize in early childhood development. Claire conducted a government-funded study into the potential impacts of excessive toys, reporting that children, “get overwhelmed and over-stimulated and cannot concentrate on any one thing long enough to learn from it so they just shut down. Too many toys mean they are not learning to play imaginatively either.”

Christopher Willard, Clinical Psychologist and Author of Child’s Mind, reminds us that repetition has a purpose; reading the same books, singing the same song, playing the same games. Repetition serves to cement learning while enhancing cognitive development. After all, play is the work of childhood.

“Play is the highest form of research.” Albert Einstein

On the flip side, fewer toys help children use and develop their imagination, lengthen attention span, promotes taking care of and valuing the toys they do have more while creating greater opportunities to explore nature. As a benefit to parents, fewer toys results in less clutter in our homes, helping us to feel more grounded, have more time to play with our kids and more patience to extend to our kids.

What type of toys are more likely to invite more play?

If our kids have fewer toys we want to make sure that the toys they do have provide the greatest play value. I’ll dive into this topic in more detail in an upcoming post, but in short, when assessing a toy, always be mindful that the play is in the child, not in the toy. If a toy lights up or makes noises, and all the child needs to do is press a button, that toy holds very little play value. These types of toys provide an immediate dopamine rush, make the child and the giver excited, but they are short-lived. On the flip side, toys like wooden blocks or magnatiles or silk scarves don’t dictate the play to the child –  they hold greater play value as the child is free to use their imagination for endless play possibilities.

“As you decrease the quantity of your child’s toys and clutter, you increase their attention and their capacity for deep play.” Kim John Payne

Another way to choose toys is to determine if they are OPEN or CLOSED toys. Closed toys are generally defined as those that serve one purpose, once they’re completed, they’re done. Whereas, open-ended toys can be used for many different purposes. For example, coloured blocks can be used to build a castle, a bridge or for counting, sorting or balancing. Open toys ignite a child’s imagination. Having said that, some closed toys can also be wonderful – like puzzles and shape sorters. We aim for a ratio of 75% open toys and 25% closed toys.

Let’s simplify our kids’ toys together

The great irony is that, as a modern parent, it feels as though it is more difficult to have fewer toys in our homes than more. Having fewer toys, just as reducing our kid’s schedules, screen time or simplifying their lives, takes an intentional approach in our “more must be better” society. It’s hard to swim against the tide of the mainstream, but the juice sure is worth the squeeze.

In our own home, our family is very much still on this journey. As our son grows older new challenges present themselves and I find myself constantly evolving and explaining why he can’t have everything he sees. But the more we reinforce our family values, the easier it seems to become.

“Minimalism is the intentional promotion of the things we most value and the removal of everything that distracts us from it. It is a life that forces intentionality.” Joshua Becker

When we say no to more toys, we say yes to more important life lessons. We give our children the opportunity to be able to learn to truly value what they have. And we communicate that they don’t need to look to external sources of materialism to bring them temporary happiness or reassurance.


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