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Last year, Roxana Condor was trying in vain to figure out where a new Ikea play kitchen for her three-year-old—complete with a set of mini pots and pans and pint-sized felt veggies—would fit in her semi-detached Toronto house when she realized her home had been completely consumed with toys.
Collections of Lego, Thomas the Train, Duplo and Mega Bloks had expanded, in just over a decade of parenthood, into an unruly, plastic mash-up that now seemed beyond containment. Every room of the house was studded with plastic toys and craft supplies. Her children, ages 13, six and three, owned superheroes, Pokémon cards, Beyblades, markers that sparkled, markers that smelled and much, much more.
Condor blamed herself for much of the glut. She grew up in post-communist Romania and had very few toys as a kid.
“We literally had nothing,” she recalls of her childhood. “I watched TV and wanted the Barbies and the van and all the toys, shoes and accessories.” So, when she had her own children, she was determined to give them as much as she could.
There’s a multitude of things that lead to families being overloaded with kids’ stuff. New toys are easy to come by in our society—birthday parties, holidays and even good behaviour often warrant presents from the toy store. There is also what Condor calls “the dollar store trap.” “You take a trip to the dollar store; you buy a bunch of crap they play with for 10 minutes,” she says. Usually, we have good intentions.
“We often buy something to show someone we love them,” says Nikki Martyn, program head of early childhood studies at the University of Guelph-Humber in Toronto. “It feels like the more you have, the more you’re loved. This is a societal issue.” There’s also the fact that parents are busy, while at the same time, kids are spending more time inside and fewer hours outside keeping themselves occupied with neighbourhood friends. “For me, it was about trying to fill the kids’ time with things when I found myself too tired, too overwhelmed or too overstretched to spend quality time with them,” says Condor.
The desire for our kids to have more than we did growing up (and for grandparents to provide their grandchildren with everything their hearts desire) also fuels a never-ending cycle of new toys. “I needed them to have one of everything,” Condor adds. “Being able to provide this buffet of things was really giving me pleasure.”
Having a house chock full of toys is not doing our kids—or us—any favours, though. In fact, an increasing number of parents and experts have come to believe that we’d all be better off with a whole lot less.
Amelie Lacroix realized her kids were overwhelmed by the quantity of playthings in her house after trying—and failing—to entice her kids, ages four and two, to play independently so she and her husband could get work done around their Oakville house. “We had taken the approach of just buying more and more toys, hoping to find something they would get more interested in,” she says. “They had tons of toys in three different playrooms in the house. But they weren’t really playing with any of them.”
While her husband believed the kids needed more of the “right” toys, Lacroix had a hunch that a purge might turn out to be more productive. Enlisting her kids as helpers, Lacroix spread their giant mass of toys out in one room and got to work separating out the ones that were no longer age-appropriate, along with others her kids were ready to part ways with. “We ended up cleaning out more than half of what they had,” she says. Now, with bins that weren’t overflowing, the kids were better able to choose a toy and focus on it. Lacroix says they play consistently with two or three items and often engage with them independently, which means Mom and Dad can finally get that housework done. Based on this success, Lacroix says, the family is considering paring down their toy collection even further.
There’s evidence to back up this less-is-more approach. In a recent study of 36 toddlers, ages 18 to 30 months, at the University of Toledo in Ohio, researchers invited children into a playroom lab on two occasions. On the first visit, the room was equipped with just four toys. On the second visit, the room had 16 items. While the toddlers physically touched more toys during their visit to the second, fuller playroom, it was the first playroom that better engaged them. There, they played twice as long with each item—and played with items in more ways.
It turns out, the leaner offering of toys required them to be more creative and exploratory and had more cognitive-development benefit, according to the study, which was published in the journal Infant Behaviour and Development.
“Developmentally, young kids can’t make choices between 20 or even 10 different things,” says Martyn. That means when your child walks into an overstuffed playroom, they can be paralyzed by options (it’s no different than that glazed-over feeling some of us get at the grocery store when confronted with growing shelves of milk alternatives).
“With toys, we think that more is better. But really, it is just overwhelming,” Martyn says. “A quality toy or experience is better than just more.”
It’s not just kids who suffer when there are too many toys—it’s a lot of work for parents to manage all that stuff. “I would spend time organizing and reorganizing the toys, trying to figure out the best way to get the kids to play. But the minute you clean them up, they take them all out again,” Condor says. “And then I was constantly screaming at them to clean up their toys.”
The stress that comes with having shelves and bins full of toys—and the burden of where to store them, where to donate them and how to find the time to do that—is another reason to reduce your personal inventory. “If you start to get that sense of heaviness as a birthday or Christmas is coming, it is important to honour that,” says Ashley Miller, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the BC Children’s Hospital in Vancouver. She suggests using your own need to declutter as a teaching opportunity for your kids. “What do you most want them to learn? Do you want them to learn about generosity and being able to give things? Moderation? Environmentalism? There’s lots of different options.”
At Condor’s house, decluttering meant finding out about the impact of consumerism on the environment. She began teaching her kids about the limits of recycling and showing them videos of plastic garbage that ends up in the ocean.
So does all of this mean you (and everyone else in your child’s life) should stop buying your kid toys altogether? Not necessarily. But you should be more thoughtful about it. Miller suggests choosing simple “open-ended” toys—dolls, trains or small cars—that require kids to be creative and to use their imagination.
“When you get a toy that does everything for you, you quickly lose interest because there is no room for you in that play,” she says. Having access to toys that require kids to make decisions is important for their development and building resilience, Miller says.
“It’s very healthy for kids to play on their own and to be in charge of that world.”
Lacroix says her children tend to play more and longer with items that lend themselves to imaginary play. “If you give them little cars, they’ll play with them all around the house. But if you give them a track, they quickly get bored of seeing the car go around and around in circles,” she says.
Don’t be fooled by your kid’s initial excitement at anything that has to be pried out of shiny plastic packaging—and don’t be afraid to say no to the latest craze and bypass the infuriating toys at eye level in almost any store these days. “Being able to say no to a child is a very important skill and it helps the child to learn about limits,” Miller says.
To help reduce the influx of toys, Miller suggests asking gift-givers to consider experiences—trips to children’s theatre or even an inexpensive park outing—as birthday and holiday gifts.
Then, to streamline the toys you have, include your kids in the process of donating unused toys—which is what Lacroix did when she took a stand against her three playrooms. “That ended up being a nice activity in and of itself,” she says. “The kids were quite excited to know we were giving the toys to other children.”
Not all kids will respond as happily, though. Miller says it’s normal for kids to begrudge giving items away. But that isn’t a reason to give up on the task. “The process of teaching a child about giving and donating can be hard for both of you. But acting generously creates generosity,” she says.
For the toys you decide to keep, it’s a good idea to have them organized in a way that makes them accessible to your child. In the Lacroix house, the toys that remained were corralled into one room with a new organization system. The big bins of mixed toys were replaced with small labelled containers: one for cars, one for dolls and so on. Lacroix also made sure both of her kids could reach all of the toys.
If you have storage space, but don’t want your kid to be overwhelmed by everything being available all at once, Miller recommends storing some toys and rotating them in and out of play.
After the Ikea kitchen revelation, Condor started donating toys that her kids no longer played with to community spaces and daycares where multiple children could enjoy them (buh-bye, Mega Bloks, Thomas, train tracks and more). She’s also letting her three-year-old play with her two older brothers’ toys rather than buying her new things. And she began to apply a new mindfulness to purchase decisions.
“Before I buy something, I assess the toy in terms of its longevity—how long do I think it will last? How much are they going to use it?”
When it comes to birthday parties, invites now include a polite request not to purchase new toys and guests are given the option of donating to a charity website and contributing to a group gift for the kid.
With less stuff crowding the house, everyone is happier, including Condor, who is convinced their lives are actually more meaningful with fewer toys. Knowing that has brought a new lustre to her own childhood memories of playing outside, climbing trees and making up games in the snow.
This article was originally published online in December 2019.