Two decades ago, a German project called, “Der Spielzeugfreie Kindergarten” (the nursery without toys) set out to reveal what would happen if they took toys away from kindergartens. The brave nursery schools who agreed to participate removed all toys from their classrooms for three months.
One of the nurseries participating in the project was the Friedrich-Engels-Bogen nursery in Munich. Gisela Marti, a teacher at the nursery, 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.
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LESS IS MORE WHEN IT COMES TO TOYS
The belief that less is more when it comes to children’s toys is shared by many.
Kathy Sylva, professor of educational psychology at Oxford University, concluded from her study with 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, paediatric 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, by providing fewer toys, we provide more time for play.
As Kim John Payne reiterates, “As you decrease the quantity of your child’s toys and clutter, you increase their attention and their capacity for deep play.”
THERE IS MORE AT STAKE THAN A FEW TOO MANY TOYS
Of course, toys are not inherently bad. My son loves playing with his toys and so do I.
But, like most things in our capitalist culture our desire for them has been exploited by those who stand to profit. Our capitalist culture buys into the notion that if a little is good, more must be better. And nobody is more susceptible to the cunning tactics of toy manufacturers and marketers than children.
With zero impulse control and a complete lack of understanding of the devastating effects of unrestrained consumption, children make easy prey. As parents, we have a responsibility to ensure that we protect our kids from the grips of materialism that is plaguing our society. Our collective obsession with “stuff” is destroying our planet, polluting our oceans and cluttering our homes, while draining our bank accounts and delivering no lasting happiness in the process.
MANAGING EXPECTATIONS OF FAMILY AND FRIENDS
One of the most common concerns I hear from parents when making the decision to minimize their children’s toys isn’t fear over how they’ll manage their child’s reaction, but rather, how they’ll cope with the backlash from family and friends.
I understand the dilemma; as parents we’re caught in the middle as we attempt to protect our kids while managing the emotions and expectations of those who love them. Love being the operative word.
Gift giving is one of the five love languages. The theory is that each of us prefer to give and receive love in different ways, namely words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time and physical touch. Most of us experience love through all of these languages but one or two tend to be dominant.
While giving and receiving gifts can be a wonderful expression of love, I wonder if our consumer driven society is predisposing this one love language to monopolize our relationships.
I wish I had a magic bullet, a one line catch phrase or a Jedi mind trick that could painlessly prevent well-meaning grandparents arriving at Christmas weighed down with copious amounts of gifts for excited, but soon-to-be-overwhelmed grandchildren. But, all families are different and all relationships are unique.
The one thing I do know, is that we share a common human need to express love and feel connection. An interesting headline caught my attention recently: The Opposite of Addiction is Connection. Is our addiction to things borne out of our lack of connection with people?
Rather than focussing on preventing gift giving, perhaps we need to focus on deepening relationships. Because when people give gifts it’s a two way street; it fulfills a need for the gift giver just as much as it does for those who receive them.
Perhaps we can focus celebrations like birthdays and Christmas on creating unique family traditions, on dedicating ourselves to hygge and giving experiences rather than things. Perhaps can show our love for our families in other ways and spend quality one on one time together free of distractions.
A MINIMALIST APPROACH TO TOYS
The great irony is that, as a modern parent, it is more difficult to have fewer toys in our homes than more. But, as Joshua Becker, of Becoming Minimalist, says, “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.”
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.
Because when we say no to more toys, we say yes to more important life lessons. Our children 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.
Let’s teach our children to rely on people, on family and on relationships for connection, so that they don’t fall into the unfulfilling trap of addiction. So, this is my rallying cry to recognize the need to end the overwhelm of toys…and parents are the only ones who can do it.
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