A Rallying Cry To End The Overwhelm of Toys


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.


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.”


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.


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.


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.

  • June 20, 2017

    This post makes me soooo happy! I wish every parent and grandparent in the world would read it.

    Just recently a friend was lamenting that she couldn’t afford to get a certain toy she wanted to keep at her house for her grandchildren. I tried to gently but firmly convince her that she had enough toys for them, that indeed I had had many happy days and sleepovers at my Grandma’s house with NO toys. My grandmother and I had things to do and to talk about and I never felt the lack of toys.

    Parents are always talking about how impossible it is to keep the house tidy with all the toys. It’s simple. Don’t allow them to bring out more than one toy at a time. It’s ridiculous to let them drag out dozens of things and not even play with them.
    Jean | DelightfulRepast.com recently posted…Coronation Chicken Tea Sandwiches

    • July 20, 2017
      Tracy Gillett

      Thank you so much Jean and thank you for a wonderful comment. So true and reminded me of staying at my grandparents house – some of my best memories and not many of them are about toys but of spending quality time together and making our own fun.

      And you’re so right about the mess we create for ourselves. Fewer toys ironically always seems to lead to more play. xx

  • June 24, 2017
    Liz Lane

    Absolutely love this article! As a parent of a 2 1/2 year old I do my best to have this type of thinking. Something that challenges me however is while I am limiting his toys I tend to find myself thinking- are the toys we have quality and do they help promote this type of thinking as well as his growth? I’d love an article or suggestions on great specific toys to have in a minimalist home! Great read, thanks!

  • June 25, 2017

    This is my current struggle. With two young children, a simple trip to the store becomes a battle against crass marketing to kids. The checkout line may be the worst. It’s the last grab.

    Just one little toy, one candy bar or bag of colored sugar before you go.

    The marketing is despicable and it’s only getting worse.

    • July 20, 2017
      Tracy Gillett

      I totally agree and understand Jeffrey – I’m at the point where I don’t want to take my son to the store anymore. Marketers know how to prey on a child’s lack of impulse control and everything is put down low for them to see it. It’s so hard. I did see in Australia they are planning to stop advertising to children on television which is a progressive step forward…here’s hoping things improve.

  • June 29, 2017

    I LOVE that line: “Is our addiction to things borne out of our lack of connection with people?” Totally true. I see it in people. “Things” are a comfort but they quickly become a cold comfort and new things must be acquired to feel that fleeting bit of satisfaction. Excellent article.

    • July 06, 2017
      Tracy Gillett

      So happy it resonated with you Theresa and couldn’t agree more 🙂 xx

  • July 03, 2017

    A few years ago, I went on a similar journey, not based on research, but following my instincts and my kids’ lead. I posted this on my blog. Its pretty fun. http://abbysblog2014.blogspot.com/2015/01/i-took-all-their-toys-and-they-like-it.html?m=1

    • July 20, 2017
      Tracy Gillett

      Thanks so much for sharing Abigail!

  • July 06, 2017

    Totally agree with limiting toys I didn’t have a baby shower for this reason (we still got a ridiculous amount of presents from well meaning family & friends) Plsying with pots & pans & spades & buckets is a million times better for our kids than cars, teddies & blocks (although some toys are great for education). How do you address the issue of birthdays? We can inform family what our kids need but not so easy with friends…

  • July 25, 2017

    This is such a great article to keep in mind what is important for our children! I am constantly spreading this message to overwhelmed friends and fellow mamas. Thank you for such a well written article that explains the concept so wonderfully!

    -Jenny from The Branch Above LLC

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