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I'm Tracy 

I'm the founder, writer and advocate behind the award-winning blog, Raised Good - a guide to natural parenting in the modern world.

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The Fewer 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. In this post we’ll cover:

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 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.

Hi there!

I'm Tracy

Hi there! I’m Tracy - the founder, writer and advocate behind the award-winning blog, Raised Good - a guide to natural parenting in the modern world. Based in Vancouver and originally launched in 2016, I’ve been overwhelmed by the positive response and the global community that’s developed. 

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  1. 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.

    • Tracy Gillett says:

      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

  2. […] more ideas read ‘A rallying cry to end the overwhelm of toys’  by Tracy Gillett of Raised Good and join her 7-day simplifying childhood […]

  3. […] A Rallying Cry To End The Overwhelm of Toys | Raised Good by Tracy Gillett. There is more at stake than a few too many toys. […]

  4. […] I always love finding people of similar thinking who are actually applying it to life instead of just idly agreeing: https://raisedgood.com/toys-children-less-play/ […]

  5. Liz Lane says:

    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!

  6. 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.

    • Tracy Gillett says:

      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.

  7. Theresa says:

    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.

  8. […] I may not have children of my own, but I still enjoy reading on parenting and pondering things that would be important to me in raising my children if I were a parent. A Rallying Cry to End the Overwhelm of Toys. […]

  9. Abigail says:

    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

  10. Fliss says:

    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…

  11. Jenny White says:

    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

  12. […] enriches our relationships but also has the positive knock on effect of reducing clutter and limiting toys as we naturally tend towards expressing love through other […]

  13. Neil Wearing says:

    I like the premise here of nurturing a child’s creativity but I find this whole article mis-guided and patronising to parents. I also find the language of calling yourself a ‘modern parent’ insulting as it implies anyone who doesn’t follow your methods doesn’t fit this demographic. As a parent with 2 children (girl of 2 & boy fo 6), by nature they appear to be naturally moulding their own habits and understanding of the world around them. Implying a large amount of toys can negatively impact this is wrong, and come across as if you are looking down at people who choose not to. As a parent we are responsible for how our children develop, I personally with a creative background grew up with toys and as an adult still enjoy comics and toys and enjoy sharing this hobby with my son, therefore his room is full of toys – which he plays with.

    The idea here isn’t to snub those who choose to buy lots or can’t afford to buy the latest toy (and therefore feels guilty and has a burning desire to make there child happy) is to encourage parents either way to interact with their children and teach them how to be creative, learn and play with their environment. Spend time with them and teach them creativity, this can be done with lots or toys or no toys. I make sure my son sees my creative side i.e sitting and drawing with him, building & making things with junk found around the house. He’ll also happily sit in his room and will play with his toys – LEGO Batman helps power rangers fight crime, Ninja Turtles play with Pokemon etc. He also will sit happily and do his school work, maths, phonics etc. Now I’m not saying he’s perfect, he’s 6, he has tantrums but toys have nowt to do with it. My daughter doesn’t care about toys because she follows my sons lead and prefers a pen and paper – I however would prefer her to play with the toys as the pen doesn’t always end up on the paper.

    There is however a big lesson on buying too many ‘toys’ for children as it impacts the plastic waste crisis we have in the world. An article teaching parents to pass old toys onto friends who are new parents and discourage them from buying more would be much more suitable.

    Sorry for the negative tone, I never write or leave comments but as a parent I see and read a lot of articles that lean towards telling people what they are doing wrong, everyones situation is different and what works for one parent may not work for another.

    Anyway rant over 🙂

    • Tracy Gillett says:

      Hi Neil,

      Thanks for your comment. I reread the post and can’t see which part is condesceding. Most of it is sharing data and studies that are factual. I read the part where I mentioned modern parents which is this – 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 – what that means is that in these times, as compared to when my parents were new parents or my grandparents were new parents it is way harder to not have “too many toys”. Toys are everywhere now, vying for our kids’ attention. Plastic is cheap and so its easier to give too much. I don’t see the judgment in that but if you can let me know that would be great. And yes, I have already written a post last December about plastic toys and the environment. We were out this week with a homeschooling group cleaning up beaches and picking up plastic which was a great practical way to show my son how much we need to reduce – to make it easier for him to resist marketing by toy manufacturers. The truth is that its our generation and not theirs though that are responsible to make the change and I believe that giving kids endless toys isn’t serving the planet well and the research shows, it’s not beneficial to our kids either.

      • Neil Wearing says:

        I think you missed my point here. Question – What makes someone not a modern parent?

        Having too much choice isn’t a problem and times are different compared to 50 years ago, so it’s not comparable, things will continue like this. The choice to buy the toys or not is what’s at question in the article and either choice shouldn’t be up for judgement, and indicates that choice is harming my child, does my choice to buy lots of toys for my child make me a bad parent? your article says yes… This is the judgement. … and no, it’s not easy to give too much for most!

        The research seems to just involve the interaction with a child with lots of toys and no toys, it’s obvious a child is going to be overwhelmed, the expression ‘Like a child in a sweet shop’ is nothing new. Toys have nothing to do with any of this, studying 3000 children doesn’t make the point a fact, its just a statistical study.

        Maybe if a study says too many toys result in attention issues the focus should be on how to solve the lack of attention through education. For example play with them and count the toys as you go.

        Anyway, please don’t take this to heart it’s just an opposing opinion. 🙂

        • Tracy Gillett says:

          Not taking it to heart so don’t worry Neil. A modern parent – how I meant it in this post – is every parent today – every parent parenting in “modern times”. Maybe that would be a way to put it. Its not excluding anyone.

          Again though – where’s the judgment? I’ve presented facts. You’re shooting the messenger – don’t take that to heart! Excessive toys makes children play less – that’s the fact. Where’s the judgment? If you believe that there is no limit to the number of toys kids can have, go for it. That’s your choice but this website is focused on simplifying childhood so it may be futile to have that discussion in this forum and rather, agree to disagree – which is so healthy! You’re right that I can’t include many studies in one blog post (most people won’t read beyond 1200 words) but if you want to read more I highly recommend Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne.

  14. sabina Edwards says:

    I had toys that were designed to help my son, like those weird things you see in the docs office that has the wires and the cubes and balls on them(no idea what they are called) he played with that a lot. As well a thing where you put the shapes into the proper places. We relied on stuff like the red wagon , swing set out back and lil tykes car (the car lasted thru my two kids, my sis boy, and my other sis girl, then I sold it when it was over 20 yrs old) The wagon was a little red wagon and I picked it up from my moms yard on the weekend and its rusted but I plan on putting flowers in it lol (so their toys are now mine!!)

  15. Heather hansen says:

    Active toys= passive children passive toys= active children. I don’t like when toys ” play for” my child

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