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Why you should take away most of your kids’ toys



Calah Alexander - published on 04/28/18

It's may sound mean, but here's why your kids will be happier ...

For Christmas, I got my sword-loving 5-year-old a variety of Power Ranger and Star Wars swords and lightsabers. He was thrilled with them on Christmas day, and a week or two afterward. But he quickly lost interest in them and eventually they wound up in a rarely-used toy bin with all his other old favorites — all toys which had, at one time or another, been discarded in favor of a big stick.

Yes, my son’s favorite toys are sticks. He loves sticks. He can find a stick anywhere, from a concrete parking lot to (no kidding) the middle of a pool. He will pick up any and every stick he sees, measuring its length and strength and overall composition, until he finds the right stick. And then he will play with the stick for … as long as I let him.

Quartz magazine recently shared a study done at the University of Toledo that reassures me greatly about Lincoln’s stick obsession. The study found that it’s significantly better for kids to play with fewer toys (or, for example, one stick) in favor of many.

The philosophy of “less is more” seems intuitive — give kids fewer toys, and they are bound to play with them longer. It also seems desirable in an age of over-consumption to limit the pile-up of stuff. But the study suggests a more substantive takeaway: that longer play with a toy means more creative play, and that increased time with toys might help kids develop their attention span, which is very fleeting at that age … The authors also hypothesized that perhaps young kids have a strong ability to focus; we just don’t know it, because we offer them too many distractions. If we create less distracting environments, we could enable their attention-building muscles to build better.

I tend to agree with that hypothesis. I have seen Lincoln spend a solid half-hour tracing a solitary letter W because he kept getting distracted. But give that child a stick and he will occupy himself with imaginary battles for hours.

It’s not just him, either — a few years back I got so fed up with my kids’ endless refusal to pick up their toys at bedtime that I packed all their toys into giant garbage bags and put them up in my closet. Predictably, they went into hysterics. For about three minutes.

Afterward, they were unsettlingly content. They fought less and played together more, inventing imaginary games and worlds and playing pretend in ways they never had before, when they were too busy fighting over toys to actually play. The toys stayed put away for a good long while, and the whole time I marveled at our newfound peace and their newfound imaginary games.

Eventually the toys came back slowly, one after another, until we were right back where we started with the squabbling and messes. But ritual toy purging became a thing for us after that, as did strictly limiting the amount of toys the kids have.

The thing is, kids get overwhelmed with too much stuff, just like adults. When there’s too much in their environment they can’t focus on any one thing enough to have a truly meaningful, imaginative playtime. But when there are fewer choices, or no choices, they make their own fun and have no trouble focusing … even if they’re just focusing on a stick.


Read more:
Why preschool is not a time to read

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