Do Children Have Too Many Toys?

December 4, 2013

Lego Play

It’s that time of year when people everywhere are mulling over gifts for children. I’ve been thinking a lot about it myself — especially the whole toys thing. Even with all of my efforts to keep them to a minimum and not buy into the commercial culture, it still seems like my girls have too many toys. But I know it’s not simply about volume, it’s the kind of toys they have as well.

One of the things relatives and friends have noticed about S and H is how imaginative they are in their play. This is likely due to the fact that, for the first four and a half years of their lives, they probably had no toys; instead, they would have played with whatever they found in their natural environment — sticks, stones, who knows what else. They now seem to be able to envision endless possibilities and create amazing scenarios with basic objects.

In this BBC News article, psychologist Oliver James says young children are better off “colonizing objects” in their environment because they discover their identity through fantasy play. “If their toys offer a limited repertoire, this process is eroded,” he says.

This is why I’m reluctant to buy a house or camper for my daughters’ little toy critters: Wouldn’t they be better off continuing to build such things with their legos and blocks? And while I’m not particularly thrilled that underwear and socks get used as baby doll head gear, I do like that froggy’s long spindly legs and arms get tied up so he can be used as a turkey for pretend Thanksgiving dinners.

Some toys seem like no-brainers — like wooden blocks and dolls, for example. In the article I mentioned above, author Liat Hughes Joshi says there are three factors that make a brilliant toy: “Social value — a dolls’ house allows children to play together, versatility — Lego bricks can be made into anything, and durability — such as a wooden train track that the child will use for years.”

Those seem like good guidelines for toys to me.

What are your guidelines for buying toys? Are there things you steer away from or particularly like?

Image: Zoe Saint-Paul

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1 Anna December 4, 2013 at 11:26 am

This has been on my mind too. I’ve bought my son very few toys, but he still acquires too many, from doting grannies and the like. Luckily, he’s young enough not to notice when I get rid of them, which I’ve been doing pretty ruthlessly. I’m not sure what I’ll do when he gets more aware. (Which may be soon – yesterday he started fixating on a now-departed toy in a family photo we were looking at. . .)

So far I’ve never regretted throwing a toy out. Most of them don’t seem to generate what I consider quality play anyway (meaning by quality play that he’s absorbed and self-directed and plays with the same thing for a good amount of time).

The worthwhile toys for us have been his wooden train set, Duplos, building blocks, and matchbox cars. I feel pretty good about having them in the house, but then reading your post I wonder, would he play even better with even less, as your girls learned to?

Another thing I’ve wondered is what to do about this as a gift-giver to others’ kids. I’ve been trying to give clutter-free gifts like books, music or consumable toys that are thrown out after a couple of days of enjoyment (balsa-wood gliders, sticker activity books, etc.). But it’s difficult to know what will or won’t be clutter in somebody else’s house, I find.

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2 Zoe Saint-Paul December 4, 2013 at 3:12 pm

That’s a tricky thing… what to buy for *others* kids. If I’m close to the parents, I usually ask. I like your ideas for clutter-free gifts. Arts and craft stuff can be great, too — seems to rarely go to waste.

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3 Shaina Kumar December 4, 2013 at 11:54 am

I really love this post! I completely agree. I think kids are overwhelmed with toys and have too many. My favorite days as a kid were making up fantasy worlds with my brother.

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4 Zoe Saint-Paul December 5, 2013 at 12:04 am

We did the same thing, Shaina. Sadly, it takes a lot of effort to keep toys to a minimum now.

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5 P Flooers December 4, 2013 at 12:38 pm

On the other side of toys now, I can share what I’ve saved: all duplo blocks, the legos, all Playmobil, and the American Girl Dolls. These are the sets of toys that withstand generations of play, through a large range of ages, and never diminish. All are worth while, a bargain for their expense, if you can store them for grandchildren.

American Girl Dolls contributes money to feminist causes and their sets of books are fantastic–all of them.

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6 Zoe Saint-Paul December 5, 2013 at 12:06 am

We’ve got Bitty Babies here, and my girls play with them every day and take them everywhere. Also Duplos, which they love and get so creative with. We had Playmobil stuff as kids — and played with them endlessly. These three things you mentioned seem to fit the criteria the article mentioned — kids can find endless possibilities for them and play with them for years.

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7 Kristin W December 5, 2013 at 1:47 pm

This year, we are aiming for experiences, rather than toys. We’ll be going to an art museum (in another city), zip lining, paintball shooting (sorry, new at that and not sure what the verb should be), and something with animals that I haven’t figured out yet. I would rather make memories with my kids instead of trying to figure out how to sneak the unused toys out to Goodwill. That said, my kids will still get tons of presents from other relatives, so it’s not like they are deprived in any way.

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8 Lauren December 5, 2013 at 2:37 pm

We too try to go for experiences more than toys- a year’s membership to a children’s museum is such a treat, but we do buy our boys the following items for the holidays:
musical instruments, building toys (blocks, magna-tiles, lincoln logs), always a pair of pajamas and a few pieces of candy in their stockings, books & cool folksy coloring books, and one big toy to share. And we try to stay away from cheap plastic toys. They break easily, are ugly, and really truly diminish the imaginative play.

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9 Zoe Saint-Paul December 11, 2013 at 12:08 pm

I love the idea of focusing on experiences.

I hate cheap, plastic toys and have more of them in my home than I want. Not sure how that happened…

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10 Kathleen December 9, 2013 at 6:46 pm

Perhaps this sounds neurotic, but I try to buy gifts from our categories of toys which include Schleich animals, blocks, legos, American dolls &babies, Calico Critters and books. I then try to encourage my family to get something from that category. I am terrible at organization so having a minimal amount of categories, makes for easy toy bin organization for both mom and kids. Every other type of toy tends to create junk and clutter and eventually gets pitched..

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11 Zoe Saint-Paul December 11, 2013 at 12:10 pm

I love this — and it’s super relevant to us since everything (expect for the Schleich animals — don’t know what those are) are the predominant toys our girls play with and love.

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