Less Toys, Please

Post written by Zen Family Habits contributor Baker. Follow him on Twitter.

Toys aren’t evil. But we’ve gotten out of hand lately.

Starting at a young age we are bombarded with bright colors, blinking lights, talking monkeys, and television programs with non-stop singing and laughter.

We just don’t have a couple of these things. We have all of them.

Look, toys have amazing potential. They help kids channel curiosity, develop imagination, and hone motor skills. They demonstrate principles of ownership and sharing. As we grow, exploring computers and technology builds skills that we can leverage as adults.

The thing is, we can achieve these benefits with far less.

Minimalist Milligan

Milligan is our first child. You know how this story goes. In addition to our own craziness, our parents, family, and friends made sure that she had enough rattles, whistles, clothes, books, and music machines to entertain an army.

Do you know what Milligan enjoyed the most? The empty boxes the toys came in. Her love of the toy lasted 5-10 minutes. But give her a couple different sized boxes and you could watch her go for hours.

Not only did she not need the overwhelm of stuff, she didn’t even want it. Rather, she’s now perfectly content with:

  • Her Blue Puppy
  • A couple books (Wooly Lamb, mostly)
  • Spatulas or a wooden spoon
  • Whatever mommy and daddy are playing with, and
  • Just a few other things

In the past Milligan would completely disregard a large portion of her toys. With fewer options, she’s began to develop a deeper connection and thus a deeper mastery of them.

She’s banged around a wooden spoon enough to realize that it makes different sounds on the kitchen table, the carpet, or the couch. She’s noticed how the same plastic ball rolls differently across the title in the bathroom, then in does through the grass outside.

This seems much more intimate and meaningful than a light up piano that plays 80′s pop songs when you press the right buttons. Sure, she’s young. But I’m not convinced much of this changes as we age.

The ‘development’ excuse

It seems every product targeted at infants or toddlers has the same message:

This product has been designed by a team of experts, armed with ground-breaking neuro-technology. The rhythm of the lights and the cadence of the beeps have been optimized to maximize your child’s growth and development.”

Ugh. Am I the only one overwhelmed by these messages?

These products may be fantastic, but are they really any more scientific than discovering how a slinky works? As parents, we need to make sure we are the ones consciously deciding what’s best for the growth of our children.

I’m all for supporting Milligan’s development, but I’d much rather take advice and toy suggestions from my grandmother, than from your highly compensated team of experts.

Simple, time-tested toys

Legacy toys are legacy toys for a reason.

  • Hula Hoops
  • Play Doh
  • Lego Sets
  • Bicycles
  • Simple Sports (a football, mitt, skates, etc…)

I don’t know about you, but I had every video game system imaginable when I was growing up. Atari, Nintendo, Sega, Dreamcast, Playstation, Xbox. Every year it seemed like we upgraded systems.

But almost none of my childhood memories stem from these machines. I had a lot of fun, but the impact soon faded. I remember building Legos with my brother, riding bikes down our street, building forts in the woods, throwing the football with my dad, or reading books with my mom.

It was these sorts of regular moments that shaped who I am today. Not the hours I spent playing Deion Sander’s Prime Time Football.

Get started today!

Round up the family and explain that you’ll be doing a new family project. Each member, including yourself, is going to be donating half their ‘toys’ to charity!

If your kids are old enough, have them bring out all their stuff into one place. Help them create one big list. Encourage them to tally up what they have and circle the half they’d most like to keep. Drive with them to donate the toys to needy kids or organize a garage sale and let them participate in the process.

Make it fun. Make it memorable.

Ultimately you may find that you learn more from this process than your children.

60 Responses to “Less Toys, Please”

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  1. Janka says:

    “These products may be fantastic, but are they really any more scientific than discovering how a slinky works?”

    No.

    (That’s a short scientific answer; I might do a longer one if someone insists. Insisting will work better if it comes with a reference to a scientific article about children with blinky toys developing better. I am generous and allow for any remotely sensible definition of “develop”.)

  2. Tam says:

    I am excited to try this with my three boys (5,4,1) and am very curious about the results. I suspect, the toys that I think they’ll want to hang on to will be very different from what they choose. In the past, I have always purged their toy collection myself, but I am very interested in letting them TELL ME what they really care about. Great idea!

  3. Pots and pans were always a big hit with babies and would still be. Interesting how the kids take to technology though, mostly because of the persuasions laid on parents and the kids, but they are keen.
    Flashback: My 16 year old daughter and friend were playing a game on my 1st PC, about 25 years ago. The friend’s 2 year old brother watched anxiously then came into the kitchen and said “I wanna use the compoopoo”.

    My grandson sometimes comes home from Grade 1 and turns on the PC. His main interests thankfully are the playground, camping and things outdoors.

  4. I’m so into minimizing our stuff right now, and this post is a great motivator for minimizing our kids’ stuff as well. We’ve done a lot of giving away as it is, but I like the idea of giving away half. Thanks for the post!

  5. I think that is a great idea. We have downsized my daughters toys several times but I am sure we can do it again. She doesn’t have many different kinds of toys if you compare with her friends but instead she has a lot of what she has. The main toys in her room fall in four categories, Polly Pocket, Littlest Pet Shop, Geomag and creative things (pearls, pompoms, glue, paper, pens…..) I have found that the less “stuff” my daughter have the more her creativity has to work.

  6. Mrs Green says:

    I completely agree with the idea that less is more when it comes to toys. My daughter is now eight and she is so creative and imaginative. Now I’m not saying that it is because she has few toys and we don’t have a tv, but I guess it has a huge part to play. If I won’t buy her something, she makes it – she wanted a toy hamster and cage in crappy plastic, I refused and by the end of the day she was the proud owner of a toilet roll inner hamster with shoe box cage (not to mention the bedding, toys and food that went with it!)

    She makes her own paper dolls and as I type she is cutting out animals from a magazine and setting up a vets practise.

    I think open ended toys (ie ones that don’t do everything for the child) are far more positive and teach much more than anything with batteries, computerised voices and flashing lights…..

  7. Neal says:

    Adam,

    This is a huge hot button with me. I have three kids….all great. You want to know what the best toy they ever had?

    Me.

    They love to jump and wrestle me. They love to wrangle me. They love to push me off the bed. Anything.

    With toys…..less is certainly much more.

    Keep this conversation alive!

  8. Markus says:

    This summer we had a head lice scare at our house. We put half of our kids’ toys into bags to kill the buggers (anything that had stitching) and locked them in the garage. That was 3 months ago and I think our kids have only asked for a couple toys out of the batch. Most of it will never be missed…

    Also, to expand on this article, get toys that you as a parent enjoy. My 3 year old loves playing with me (and I’m a tinkerer) and I had a hard time getting into some of it. So, I brought out some things I remember my dad doing with me as a kid: a magnifying glass (for exploring things up close and burning things) and simple electronics (by showing her what’s really inside the cheap McDonald’s toys). When I’m passionate about the stuff we’re playing with, I know my daughter picks up on that and it makes the whole experience better. I can only stay interested in Little People for so long, same for my daughter, but it really gets fun when we wrap shirts around our heads and play ninja!

  9. Jessica says:

    Our house is overrun with plastic crap. I think daddy and I need to have a talk about downsizing the toy pile STAT.

    I once read about a family tradition of rounding up toys to give away on the child’s half-birthday. If you “get” things on your birthday, you should “give” things on your half-birthday. Destructor’s half-day is only a month away. Can I wait that long?

  10. Amy says:

    About 2 or 3 weeks ago, I removed about half of my 7-year old son’s toys, and so far he hasn’t noticed one thing missing (I did warn him that I was going to do it, but did most of the work when he and my husband went camping one weekend). I got the motivation for doing so from a great book, “Simplicity Parenting” by Kim John Payne. My biggest concern is how to navigate the upcoming holidays. My parents, in-laws and sister-in-law each spend a TON of money on my son (making it difficult for Santa to compete!). I usually put a bunch of the new toys into storage to take out a few months later, but this upsets my mother-in-law. I’d love to read a future column about how to deal with the non-minimalists in my life!

  11. Rachel says:

    “Fewer” Toys please… Honestly, what is the english language coming to? I agree. Nice article! ;-)

  12. MrsMK says:

    Though I am new to the minimalist way of thinking…..we have always by nessecity lived very simply. Our boys (ages 2,6 & 7) have legos, homemade blocks (built from scraps from the garage), a basket of cars and trucks, and simple art supplies. Today my older two have spent most of their free time (after schoolwork and chores) pretending to be cowboys. They found a few short lengths of rope and are practicing lasso-ing things.

    It’s the way I grew up….outdoors, with my imagination and my siblings as the best entertainment ever!

  13. Broke MBA says:

    It’s very interesting how friends and family will give needless junk to their loved ones so that they can feel as thought they are proving how much they care. In reality, friends, family, and especially young children would prefer attention instead.

  14. MoneyFunk says:

    What do we do? When my daughter is not home…I clean out her room every 3 month and dump/donate toys. Know what? She has yet to miss anything yet! Pretty good huh?

    You are right. Kids are happy with the simple things. Mine used to love pots and pans, cardboard boxes, and dress up clothes. Then society’s commercials and friends with “toys” come in…and its all over. Cha ching, Cha ching.

    I need to move somewhere out in the middle of nowhere so that my kids will find playing outside is an awesome activity. lol.

  15. judebug says:

    We just spent a year in Alaska without any of our boys’ toys except some Legos and a few board games, and they had a great year. Now we’re back home and I’m trying to “weed” out all the toys (adult and children’s) to simplify and declutter our lives. It’s taking longer than I thought it would, but I look forward to the end product!

  16. I totally agree, Sherri. When we moved overseas (my son was 4 at the time), we shipped all of his toys across so he would feel at home. It was a big mistake because he rarely plays with any of those toys. His favourite things are Lego, matchbox cars and boardgames. I think if we took everything else out of his room, he wouldn’t even notice!

  17. My favorite toy as a kid was that bubble wrap. I could spend hours on end popping it and still be entertained. I am still not sure if that says anything good or incredibly bad about me, but that simplistic thing was sufficient for a toy.

    Often parents make the excuse that they want to give their kids everything they didn’t have. But usually not giving your kids everything you didn’t have is a good idea.

    Dave
    The Minimalist Path

  18. queenstuss says:

    I bought far too many toys for my first. He’s just turned three, and I’ve finally started to listen to the best piece of parenting advice I have ever been given.

    When I asked someone how to manage the overflow of toys, she told me to stick to just two ‘sets’ of toys that we can build on, and then only have a few other things.

    I finally realised that it works. All my son ever plays with is his Duplo, Bob the Builder toys, and Thomas the Tank Engine train. (Ha, despite my attempts at staying away from the commercial brands!) So that’s all I am buying for him now. He’s hardly touched the tool bench we bought him for his birthday.

    But growing up, my sisters and I were the same. We weren’t short on toys, but we mostly only ever played with the Barbie dolls and lego!

  19. whimsygirl says:

    We did a big time toy reduction and I am enjoying watching them make their own toys. I couldn’t buy toys as cool as they come up with.

  20. Alli says:

    I have tried to stay away from loud, blinking toys that do most of the playing for the kid, but have given in more with my youngest due to his eye problems and the fact that these toys are much easier for him to see.

    But I have also noticed the “development” excuse- every single toy in the baby aisle has a bullet-point list of the ways this particular plaything helps your child learn and grow. I want a toy that just advertises “This toy is fun!” Isn’t that enough sometimes?

  21. I couldn’t agree more. While we don’t have kids yet, we will be planning a family at some point and will certainly be going further down the minimalist road than most people.

    Some of the older, simpler toys are the best ones – I sometimes think that crazy, noisy, complex, distracting toys are simply there so that the parent doesn’t have to get so involved – which surely, is the whole point of being a family!

  22. Michelle says:

    Man I really agree with this post, we are overwhelmed with toys and my 8 year old is particularly fond of soft toys. She has about 3 cubic metres of them and still collects more. We also have a huge collection of kids books – most people don’t see a problem with books but because my daughter has dyspraxia, she is super disorganised and they end up all over the floor within a short space of time. My MIL is very disappointed that I have put most of her books in the garage – but this is what I have to do as DD just cannot deal with them. I have to just quietly start getting rid of things – for everyones sanity!

  23. Zengirl says:

    My 4 years old, was great simple and minimalist kid until he was 3.5 years old, now he is begining to know various toy products and he wants one, for his birthday and christmas. We limit our TV ads, and compared to other 4 years old, he is still simple, but I wonder what ever happened to my simple child, where is he learning all consumer stuff? I know there is a hope, as he gave all his savings ($2.65) to me for our house expenses budget :-)

  24. About two years ago, we stopped (ok, reduced, not completely stopped) buying books and toys on a random basis. We started using our library a lot more often and virtually halted any toy purchase until a special occasion like Christmas or birthdays. And yet, I’m still inundated with stuff – lots of which has been given to us from well-meaning grandparents. That’s probably a great follow up post – how to train the grandparents!

  25. Lucy says:

    I’ve taken this approach as much as I can with my three kids. I recently asked my older kids which one toy they would keep if they could have only one. Then, I cleared out all their toys except that one toy (from their rooms, they still have some toys, dress-up, and arts and crafts in their playroom). So far, no one’s asked for anything back. And their rooms stay much more clean.

    I also rotate our kids’ books. We have one small bookshelf and put on it whatever can fit. Everything else goes in a closet and I switch them three or four times a year.

    This approach is very difficult though, when dealing with family and holidays. My mom gives my kids TONS of dress-up clothes, which are a great, creative play device, but it’s gets overwhelming. I’ve had them pick out their favorites and put everything else away. I rotate those, too. I tend to let any electronic toys we receive run out of batteries and then declare them “broken.” Fortunately, both sets of grandparents have learned to ask us what the kids need/want. Last year they got winter boots and were totally happy with that.

  26. Carrie says:

    It doesn’t just go for toys. It’s also clothes and accessories (handbags, hair things, jewelry). I have two girls and their room is overflowing. Their dressers are piled with stuff and the drawers can’t close all the way because they have too much clothes.

    Before I even read this post, I had announced that this weekend was going to be a cleaning weekend. It makes no sense keeping things that you don’t even look at, remember you have, or use. Every year they get more and more stuff from birthdays & Christmas. It never ends! And it seems that we’ve created monsters in our children with how they view stuff and crave stuff. It’s insane.

    When you have all this clutter, it is just a waste of money. And it doesn’t make you feel very good to move around in it. I want to create a home that we can feel comfortable in and restful, not stressed and frustrated because we can’t find something or we have to step over stuff.

  27. Daniel Alcantara says:

    I absolutely agree and this is something my wife and I are adamant about with the baby we have on the way. Neither of us were much into lights and sounds when it came to toys, she and her sister played with a huge box until it got rained on and I was the Lego master.

    Luckily, since we cut out the cable and don’t want to bother getting a digital converter box, there will be a very limited amount of exposure to ads for toys and what not. I want to teach my kids how to build forts and tree-houses and try to make a car like in The Little Rascals movie.

  28. Naima says:

    I agree with many commenters here that the best toys are the parents. We’re interactive, fun and usually unbreakable :).

    We have a stuff clear-out usually 2 or 3 times a year, where we collect toys, clothes, books and share them either with some of the younger children in our neighbourhood, or charity. Another fun way to have a clear out is to do an ‘exchange’ afternoon with other kids. Everyone brings toys they’re willing to part with and exchange them for something else.

  29. Linn says:

    I agree with all of this…except the forcing of kids to donate half their toys just because we’ve decided to minimize. At this point it’s clear that your daughter is quite young and you’ve never tried this. A more realistic approach (as I’ve learned by trial and error!) is to purge with the kids twice a year…once before birthdays and once before Christmas “to make room for the presents you’re going to get” is what I tell mine. Then every few months in between I purge when they’re not home, just getting rid of the junkiest of toys that have crept in.

  30. queenstuss says:

    “Then every few months in between I purge when they’re not home, just getting rid of the junkiest of toys that have crept in.”

    That’s what I’ve been doing too – anything broken, or those junky things that ninja their way into our house is removed every few months. If my son hasn’t played with them in ages, he’s certainly not going to miss them.

    I’ve been minimising with my son from top down – I buy less, rather than make him get rid of things before he really understands what is going on.

  31. Hi Baker,

    You are so right with your first list of five: the puppy, the books, the spoon, whatever mommy and daddy… and some other things. My daughter plays with these things only and ignores the rest. Yesterday I cleared all the other stuff.

    perfect post, perfect time.

  32. Caren says:

    Whew – thanks, Linn! I was wondering if anyone was going to say that! The toys belong to the kids – I am *horrified* by the stories of throwing out toys without the kids’ knowledge or consent. Rethink “they haven’t even noticed!”. On some level, they have, and for most kids, actions like that will not help you move toward a trusting, loving, respectful relationship. My oldest held on to *everything* for years! He was very sentimental, towards stuff I could not understand at all. Right when I was beginning to wonder if I should push the issue (lovely, huh? What a bully I would have been!), he grew out of that, and began to purge his stuff himself. AND, supporting unconditionally what he wanted, even the cheap plastic crap, has led to both him and his brother being VERY discriminating consumers. There’s hardly any need to purge, because at 10 & 16, they only buy or ask for what they thoughtfully choose and really, really want.

    You can work *with* your kids to find a mutual solution, most kids will very willingly give up a lot of their toys if asked – but don’t bully them into it, or be sneaky about it! You don’t know what meaning their things have for them; it’s not for you to determine.

  33. lunzy says:

    Thanks for the reminder. I started and then the weather got cooler and I purged clothes (a neighbor and I switch storage bins for boys/girls clothes.)

    I am done with all the toys (and we have too many books we should give to friends.) One thing I learned to do, mainly since we didn’t have the money, was ask grandparents for memberships to our local children’s museum, zoo, etc. and/or classes for the kids. “things to get us OUT of the house, not things to keep us IN the house” It was actually a big hit and it was great having a present last us all year. We also ask for magazine subscriptions- the kids love getting mail.

  34. Jeffrey Tang says:

    Baker,

    Thank you for this funny and inspiring post about your daughter. It just goes to show that toys are just outlets for children’s innate creativity and inquisitiveness. In that sense, the simpler the toys are, the better. There’s not much room for creativity when everything’s pre-designed for you by “a team of experts.” But give a kid a wooden spoon and things to bang on – and you’ve got weeks of creative (albeit somewhat deafening) music.

    I do wonder though – will legacy toys always be legacy toys? Is there room for more techy, gadget-y things to become legacy toys as well? I mean, bicycles used to be novelty items too, right? What do you think?

  35. Baker, you are so right on this one. As a father of a 10-month-old, I can appreciate your minimalistic approach with Milligan. I think some of my daughter’s toys are reproducing at night! Before she was born, someone told us to never buy her a stuffed animal — she’ll get more than enough from other people. So far, I bought her one, and that person was right. Lucy now has as many stuffed animals as the NFL has players. We’re already strategizing about how to manage Christmas and gently tell the grandparents that we don’t want our home filled with STUFF.

  36. Less toys is so much better, for everyone! It forces kids to discover more and to rely on their imaginations, a much more active way of thinking and learning, rather than a passive one.

    Some of my favorite memories? Definitely not all the game systems. Yes, I had every one of them, too. But the very best part of my childhood, beside outdoor games, was spent with siblings and friends in a room my father refinished in our basement.

    And guess what was in it? Absolutely nothing!! My dad told us it was our playroom, we could do whatever wanted to in it, but after we had to clean it up, and return it to it’s normal state. It had decent carpeting, paneling, and lights on the ceiling. No furniture, closets, nothing in it all. That room became a school, a disco, a jungle, a theater, a haunted house, a hospital, an underwater sea with hidden treasures, a pirates’ lair. We invented so many things to do there. We had great fun, gathering things from other places to use as our props, or just inventing imaginary things and defining their places.

    It was a great place to use our imaginations because nothing was predefined for us. And you know what? Even though the room was always returned to it’s totally empty state, it was never, ever boring. Just sitting in always presented an opportunity to create anything we wanted. It was awesome. :)

  37. Riffkir says:

    Thank you for this post.

    My house is being swamped by the things my two year old has been given – I have never seen him play with a single cuddly toy he has been given despite my attempts at introducing them into play.

    I have already asked for people to give money or specific items not junk. I am going to make some presents for Christmas – a puppet theatre, fishing game and a bird table.

    I will not be making the same mistake with my second and it has made me think carefully about the gifts I give.

  38. Kyle Willkomm says:

    Its your job to review what the experts put out. It makes people want to dismiss your point when you lump all experts in as bad, when in reality, most of them do know more about child development then you or I or your grandmother. The good experts aren’t saying their stuff is better then a hula hoop.

  39. Very nice post, thanks! I have little experience with kids and toys so far- we only have one and he is only 6 (months ;). He hates having many toys around, he’d rather play with just 3 or just a box, here’s a system we developed. ;)

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