On Kids and Toy Clutter: How Much is Too Much?

So I don’t know about your play area, but ours is a mess. It looks like a drunken house party with all same ill lighting and stark whiteness. We’ve taken ours to new classy levels with the addition of carpet, Calico Critters, and Legos but we stopped short of purchasing black lights and psychedelic posters.

We are in the process of putting all items in bins to be stored and to be taken out one by one. I got this idea from my mother-in-law who keeps a closet full of bins for her grandkids. It made sense to keep a similar system in our home. It was supposed to be done yesterday but…I played hooky from working on it and went to the zoo with the kids.

I’m doing this to mitigate the penalty of choice for my kids. Too often I’ll see them abandon toys after mere minutes or start piling toys near them but then not play with what they have so near. This made me curious enough to do some research on the subject of how many items a kid needs in a playroom.

What We Know About The Effects of Choice on a Child

Lesson 1: Too Many Toys Can Cause Stress and Dampen Creativity in Children

In a 2017 article found in the science section of the UK’s The Telegraph, author Sara Knapton cites a study done by the University of Toledo in which 36 toddlers played in a room for half an hour with either four toys or 16 toys.

They found that youngsters were far more creative when they had fewer toys to play with. They also played with each for twice as long, thinking up more uses for each toy and lengthening and expanding their games.
The authors conclude that parents, schools and nurseries should pack away most of their toys and just rotate a small number regularly, to encourage children to become more creative and improve their attention spans.

Sara Knapton

In my other readings, I kept coming across references to a German study which started in the 1980s and that looked into how adult addiction corresponds to childhood habits. I found that Sanya Pelini’s article in Motherly had the cleanest summary of this study but the gist is that when a toy-free center in Penzberg was opened in 1992, kids were lost and (presumably) bored at first but that they rallied and began participating in more role-play, depended on other children for completing tasks, and they were further entertained by nature.

I can understand this as an adult just by trying to make a choice of a movie on Netflix. There are so many shows that more often than not I will turn the television off because I’ve used enough of my viewing time to surf through the options. It was like what I remember about walking through a Blockbuster. When someone makes the choice for us or our options are finite, we tend to either think outside of the box or we succumb to finding enjoyment in the few things we have at our disposal.

Lesson 2: You Are the Parent, You Are In Control

Still, the research on toy free nurseries doesn’t mean that you should pack up all your kids’ stuff and throw it to the curb. Here are some tips to help you (and your kids) benefit from fewer toys.

  • Try the 20 Toy Rule. This is just what it reads like and there are a lot of parents trying this out. Your child (not you) selects 20 toys and you eliminate or pack up the rest. This offers the child some choice. Try not to get in the middle of their selection process by saying things like, “But Grandma got you this. Don’t you like it?”
  • If the 20 Toy Rule is too strict…try the Bucket Method. Separate toys into bins (plastic, fabric, metal) to be taken out on at a time for play. It helps if the bins are difficult for the kids to take out an open themselves. This ensures that all the toys are put away before a new bin is opened and played with.
  • Make a plan for holiday and birthday gifts. Grandparents are lovely but they can go overboard when it comes to the grandkids. My first plan of attack would be to make a short 1-2 item list of things your children might want for an upcoming birthday or holiday. My second recommendation would be to suggest to them that the kids would like memberships to a local zoo or children’s museum or money for an activity camp. Better yet, suggest that the activity be something the grandparents can do with the grandkids. Personally, I would have loved to have gone on a hike and learn about birds with my grandfather, which leads me to…
  • Spend more time outdoors and take advantage of free activities in your area. During the summer, the kids and I take advantage of any age-appropriate activities our parks district and local businesses have to offer. This includes activities for teens. The kids get really into it too when I give them a list of options and they get to select where we go that day or night. Check your local park district, city activity calendar, or Facebook events listings for ideas.

And, If You Ever Start to Fold on Your Fewer Toys Resolution, Remember the Following Story

When I was about eight years old, I had my first brush with minimalism. We had just moved across town to a brand new house that was grandiose. It boasted a huge front and back lawn (the latter overlooking a natural pond), three fire places, a study, a separate dining room, and a three-car garage. We were a privileged family in our small town and we kids were frequently reminded about that fact. My science teacher, years later, would recount helping to build the basement of our new house and asking the project manager, pointedly, if they were building a house or a church.

Once our house was finished, my bedroom was the largest out of the three children’s rooms and was outfitted with an ivory Ethan Allen set replete with two canopy beds, a table for tea parties, and two tall dressers. Even though my room was much larger than my previous one, it was still stuffed to the gills with toys.

The shelves of the dressers were lined with my stuffed animals and dolls and my beds were crammed with still more animals and dolls. I spent ample time giving a kiss to each of my animals every night. This then escalated to a hug and a kiss to each animal. Which further escalated to trying to remember who was in the rotation for sleeping in my bed. All this culminated in an anxious mess of a child, heavy with guilt for not knowing which stuffed animals/dolls had received enough attention.

After what was probably a week of nightly tears and guilt, I was frustrated enough to take all my animals and dolls to the basement where they could hang out together and develop their own colony.

I went back to my room, laid down on my bad and sighed with relief.

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