Friends of ours were burdened with a serious toy overload. Their four children had generous weekly allowances and lots of gift-giving relatives. As a result, there were more toys than I’ve ever seen in one home. When the family room was overrun, their father would use a snow shovel to scoop the floor clean. He dumped the shovelfuls in big plastic bins and hauled them to the basement. After doing this a few times he realized the kids rarely bothered to get out those particular playthings. They didn’t really miss them at all.
I deeply admire the mother I interviewed for The Boy With No Toys although we’ve personally never taken an anti-toy stance in our family. Over the years we’ve happily accumulated dolls, trucks, building sets, art supplies, stuffed animals, as well as lots and lots of books. We emphasize quality, not quantity. It’s one way of sparing our planet the burden of sweatshop-made, eco-unfriendly products. And more importantly, we think it’s part of raising kids who aren’t oriented toward materialism for their own well-being, both now and in the future.
These days, typical options for childhood amusement include overly structured activities, lots of screen time, and commercial playthings that do the entertaining for them. Unfortunately, kids can become accustomed to someone or something else providing the fun for them. As a result they may not be attuned to the slower pace of conversation, the expansive pleasure of make-believe, or the subtle wonders found in nature. They may actually have trouble generating their own fun.
Even if you limit screen time and emphasize free play, young children can still be overwhelmed by too many playthings. A recent study done in Britain found the average 10-year-old owns 238 toys, but mostly plays with 12 favorite items!
Simply reducing a toy overload can help children play more creatively, cooperate more easily, and become more resourceful. Here are some toy overload solutions.
Make it a family policy to have fewer playthings available any one time. This way your child can deal with a smaller selection and play areas are less cluttered. Take a sensitive approach. Pick up a few things that have been long ignored and put them away for that proverbial rainy day. When you do get out a toy or stuffed animal that has been “resting” you’ll want to put away another object. If children notice, it’s common for them to feel sudden affection for the toy you’re putting into hibernation. When you face objections, don’t make the policy painful. Work together to find another toy that your child can agree to put away. You’ll find the same old toys take on a new luster when a young child hasn’t seen them for a while.
Reserve toys for specific situations.
It’s helpful to deem some toys for use only under certain conditions. These might be perfect opportunities to use toys that require a parent close by, or a way to minimize use of passive entertainment toys they’ve been given. Keep such items for situations when your child is forced to be passive anyway such as the car seat, waiting in line, at a restaurant, or while you’re on an important call. Even very young children come to recognize that such toys are kept in a diaper bag, a parent’s car, or on a high shelf for special occasions. Explanations before and after use, “We only use this in the car” or “This is a Mama’s-on-a-work-call toy” help keep the boundaries drawn and make it easy to put the toy away for the next time.
Join or set up a toy lending library
Collections of donated toys can be found through some museums, community centers, and public libraries. Toy lending programs give families access to a wider range of ordinary playthings and more expensive toys than they might ordinarily afford, as well as toys for special needs children. Search online to find a toy library near you or for helpful advice on starting a collaborative toy lending service. Find a toy library near you using USA Toy Library Association listings and find out more via the International Toy Library Association.
Assemble play kits using non-toy items
You can throw together kits that stimulate imaginative play while repurposing old objects. (Of course, these suggestions are not appropriate for children who put objects in their mouths or are too young to use the items safely.) To keep up the appeal factor, put the kits away between use. They are great to get out when kids have friends over.
Office: Use a briefcase or file box. Tuck in office-type items such as memo pad, non-working cell phone, calendar, writing implements, round-tip scissors, post-it notes, and calculator. A big thrill is a tape dispenser—this alone can keep small kids happily occupied. A major coup is finding a manual typewriter at a thrift store. You’ll need to help kids understand how to type one letter at a time to keep the keys from becoming tangled.
Doctor: Fill a small suitcase with a stethoscope, tongue depressors, tiny flashlight, notebook for doctor’s notes, band-aids, and plenty of gauze to bind up injuries. Children particularly enjoy using the items to diagnose and treat dolls or stuffed animals.
Costume: A costume box or trunk is a childhood classic. Add cast-off and thrift store items likely to enhance make-believe. Don’t worry about actual costumes, just toss in a range of imagination-sparking things. Include work wear, dress-up, jewelry, wallets, purses, shoes, vests, tool belt, badges, lengths of fabric that can be used as capes or veils, and plenty of hats.
Building: Fill a large container with heavy cardboard tubes as well as sturdy cardboard boxes. Add a roll or two of masking tape, string, clean yogurt cups, egg cartons, popsicle sticks, corks, plus hardware cast-offs such as nuts and bolts. Encourage children to build whatever they choose from the cardboard supply. They might need help punching holes in the cardboard to insert bolts or string. When you can, bring home the largest cardboard box you can wheedle out of an appliance store. Children will find all sorts of ways to use it.
Market: Save empty clean food packages, reglue boxes shut so they look new, and keep them in a bin along with any toy fruits and vegetables you may already have. Children can set up a play shop with these items, adding their own toys or books for additional merchandise. Lend them your fabric shopping bags to load pretend purchases. They may want to swipe a pretend debit card, use homemade money, or barter to cover their transactions. (They can use a similar concept to play Library with their books, Car Repair Shop with their riding toys, and so on.)
Grandparents on both sides of our family kept a lookout for broken items our kids could take apart. This is marvelously fun as well as educational. It also requires very close supervision! Kids will need flat head and Phillips screwdrivers, needle-nosed pliers, safety glasses, wire cutters or heavy-duty scissors, and possibly some child-sized work gloves. Before letting them start, cut off and discard any electric plugs as well as cords on the item. Also check for glass parts or batteries that can cause injury, and make sure the item doesn’t have tubes (as old radios and televisions once did) Be forewarned, kids may encounter sharp bits of metal, coiled springs, and other surprises.
We put small deconstruction items in a shallow box (to catch the pieces) . Normally they’d work at the kitchen table to take apart things like a watch, Dymo labelmaker, motherboard, hand-held mixer, clock, printer, VHS or DVD player, can opener, camera, radio, household fan, remote control car, and once a Furby (which creepily resumed its ability to talk once it was little more than a Furby skeleton), Large items they’d take apart outside on the driveway, with a big open box where they could put pieces. They took apart a microwave, several different bikes, and a lawn tractor. (This led one of my sons to drag a neighbor’s lawn tractor out of the trash, whereupon he fixed it and used it to make money mowing lawns!)
Most children like making their own realms under blankets, in closets, and behind furniture. Outdoors they make dens and forts out of a few branches or leftover planks. Provide sheets or blankets to drape over the furniture for an indoor hiding place, with couch cushions for support. On occasion, try to get a large packing box from stores selling refrigerators and washing machines. Your child can direct you to cut a few openings to transform the box into a boat, space ship, or castle. Once inside a hideout, children are in another entirely necessary world.
Let them play with water
Little kids adore water play. Pull up a stool to the sink and let them wash a few unbreakable dishes or toys with mild soap. They’ll stay busy pouring water from soup ladle to funnel to pitcher to cup. Add to the fun by putting a few ice cubes in the sink, giving them foil to shape into boats, or letting them add food coloring. Encourage them to gather a few water safe objects (perhaps a block, a spoon, a popsicle stick, a ball, a rubber band) and guess which ones will float before putting them in the water. Or you might let them play in the tub for an hour or more while you sit nearby reading a book or getting some work done on the laptop.
Outdoors there are many more water options. On a hot day, water wiped on the house or driveway with a brush temporarily darkens the surface, giving toddlers the satisfying impression they are “painting.” It dries quickly so they can paint again. You can also give them a bucket and sponge to let them wash a tricycle, a watering can to give the plants a drink, or a sprinkler to run through. Don’t forget the pleasures of water added to dirt. Mud pies are a childhood classic.
Help kids set up obstacle courses
A rainy day indoor course might consist of a few chairs to wriggle under, a rope to hop over, four pillows to leap on in a row, three somersaults through the hall, and a quick climb up the bunk bed ladder. Outdoors they can set up a bike, trike, or scooter obstacle course. Mark the course with sidewalk chalk or masking tape. The course may lead them around cones, through a sprinkler, under crepe paper streamers hanging from a tree branch, and on to a finish line. More fun? Setting up obstacle courses on their own.
Bring back legacy games
All that’s needed for most sidewalk games are chalk, while backyard games only require a ball and a sense of fun. For instructions you may have forgotten or never learned, check out Preschooler’s Busy Book, Great Big Book of Children’s Games, or Team Challenges. Or dig into the game database offered by Bernie DeKoven at DeepFun. And remember to add those classic hand-clapping games, typically played while chanting a rhyme. A few rounds of Miss Mary Mack or Say Say My Playmate aren’t just fun, studies show they’re also brain boosters.
Stage treasure hunts
First hide a prize. Then place clues throughout the house or yard. For very young children, those clues can be pictures or rebus sentences. For older children, the clues can be written as poems or riddles. Each clue leads to the next set of clues before the treasure is discovered. The prize doesn’t need to be a toy or goodies, since the hunt itself is the real fun. Try “hide a packed lunch day” and let everyone search for the cache of lunches. Those who find sustenance first need to help others so the kids can eat together. Or hide the book you’re been reading aloud so kids can search for the treasure of the next chapter. Once they’re familiar with treasure hunts, children can create them for each other.
Let them help
Even the smallest children want to participate in the real work that makes a household function. They want to tear lettuce for a salad, clean crumbs with a small whisk broom, measure beans and pour them in the coffee grinder, sort socks, carry kindling for the fireplace, water the garden, basically anything they see their elders doing. They benefit in remarkable ways, from greater dexterity to the development of character traits that lead to long-term success. What’s more, they have fun doing it.
Emphasize non-toy gifts for holidays and birthdays
It’s disheartening to give a highly anticipated toy or the newest gadget only to see it ignored a week or even a day later. You can give things like real tools for working with wood, crafting with fiber, or exploring the outdoors. These tools will be used over and over again as kids build valuable skills. You can give passes to events, subscriptions, and much more. For a listing of over 100 non-toy gifts, check here.
Take advantage of temporary circumstances
A large tree with damage from a lightning strike had to be taken down in our back yard. What was left behind were perfect playthings. There were large slices of wood the kids used as blocks and wheels. There were piles of brush they cut up with small hack saws and used to make forts. There was the stump itself, the best home base ever for games of tag.
One time my husband hauled home a junk car he’d bought for next to nothing so he could cannibalize it for parts. The few days it sat in our driveway were a delight for our five-year-old. We put one of his dad’s old shirts on him, mixed up a whole bucket of thick red tempera paint, and handed him a large paintbrush. He dragged a step stool around and painted the whole car, windows included. When they could, neighborhood kids came over to add second and third coats.
The septic system had to be dug up and fixed at our next house. When the company was done they left a towering pile of dirt. It was there for months until we had the money to rent the equipment necessary to move it. The kids called it their “mountain.” It inspired lots of imaginative play, one day they might be explorers running over the top and the next day they might be sitting in the dirt playing with toy trucks. They were sorry to see it go.
You may never have these particular circumstances, but there’s a good chance you’ll have others. Mother-in-law coming for a visit? Get her to teach your kids something she enjoys doing, maybe knitting or playing chess or Tai Chi. Power disrupted due to a storm? Let the kids play hide and seek or flashlight tag in your suddenly spooky dark house. Invited to a wedding? Find some instruction on YouTube and practice the dances that are likely to happen at the reception. Nothing like kids who’ve got the moves! Your kids won’t have much trouble finding the most playful options for any circumstances. All you have to do is say “yes.”
Portions of this article were first published in Natural Life Magazine.