Monday, December 9, 2019

The Case of Too Many Toys

Or, How We Decreased Our Kids' Toys So They Could Have More Fun.

I recently made a surprising observation in our quest to live small. And because of this, I decided to run some (easily reversible and non-judgmental) experiments with my kids and find out more about how they relate to minimalism in our house.

My kids, who are 7 and 4, spend a lot of time playing outside in the great northern wilderness we call home, but for rainy days they also have a play space inside, with a stocked bookshelf and a toy box  full of (mostly intentionally chosen) toys that encourage creativity and community during inside playtime. I mean, we try. Cooking, woodworking "tools", a medical kit, various types of blocks, animals, baby dolls. We thought we were keeping it simple.

But over several days I noticed that both kids were very quickly shuffling through the entire toy box, dumping most of it on the floor, and then coming to me with request after request after request for entertainment. I would send them back to their toys and encourage them to play with a specific one, but it would last merely minutes before they were back at my side. Strange, I thought. They have lots of toys that I know they love to play with. Why aren't they staying engaged in their play?
Playing outdoors is THE best!

I spent a lot of time thinking about why they might not stay focused on their play with toys we know they love. It's true, they are both young and children of their ages often move from one thing to another until settling into something they consider fun. But this wasn't happening - there was no settling. None of their toys were bringing them joy as I had seen them experience in the past.

So one night I sat down at the toy box, and I dumped everything out. EVERYthing. I sorted through each piece, put sets back together, and took more than half the toys to the basement in a carefully labelled box.

When I was done, it sure looked neater, but I immediately felt a twinge of guilt and maybe a little nervousness. Would this deprive them? Would they cry and ask where this or that toy was? Was quantity and choice where it's really at, and I'm getting this all wrong? What would happen in the morning?

The sun rose, we ate breakfast, got them to their schools, and otherwise had a very normal morning. When both kids came home, they went to the toy box. Each of them took out a toy and started to play with it. Five minutes later, they were still playing. And, I'm happy to report, this went on for some time before they came to me - not for entertainment, but for a snack (a very common occurrence in our family! Snack time happens easily six times a day here. Anyone else relate?!)

So far, so good. The next day, more of the same. Happily and engaged, they were playing again!

Our experiment showed us that less truly is more when it comes to toys. Even with the path we were following - where we've turned down hand-me-down toys because we couldn't see our children actually enjoying them, and we thought we were keeping the amount to a minimum - it turns out that we had to go one big step further.

We kept that box in the basement for a month or so. Anytime there was a request for a toy they remembered and couldn't find, we'd bring it back upstairs. We'd pay attention to what each kid was spending their time on and which toys were getting repeatedly overlooked, and we'd bring those no hitters downstairs for a break until they were requested again.

We're now on a roll. Even though we rarely buy toys outside of birthdays and holidays, our kids end up with a slowly accumulating assortment of play things from family and friends. Every month or two, we take time to switch out the toys they have, leaving the favorites and bringing back some they have missed.

I'm certainly not the first person to recognize that fewer toys are better. Studies show that fewer choices results in more prolonged and deeper engagement in play. Our experience has shown the same, and our kids are more settled, more engaged, and happier playing with the few things they love.

So now, right before each Christmas, we - GASP - entirely empty the toy box. This gives our children space to focus on the new toys they get. They get a few, and that's enough.

And during the holidays and birthdays, we unapologetically ask for experience gifts for both our kids and ourselves: tickets to live events, museum visits, special days spent with family, lessons, and the like. They take up little space in our house and yet fill hearts with joy that lasts much, much, much, much longer than any material good, however well-made, could.