Taming Toy Overload

I walked into my kid’s playroom on Boxing Day and surveyed the scene. Toys occupied every available space – a play kitchen, riding toys, stuffed animals, arts and crafts, balls, bats, puzzles and colourful containers full of bits and pieces (AKA crap) spread from one side of the room to the other. With no cupboards in the room, the playthings were piled against walls, stuffed in overflowing shelves, and crammed in every nook and cranny.

A wave of anxiety came over me. The stash had been growing since our boy’s first birthday in November, then there was the Christmas influx, and another birthday is fast approaching. We can’t keep all the stuff we already have, let alone take on any more! I was facing toy overload crisis, wondering, even if I found a way to cram them all in, “Is having so much stuff good for my children?”

Experts agree that the too-many-toys syndrome isn’t just about the aesthetics of domestic order. It can have negative effects on kids’ developing psyches. Fortunately, even if the critical mass seems very critical, there are simple steps you can take to both trim it down and prevent your child from winding up overstimulated or under-appreciative of what he has.

How toy buildup happens

Overload can creep up on a family for various reasons: buying too much for birthdays and Christmas, giving too many spontaneous no-special-reason presents, always rewarding good behavior with toys, not clearing out what your child has outgrown or doesn’t use, and buying the wrong playthings in the first place (either because they appeal to you more than to your kids or because the must-haves of the moment quickly lose their luster).

Coping with plaything pollution

To control the overload, try these parent-tested tactics:

Limit the number of gifts you dole out

Whether it’s for a birthday or special occasion, make your list – and then try to halve it! Remember that, at least for babies and toddlers, the wrapping paper and boxes might be more interesting than what’s inside.

Save giving for special occasions

If lots of family members are also showering your child with gifts on birthdays and other special occasions, consider giving fewer presents yourself on these occasions in favor of more spontaneous just-because gifts during the year. Surprise gifts are fine, as long as they’re not too frequent.

Give gifts kids can build on

Contribute to a hobby or add to something they are already collecting. Things that run out quickly are a good idea, e.g. art and craft supplies, Play-Doh, crayons, or drawing paper.

Transcend the physical

You could ask relatives to put towards swimming lessons or Tae Kwon Do, give passes for the movies, or tickets to the zoo or the aquarium.

Rotate toys

Put a certain number of playthings away in a seldom-used closet, the spare room or the garage. When your kids get bored, bring those toys out and put others away in their place.This approach has the added benefit of giving the toys more meaning.

Ship toys to grandma’s

Some overflow can be shifted to the homes of grandparents or other frequently visited relatives. Not only does this make the toys seem special, it also eliminates the need to pack tons of stuff when you visit.

Create a “maybe” box

If a child is told that they have to give something of theirs away, chances are they’ll want to keep it. But if it stays in the maybe box for a while and they don’t miss it, they’re more willing to give it up.

Donate, donate, donate

Toys that aren’t played with for a long time are good candidates for the giveaway pile, whether their destination is the Salvation Army, local support networks like Dandelion, or a younger sibling’s toy box. It’s never too soon to start teaching children about charity.

Cash in

One way to encourage relinquishing old toys is to sell them and split the profits with your child. Win-win.  

Benefits of fewer toys

Having fewer playthings will benefit your kids in so many ways. Your kids will:

Learn value and responsibility

When kids have too many toys they won’t care if one is broken because there are many others. Having fewer toys will help them learn to take care of a toy because there isn’t another (or the promise of another) to replace it. With fewer toys to create clutter and if the toys all have homes, kids will be more likely to put the toys away and develop a love for uncluttered space. Kids who value their toys will learn to value their other possessions and their money as they grow.

Develop focus

Having too many toys has been shown to decrease a child’s attention span. Alternately, the fewer toys they have (or have access to at one time) the longer they play with each toy and the more they learn from it. Having too many toys can be overstimulating and cause acting out. Kids who learn to focus will have an easier time in school and develop emotional maturity.

Develop perseverance and self-esteem

When children are able to engage in one toy for longer periods of time, they are more likely to explore it fully and spend more time trying to master it rather than moving on to something easier. When children spend more time with a toy, they come to know the toy fully, master how to use it or play with it, and even explore its other uses and features. These lead to feeling good about himself and his abilities, thus developing better self-esteem.

Develop creativity and resourcefulness

A German study found that when all toys were removed from a kindergarten class for 3 months, children began to engage in elaborate dramatic play using just the tables, chairs and blankets they had access to. With fewer toys to entertain your child he will learn to use what he has to invent games. This means more imaginative and self-directed play, and of course, less boredom.

Learn gratitude

Children become less selfish (and more generous!) when they have fewer toys. They are grateful for the toys they have because they have to think hard about what they really want, wait for them, and maybe even pay for them themselves. Practicing gratitude has been shown to increase overall happiness.

Develop better relationships

Creative play is how kids develop social skills. Needing to share toys with another child or compromise on how the toy is being used helps them navigate social conflict. The more time they spend building these skills, the easier social interactions will be in the future and the more friendships they can build.

Have more time for hobbies

Fewer toys allow for more time to develop hobbies and a love for art, music, dance, sports, etc. Having a hobby has many benefits including lower stress, better self-esteem, enhanced creativity, and better ability to stay present.

Play outdoors

I believe that the best play happens outside so, fewer toys inside encourage kids to want to go outside. Not only will they get exercise, they will also develop a love for the natural world that will stay with them throughout their lives.

Learn that toys or things won’t make them happy

Instead, they learn that sharing their toys with friends, spending time with family, spending time in nature, playing sports, reading, creating art, listening to or making music, or doing nice things for others are what create the most lasting happiness in life.

So, don’t be afraid to clear out that screaming pile. For all you know, the kids might not even notice that it’s gone! 

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