Less toys: More play?

I always used to assume that the more toys a kid had, the more they would play. It makes sense, right? With endless toy options, they’ll always have something to play with.

It wasn’t until I had my own children that I learned the more toys a child has, the less they will play.

Learning this intrigued me to figure out why kids played better, were happier, and were growing more developmentally through their play when they had fewer toys. My learnings brought me here, to the conclusion that less toys may really make your child a genius (or smarter, at least).

More toys means less play, more distraction, and less creativity.

When children are young, the best way that they learn is through play. Children learn how to problem solve, be creative, share, and experiment – all through playing.

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So, wouldn’t it be better if kids had more toys to play with? Wouldn’t that offer more experiences for them to learn through?

Not necessarily.

In fact, the very opposite stands to be true, and we’ll dig into why that is in a little bit.

(If you’re just interested in the minimalist toy list for kids click here to skip this post and head straight to the list of toy options.)

With all the marketing attempts that surround us and constantly scream at us that our children need more…

More toys, more clothes, more sippy cups… more everything.

It’s easy to fall into the belief that the more toys your kid has, the quicker they’ll develop, the better they’ll play, and the happier they’ll be.

But in reality, the very opposite stands true.

Countless studies have been done that show that fewer toys are better for the development, creativity, and imagination of children.

But how can this be? 

Won’t kids get bored during the day if they don’t have toys to play with?

Think of it like this… as an adult, when you’re faced with too many options you’ll find yourself getting overwhelmed and out of sorts. When your to-do list is longer than a 12-foot pole, you get stressed out and don’t end up getting anything done.

However, when your to-do list only has 3 highly-important tasks on it, you don’t have any problem focusing in and getting those 3 things done.

When you stand in front of a closet overflowing with clothes, you’ll find yourself thinking, “Ugh. I have nothing to wear!” 

In the same way, children will stand in the middle of a room surrounded with toys and say, “Mom, I’m bored. There’s nothing to do.” (Isn’t that just our very favorite thing to hear?…)

No, this isn’t just your child being stubborn. 

It’s your child not knowing what to play with because he is surrounded with too many options. As parents, we may think the more options for play our child has, the better off they are – but in reality, the more options could be causing more harm than good by overstimulating and overwhelming our child.

When surrounded by too many toys, kids tend to get easily distracted and move quickly from one toy to the next, never fully taking enough time to let their creative juices flow and their imagination go wild.

Instead, when the toy they’re currently playing with loses their interest and stops entertaining them, they simply drop it like a hot potato and move on to the next best thing.

Then, before you know it they will have played with every toy in the room and they will be bored. 

Now what are they supposed to do?

Why too many toys is a problem for our children

Too many toys provide constant distractions for children. They will play with one toy for a couple of minutes before quickly moving on to the next, then the next, and the next.

And when they’ve gotten to the point where they’ve played with all their toys (is that possible?), you hear…

“Mom, I’m bored.”

While you look, in shock, at your child who is sitting in a room overflowing with toys. How on earth can they be bored?!?

Because they are surrounded by constant distractions – toys – that they haven’t mastered the skill of playing in a creative way.

They simply play with their toys for what they are – they use the drums as drums. Then, when they’re bored of drumming, they move on to the blocks. When they get bored of building with blocks, they move on yet again.

They are surrounded by endless options.

Which enables them to skip right over learning the skill of imaginative play, which is such an important part of cognitive development in children.

Less toys = less problems?

Don’t get me wrong – children need to play. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they need to play with toys.

When surrounded with fewer toys, kids will learn to play with their toys – and with things that were never intended to be their toys, and with nothing at all – for longer periods of time, and in more creative ways than what the specific item was intended to be used for. 

The drums won’t just be drums.

When they don’t have endless toys to move on to once they get bored of playing the drums their imagination will come out. They’ll imagine they’re part of a band and those drums will become so much more than just living-room drums.

Those are drums for a rockstar, now.

Children have become so accustomed to having endless options when it comes to playtime that once a particular toy stops entertaining them, they discard it and move on to the next great thing (until 5 minutes later, they get bored of that toy too and move on yet again).

A study was done at the University of Toledo to see if less really is more when it comes to kids and toys.

They experimented by allowing toddlers to play in a room with just 4 toys. Then, next time, the children played in a room with 16 toys.

The experiment concluded that when there were fewer toys, the children played with the toys in more creative ways. 

Instead of just using the toy for its intended use, the children would feed it, hammer with it, or hide it. 

When the children were in the room with 16 toys, they concluded that many of the kids played with 10+ toys in the first 15 minutes in the room. 

Less is more when it comes to creative play in children

By moving from toy to toy, children don’t take time to explore new ways to play and get creative. 

They simply move on to the next best thing.

When they have less toy options, they will learn how to use a toy creatively and for a use it wasn’t intended for. 

Should I take my kid’s toys away?

So what do you do if you already have an overabundance of toys in your house? Should you throw them all out regardless of the tantrums and tears it will cause?

Probably not.

What you can do, however, is create a toy rotation system to allow your children to play with the toys they have, but in smaller portions. 

You’re not throwing or giving 95% of their toys away, all you’re doing is packing them up and putting them in storage – somewhere your child won’t find them – until a later date.

This way you can teach your child how to play with less toys, which will help them have better focus, be creative, and rely less on things to keep them entertained and more on their imagination.

Keep in mind, if your child is used to playing in a playroom filled with dozens upon dozens of toys, it will likely take some time for them to get used to the idea of playing with less. 

They’ll miss their old toys and more likely than not you’ll hear “I’m bored” about 100 times in a day.

But, each day you’ll hear it a bit less.

Then a bit less. And a bit less.

And soon enough, your sweet child who used to need 128 different toys to entertain them throughout the day is now sitting in the tent they built for themselves in the living room having a picnic with a dinosaur and a fork.

And their imagination will be going wild.

If you’ve ever wondered “how can I make my child more creative?” … the answer may simply be in removing the things that are hindering their creativity.

How to create a toy rotation system

All this talk about having less toys isn’t to say that you have a bunch of junky toys in your home that need to be thrown out.

That’s not usually the case.

Toys just have a way of adding up – particularly if you have several kids, all at different developmental stages. You may have toys for babies, toys for toddlers, and toys for 6-year-olds… which all add up to… 

A whole lot of toys + a really big mess.

The idea of a toy rotation is that you give your child just a few toys to keep out and play with, and you pack the rest of the toys away somewhere they won’t be easily spotted. (The basement, the attic, in a box in the garage, etc.)

Then, you determine an amount of time that you’ll wait before switching the toys out for the other toys that are packed away (a week, a month, once every 6 months, or so on), and you let your children play with the toys that are out, regardless of their, “Mom, I’m bored” because sooner rather than later they’ll get used to playing with less toys and you start to hear that phrase less and less.

A toy rotation system sounds pretty appealing – here’s how to set yours up:

1. Gather your supplies

Don’t start before you’ve gathered your supplies, otherwise you’ll gather all the toys and have them in groupings only to notice that… you have no way to organize them and nowhere to store them.

Here are the toy rotation supplies you’ll need:

  • Clear storage bins (pro tip: you want to use clear storage bins that stack nicely – like these – so you don’t need to worry about them toppling over in storage and you can easily see what’s inside the bin.)
  • Tape (thick stuff. Like this.)
  • Black sharpie
  • Hefty trash bags (so toys don’t puncture the bag & the contents spill out. I recommend this brand.)
  • A cardboard box (for donating toys)

2. Gather the toys

We’re off to a running start – it’s time to gather every.single.one of your children’s toys and dump them all out in a pile together on the floor.

Toys from the toybox, toys from the couch cushions, toys from the bedroom, toys from the bathtub, toys from the little opening beside the fridge where you can barely fit your arm into.

All the toys.

Don’t let this step overwhelm you. Remember, this is the LAST TIME you’ll ever have to deal with all these toys in such a jumbled mess again.

After this step, you’ll likely be surprised by the sheer number of toys in your house. How does your whole family have room to LIVE in here with all these toys, anyway?

3. Sort toys into piles + declutter

Now it’s time to go through all the toys and sort them into categorized piles. The different categories will include:

  • Active/Movement toys: ride-on toys, balance board, balls, jump ropes, cozy truck.
  • Thinking toys: LEGOs, Lincoln logs, shape sorters, puzzles, stack and nest (these are my son’s absolute favorite).
  • Art & creating toys: drawing supplies, bristle blocks, rains sticks.
  • Pretend toys: dress-up clothes, play kitchens, dolls, action figures, fruit baskets.
  • Musical toys: drum sets, pianos, maracas, and other musical instrument toys.
  • Others: if you come across toys that you don’t know which category to put them into, try to find the category that fits the best. If you still don’t know, stick them in this “other” pile.

Take your time with this step, it’s the step that will take the most time, mainly because of the sheer volume of toys there are to sort through.

Once you get the toys sorted into their appropriate categorized piles, it will fly from there.

As you’re sorting the toys, any toys that you come across that are broken, toss (place these items into your hefty garbage bags that we talked about earlier). 

Any toys that your children have outgrown, have duplicates of, or simply don’t use, place into your donation box to be donated.

4. Fill the boxes

Now it’s time to fill the rotation boxes. The number of boxes you use will vary greatly depending on the amount of toys you have and the amount of toys you want to have out for your child to play with at a time.

When filling your boxes, be sure to include at least one toy from each of the above categories in each toy rotation box.

While there’s no right or wrong answer to the number of toys you keep out – just remember, the more options of toys your kids have, the less productive, creative, and imaginative their play will be. An ideal number of toys to shoot for having out at one time is 10 – 12.

Don’t panic.

You can easily go back into your boxes and easily adjust the number of toys by creating another box to put into rotation.

When you’re creating the rotation boxes, be thinking of the toys that you see your children playing with together, and try to pack those toys into the same box.

For example, if your child likes to play with her tea set while she holds her dolly, pack the two in the same box.

5. Make a rotation plan

The most difficult part of the toy rotation process is out of the way… it’s all smooth sailing from here (granted your kids don’t come home or wake up just yet). 

Now it’s time to decide how often you’ll switch the toys out – how often you’ll pack up the toys your kids are playing with now and give them a new box of toys to play with.

You can choose any of the following frequencies, or choose your own:

  • Daily

The daily rotation means you are packing up and unpacking your kid’s toys every single day. It’s a lot more of a hands-on approach and requires dedication and a fair bit of time from the parent.

  • Weekly

With the weekly frequency you would pick a particular day of the week to change your kid’s toys out every week. 

  • Monthly

Pick a particular day – or week – that you will switch your kid’s toys out for new ones every month.

  • At random

With this approach you won’t set a specific day or week that you’ll change the toys out – you’ll just wait for cues from your kids. If they start saying they’re bored more than usual, it may be a hint that it’s time to switch out their toys. This may happen quicker with some toy rotation boxes than others, because they may have an easier time playing with some toys than others. This frequency works really well, if your kids are enjoying playing with these particular toys they may not be ready for them to be packed away at the end of the week (or month, or day). Using this approach bases the frequency of switching toys out off of your children’s preferences.

6. Hide the toys

Now it’s time to display the toys that are staying out (don’t forget to leave toys out for your child to play with right now!), and hide the rest away somewhere that your child won’t see (because once they see the toys packed away… cue tears, tantrums, and a giant wrench thrown in the middle of your toy rotation system).

When you’re picking the hiding place for the toy rotation bins, keep in mind that if you chose to go with clear containers – which I do suggest – your children will be able to see their toys if they happen to come across the containers…

…so hide the containers somewhere that your kids don’t go, but also easy enough to access so you aren’t tripping over dog crates and toolboxes to get at them when it’s time to switch toys out.

How do you take toys away from a child without upsetting them?

If your children are older than toddlers, have a conversation with them about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.

Kids aren’t dumb – they WILL notice if they wake up one morning and their favorite Barbie just happens to be missing.

Explain to them that you’re packing some of their toys up, but they will get them back soon. For now, encourage them to play with the toys that get left out.

Listen to your child – they he or she has a request for a particular toy to be left out, listen to them and keep that toy out.

However, don’t let them go overboard and make a list of 12 toys they’d like kept out. Tell them they can request one special toy.

For older children, you could even request their help in the toy rotation task – however, you know your child best, and if they wouldn’t be able to handle seeing their favorite toys being packed away, skip that step and do it on your own.

If your children are toddlers or younger, be sure to pack these toys up while they are sleeping or out of the house.

No one likes to see their favorite toy packed away. Setting up your toy rotation in front of your kids is just asking for tears and tantrums. 

What to do when people keep buying toys for your child

I get it. You don’t want to be rude by not accepting a gift for your child. 

What you can do when you have people who buy lots of gifts for your children is to use the process of removing an old toy each time a new one enters. 

This process of keeping your kids toys minimal works best when you switch out like-for-like.

For example, if your child gets given a doll, remove one of the old dolls (place it in a toy rotation box that’s in storage, or start a new one) and let them play with the new doll.

If they get given a toy car, remove one of their old cars and pack it away into a toy rotation box and let them play with the new one.

Minimalist toy list

Toys are still an important part of a child’s development and shouldn’t be removed completely. The key is to give children access to toys and items that encourage imagination and aren’t restricted to just one use.

Here is a quick list of the only toys a child needs to have creative and healthy play:

Your child doesn’t necessarily need every toy on this list, however it’s a good idea to have a handful of toys from each toy category (movement toys, thinking toys, pretend toys, creative toys, musical toys).

When shopping for toys for your kids, remember that open-ended toys are always the way to go. 

These are the toys that aren’t just “single use” toys. They’re toys that encourage imagination and simple play.

Some examples of open ended toys for kids are-

The benefits of having less toys

  • Less toy clutter

Having less toys out for your child to play with at a time means there will be less toy clutter around the house, less Legos to step on, and less dolly strollers to trip over.

  • You’re encouraging deeper play

By restricting the amount of toys your child plays with at a time you’re encouraging them to use their imagination, to get creative, and be content playing with the toy they have. (Not the 20 they don’t.)

  • Quicker cleanup

Having less toys out means that not as big of a mess can be made… which means, cleanup will be much quicker and pain free.

  • Declutter toys

Having fewer toys out for your child to play with and setting up a successful toy rotation system gives you the perfect chance to declutter the toys that your child has outgrown, doesn’t like, or that don’t work anymore – all without tears, since you’re able to declutter the toys that are packed away, your child won’t even notice it’s gone. 

  • Less boredom

By having fewer toys out at a time, your child will learn how to keep themselves occupied for longer periods of time with one thing. They will also get really excited when you rotate the toys and bring a new set of toys out. (It’s like Christmas for them!)

  • Longer attention spans

Children will develop longer attention spans when there’s less toys out to play with. It’s all too easy to get bored of one thing and move on to the next when there’s an entire toy box overflowing with toys to be played with.

  • They’ll take better care of things

It’s easy for kids to play rough and misplace toys when they have an abundance of “back up” toys easily accessible. When they have fewer toys to play with, they’ll learn how to keep track of where they place things and be more careful with their toys.

  • Less entitlement

The sense of entitlement that can come with having many toys will be taken away when your child realizes that what he sees is what he gets – and he’s going to have to learn how to make do and have fun with the toys at hand.

Are toys good for children + Do toys affect child development?

Absolutely – to both.

Toys provide opportunity for children to learn, in some way or another. Whether that’s your 6-month-old learning how to pass a Bumpy ball from one hand to the other, or your toddler using her wooden building blocks to build towers, toys offer endless opportunities to learn.

They also play a big role in children’s cognitive development – learning how to problem solve, communicate, have a better memory, and plan what happens next.

So why take toys away? 

Even though toys are GREAT for children’s development, too many toys can – and will – still pose a problem.

If they can’t focus on the toy they’re playing with or won’t spend much time playing with a certain toy, as soon as they get frustrated, they’ll discard it and move on to the next readily-available toy waiting for them.

They won’t learn how to problem solve; they’ll learn how to avoid.

If the tower they’re building with their geo blocks keeps falling over, they won’t keep trying and eventually figure out where to place the blocks to build a tower that doesn’t fall over. Instead, they’ll move on to play with something else.

However, when the chaos and busyness of all those other toys are removed, they’ll be able to focus better on what they’re doing – building a tower – and will eventually figure out what they were doing wrong and how to fix it.

With all this talk about bigger kids, what about babies?

Do babies need toys to learn?

Yes… toys even help babies learn. They can learn things like hand-eye coordination with soft blocks or that rattles make noise when they get shaken

Toys are certainly important for development in children of all ages.

How many toys does the average child have?

Studies have shown that the average household has 71 children’s toys, with one fifth of households owning more than 100 toys, and more than one in 10 homes owning more than 200 toys.

The average family spends $581 every year just on toys. (Source)

Does the average child really need 71 toys? 

Not unless you don’t want them to play with the same toy twice.

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Less toys, more play

So maybe it’s time to cut down on the number of toys your child has… and if you can’t get yourself to get rid of the toys, consider using the steps above to lay out a toy rotation system so you only have some toys out at once (not 71), and the rest packed away in storage.

We’d love to hear your opinions on whether you believe children should have plenty of toys, or if the number of toys a child has should be limited. Feel free to share your thoughts with us in the comments below. 🙂

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