Child's play: Researchers say when it comes to toys, less is more

Joan Goodchild
Too many toys can overstimulate children and cause anxiety.

Many parents are familiar with the issue of an ever-growing collection of toys in the house for children. Toys in the closets. Toys all over the playroom. Toys in every corner of the child’s bedroom. As these playthings stack up, it becomes more of a dilemma to find a place to store everything. Then begins the angst and guilt-filled process of deciding what to throw away. It is often an emotionally-charged scenario because we feel so conflicted about pitching out items that may have at one point been a favorite toy and which may hold sentimental value.

But it’s time to set the guilt aside. That’s because research finds less is more when it comes to toys.  Research backs this up. Researchers at the University of Toledo in Ohio observed 36 toddlers, ages 18 to 30 months, and brought children into a playroom lab on two occasions. On the initial observation, the room had just four toys. The second time kids were asked to play for researchers, the room had many more toys, as many as 16. When toddlers were exposed to fewer toys, they played twice as long with the toys they had and in more sophisticated ways, according to the study’s lead investigator.

Douglas Haddad, a teacher based in Connecticut and author of the book “The Ultimate Guide to Raising Teens and Tweens: Strategies for Unlocking Your Child’s Full Potential” says having fewer toys is actually better for kids because it means having fewer distractions in a child’s environment.

More:Let it go: 5 ways to help your kids get rid of toys

 “This allows children to engage more deeply in play where they can develop their imagination unobstructed and come up with different scenarios to interact with the physical and social elements of their environment,” said Haddad. “Attention is fundamental to quality play. When distractions are introduced, they take away opportunities for a child to explore their world to discover challenges and acquire new skills. Overall, engaging in quality play enhances a child’s cognitive, emotional, social, and physical skills.”

Douglas Haddad, a teacher based in Connecticut and author of the book “The Ultimate Guide to Raising Teens and Tweens: Strategies for Unlocking Your Child’s Full Potential” says having fewer toys is actually better for kids because it means having fewer distractions in a child’s environment.

Haddad says when there are too many choices available for children, it creates undue anxiety, which triggers the child’s brain to be in a constant state of arousal, ultimately resulting in an increased desire for stimulation. Too many toys can also lead to sibling arguments about toys. Tantrums tend to escalate with the number of new toys that are introduced, according to Haddad.

“The key to quality play is having only a few toys available at any given time. If you are concerned that your child may become easily bored, first consider decluttering the play space and pay attention to the toys that your child most frequently plays with. From there, you can strategically determine which toys you can keep out for your child to play with and which ones you can store away out of your child’s view and later reintroduce. You can get creative and rotate other toys in the mix on a weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly basis so your child can rediscover interest in those toys.”

Paring down the clutter

How do you get started with decluttering when holding on to toys can be such an emotional decision? Rhea Becker, also known as The Clutter Queen through her professional organizing business in Boston, says start slow.

“Many parents can be sentimental about certain toys, and it’s ok to keep a few things around merely because of the fond memories they evoke,” said Becker. “Prioritize toys and games that your kids are using now and put the sentimental items in a space that is not your living space. A closet, the basement or attic will do.”

But do keep at it, and regularly throw items out or donate them. There is no need for so many toys and simplifying spaces can actually be beneficial for children.

“The playroom should be decluttered,” said Becker. “This spring consider discarding toys or games that are missing a piece or are broken, items that your child has ‘aged out of, or toys that siblings fight over. It’s important to clear things out. If there are too many toys, games, stuffed animals, and other objects in a child’s life it can make it difficult for kids to find the things they really want.”

The right toys for stimulating play

For any purchases going forward, Haddad recommends traditional toys rather than screens or other technological gadgets.

Haddad suggests having each toy serve a development purpose, including:

Cognitive skill development - a toy that teaches a concept such as letters, numbers, shapes, colors. Examples include puzzles or shape and color blocks.

Gross and fine motor skill development - a toy that encourages a child to build, open, twist, push, pull, stack, or any activity that encourages physical manipulation. Examples include fingerpaints or building blocks or small vehicles.

Problem-solving development - a toy that promotes creative thinking, imagination, and problem solving through play. Examples include stacking cups, puzzles with different themes.

Interpersonal skill development - a toy that promotes a child’s language development and allows for imitation/pretend play. Examples include stuffed animals, dolls, figures and pretend foods.

“My wife and I have three storage bins for our daughter’s toys. We dedicate one bin for toys that help build her cognitive and problem-solving skills, another for her dolls and stuffed animals, and a third bin for toys which she can physically manipulate that help develop her gross and fine motor skills.