If your baby or toddler is like most kids, she probably has bins and shelves of toys — more than she can possibly play with more than a few times before she outgrows them. And with the holidays approaching, she’ll no doubt be getting even more playthings under the tree from grandma, grandpa and other family members and friends.
But no matter how well a toy may be designed to boost your child’s brain development or encourage fine-motor skills (and there are lots of great toys out there that do those things), an interesting new study shows that there are some distinct downsides to surrounding your child with too many playthings. According to the study, which is scheduled to be published in the February, 2018, issue of Infant Behavior & Development, having access to a lot of toys at once can lessen the quality of the way toddlers play while having access to fewer toys at once may improve toddlers’ ability to focus and to engage with the toys in more creative ways.
What Happened When Toddlers Had Too Many Toys
Researchers at the University of Toledo observed 36 toddlers between 18 and 36 months of age in two different play sessions in their lab’s playroom. In one session, the scientists put 4 toys in the room with a child; in the second session, they put 16 toys in the room. The scientists measured how each child interacted with the toys, taking note of things like how often they played with a toy; how long they played; and how many different ways they engaged with a toy.
The researchers saw clear differences in the way the kids interacted with the toys in the sessions. When there were 16 toys, the children changed from toy to toy more often. “Almost all of the kids interacted with all the toys,” says Alexia Metz, PhD, principle investigator on the study. “They didn’t play very long with each object and it was very superficial — they’d pick it up, look at it, drop it and switch to something else.”
On the other hand, when they only had 4 toys to play with, they switched toys less frequently and played with each one twice as long, says Dr. Metz. “The level of play was more sophisticated,” says Dr. Metz. They engaged more and pretended more, doing things like feeding, talking, hammering, building, and combining the toys as they played with them. “With a vehicle toy, they might push it around then take it and drive it somewhere,” says Dr. Metz.
Too Much of a Good Thing
The big takeaway message from this eye-opening study: When it comes to toys, less is more, says Dr. Metz. When a child has too many toys within reach, it can be overwhelming, and may hinder development of skills like learning how to interact richly with something, pay attention and focus, and stick with something. “If we don’t do this early, how can we expect kids to have these skills later?” asks Dr. Metz.
“Think about it like a department store versus a neighborhood store model,” says Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, PhD, a professor at the University of Delaware and director of its Child’s Play, Learning, and Development Laboratory. With a department store, you have everything at once, which can be overwhelming, whereas with a small store, you can be more thoughtful and consider things like which toy is in line with what your child likes and which may expand your child’s horizon.
Plus, when a child has too many toys, there’s an increased likelihood that he may not appreciate the things he has. If you have a limited number of toys, you may grow attached to something, but when you have a great number, you may be less respectful and appreciative of what you have, notes Dr. Golinkoff.
Of course, you don’t want to take away all of her toys or leave her with only a few. Those toys you chose with care (scanning for things like age-appropriateness, safety and how much fun it is) can certainly stay, especially if your child loves it. The key is to keep only a few out at once and keep the rest out of sight in a closet or a box, and rotate the toys so that they feel new to your baby each time you take it out. And if you find that there are just too many toys for her to play with overall, you may also want to give some to friends or family or donate them to a charity.
When deciding what to keep and what to give away, consider having a mix of toys, suggests Dr. Metz. Keep some that are just for fun, like cars, stuffed animals, keyboards or drums. “Not every toy has to teach colors or shapes or be battery-operated,” says Dr. Metz.
How to Encourage Kids to Play with Fewer Toys
To nurture creativity in your little one and cut down the number of attention-grabbing distractions around her, try the following:
- Choose toys that encourage social interaction. Many electronic devices are designed for individual use, which means kids miss out on playing with each other or a caregiver, says Dr. Golinkoff. Opt for board games or other playthings that encourage a child to play with someone else.
- Look for toys that require your child’s imagination. A plaything should be 90 percent child and 10 percent toy, so that your child can figure things out, says Dr. Golinkoff. Some awesome non-toy items your child can play with: old clothes (hemmed so that she can play dress up), art supplies and paper bag puppets. “The marketplace has convinced parents something can’t be good if it’s cheap when the truth is just the opposite,” says Dr. Golinkoff.
- Pick toys that get your child outside. A rubber ball, sidewalk chalk, even a bucket of water and a brush to “pain” the sidewalk are all great toys that can encourage kids to get outdoors and get active with parents and caregivers.
- Go into the kitchen. Let your child help you measure and pour ingredients or “cook” his own food with homemade play-dough.
- Turn bath time into playtime. Squirt bottles, cups, and bathtub crayons equal loads of fun with little to no cleanup.
- Have some fun with a flashlight. For toddlers, a flashlight is a forbidden object that grownups use. When it starts getting dark, go outside with your little one and let your child show you what they see as they take charge, says Dr. Golinkoff.
- Let your little one be a scientist and explorer. Use a magnifying glass (with your help, of course!) and discover what’s outside in the garden, on the sidewalk, in the park and more.