Tuesday, February 23, 2016

How We Keep Toys Manageable (Part 1)

This is part of a series on my home decluttering efforts.

Most Americans assume that you cannot have a simple, clutter-free home with kids, and toys are a major reason for this assumption. Toys are seemingly pervasive where children are concerned: there are Christmas and birthday presents, gifts from visiting relatives, gifts from in-town relatives, souvenirs from vacations, and of course, toys from visits to the dentist, doctor, supermarket, and post office. We obviously don't have to get toys from every (or any!) one of these sources, but they are there, and it can be easy to give in a little too much and end up with toy clutter. I find that too many toys quickly make a house feel cluttered, which frustrates parents and frazzles kids.

Kids can become overwhelmed by too many toys and react in whatever way their craziness happens to tend (because we all have that crazy just waiting to come out). In one of my all-time favorite parenting books, Simplicity Parenting, Kim John Payne describes noticing that an overwhelming environment, including too many toys, clothes, and even books, caused undue stress in children, prompting them to display behaviors we associate with anxiety, OCD, and ADHD.

So... with all this temptation to keep getting fun, cute, and "educational" toys, what is a simplicity-minded parent to do?

Remember that kids don't need toys from a store

True confession: I really love buying toys for my kids. Not all toys; some I find unbelievably obnoxious, but when I feel like a particular toy will make a particular child happy, or contribute to an interest, or lead to some new ways of playing, I can be a woman possessed. I sometimes even feel annoyed at having to give away some of "my" toy ideas for my kids so relatives can buy them Christmas and birthday gifts. It's silly, but there it is.

That being said, my reasonable side tells me that in reality, kids don't need toys at all! Anyone who has observed children deep in play can attest to this. For about 20 minutes now, my kids have been digging in the dirt in our front yard. I believe they are pirates digging for buried treasure, and their tools consist of one adult trowel and one kid-sized sandbox shovel. The real toys are the rocks and the dirt, and these are free and plentiful.

A German kindergarten recently drew international media coverage for agreeing to participate in a research study to remove all the toys from the classroom for three months. At the end of the three months, there was less fighting and more imaginative play among the children than before the experiment. Instead of toys, we try to give our kids good outdoor space (including local parks and natural areas!), access to grown-up activities like cooking and cleaning, and lots of art supplies and library books.

Keep toys simple

The simpler a toy is, the more kids can do with it in imaginary play. A super turbo character superhero spacecraft with sound and light buttons does pretty much one thing, and the kids do pretty much one thing - push buttons. With these toys, kids aren't the creators of stories; they become toy operators. The toy is so complex and self-contained that it doesn't require any imagination. 

Simple toys like blocks and building toys, sticks, fabric for dress-up, pillows, ropes, and simple dolls and animals, can be used a million different ways, so kids don't need as many toys. They also evolve as the child grows. We have a set of wooden blocks that we got when my eldest was one year old, and four years later, our kids play with them almost every day, making complex structures or pretending they are treasures of one sort or another.

Let toys be beautiful

This may seem silly. What does it matter if toys are beautiful, and do kids really care? First of all (and this was our primary motivation when we started getting beautiful toys for our kids), handcrafted toys made of natural materials like wood and fabric look nicer in the adult areas of your home, which makes it look less cluttered (even when it is). I like to use natural woven baskets for toy storage, and canvas bags like these for plastic pieces, to make our home look more uniform and make cleanup easier. Bright plastic toys and storage bins stand out more against a background of adult decor.

As to whether kids enjoy beautiful toys more, a quote widely attributed to Plato has it that the most effective education for a child is to play amongst lovely things. With beautiful, natural toys, young children are exposed to a variety of textures and weights. They learn aesthetic principles by handling handcrafted items, and they can learn to imagine how their toys were made (and subsequently learn to make their own). 

To me, beauty is a good in and of itself, so filling our kids' lives with more beauty surely can't hurt. Finally, as an added bonus, beautiful toys cost more, so you (and the grandparents) will likely buy fewer of them!

Check in next week for Part 2 of how we manage toy clutter.