Permission to pare down: Having too many toys is actually bad for young kids' development
A good research-backed reminder as we head into the holidays.
Childhood is the time for play and imagination, but in the modern era, that's often translated into toys, toys and more toys. There's nothing wrong with toys, of course—humans have been making toys of one kind or another across cultures for millennia. But in our age, endless aisles of consumerism means an overabundance of toy options that can easily overtake the playroom.
It doesn't help that toys have gotten increasingly cheaper over the past 30 years. And with the holidays approaching, families often feel compelled to pile the presents high and deep, leading to an ever-greater accumulation of toys.
If you feel like it's all too much, you're not wrong. And thankfully, there's research to back you up on this.
We all know that kids don't need a ton of toys, but not everyone knows that having too many toys is actually bad for kids. And I don't just mean in a too-many-toys-will-spoil-them kind of way. As child development expert Dan Wuori shared on X, "In a 2018 study, researchers observed two different toddler play settings—one with 16 toys and the other with only 4. What they found was that the children presented with fewer options actually engaged more deeply in play. They stayed focused longer and used the toys available to them in more imaginative ways. Which is just what we want, developmentally."
He also pointed out that the parents participating in the study estimated that their children had, on average, 90 toys at home. That's a whole lot of toys to choose from.
For one, spaces with too many toys can be overstimulating and overwhelming for young children. Have you ever been to an ice cream shop that had dozens of flavors and tried to pick just one? Even adults can find their decision-making skills stymied by having too many choices, so imagine being a small child who is new to everything trying to decide what to play with.
Also, fewer toys helps kids focus and play more deeply, in addition to helping encourage problem-solving skills. If a child gets frustrated with a toy that they can't figure out how to use, they'll be tempted to move on to an easier one if there are tons to choose from. If they are limited by what's available, they're more likely to take the time to figure it out.
The good news is that having a lot of toys doesn't automatically mean your kid is going to be hindered developmentally. There are several ways parents can make a big difference here:
- Establish a regular pattern of purging. Determine how many toys is "enough" toys, and set the expectation that when a new toy comes in, an old one goes out. Keep it positive by donating toys and explaining it as "sharing the toy joy" with other kids.
- Rotate the toys you do have. Keep a few toys out and stash the others away, out of sight and out of reach. When a child seems to have exhausted a toy, replace it with one from the stash. This way children only have access to a few toys at a time so they get the benefit of both a limited number of toys to play with and also the benefit of having a variety of toys to rotate.
- Remember that toys don't need to be fancy or complex. Open-ended toys that can be used for lots of different kinds of play are often popular choices, but kids can make almost anything into a toy. Most parents discover that their toddler is more interested in the box than the toy that came in it—just go with it. Often the fewer toys they have, the more imaginative they will be in making everyday objects into playthings.
- If you're concerned about your kid getting a deluge of toys for Christmas, maybe suggest some alternatives to well-meaning family members that can still be wrapped and unwrapped (which is most of the fun of giving and getting presents). There are practical options that kids actually get into, like a toothbrush set, bath towel, cup or other useful item in their favorite colors or characters. A watch or a sleeping bag or their own set of kitchen tools are also great options. Arts and crafts materials, depending on the age, can be a big hit, too.
A handful of toys is truly all kids need at one time, so give yourself permission to pare down the playroom. It will not only save a lot of mess but it's actually a healthy choice for your child in the long run.