New research suggests playing with fewer toys is good for kids

Just say no.
Just say no.
Image: Reuters/Eduardo Munoz
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Some people say that you can apply Marie Kondo to kids. De-clutter their rooms, and both you and your children will experience more joy.

A new study published in the journal Infant Behavior and Development gives fresh fodder to these Kondo-converts. It tested 36 kids between the ages of 18 months and 30 months under two conditions—playing with 16 toys and with just four toys—to see if kids would do more with less.

The authors, led by Alexia Metz, a doctoral student at the University of Toledo, concluded that, unsurprisingly, kids who played with four toys played longer with each toy. But kids who played with fewer toys also had “higher quality” play—that is, they played in a greater variety of ways with the limited number of toys than they did when presented with 16 options. It concludes:

“This suggests that when provided with fewer toys in the environment, toddlers engage in longer periods of play with a single toy, allowing better focus to explore and play more creatively. This can be offered as a recommendation in many natural environments to support children’s development and promote healthy play.”

The philosophy of “less is more” seems intuitive—give kids fewer toys, and they are bound to play with them longer. It also seems desirable in an age of over-consumption to limit the pile-up of stuff.

But the study suggests a more substantive takeaway: that longer play with a toy means more creative play, and that increased time with toys might help kids develop their attention span, which is very fleeting at that age.

Unfortunately, the study can’t definitively prove either of these ideas. There is little literature to support the idea that longer durations with individual toys is beneficial for child development. The authors define “higher quality” play as interacting with toys in a bigger variety of ways: “as time went on during an epoch of play, their actions with the toys became more sophisticated … moving from exploratory play (like poking, turning, pushing) to pretend and construction play,” Metz said in an email. That sounds good, but curiosity is also good—and that might include exploring play with more kinds of toys.

The authors also hypothesized that perhaps young kids have a strong ability to focus; we just don’t know it, because we offer them too many distractions. If we create less distracting environments, we could enable their attention-building muscles to build better. That could be the case, but the theory will have to be developed by future research that involves a better balance of subjects (this study looked at only one play session, and of the 36 toddlers in the study, 27 were girls, and most of the kids were well-off.) It may well be that the novelty kids experience with fewer toys disappears fast.

Regardless, the study underscores a fundamental truth for parents. Parenting can involve a lot of short-term thinking, with the goal of just getting through the night (please sleep) or the moment (please stop crying/whining/shrieking/hitting your sister) taking precedence. But when we pacify kids in the short-term with technology and toys, we may discourage the development of the long-term skill of boredom and the art of just making do. As many a grandparent has said, pots and pans are perfectly suitable toys. For those looking to help their kids, the key takeaway here may well be to take away some of their toys.

This reporting is part of a series supported by a grant from the Bernard van Leer Foundation.