Children are Happier with Minimal Toys

“Our Children no longer learn how to read the great book of Nature from their own direct experience, or how to interact creatively with the seasonal transformations of the planet. They seldom learn where their water come from or where it goes.”

~~ Wendell Berry

When I became a grandmother I visited yard sales and thrift shops looking for a few toys I could store in a box to pull out when the children visited.ย  I didn’t have a lot, I’d say about a dozen, and none that used batteries.ย  It wasn’t long before I passed on those toys because the children wanted to feel grown up and play with adult things.

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Two years old helping to paint the walls in her new home before moving in.

When I moved in the farmhouse to be closer to my youngest son and his family, I was dismayed to find a box of toys my son had already brought to my new home for his children to play with when visiting. I’m slowly giving back many of them or passing them on because the children don’t want to play with them, they want to act grown up and weather permitting, play outside exploring.

In the warm months, the children want to be outside. They love running through the yard, swinging from a rope in the tree or helping with the gardens. In the colder months, they want to create and play with me.

more rope fun
The neighbor kids join the grandchildren lining up for their turn to hang from the rope swing.

The children also love learning about the insects and other animals outside. One granddaughter regularly finds butterflies will sit still and let her pick them up, the other granddaughter names every butterfly that she sees.

Rolly Pollies at Little Guys favorite bug to find but so are caterpillars and worms. Here he is collecting worms around the slide and carrying them over to the watermelon bed where he then announced he was my helper and was making the watermelons grow better.

Sister had to wait to slide down the slide because she might hurt the worms.

The photos aren’t the best as I was trying to zoom in with my phone.

Little Guy doesn’t understand how worms help the garden he only knows they do.

While it’s not possible for a parent to give their children one-on-one attention 24/7 as I can do when having the children here for a few hours, or a couple of days, children still prefer more grown up activities to the majority of toys sold expressly for them.

That said I do believe children should have some toys. I try to limit the toys to games and items that will spark their creativity. Some examples are: a baby doll, a ball and cars, regardless of gender. Dice and cardboard boxes will entertain them for hours and take up very little space.

Children love pillows and blankets which when not there for comfort will be used to build tents. Imaginative play is the most important activity for small children to experience for development, in my opinion, not as some would have us believe those toys advertised to aid development.

playing with dice
My grandson and the neighbors taking a break from the heat with a dice game they made up.

When the children are here they pull out pots and pans, board games and like to help with work around the house, even the two-year old can help prepare meals or load a dishwasher.

Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed

~~Maria Montessori

When we emptied the large cabinet I use as a pantry the then one year old wanted to help. I hesitated because of the glass doors but then let him help. You’ve never seen such pride as he picked up a box or jar and carried it across the kitchen where he stretched as hard as he could to put the container on the counter by himself.

preparing drive for pavers
They love to work. Here my grandson and his friend lay pavers in the drive to make maneuvering the wheel chair easier through the gravel.

When the children go home I take the measuring cups and spoons and any pans they removed and return them to the kitchen.ย  To save water I usually wait to wash the pans until they are needed to prepare a meal.

restoring chair.jpg
Six years after asking if he could help me sand furniture it’s still something he looks forward to when visiting.

Children used to play along side the adults as they worked and when old enough would ask to work with the adults. Today we shoo children off to get our work done faster and both the children and adults miss out on experiences that would make the work more enjoyable.

One of those toys that was left here on move in day was a shape sorter. My grandson refused to play with it yet when he visited one of the first toys he would play with was a Connect Four game, go figure.

But most of all I would let them make their own toys and just play. You never know what will inspire them next. Join the fun and you could find yourself having a lovely afternoon.

Okay, so play doh, in this case homemade, is still fun.

Things don’t really impress me. Memories impress me. It’s not the toys it’s the people.

~~R.A. Salvatore

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43 comments

  1. LOVE this post. When I was a kid, my best friend and I would make up games, and our favorite was “mad scientist.” We’d get out every pitcher, jar, and container in the house and fill them with water colored with food coloring. Then the game was to mix colors (or potions as we called them) to try to come up with the prettiest possible shades. Of course by the end everything ended up the same horrible shade of brown with all the colors mixed together, but it was soooo much more fun than any store bought toy. Of course, my mother did NOT like this game at all because it meant tons of dirty dishes. So we played in secret while she was at work and carefully washed everything before she got home!

    Anyhow, I think that kids, just like the rest of us, suffer from stuff overload. The more you have, the less you enjoy it.

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    • What a great game and you were learning so much at the same time. Last summer the girls decided to break up sidewalk chalk and soak the different colors in water to see what would happen. I had all these jars sitting in the sun for weeks before they finally deemed them the right shades and painted plaques to gift. They had a few that came out all brown but they came up with a couple they really liked.

      Not only do I agree kids are suffering from overload from too much stuff but when the power is out they have no idea what to do with themselves because everything they have needs to be plugged in.

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  2. All true, and well spoke.

    I hindsight, I myself wished
    a) I had provided/allowed less “toys”
    b) had stuck to the routine of no cable/tiny t.v. (to the extent it was nearly not worth watching)
    sigh…

    ah well…

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    • Hindsight is wonderful in that it lets us pile on the guilt for all those things we could have done differently. I don’t worry too much about the things I did when my kids were little. I know I did the best I could with what I had and who I was then. I tell my kids it’s their turn now to take what they learned, and liked, from me and build on that for their children.

      I think cable TV has gotten worse over the years. No way I would have it in the house with kids today.

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  3. This post made me smile ๐Ÿ™‚
    Of course, I agree. The children adore helping with jobs in and around the house. I just had two of my grandchildren for two days, they are 2 and 5. They helped sweep in preparation for my husband’s birthday bbq, watering plants in the heat, setting table, preparing food, tidying up, cooking and baking, you name it, and they helped my husband with stuff, too. There are books and a few toys left over from our own kids here so there is always entertainment – wooden blocks, some from an old dismantled jenga set, some antique ones I got for a song at a thrift store incl. a few tiny trees, cars and animals (all wood). There is a tub of neutral lego that the eldest grandson enjoys (he’s nearly 9). The two middle ones like that there are two baby dolls with a few play items and the 5 yr old girl doesn’t really care that there is a large tub of Barbie and accessories that our girls accumulated over the years but never much played with (except perhaps the youngest – I must go through this and just keep a fraction! In fact, I need to review all that is left toywise because they ignore some of the toys = unnecessary..) Mainly, they like certain books and coloured pencils, otherwise they are busy with me or outside. Even at their own house, we do little that involves toys, so I am very pleased! The 5 year old makes a mean salad dressing, by the way… Looking forward to seeing what the baby likes to do as she grows up – she is only just sitting so it is like watching something unfold :).
    One thing that you also mention is that I always avoided toys that had batteries or made some kind of electronic noise, what is the point in a toy that entertains a child instead of the child entertaining themself with the toy?!!
    I recently saw some cute videos of a young woman with 10 children and no toys… brilliant!

    ps @ecocatlady – we used to be witches and make potions of all kinds of leaves and stuff we found outside lol and later we would make fairy cakes (i.e. cupcakes/muffins) and try to get them colourful with food dye; I remember they turned out dull brownish or greenish, jellified and stuck to the pan!! Ugh, revolting mess. It took us ages to clean up… this was also an unsupervised activity while our moms worked, I think we were 9. Fun memory!

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    • Books are always on hand, we go to the library regularly to keep new titles coming in. You are very fortunate to be starting over with a baby to watch develop. I love seeing how their personalities form as the get older.

      You are right on about battery operated toys. The kids get bored with them quickly if they have the option of also playing with things they can manipulate that doesn’t have batteries and sounds.

      The woman with ten kids has my admiration. I don’t think I would have been happy with a family that large but kudos for her in not having any toys.

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  4. From my experience both as a child and raising a couple, you are right on with your ideas for play. I was also wondering what a visit to Grandma’s house will look like when your grandkids are young teens. At that age, they are very much trying to become independent people and aren’t always interested in what the adults around them are doing. Since you get to see them frequently, it may evolve naturally.

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    • I’m not looking forward to the teen years, I’m having too much fun with them at this age. We have talked about it, my oldest granddaughter asked if she could bring a friend down to have sleepovers, I told her her friends would always be welcome. As for my grandson, if I can come up with jobs that involve tools and outside work he will be here often.

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  5. Lois, on Christmas Day we went to visit the kids mid morning, a 35 minute drive and through our neighbouring wee town out to his suburb. We did not see one single child outside playing with new toys, not one kid trying out a new scooter or ball even….we virtually saw no one, all inside playing new computer games no doubt. It was like the apocalypse had happened and both Roger and I were really unnerved by this on a Christmas Day. It’s sad!!

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    • That’s horrible. I can understand high crime rate areas where you fear your child could be shot if outside. Instead what I hear all the time from kids is that the outdoors is boring. I can’t imagine ever being bored outside even as an adult.

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      • Yeah, no high crime rate here, just a sad sign of the times. Now we are seeing on the news small kids are having issues with anxiety but a great new therapy is proving interesting…..running around outside! Go figure!?

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        • Ha! To think we have arrived at a point where we have to tell parents that their kids need time outdoors. There’s a book out called Last Child in the Woods which addresses just this issue. The term is now called nature deficit disorder. At least that’s one “medical” issue that can be corrected without medication, just send your kids out to play.

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          • I hope you can find that book, I enjoyed it. Just today I watched while bags and bags were taken out of a house of children’s things. One huge trash bag was filled with just one child’s socks and underwear. It took several trips to move only clothes and toys. I couldn’t believe it and the toys far out numbered the clothes! No wonder that child never came outside to play!

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    • That makes me so sad. I hear these reports of modern children who have to be goaded into playing outside, and it makes my brain hurt trying to understand it. I mean, when I was a kid, you literally could not keep us inside. Didn’t matter the season or the weather – if it was snowing or raining, so much the better as far as we were concerned. Now they have all of these “self improvement programs” for kids like the NFL’s “Play 60” which tries to get kids to set a “goal” of playing outside for 60 minutes every day. Seriously?!? I mean to my ears this sounds absolutely crazy… like bribing children to eat ice cream or something. Why would children need encouragement to go have fun?

      Anyhow Lois, your comment about fear of crime struck a bell with me. I ride my bike all over the city, and while each neighborhood is different, there is one unifying principle. The wealthier the neighborhood, the less people there are outside. When you ride through the projects or the poor neighborhoods, there are kids outside playing everywhere you look. People have tiny patches of dirt for yards, but they’re always outside BBQing or picnicking or even just sitting on the porch. Heck, people even hang out in parking lots and driveways! But when you hit the schmancy sections of town you don’t see a soul – except for the people who have been hired to mow the lawns etc.

      The great irony of it is that in the poor parts of town, the kids play in the streets or the stray vacant lot, or any place they can because there are few parks and the ones that exist aren’t in the best of condition. Meanwhile in the wealthy areas there are lush beautiful parks, and lawns and playgrounds and patios everywhere you look – but nobody ever uses them. Now, if there are places where you’d think people would be afraid of crime, you’d think it would be in the poorer neighborhoods, but that doesn’t really seem to be the case. It’s like the wealthy are all huddled inside in their fancy gilded cages, terrified that the poor people might get them or something.

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      • You make a good point and I’ve noticed it too. Like I said, I could understand a parent keeping kids inside if they were in a high crime area. I can’t understand how we got to the point where kids stay indoors because that’s what they want to do.

        Personally, having lived in the projects, my opinion is that the poorer you are the less you can afford the smart phones and video games, computer and so on that entertain kids and so the kids go outside where they won’t be so bored. It was also my experience that few of the really poor could afford cars and so made friends with the neighbors. Not sure that many still socialize with the neighbors around here regardless of their income levels.

        Another thing that comes to mind is the richer families pay for organized sports, dance classes, music lessons etc. Kids are so over scheduled that the little free time they have why not spend it veggie out indoors it’s what they see their parents doing too.

        Like you, I never thought we’d have to devise some crazy program to get kids outside such as the Play60. I know my youngest would have loved to meet a few of his favorite players and toss a ball around but even he didn’t need that to be active in the outdoors.

        There are downsides to kids loving all weather, such as the time I went to do a load of laundry and found huge clumps of grass and mud in the machine I had to clean out. Turned out my oldest went mud sliding down a hill for a few hours with friends and decided to wash his own clothes. After that I made sure he had easy access to the hose outside so his clothes wouldn’t jam up my machine. We still joke about it today.

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      • Crazy! And shameful because these parents should be smart enough to know better. Don’t you wonder where this is all going to end? Another thing I have noticed is the amount of time parents spend amusing small kids now, on the floor playing with them for hours, they grow up with no idea how to keep themselves occupied but then it makes child rearing such hard work with stressed parents wondering if they are doing everything right. With so many experts out there now telling parents what to do it seems to be going just all wrong!

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        • I’ve wondered for a long time where this is heading. When parents pointed out that I was doing my kids a disservice by not signing them up for all the classes and sports. I never wanted my kids scheduled I wanted them to have a natural childhood filled with time to do what they wanted, that includes knowing how to entertain themselves. We even have these mommy/baby tumbling classes now. Why would one pay for a class to interact with their child? Blows the mind.

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          • Wendy, it’s wonderful to hear from you as you have been on my mind a lot lately.

            I and my family is safe, there was a brief time when Hurricane Irma was predicted to hit the northeast coast and there was some concern because of its size that we might be affected for the first time in history. It shifted south so there is no concern for us this far north and inland.

            I’ve been hearing there are a lot of earthquakes in and around you, are you safe?

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          • Oh good, I am so pleased to hear that. I don’t know my American geography but did see it was expected to go North East. What a dreadful time your country is having!

            Yes we are fine thank you. Just ongoing aftershocks, they take ages to die away but occasionally a good one rattles the nerves again.

            Take care ๐Ÿ™‚

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          • No problem, Wendy, I’m not too familiar with your geography either. For such a large country as the US it’s shocking to see just how many states are being affected from either fires and drought or the hurricanes.

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  6. So love your post here Lois.. Its wonderful that your grandchildren and neighbours children are growing up learning not only the value of nature and outdoors, but they are willingly helping..
    It is how we bring them up..
    When my granddaughter visits she loves being outdoors and yet at home she spends lots of time alone.. as she has no neighbours friends of her age. and she goes to a school miles away. So interacting and playing, as your grandchildren are.. Helping and learning little skills are invaluable for later life and their perspectives in growing up..
    Wonderful to see.. xxx โค

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    • Hi Sue, I kept the youngest two last night to give their mom a night to herself. when she picked them up she asked if she needed to recharge their tablets. Sure didn’t. They were too busy playing outside to even ask for them. She rolled her eyes and informed me that at home they are bored and don’t want to be outside. I figure it’s because all they have is a grassy back yard with a single slide to play on, that must get boring. Here they search for worms, play with the neighbors (both human and animal) and help weed the garden beds etc.

      I wonder if your granddaughter has similar experiences between your home and hers. I’m sure your gardens, fish, painting and crafts you do with her are vastly more fun than an outdoors that has little to do.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I have managed to find you again lois. What happened to living in Denim? I have lost you twice now and luckily you have a name that threw up this site. I am from Uk and really enjoy your posts. I am following you now so hopefully wont loose you again.

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    • Hi again! Living in Denim was jus the first thing I thought of to use after I was hacked to let people know I was okay. But the name was so vague that I had no direction and struggled to find a voice. I simply changed the blog title but kept all the previous posts and merged the earlier writing I did from my first blog. Anyway, glad to hear from you again.

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  8. You have it right again, Lois. We grew up without toys and a bike was shared between the 4 of us. My kids had very few toys and many books but of course you know this. I couldn’t agree more and it’s sad to see kids not play outside. Mine congregated in our back yard when we finally had one with all the neighbors there too. The things they invented. Even in our apartments, they all collected in the front of one building and all the moms pulled out their chairs and a glass of tea and watched them play. If one mom was busy with something, the others watched for her. I do also agree that children should be allowed to help do whatever they can. How else will they learn? Have been thinking of you and hope you are doing well.

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    • Marlene, I am doing well, actually got a few medical tests done this week to try and confirm that.

      These days I think the excess of stuff begins even before the child is born, with all those baby registries and pushing parents to get every gadget possible, and so excess is what these kids see as the norm. I can’t wait to see the pendulum swing the other way again and see kids being kids once more. I fretted about the amount of sitting my boys would do when they went to school, not sure most parents even think of that because their kids are so sedentary already.

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      • You are right, Lois. The pendulum must eventually swing the other way. Let me know how the tests come out. Thinking of you daily. Can you feel it? ๐Ÿ™‚ Showing off your cross stitch to my SIL last night. She does nothing and could do so much. You are the total reverse. You could get away with doing little but instead you do more than most. You inspire me.

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        • I will. I have a follow up in six weeks to see how it’s responding. I’m hoping for the best. Today I noticed that I needed less sleep last night and woke more refreshed, and when working realized my arthritis in my fingers wasn’t bothering me either. Only time will tell.

          I don’t know how people keep their minds if they do little to nothing. I get bored so easily and so need a variety of activities that make me feel productive and not just wasting my days. I’m glad you are enjoying the cross stitch. Trying to finish up one now but been too busy to work on it for the last week.

          You are my hero. To fight through so much with your eyes, and all to accomplish all you do amazes me. I want to be just like you when I grow up. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  9. Loved this post, Lois! I grew up the eldest of nine and we never lived in town, always the country or further out in ‘the bush’ (except one year we lived in Chase, a very small hamlet at the time). We had few toys or books, although we all read voraciously. My parents bought a set of encyclopaedias and we had a large dictionary. We older kids loved reading through these. But mostly we made our own fun. It was the time of cowboys and ‘Indians’ (from Dad’s western paperbacks and summer movies at the drive-in theatres. So we would tie a piece of binder twine to a branch or stick and ride around on it. WE had no tv until after I left home at 19; just a small shelf radio that was not on often.

    At Christmas we would receive a gift from Santa and one from our parents, as well as our stockings, of course. Occasionally there would be a box of gifts from Aunts or Uncles.

    I learned to hand-stitch beginning around age four or five, and to knit, crochet and embroider by the time I was ten. I helped Mum with everything, so began learning plain cooing very early and by the time I was twelve I was learning to make bread, cakes and the like as well. From the time I was twelve we never had a babysitter if Mum was in the hospital with bronchitis or to have a new baby. The first few times, Dad stayed home to supervise and help; after that I was on my own, baby diapers and other laundry in a wringer washer and hung outside, and so on.

    I wanted my kids to grow up much as I did and sort of managed that. I like to give kids books and/or art and craft supplies as gifts. They get plenty of toys from other people, is what I think. I’m fussy about books, too; there are some popular ones that I just won’t buy. Mostly I like to give the old classics that I still love myself.

    I agree about children loving to help; it’s how they learn to do the work of adults, preparing to take their place in the world. I loved doing real work, too, although most of all when an adult was also engaged; otherwise it felt a bit like slave labour. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I was a dreamer, too, and happy to spend time alone, imagining all sorts of things. During my teens, it was the time of transition from the Wild West to the Space Era. and I read all the sci-fi and speculative fiction I could find, imagining journeying into space and meeting with aliens and all that.

    As a matter of fact, one of the common punishments when I was young was to stand facing a corner of the room for a while. Some kids hate this, but I rather loved it’ no chores and free time to imagine and daydream . . .

    well, I seem to have developed a bad habit of writing novels instead of comments, haven’t I?
    I’ll quit now. ๐Ÿ™‚ Much love to you, Lois; I love how you always spark thought and memory for me,

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    • Linne, I loved your comment write as much as you feel you want. Our lives were a bit different I had a television in the house growing up but we didn’t watch it all the time. There were Saturday morning cartoons and we watched Bewitched. Our TV was black and white so when it was televised in color we didn’t know what the big deal was.

      Our lives were mostly outdoors, we had bikes but other than that we made our own fun. I was also expected to watch the younger children and was babysitting by the time I was nine so it shocks me to hear parents being arrested for letting 12 year olds stay home or go out on their own today.

      I also learned a lot of skills young such as how to crochet but I also played Pinnocle with the grown ups and worked at 8 and up to keep score for a blind bowling league. That was before the machines kept score so I had to do the math myself.

      Books were always a part of my life. My grandmother made sure I read all the classics and then I moved on to sci-fi just as you did. Isaac Asimov was my favorite. Today I buy books as gifts for family, young and old. I’ve bought some of my kids’ favorite books to give to their children so they can pass on a bit of their childhood with their children. Maurice Sendak and Madeleine L’Angle come to mind. If you know any young children you may want to check out books by Herve Tullet. He’s a newer author who has written Press Here and Let’s Play plus a couple others. These are interactive books that are fun while educational. My grandson is receiving the second title for his birthday next month because he keeps borrowing it from the library, which is how I know a book will be loved.

      Seems I have the same habit you have, writing long replies. ๐Ÿ™‚ Have a lovely day, Linne.

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