But I’ve noticed that nobody actually takes away ALL their children’s toys. And for good reason! Play is the work of childhood, for one thing, but more importantly, where would you stop? Cardboard boxes are toys. Craft supplies, board games, playing cards, books, sticks, rocks, recycling materials, pillows, and furniture can all be part of a game, too.
Obviously there is wisdom in limiting the playthings available to a child to what they can reasonably use and enjoy– too many toys cause chaos and clutter instead of fostering learning– but I don’t think it’s really necessary (or desirable!) to take ALL, or even most, of a child’s toys away.
Instead of taking things away, I focus on having the best things in the first place. But that presents a problem of definition: how do you tell if a toy is really the best it could be? Is it about carbon footprint? Price? Ethical manufacture? Subject? Do you follow Montessori guidelines? Waldorf? Froebel? What about that pesky cardboard box?
Robert talks about measuring the usefulness of toys in milisticks (one-thousandth the usefulness of a stick), as if you could calculate such a number.
I once tried to make a list of Platonic ideal toys, not unlike Friedrich Froebel’s list of gifts:
- The stick about as long as your arm and two fingers thick (toy swords, magic wands, hobby horses, and fishing poles also fall into this category).
- The collection of smooth pebbles that each fit nicely in the palm of your hand (marbles, small beanbags, little wooden figures).
- The piece of string about as long as your armspan (dress-up belt, horse reigns, garland, necklace, clothesline).
- The bit of wood about the size of your hand (the toy car, the bathtub boat, building blocks, play food, small board books).
- The scarf big enough to wear as a cape (dress-up cape, doll blanket, fort-building sheet, bag).
- The box just big enough to sit inside (rocket ship, car, cave, fort).
- The avatar (doll, action figure).
But then how many of each is appropriate? And is that really an exhaustive list? And is there an advantage to differentiation– is it better to have a wheeled car AND a bathtub boat rather than just a block of wood that you could pretend is either a car or boat?
After a few years of trying to verbalize what the difference was between toys that were “good”(perennial favorites with the smalls, pleasing to me) and those that were gimmicky or just not well-designed, I finally came up with a satisfactory method for screening our collection. All our toys have to have SOUL.
Playthings should be:
Simple: A minimum of fuss, function, and automation. Ease of production, repair, and disposal should also be considered.
Operational: No missing parts, not broken, not too complicated for the children to use at their current stage of development, not too dangerous/limited for use in the area where it is found.
Useful: Strengthens a necessary skill through play (e.g., lacing cards, button snake), or provides an outlet to explore something of unlimited interest (e.g., dolls), or can be used in infinite ways (e.g., blocks, marbles).
Loved: If your child wouldn’t miss it, your child doesn’t need it.
Simple. Operational. Useful. Loved. SOUL.
- Yes, sometimes they talk about wanting a specific toy. They aren’t often exposed to ads and we don’t go to toy stores or toy departments (talk about a mecca of the pink/blue dichotomy), so this usually takes the form of Númenor rattling off a list of specifications for a hypothetical toy he would like to have. My answer is always the same: How can you make a toy like that for yourself? Sometimes I offer suggestions for materials or offer to help him design or build. Sometimes it’s as simple as pretending one of the simpler toys we have already has those advanced features (lights up, fires lasers, etc.) with the help of sound effects.
- Yes, we do limit toys coming into the house. We ask for very specific things for the children for gift-giving occasions, only about half of which are toys, and we intercept and donate or return unacceptable things before they are added to our collection.
- Yes, I do sometimes pick up the toys for my children. But more than 90% of the time, we work together to do it or I supervise while they do it. We have built the habit of helping to put their own things away correctly and cheerfully since they were babies, and now it is second nature and I only have to step in when a tantrum or an unexpectedly early bedtime interrupts the usual night routine.
- Yes, sometimes my children do squabble over turn-taking related to toys– but sometimes they squabble over turn-taking for sticks, rocks, or bits of recycling they have made into playthings. Anyone who tells you that their kids never fight about turn-taking now that they don’t have storebought toys is being less than truthful or has alien podlings instead of human children.
- Yes, every few months we rotate the toys that we have out, and as part of that rotation, we pull out toys that are outgrown, broken, or don’t adhere to the SOUL criteria. But I don’t feel burdened by using half an hour of my time every three months and couple of 18-gallon storage containers in our garage to make our toy collection manageable.
- Obviously, as with all parenting advice, this is simply what works for us, and it might not work as well (or at all!) for other families.
The soft mice and their sleeping bag were handmade by a member of my extended family, the train is from Melissa & Doug, the rods and connectors are Tinkertoys, and Bitey the plastic shark (currently Ithilien’s favorite toy) was a gift.