I’m going to let you in on a little secret, a secret that the toy industry really doesn’t want you to know. (In fact, I’m going to have to watch my back from now on, for sure, lest a sales executive from one of the big toy manufacturers tries to hit me with a giant inflatable hammer.)
Your kid doesn’t need a roomful of toys.
There. I’ve said it. Just in case you weren’t really paying attention, let me repeat that: Your kid doesn’t need a roomful of toys.
Our culture suffers from what I think of as a “stuff overload”, especially as regards our children. If you have ever toured a historic home that has been restored to look as it did when the occupants lived there, you will probably have noticed that, with the exception of the most opulent palaces (and houses built during the mid- and late-nineteenth century and afterwards), the rooms are often dominated by a very few pieces of furniture, more impressive or less so depending upon the wealth of the owners. Most people, even the well-to-do, did not own more than they needed, and possessions were cherished, well-maintained, and usually passed down from one generation to the next.
By the same token, children of any era prior to ours did not have a lot of stuff. This is partly because the period that we call “childhood” was in fact far shorter for most people than it is today: in most cultures and eras before we came along, childhood was the time during which a young person learned to function as an adult. For most people, there wasn’t a lot of time given over to what we would consider the prime attribute of childhood, just being a kid.
Toys for infants and toddlers were much as they are today–things to chew, things to manipulate, things to stack and knock down, wheeled toys to push or pull. Toys for older children, however, tended to be small replicas of adult tools and possessions — child-sized (and blunted) weapons and tools, dolls upon which little girls could lavish affection and thus practice their nurturing skills, and a sprinkling of traditional games and toys like marbles, skittles, hoops, and balls. Most of these toys could easily be improvised by parents or scavenged from re-purposed trash: a broken barrel might yield an iron hoop, while an inflated pig’s bladder became a ball.
Today, however, it’s a different story. According to one estimate, the average North American child today receives between 20 and 50 toys per year. Every year. Birthdays, holidays. Toys to keep them quiet on a plane or a long car trip. Toys to placate whiny, tired kids. Multiply that by 10 years, and you’ve got a literal roomful of toys. Too much stuff.
If there is one thing that kids of any era have been well-supplied with, it’s imagination. A very few well-chosen items can spark all kinds of imaginative adventures. A set of wooden blocks can build a tower, a wall, a castle. A block pushed along the floor can be a car, even if it doesn’t have wheels. A large cardboard box can be a playhouse, a rocket ship, a dragon’s lair. An old bedsheet can become a cloak, a toga, a medieval princess dress (especially with a little creative help from a parent and some glittery non-toxic fabric paint).
Children deserve this kind of toy, this kind of imaginative freedom and creativity, just as much or more than they deserve toys that some designer and factory have dreamed up for them. What they need is not more toys. What children need is better toys, toys that allow them to take an active role in their play and to exercise their minds. Too many mass-market toys deliver a canned and pre-packaged experience to children, in which the children are passive consumers rather than active participants. And what happens? Once the novelty has worn off, the child either tries to use such a toy in a different way (which usually results in breakage or tears) or discards it on the junk-heap of forgotten, fractured, and abandoned stuff looming on the bedroom floor.
What we’d like to see is more toys that fulfill our three Golden Rules:
- A toy shall be interactive. In other ways, it demands more of your child than that he just sit there and watch or listen to it.
- A toy shall be open-ended. Your child can think of lots of different safe and creative ways in which to use the toy, limited only by his imagination.
- A toy shall be creative. Your child has to engage his imagination in order to play with the toy.
Independent toy stores like ours tend to be places where it’s easy to find toys just like this: interactive, open-ended, creative. And the best part? They’re not any more expensive than the crummy toys out there. In fact, they often cost less, especially when you consider how much you child will play with them. It comes down to “hours of play per dollar spent”, rather than “dollars per hour”. Big difference.
Before you buy the next toy for your child, ask yourself whether it fits those three Golden Rules. If it does, I guarantee that it will be far less likely to join the rest on the scrap-heap of discarded toys, and will have a far greater chance of being played with until it becomes a beloved part of childhood.