Fewer Toys Are Better

After holiday gifts arrive, my children play really well for about a day. Then they get completely overwhelmed by all their choices and temporarily lose the ability to entertain themselves. Whining ensues, then we collaborate to find good spots for the new toys and to identify toys and games that they no longer play with and might want to pass along. This cycle may be familiar to you too because the truth is that children can get overwhelmed by too many toys. Here, we’ll delve into the research that says that when it comes to toys less is definitely more, as well as cover ideas for clearing out toys when things start to feel like too much for everyone.

The Research on Toys 

Lots of research supports the idea that fewer toys are better for children and that the type of toy is also important. For instance, in a study published in 2018 in the journal Infant Behavior and Development, occupational therapist Alexia Metz and her colleagues tested the hypothesis that fewer toys leads to higher quality of play in toddlers. When the researchers provided 18 to 30 month olds with four toys, the children played for longer and in a greater variety of ways than when they gave toddlers 16 toys, suggesting that fewer toys is better. [1] In another study published in 2021 in Infant behavior & development, psychologist Berna Uzundag and her colleagues explored how the number and type of toys affect play interactions between mothers and infants. When presented with a group of five toys or a group of 12 toys, mother-baby pairs paid higher-quality attention to the smaller group of toys, particularly ones like stacking rings that allow turn-taking. [2] Finally, Anna Sosa, who directs the Child Speech and Language Lab at Northern Arizona University, published findings in JAMA Pediatrics in 2016 showing that richer parent-child conversations happen when playing with traditional toys and books as compared to electronic toys. [3] (For more on open-ended toys, check out this blog post from The Pulse.)

What to do about all of the toys?

 You may have already known that all the toys you have are preventing your kids from playing as well as they can independently but what can you do about it? First, talk to your kids. Some children respond to the idea that toys will be better used by others who need them and will play with them. Some kids like things tidy. Some kids have a really hard time letting go of belongings, in which case you can solicit ideas from them about what would help with getting rid of things. If you can get your kids on board with sorting toys and sending the ones they don’t use or have grown out of to a new home, it will make your job much easier. If your children agree to clearing toys out, you can donate them to a local charity or thrift shop or sell or give them away online. If your community has a Buy Nothing group, it’s a great option to both let things go and receive things other people are getting rid of. Another idea is a toy swap, which you can organize in a park or community center. Invite other families from the area to bring toys and everyone can trade them around.

If your children are absolutely against getting rid of toys, try a toy rotation system instead. Ask them which toys they really want to keep out and pack the rest away in the closet, attic, or under the bed space. When you notice your kids getting bored or not playing as well with the toys that are out—maybe a couple weeks or a month later—rotate the toys that are out with the ones that you’ve had in storage. If your children are less excited about certain toys or don’t ask about them, it’s a good sign that you can pass them along.

  1. Dauch, C., Imwalle, M., Ocasio, B., & Metz, A. E. (2018). The influence of the number of toys in the environment on toddlers’ play. Infant behavior & development.
  2. Koşkulu, S., Küntay, A. C., Liszkowski, U., & Uzundag, B. A. (2021). Number and type of toys affect joint attention of mothers and infants. Infant behavior & development.
  3. Sosa A. V. (2016). Association of the Type of Toy Used During Play With the Quantity and Quality of Parent-Infant Communication. JAMA pediatrics.
Abby Olena
Dr. Abby Olena has a PhD in Biological Sciences from Vanderbilt University. She lives with her husband and children in North Carolina, where she writes about science and parenting, produces a conversational podcast, and teaches prenatal yoga.

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