Taming Toys: A Fresh Start for 2014

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The day after Christmas, I looked around my house and thought to myself, "What have we done?" I thought we had been reasonable in what we had purchased for our daughters this year - some blocks, books, a pirate ship, and some things for their play kitchen and dollhouse, but I totally forgot about all of the toys they get from grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends. It was completely overwhelming, not only for me, but for my girls as well. Not to mention the fact that our home looked like a toy store explosion rather than the comfortable, stress-free environment that I want for my family.

The average child today receives 70 new toys each year - that's a new toy every five days. How can they possibly even keep track of it all, let alone cherish and appreciate their play things? When people asked my daughter what gifts she received for Christmas this year she could only recall one or two things. That's saying something.

According to Dr. Arnold, an ethnoarchaeologist at UCLA, the United States has 3.1% of the world's children and purchases 40% of the world's toys. Many psychologists are worried about the effect of this overwhelming number of toys on our children. An article published in The Guardian found that too many playthings can restrict development and may harm children. "They get overwhelmed and over-stimulated and cannot concentrate on any one thing long enough to learn from it so they just shut down."

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So why do we continue to buy so many things for our children? One anthropologist suggests that it's because working parents spend so much time away from their children that they want to shower them with gifts to make up for the lost time spent. Another article attributes the phenomenon to the accessibility and affordability of toys today. Or perhaps it's just a result of the number of relatives in your family!

In any case I've decided to tackle the toy clutter in our home. First I tried to figure out which toys to keep. Leita Koontz, a San Diego family therapist, the classics. “Blocks, a doll house, a toy farm, play dough, a chalkboard, crayons, and markers are good toys for interactive, imaginative play.” While Dr. John Richer, a consultant clinical paediatric psychologist at John Radcliffe hospital in Oxford states, "The mistake that many parents make when they buy a toy, especially for very young children, is they get toys that can do a lot, instead of getting toys a child can do a lot with.”

Both of those statements rung true for me and sounded in line with my own personal feelings about what I want for girls. I mean, really, they both seem to have more fun with a simple cardboard box than they do with any of the flashing, blaring, "educational" codswallop that inevitably accumulates.

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But then I ran into another roadblock - guilt. I was worried my daughter would be upset, or that her grandparents would be hurt if I gave something away that they had so thoughtfully purchased for her. So instead of culling the toys completely on my own, I asked my preschooler to join in. We talked about how some children don't have any toys, and she surprisingly was really excited to give some of hers away. I was a little shocked by some of her choices, but tried not to hold her back. We ended up with a nice pile to donate, and she proudly showed off her handiwork to her father.

But even after that exercise I still felt like the number of toys was overwhelming. I decided that when she was napping I would work on boxing up a few things that she didn't play with much anymore and store them away for a while. I had done this with her baby toys, and when I had pulled them out for our eight-month-old a few months ago it was like they were brand new. (Actually, she was more excited about them than the baby). And as a bonus that method gave me a way to assuage the guilt of getting rid of gifts from well-meaning relatives.

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More creative solutions that I dug up in my search were 1. To repurpose toys - for example turn an old truck into a quirky planter or a puzzle with missing pieces into fun fridge magnets, and 2. To arrange a toy swap with friends. I thought this was a brilliant idea as my daughters always seem absolutely thrilled with the toys at their friends' homes simply because they're different, and what great way to relieve the urge to buy your children new play things.

So to sum things up here's my plan of action:
1. Decide what kind of toys you want to keep.
2. Go through the toys with your kids, and again on your own if needed.
3. Choose what to do with the toys with which you've decided to part - donate, rotate out, repurpose, or swap.

I'm planning to post more specifics on my newfound mission, so stay tuned for how all of this turns out. And if you have any great ideas for taming toys, please share - I'm all ears!

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(Image credits: Leela Cyd Ross; Lauren Hufnagl)

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