There's a fire truck in your bathroom. "Old McDonald" echoes throughout the house each time you step on a miniature-rolling xylophone. A talking gorilla, a Barney videocassette, and a Sesame Street cell phone are all peeking out from under the couch. Your living room looks like a multicolored minefield of bears, balls and unidentifiable bits of plastic. Let's not even talk about the back porch. There are toys in the backseat of your car, between your bed sheets and occasionally in the clothes dryer.
Sound familiar? If you've got at least one child under the age of 5, it's most likely your reality. Where did all those toys come from for goodness sake? It's as if they bred like rabbits overnight! How did it get this way?
Why We Buy (and buy and buy some more)
"I could write a book about guilt," say Tom Limbert, Head Teacher of Stanford University's Bing Nursery School of Child Development Research and Training. "Parents are driven so much by guilt, especially working parents and single parents. It's amazing." Limbert says that parents often buy toy after toy to appease their own feelings of remorse for not spending time with their children.
But attempting to fill the time gap with a piece of plastic usually backfires. "The parent is the child's first and most important toy," asserts Dr. Steveanne Auerbach, author of Dr. Toy's Smart Play: How to Raise a Child with A High Play Quotient. She explains that the best toys encourage interaction between parents and children. "Puppets are great because children can make up stories and parents can discover what their children are thinking about," she says, "and you can make one at home with a sock or a potholder!"
Limbert agrees, "At Bing, we use a lot of basic materials: clay, blocks, water, sand, LEGOs, and paint. These are materials that the child can make whatever they want with; they bring what they know to the table. There is no designed outcome. We encourage anything where the child can create something different every time. The role of the parents and teachers is to value those ideas and ask questions like, 'What were you thinking about when you made that?' or 'What does it remind you of?'"
The Education Trap
You can't read a toy package these days that doesn't tout the educational advantages of the brightly colored, squeaking, vibrating object inside. All of them are designed by teams of experts to stimulate your child's neural pathways, improve their hand-eye coordination and develop their auditory awareness. Makes you wonder how anyone born before the 1980's was able to tie their own shoes, much less compose symphonies, travel through space or cure polio!
While studies have shown that bright colors and a variety of sounds and textures help babies learn about their world, that kind of stimulation is readily available in most children's homes. Those toys "are gimmicky - artificial," says Limbert, "Children grow tired of them quickly. Toys should make kids think, not just press buttons."
Family psychologist and author John Rosemond strongly agrees. "Generally speaking, store bought toys are fairly worthless," Rosemond states in his book Making the Terrible Twos Terrific. He explains that toys with only one function, like a wind-up train quickly become boring to small children and don't allow them be creative or use their imaginations. Rosemond advises parents to pass up one dimensional toys for time tested favorites like blocks, LEGOs, crayons, finger paints, and dolls that children will play with for years as their imaginations grow and their abilities to see these toys in different lights adapts with their age. Rosemond says, "Creative toys include everyday things such as empty boxes, wooden spoons, pots and pans, empty oatmeal containers, and Mom's and Dad's old clothes. A toddler will be more content playing with any of these things than a piece of expensive injection molded plastic."
Dr. Auerbach echoes this sentiment, "I recommend toys that are self directed rather than set up to do a certain thing. Buy things that children have to figure out like puzzles, stacking products and simple games."
Keeping Up with the Joneses
Believe it or not, another common reason parents cite for buying tons of toys is because they feel they ought to. Peer pressure induced by visits to other children's homes often sends mothers running to the store for more junk. "When I saw the playrooms full of toys in my friend's homes I felt like the worst mom in the world because my daughter only had a small basket of them at home," remembers first-time mom, Jennifer Cummings. Comments from grandparents and in-laws such as, "You've got to get the new singing, rolling turtle toy!" or "She doesn't have a pretend kitchen set?" can have the same affect.
Unfortunately bringing home the latest knick-knack frequently causes visual over-stimulation for little ones. Cummings says, "It seemed like the more toys we added, the more whiny and easily bored my daughter became." Dr. Auerbach says she's seen the same affect on other children. "If you overbuy, your child will become overloaded and over stimulated." Rather than buying even more toys to stave off the inevitable baby boredom, Dr. Auerbach recommends creative interactive play between parents and children. "Build a relationship with your child based on free and mutual interaction," she advises, "Make silly sounds, turn off the noisy toys and make the 'quack-quack' of the duck yourself as you roll it across the floor together."
Back to Basics
But why do seemingly boring household items win the toddler attention war over flashy new gadgets? Stanford University's Limbert explains, "Children are curious. If they were in the forest, they'd go grab twigs and dirt. They want to explore their surroundings; it's how they learn. Moving things, acting upon things. That's why basic materials are valuable." Other experts believe that babies love everyday items like telephones, measuring cups and old clothes because these items allow them to mimic grown-ups, which is how little people learn to act like big people.
So now you know that Tupperware and finger paints are all kids need to grow up to be rocket scientists, but that doesn't change the fact that you can't find your couch because of all the stuffed animals. Despite your good intentions, Grandma, Santa Claus and your credit card have all conspired to create a mountain of blinking, meowing, educational nonsense in your living room. What can you do now? The answer is in these three magical words: donate, rotate and reciprocate.
Despite the dozens of toy options they have to choose from, each child has his own personal favorites. Set those aside and create a big pile of stuff your baby hasn't touched in months. Call your nearest homeless shelter, women's safe house or emergency nursery (for children taken out of unsafe homes) and see if they could use your extras. Church and synagogue nurseries are another great place to donate toys. Ask your doctor and dentist if their offices need an infusion of new stuff to entertain smaller patients. There's also the Salvation Army and other local thrift stores. Lots of towns have consignment stores for gently used toys. Or give the toys your child has outgrown to a neighbor with younger children.
If you can't bear to part with your hard earned toys, hide them instead. Stashing away half of your current plastic collection not only reduces clutter but also creates "brand new" toys when you pull them out six weeks later and conveniently stow the other half away. Babies are enthralled at the "new" items revealed in their closets! Even older children enjoy getting reacquainted with old favorites if they haven't seen them in a month or so. This little trick not only saves spaces, it saves money too!
Every parent knows it–the only toy your child wants belongs to another kid. That's why playgroups are so popular; delighted rugrats get to go bananas in another child's house and wreak havoc on someone else's toy-box stash. It's fun for everyone ... except that week's host of course. Why not make every day a playgroup day? The next time you and your friends get together with your munchkins, have everyone bring five toys to swap. Write your little one's initials in permanent marker somewhere inconspicuous and throw all the toys in a pile. Whichever toys your child gravitates toward are hers for the week! You didn't really get rid of any toys, but you gained five new ones and didn't spend a dime. You're happy. Junior is happy. What more could you ask for?