What kind and how many toys do you want your kids to play with?

Toys

Too many toys are overwhelming and create all sort of issues. But I want my kids to play with different kinds of toys, to experience all sorts of games so I can't just give them a set of building blocks. My solution is to rotate what toys are out (about 20%) and which ones are packed away (about 80%). This way they get to play with all kinds of toys but the house isn't a battleground and they are not overwhelmed.

I set up a mini experiment one day and watched Emma. She was just under one year old. What does she do with a handful of building blocks? What does she do with a beeping, so called "activity center"?

The results were not surprising. She puts the blocks on top of each other, knocks down the tower she just built, throws them, rolls them, hits them together, puts them back in the box and takes them out again (a million times) and occupies herself for a long time (15 minutes is a long time in baby world). With a beeping "activity center" - it has smiling faces of odd looking animals, requires 4 batteries and speaks in an annoying woman's voice - she pushes all the buttons 5 times, figures out in about 30 seconds what every function does and gets bored. You see, the activity center is limited to the functions it's programmed to do. It always does the same, never less never more.

A child looks at a toy - anything for that matter - and asks: What can I do with it? She doesn't ask: What can it do?

Fast forward to 2014, Emma is now 3.5 years old. She is still able to take a handful of stones/gems and a bag and play with them for hous on end. With the exception of a train set and a few Toy Story characters the only toys she has that require batteries were gifted...and sometimes those gifted toys mysteriously dissapear overnight, ssh! ;)

Fast forward to early 2015. Lots more toys in the house now. We need to periodically go through all toys and pick out the ones that are no longer played with no longer interesting, take up too much space or were clearly not a hit to make room for toys that best fit Emma's growing needs. I have been in constant debate with myself and others about buying an iPad or a LeapFrog and the best decision in 2014 was to not buy either. She is interested in computers now so we may have to give in soon since we don't want to deny technology from her - we just know that at this age not having digital gadgets is better for her.

Late 2015: Andrew is now walking and has his own toys. Most of Emma's toys aren't played with because Andrew would either eat them or wreck them beacuse he's little. So Emma went from increasingly sophisticated toys back to baby toys all around and guess what? She's fine with it. It turns out that she enjoys playing with stacking cups and boxes and building blocks even now that she's five. She invents insanely great games using the simplest of toys.

The biggest hits are a small push cart, plastic cups, building blocks, lego (the toddler version), all sorts of clothing for dress-up, empty margarine containers, egg cartons, rattles, a beach ball, smaller balls and various stuff from the kitchen that are safe for kids, such us wooden spoons, spatulas, funnels, towels and plastic plates. We also play with fruits sometimes when we're cooking, have lots of puzzles, lots of papers and markers and paint and stamps, books, felt, cardboard boxes, lots of little plastic animas, play doh, a child-sized kitchen and toy cutlery and plates and a handful of stuffed animals. We do not have themed toys such as Dora or Cars or Winnie the Pooh. We do have Toy Story characters and as of late a Frozen doll and Brave but there is no obsession.

We also let both kids play with ropes and let them play with plastic bags - under supervison. Both kids actually love to play with ropes - there is something fascinating about ropes, I must admit. This way they connect with reality. Almost every single piece of "stuff" that is sold at stores has a warning on it: not for kids, choking hazard, this-hazard, that-hazard. Yes, some stuff are dangerous, some more so than others, but c'mon! - not everything. Only a few things are actually dangerous under proper supervision (for example: knives are a bad idea supervised or not). Insurance companies and isolated, special cases of unfortunate accidents created an epidemic of "don't touch, don't allow, be afraid and worry".

Let your child play with anything and everything that you, as the parent deem safe, as opposed to the insurance company. Let her interact with the world but be there to supervise and to intervene if necessary. That way when you do say "No, put that down!", it will mean exactly that and a firm "No" will stop your kid immediately. If you say "no" 10 times a minute it will lose its meaning completely and you won't be able to stop your kid, not even in an emergency.

Also, kids don't always need toys from the toy-store for play. There are many items in an average household that are perfect to play with (you don't have to buy them from the toy store for big $s) such as: watering can, recycling bin, kleenex box, toilet paper rolls, paper towel, blankets, egg cartons, utensils, books, clothes, sports equipment, etc.

How many toys?

It's surprising, even by my standards, just how few toys are needed to keep a toddler busy. As long as the toys allow for creativity and experimentation they will not go out of fashion for a very long time. There is, of course, no magic number. I found a formula that works for us: Aim for half the amount of the absolute bare minimum you think you're OK with. The amount of toys seems to mysteriously double so this formula will work well:)

I also believe that too many toys can create focus issues - especially if they are all out at the same time.

Handheld devices

They are not for toddlers. End of discussion.

Gifting

I'm adding a section about gifting to this page since gifts almost always are toys of some sort.

The short summary goes like this: Gifting is good. Over-gifting is bad. The hard part is to define what is too much and what isn't. It's always about balance, isn't it?

"Buy, buy, buy" is the only way some people seem to be able to exist. This materialistic lifestyle is a slippery slope that leaves people wanting more and they are never satisfied with what they have.

Without going into too much detail, here's my recommendation: Want to give a great gift? Walk to the nearest park with your kid sitting on your shoulder, sing a song together as you're walking then build a sand castle or snowman at the park, destroy it and walk back home holding hands. It's cheap (free) and leaves you and your child with great memories that neither of you will forget for a long time. There is more about playtime on the page about engagement.

Finally, a story about Emma's first birthday that is related to gifting. Walking the aisles of toy stores (or even the local drug store) one can find one hundred zillion cards that read "Happy 1st Birthday". And another one hundred zillion miscellaneous junk for first birthdays. So kids receive a great pile of gifts and people eagerly watch to see if baby plays with the toy they bought for him or her. The birthday party turns into a gifting-contest. Yikes. Then pictures must be taken and the baby is made to pose and if she doesn't then people are dissatisfied. "I couldn't even get a good shot with her and her new toy!" And in a few days everyone forgets about the whole thing.

We decided not to do this and tried something more subtle. My wife baked a little cake for Emma, which was the first cake she ever had, we lit a candle that she couldn't take her eyes off of, dimmed the lights and sang happy birthday to her quietly. There were no guests, just us. Then we took turns rolling around on the carpet with her and I'm convinced that no gift in the world would have made that day any more special. Andrew got ice cream cake and a small bouncy house and a birthday card which he kind of ate. Loved it all!

Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting that gifts are bad altogether, I'm saying that too many gifts can be overwhelming and backfire.