By Laura Grace Weldon
Play is vital to development. It has everything to do with autonomy, exploration, imagination, and fun. It has very little to do with purchased playthings. In fact, structured programs and commercial toys actually tend to co-opt play.
Before he was born, his mother decided her son would have no toys. She was already a single parent. She made a living cleaning for other people. Most days, she took the bus to affluent streets where children never seemed to play outside. As she vacuumed and scrubbed beautiful homes overfilled with possessions, she paid close attention to what children did all day. Often they were gone at lessons, after school programs, or playdates. When the children were home, they usually sat staring at screens. Toys in their carefully decorated rooms appeared to be tossed around as if the small owners had no idea how to play, only how to root restlessly for entertainment.
She thought about it, talked to the oldest people she knew, and read everything she could. Then she informed anyone who cared to listen that her child would not have toys. Not one single purchased plaything.
Will and his mother (names changed) live in a small mobile home park. By most standards, they are poor. Their income is well below the poverty line. They don’t have a TV or computer (although Will uses the computer at the library and watches the occasional TV program at babysitters’ homes). But their lives are rich in what matters. Together Will and his mom grow food on several shares of a community garden, often bartering extra produce. They make all their meals from scratch. These are activities that activate a whole array of learning opportunities for Will, quite naturally.
They are close to most of their neighbors in proximity as well as in friendliness. While his mother is working, Will is cared for by several different seniors in their trailer park. He not only likes to help his mother garden, cook, and take care of their small home but he also likes to help his neighbors with small tasks. He carries groceries for certain women, helps an older man build birdhouses, and sometimes gets to assist another neighbor in automotive repairs. He gets a lot out of these meaningful tasks. Children long to take on real responsibility and make useful contributions. Giving them these opportunities promotes their development in important ways.
Sounds nice. But what about play?
When Will was a baby, his mother made all sorts of toys. Often, it took her only a few minutes. Food containers became stacking toys, a small water bottle with beans inside became a rattle, a sock stuffed with dryer fuzz and tied in knots became a soft animal.
Will is now six years old. He plays as any child does. He makes up games and turns all sorts of objects into toys. His mother saves money by not owning a car, so Will has commandeered a large portion of the shed that would normally be used as a garage. Mostly, he uses it to stockpile his own resources. He has scrap wood, a few tools, and cans of nails. He likes to straighten bent nails for future projects, working carefully now that he has discovered what smacking his fingers with a hammer feels like. Recently, he found a discarded lawn mower tire, so he’s looking for three more tires to make a go-cart. In the evenings, he likes to draw elaborate pictures of this upcoming project.
He particularly enjoys playing in the soft dirt along the side of the shed where “robot men” he makes out of kitchen utensils use their potato peeler and whisk limbs to churn through the soil, leaving tracks as they clink. When he visits friends, he happily plays with their toys, although he doesn’t always “get” that certain TV or movie-themed toys are limited to the plot-related storylines. So far he seems to have no urge to possess the same toys.
What about birthdays and holidays? Will’s mother does give him gifts. But she limits her gifts to useful items – crayons, clothes, tools, a compass. Each weekend, her folk band practices at their mobile home. Will quickly mastered the harmonica and begged for time on the fiddle, so her big gift to him this year was a used child-sized fiddle. She urges the other adults in his life to gift him with experiences – a trip to the beach, a day of horseback riding, a visit to a museum. Out-of-town relatives now renew a children’s magazine subscription and send him regular snail mail letters, both of which are helping him learn to read with very little prompting.
Will’s childhood has a lot in common with the way children have learned and grown throughout history. As historian Howard Chudacoff notes in Children at Play: An American History, play is vital to development. It has everything to do with autonomy, exploration, imagination, and fun. It has very little to do with purchased playthings. In fact, structured programs and commercial toys actually tend to co-opt play.
Studies with rodents show those raised in enriched environments (toys and changing items in cage) have enhanced brain development compared to rats raised in a standard environment (plain cage, unchanging). We’ve misinterpreted these results. Rats don’t naturally live in boring, unchanging cages. They live in Nature, which is by definition a challenging and constantly changing environment. In Nature, rats have far more complex lives than they ever might in a cage. Such an interesting life is an enriched environment. It’s the same for children.
Sure there are devices that will “read” to a child. These are not more enriching than being read to by a responsive adult. And there are all sorts of adult-designed games. They’re not more fun or enticing than games kids make up on their own or with friends.
In fact, the overstimulation of blinking, beeping, passive entertainment is terribly destructive for children. Joseph Chilton Pearce wrote in Evolution’s End: Claiming the Potential of Our Intelligence that the overload of television, electronics, and too many toys dooms children to limited sensory awareness. Their brains and nervous systems are subjected to intense bursts of sound, light, and color during their earliest years. Rather than developing the subtle awareness fostered by time spent in Nature, in conversation, and in play, they instead are wired to expect overstimulation. Without it, they’re bored.
The children Will’s mother cleans for, who are kept busy in adult-run programs and spend their spare time with electronic distractions, don’t have Will’s advantages. As he plays and innovates, he’s actually promoting the kind of learning that translates to a lifetime of passionate interests. Studies show that children who are free to explore their interests without adult pressure and interference are more autonomous, eagerly pursuing excellence through healthy engagement rather than heavy-handed adult pressure.
Ask the oldest person you know to share some memories about play from his or her childhood. Chances are you’ll hear about pick-up games, handmade toys, and free time that spun into marvels of imagination. That’s what Will’s mother wants for her son. Right now, a childhood without purchased toys fits him beautifully.
Eight Ways To Free Your Kids From Toy Overload
Our kids are shaped by what they see and do. Very young children can become wired for overstimulation once they’re accustomed to commercial playthings that use sound, light, and movement to hold their attention. How does this affect them? When play has to do with blinking, beeping toys and rapidly changing screen images, children may have a diminished ability to amuse themselves. They may not be attuned to the slower pace of conversation, the expansive pleasure of make-believe, or the subtle wonders found in Nature. At a young age they’ve learned to be bored. Even if you emphasize more naturally stimulating playthings, your child can still be overwhelmed by too many things and too many choices. You’ll find reducing the toy overload helps children play more creatively, cooperate more easily, and become more resourceful. Here are some suggestions to reduce the toy overload.
1. Rotate toys. Make it a family policy to have fewer playthings available any one time. This way your child can deal with a smaller selection and play areas are less cluttered. You’ll find the same old toys take on a new luster when a young child hasn’t seen them for a while. Of course use a sensitive approach. Pick up a few things that have been long ignored and put them away for that proverbial rainy day. You may choose to do this during naptime. When you do get out a toy, doll, or stuffed animal that has been “resting” you’ll want to quietly put away another object. If children notice, it’s common for them to feel sudden affection for the toy you’re taking. When you face objections, don’t make the policy painful. Work together to find another toy that your child can agree to put away.
2. Keep some toys for specific purposes. It’s helpful to reserve certain toys to be used only for situations that require more serious distraction. These might be perfect opportunities to use toys that require a parent close by, or time to permit your children to play with any passive toys they’ve been given. Keep such items for situations when your child is forced to be passive anyway such as the car seat, waiting in line, or while you’re on a conference call. Even very young children come to recognize that such toys are kept in a diaper bag, a parent’s bag, or on top of a high shelf for occasional play. Explanations before and after use, “We only use this in the car” or “This is a Daddy’s-on-the-phone toy” help keep the boundaries drawn. And help you put the toy away for the next time.
3. Join or set up a toy lending library. Collections of donated toys can be found through some museums, community centers, and public libraries. Toy lending programs give families access to a wider range of ordinary playthings and more expensive toys than they might ordinarily afford, as well as toys for special needs children. Search online to find a toy library near you or for helpful advice on starting a collaborative toy lending service.
4. Assemble play kits using non-toy items. You can make kits that stimulate imaginative play while repurposing old objects. Of course, your child’s safety is the primary concern. These suggestions are not appropriate for children who put objects in their mouths or are too small to use the items safely. To keep up the appeal factor, put the kits away between uses. They are great to get out when kids have playdates or when you need them to play quietly under your supervision.
- Office Kit: Use a briefcase or file box. Fill it with office-type items such as memo pad, non-working cell phone, calendar, writing implements, round-tip scissors, and calculator. A big thrill is a tape dispenser – this alone can keep kids happily occupied. A major coup is finding a manual typewriter at a thrift store. You’ll need to help them understand how to type one letter at a time to keep the keys from becoming tangled.
- Costume Kit: A costume box or trunk is a childhood classic. Keep adding cast-off and thrift store items likely to enhance make-believe. Include work wear, dress-up, jewelry, wallets, purses, shoes and boots, lengths of fabric that can be used as capes or veils, vests, tool belt, badges, and plenty of hats.
- Building Kit: Save heavy cardboard tubes as well as sturdy cardboard boxes. When it is building time, supply children with plenty of masking tape and string as well as hardware cast-offs such as nuts and bolts. Encourage children to build whatever they choose from the cardboard supply. They might need help punching holes in the cardboard to insert bolts or string. They might also enjoy hammering their creations apart with a rubber mallet when they’re done!
- Store Kit: Save empty clean food packages, re-gluing boxes shut so they look new. Children can set up a play shop with these items, adding their own toys or books for additional merchandise. Lend them your string or fabric shopping bags to load pretend purchases. You might choose to let them pay with homemade money or real money.
5. Encourage kids to make hideouts. Most children like making their own realms under blankets, in closets, and behind furniture. Outdoors, they make dens and forts out of a few branches or leftover planks. Encourage this tendency by providing sheets or blankets to drape over the furniture for an indoor hiding place, with couch cushions for support. On occasion, try to get a large packing box from stores selling refrigerators and washing machines. Your child can direct you to cut a few openings to transform the box into a boat, spaceship, or castle.
6. Help kids set up obstacle courses. A rainy day indoor course might consist of a few chairs to wriggle under, a rope to hop over, four pillows to leap on in a row, then three somersaults through the hall, and a quick climb up the bunk bed ladder. Outdoors, kids can manage a more energetic obstacle course.
7. Bring back legacy games. All that’s needed for most sidewalk games are chalk, while backyard games only require a ball and a sense of fun. For instructions you may have forgotten or never learned, check out Sidewalk Games by Glen Vecchione and Sidewalk Chalk: Outdoor Fun and Games by Jamie McGillian. And remember to add those classic hand- clapping games, typically played while chanting a rhyme. A few rounds of Miss Mary Mack or Say Say My Playmate aren’t just fun; studies show they’re also brain boosters.
8. Stage treasure hunts. First hide a prize. Then place clues throughout the house or yard. For very young children, those clues can be pictures or rebus sentences. For older children, the clues can be written as poems or riddles. Each clue leads to the next set of clues before the treasure is discovered. Encourage children to create treasure hunts for each other. The prize doesn’t need to be a toy or goodies, since the hunt itself is the real fun. Try “hide a packed lunch day” and let everyone search for the cache of lunches. Those who find sustenance first need to help others so the kids can eat together.
Laura Grace Weldon’s kids have always preferred muddy ponds and open fields over toys. She is the author of Free Range Learning: How Homeschooling Changes Everything, in which the tips on the next page appear. She lives with her family on Bit of Earth Farm. You can catch up with her at her website. This article was published in Natural Life Magazine.