I learned a long time ago, my kids do best at the beach with a bucket and a shovel. Nothing else.
No giant shovels, no sea creature molds, no castle molds, no baskets full of geometric shape molds. No Frisbees, no kites, no bocce balls, and no kiddie horseshoe games. No plastic dinosaurs, no action figures. If we bring too much, we have to carry it, and we start out cranky.
Then we feel like we have to use the stuff, and we spend time stamping out identical dolphins or running to get rogue kites before they are gone forever. Plastic dinosaurs are buried. In the end, no sand castles are built. No one uses the buckets to carry seawater. It’s not fun — it’s overwhelming for everyone.
This isn’t a shock. Consumer researchers Ravi Mehta and Meng Zhu found that, basically, the more stuff you have access to, the less creative you are. In other words, the scarcer the resources, the more novel uses people find for the products they do have. This research presents a problem for American parents. Because, well, we like stuff. We really, really, really like stuff (see the Easter basket frenzy, the Christmas craze, the birthday bash). If we give someone something, we think, they will feel loved. Or they will stop whining. Or they will just, basically, get something they want, and that will make them happy, and we are trained to look for happiness in material things. All this means that American kids have way too many toys.
And when I say that American kids have “way too many toys,” I mean that my kids have literal buckets of plastic dinosaurs and action figures. They have multiple building toys: wooden blocks, Legos, Lincoln Logs, a marble run, Magformers, Laser Pegs. Their swords actually constitute a weaponry; their costumes take up a 3×3 Ikea cube and involve at least five separate plastic-y Star Wars costumes. I refuse to discuss the stuffed animal situation. I refuse to admit how long it took me to sort the Legos. My kids are the poster children for too much stuff. I’m not absolved.
Right now, they’re playing pirates. Each of them is wearing a designated pirate outfit, using a designated pirate sword. Except, as they sit and play Legos, they have to improvise the boats, the banners, the guns, the minifigs. In the absence of pirate resources, they are forced to get creative — creative in a way that they aren’t with their costumes.
This is part of the reason that children enjoy going out into nature so often, and one of the reasons they need it so badly. When you go out into the woods, you don’t take much more than a water bottle. The things my kids play with there include rocks and sticks. Nothing is fancy. Nothing has a designated use. A stick can be a sword, a gun, a part of a house. A rock can be a projectile weapon or a piece of dinner. They can literally build bridges, or climb trees, or just hop from rock to rock and pretend there’s lava underneath.
Unstructured play in nature gives them a break from the pile of stuff that overwhelms them on a regular basis. It gives them creative freedom.
The problem isn’t always the amount of stuff. There’s lots of stuff in nature too, but those things don’t have a designated use. They don’t come with a box or instruction manual. There are certain ways you are supposed to play with a Hans Solo action figure, for example, or a plastic Spinosaurus. Options are limited.
And the more things kids have, the more roles those things embody, and the less likely they are to get creative. It’s hard for kids to be inventive and think outside of the box, when the box is right in front of them and depicting how they should play with said toy.
But the less stuff you have, the more your inner creative genius shines. So in the absence of the beach cornucopia, my kids actually use the bucket and shovel, to dig, and interact with the resources in their environment. They build castles. They carry seawater. They search for shells and use them as both decorations and fortifications. They may try to dig a pool and fill it with water; they will certainly try to dig a channel down to the ocean. This is a very different type of play than repeated dolphin-stamping. It’s child-directed. It’s constantly evolving and changing. It’s exercising their mind, causing them to evaluate problems and come up with solutions, to make their own rules. And most importantly, it’s not canned, it’s creative.