Kids Are Actually Happier With Fewer Toys. Here's Why.

by Lisa Sadikman
Originally Published: 
A red-haired toddler in a blue shirt and gray sweatpants playing on a floor with three balls around ...
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I can’t even tell you how many times my kids have busted me manically going though their toys fully intending to get rid of at least half of them. When they see that white garbage bag come out, they know what’s about to happen and go into full protection mode. All of a sudden they’re gathering up their most precious items, including crap they haven’t touched in months — like, you know, that purple plastic ring from so-and-so’s birthday piñata two years ago.

I have three kids so my youngest is the lucky recipient of every possible Lego set, all kinds of awesome Play Mobil people, endless Barbies, wooden and foam building blocks of every imaginable color and size, board games galore, and so many Hot Wheels. Don’t even get me started on what she’s accumulated on her own through generous friends and grandparents. My life is all about My Little Pony, herds of plush unicorns, and unsticking the plastic arrows suctioned to the walls.

My motivation for wanting to make space in our toy-stuffed house is many-fold. First of all, too much clutter makes me anxious. Second, with three kids, we have a ridiculous amount of toys around, and finally, my kids aren’t actually playing with all this stuff.

When the kids do happen upon one of my energetic toy clearing sessions, they insist they cannot possibly do without all five stuffed brown sea otters because they’re a family, duh. And no, we cannot pass along the 100-piece puzzle they haven’t touched in forever because they are for sure going to sit down and do it this weekend.

I remember when I was pregnant with my first how I collected all the things I thought she needed for those first months and years. Colorful floor mats for tummy time, musical blocks, and stacking wooden rings; a ball that chimed when she rolled it, stacking cups, and a wooden dollhouse. Oh, and let’s not even talk about the endless dress-up clothes, plastic food, and child-sized musical instruments. Every one of these toys was supposed to encourage her development. Every one of them was “educational,” a necessary object meant to help unlock her genius.

Fast forward a decade and I’m still waiting for one of my three geniuses to figure out how to pour the milk without spilling – and I’m still waist deep in toys.

I’ll admit, I’m a bit of a softie if one of my kids truly feels attached to a particular toy. As a grown-ass woman who still has her childhood lovey at the top of her closet, I can’t handle the guilt of possibly trashing a toy that’s near and dear to one of my girls. That’s probably the number one reason we end up with more and more toys no matter how serious I am about getting rid of the ones gathering dust.

But, according to a recent study published in Infant Behavior and Development, I no longer need to feel guilty about chucking as much stuff as possible.

Researchers found that young children are actually happier when they have fewer toys to play with. That’s right, folks: kids do not need a bazillion toys to be happy. More is not always better, despite what the culture tells us.

Working with toddlers ages 18- to 30-months, researchers gave one group four toys and another 16. The kids with fewer toys around were more engaged in their play and for a longer period of time. They also played with the toys in more and different ways than the kids who had more toys at their disposal. According to the report, “Deeper exploration may lead to increased imaginative play,” which supports fine motor coordination and the development of cognitive skills, like pretending and problem solving. Having too many toys around causes a disruption in play.

By now you might feel embarrassed about the piles of toys all over your house. Don’t be. According to one study, the average American household contains up to 250 toys with the average around 139. But before you make a mad dash for the garbage bin, it’s not a terrible thing for your kid to have more than four toy choices. The key is to not overwhelm them with too many toys at once. Periodically rotating toys is a great way to introduce them to new ways of playing without overwhelming them, and allows you to make use of all those gifts from family and friends.

The bottom line is, your kid does not need a lot of toys to be happy or develop to his or her full potential. For me, that means I can clear the extra clutter without the guilt — unless, of course, I stumble across a member of the stuffed sea otter family. That little dude is protected for life.

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