An abundance of toys can curb kids’ creativity and focus

More toys mean more distractions and less creativity, a new study finds. The results suggest streamlining toddlers’ toy collections.


The holiday onslaught is upon us. For some families with children, the crush of holiday gifts — while wonderful and thoughtful in many ways — can become nearly unmanageable, cluttering both rooms and minds.

This year, I’m striving for simplicity as I pick a few key presents for my girls. I will probably fail. But it’s a good goal, and one that has some new science to back it. Toddlers play longer and more creatively with toys when there are fewer toys around, researchers report November 27 in Infant Behavior and Development.  

Researchers led by occupational therapist Alexia Metz at the University of Toledo in Ohio were curious about whether the number of toys would affect how the children played, including how many toys they played with and how long they spent with each toy. The researchers also wondered about children’s creativity, such as the ability to imagine a bucket as a drum or a hat.

In the experiment, 36 children ages 18 to 30 months visited a laboratory playroom twice while cameras caught how they played. On one visit, the room held four toys. On the other visit, the room held 16 toys.

When in the playroom with 16 toys, children played with more toys and spent less time with each one over a 15-minute session, the researchers found. When the same kids were in a room with four toys, they stuck with each toy longer, exploring other toys less over the 15 minutes.

What’s more, the quality of the children’s play seemed to be better when fewer toys were available. The researchers noted more creative uses of the toys when only four were present versus 16.

Metz and colleagues noticed that initial attempts to play with a toy were often superficial and simple. But if a kid’s interest stuck, those early pokes and bangs turned into more sophisticated manners of playing. This type of sustained engagement might help children learn to focus their attention, a skill Metz likened to a “muscle that they have to exercise.” This attentional workout might not happen if kids are perpetually exposed to lots of distracting toys.

The toys used in the study didn’t include electronic devices such as tablets. Only one of the four toys and only four of the 16 toys used batteries. Noisy toys may have their own troubles. They can cut down on parent-child conversations, scientists have found. It’s possible that electronics such as televisions or tablets would have even greater allure than other toys.

Nor do the researchers know what would happen if the study had been done in kids’ houses and with their own toys. It’s possible that the novelty of the new place and the new toys influenced the toddlers’ behavior. (As everyone knows, the toys at a friend’s house are way better than the toys a kid has at home, even when they are literally the exact same toy.)

The results don’t pinpoint the optimal number of toys for optimal child development, Metz says. “It’s a little preliminary to say this is good and that is bad,” she says. But she points out that many kids are not in danger of having too few toys. In fact, the average number of toys the kids in the study had was 87. Five families didn’t even provide toy counts, instead answering “a lot.”

“Because of the sheer abundance of toys, there’s no harm in bringing out a few at a time,” Metz says.

That’s an idea that I’ve seen floating around, and I like it. I’ve already started packing some of my kids’ toys out of sight, with the idea to switch the selection every so often (or more likely, never). Another recommendation I’ve seen is to immediately hide away some of the new presents, which aren’t likely to be missed in the holiday pandemonium, and break them out months later when the kids need a thrill.

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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