So often in meetings I’ll hear a familiar story: “we have so many toys but my kid still complains about being bored!” “my child doesn’t play at home, they just throw things around!” “My kids are always fighting over toys but never actually playing with them!” “your clean-up time sounds so easy, ours is impossible!” My response is usually to have them look around the room (I have family meetings in my classroom): “What does their playspace look like? Do you have more toys than we have here?” “Yes.” They reply. “A lot more.” At home these children are faced mountains of toys, stuffed into chests and hidden under beds, strewn across the floor with half the parts missing. They’re so overwhelmed that they can’t focus on playing with anything for too long and become disoriented, causing stress for the whole family. The type, the quantity, and organization of playthings in the home is important for children’s healthy development and families’ general quality of life. No one means to cause harm by giving a child a toy, but alas, intentions aren’t everything. I urge caregivers to feel empowered as gatekeepers for the things coming into their children’s lives, not hopeless in the unending onslaught of consumerism.
Simple, Beautiful, and Few.
That is my mantra when selecting or recommending playthings. It helps me be a wise gatekeeper with what I choose to bring into the children’s lives, and is also helpful in deciding what should go.
Toys should be minimally detailed and as open-ended as possible. Things like blocks and cloths are perfect examples of this—they don’t tell you what you should do with them, so the children have unlimited options with just one object! Also consider how open ended more inherently “fixed concept” toys can be. A simple wooden block with wheels can be a car, or a truck, or a taxi, or a racecar… whereas a more detailed toy car already tells the child what it should be, limiting their imagination.
Aesthetics are not frivolous. Children’s boundaries between themselves and their environment are thin, so when we fill that environment with beauty they feel it. They are highly sensitive—a toy that is obnoxious to us is doubly so to them, they just don’t always know how to process that! Toys should be made of natural materials so the experience of touching them is pleasant and natural. (My exception to this is plastic things like legos or magnet tiles for older children, as they’re amazingly open-ended and great for creativity, and easy to find second-hand.) Materials should also be considered for their environmental impact—we aren’t doing the children any favors by polluting their future home. Lots of small toymakers are using up-cycled materials these days, taking garments out of the waste stream and avoiding the impact of manufacturing new textiles!
Toy overwhelm is a real problem for a lot of kids these days—having so many options that it’s hard to stick with anything for long enough to play deeply and always being able to turn to something new to stave off boredom rather than having to get creative and build grit. Too many sets beautiful wooden blocks is still a problem. Perhaps less of one than too many whirring plastic do-dads, but still overwhelming and not conducive to healthy, creative play. Try putting away all but one or two things in each of the toy categories listed below and see what happens over the course of a few weeks. You can always add more back in later if it seems their play would be deepened with another doll or set of smaller blocks for detailed castles.
Categories of playthings
None of these categories are mutually exclusive, nor is this guide meant to be limiting! Rather, this is intended to help you look at your toys to ensure a diversity of play opportunities are available. I’ve linked to some favorite playthings below!
Big play is a broad but simple category that basically includes anything where the child’s body is a part of the play. Babies and toddlers naturally engage in this and will turn anything into big play-climbing on dollhouses, throwing wooden animals, etc.
A few essentials in this category are: a rocker board or boat, ropes or rolly polies, logs, big cloths, and something to climb into or under. Additionally, make sure to offer things for:
Construction on a larger scale. Big hollow blocks, cushions, playstands, stumps, lumber, sheets… This is also a great type of play to direct outside.
Dress up/big imaginative
A few pieces of cloth can be plenty for dress-up, especially for younger children! Older children might benefit from a few simple hats or crowns, and perhaps a vest or cape. Ropes or rolly polies can become tails, scraps of cardboard or rocker boards shields, sticks can become swords or canes. A “fireman” or “princess” costume is so limiting—let them design their own!
Small play is usually done while sitting down on the floor, manipulating something small with one’s hands in a deliberate way. This is usually more popular with older children (think: 4 and up), but even toddlers will benefit from having some small playthings on offer.
A few essentials in this category are: cars, animals, blocks small enough for your child to fit in one hand, and small cloths or silks.
On a small scale, specifically. This category includes blocks, legos, etc.
Small scale imaginative
A toy barn is an amazing jumping-off point for imaginative play, and could be as simple as a wooden box where the toy animals “sleep.”
Toys in this category are often less open-ended, but can be hugely important for older children looking to “play pretend” as well as younger children who are new to free play.
Dolls are a special category all their own, though a special stuffed animal that the child practices nurturing could also be included. Expressions should be neutral and details minimal.
A toy kitchen is not an essential, but many children do love them. Make sure you at least have some open-ended toys that lend themselves to pretend cooking, tea parties, etc. (The Grimm cup stackers are great for this!)
This category does not include storybooks, the reading aloud of which I don’t consider play. Rather, look for a few (sturdy!) books with few or no words and engaging pictures so the children can imitate reading and practice telling their own stories, and save story time for special “in breath” moments in your daily rhythm.
How toys are organized is nearly as important as what they are. To encourage the freest play possible it’s essential that toys be accessible, and to support the rhythm of your day it’s important that they be easy to put away and “close” when needed. Start by looking at where your child plays. Playrooms (or bedrooms with toys) are great for older children, but toddlers often want to be near the action, so storing their toys in another room is impractical and will hinder clean up time. Wherever your child typically plays, try to consolidate toys in that one location. Or, depending on your rhythm, keep a few options for a more limited playtime in a public space, then the majority in a playroom for big free play time.
I generally find that a low bookshelf if the best bet for toy storage, anywhere in the house. You can even use the bottom few shelves of a larger bookshelf in a living room, or stack apple crates for a cheap and modular solution. Small toys can be sorted and stored in baskets or wooden crates on a low shelf, and can be covered with a cloth when “closed” if your child needs that visual reminder. Sorting is key—don’t keep all your toys in one basket or stuff the animals in with the blocks. Play books should be treated with great care and have a special home. Larger toys should be few to begin with, and all have a designated home. Perhaps the hollow blocks all stack on a certain wall, and the rocker board goes on top. If your child has any “furniture” such as a small table or kitchen or playstands, think about when you want them to be open or closed and how you can communicate that visually. I recommend against using kid furniture to store toy baskets when possible, as it often leads to toys being dumped off of the furniture so they can use it, then being walked over or otherwise not valued. When choosing baskets, chose ones that are flexible or sturdy—delicate baskets tend to break quickly when accidentally stepped in.
Here are a few of my favorite things to support free play. Some links are affiliate, which support our work by earning us a small commission. You can also look at your local natural toy shop—I love Acorn in Brooklyn, share in the comments if you have a favorite in your area!