The Path to Fewer (and Better) Toys


0-Organize-Kids-ToysThis is a guest post from Joy at Joyfully Green.  Joy blogs about ways for people to make meaningful differences and eco-conscious decisions in their daily lives.  Her blog is extremely educational, so check it out!

 Before I sound like Mrs. Scrooge right out of the starting gate, let me say that I fully believe in the magical power of toys. Not just to keep the little ones from assaulting each other delighted for hours, but also for sparking their imaginations and sharpening their capabilities. However, few things are more disheartening to me than a trip to Toys R Us and its generic cousins. Vast and charmless expanses where I’m surrounded by neon-colored, easily breakable, cheap-plastic contraptions that will run down their batteries just as quickly as my nerves from the incessant squawking and flashing, which toy manufacturers have programmed us to believe are necessary for children’s enjoyment and development.

With all due respect to Sesame Street, the absolute worst toy I’ve ever purchased for my children was a Talking Elmo doll. It was an impulse purchase–the little red monster was staring us down as we innocently made our way up the aisle at a big-box store. Suffice it to say, I was too weak that day to fight it off. Not only did this particular Elmo eat batteries as ravenously as Cookie Monster gobbles up cookies, but it also took a huge bite out of my children’s imaginations. They would just sit there, totally zombified, uninterested in other toys being offered, while Talking Elmo blathered the same three (painfully unfunny) joke-stories over and over, and mechanically wobbled up and down on his little plastic stool. When the batteries wore down, I was elated. The kids lost all interest in the toy, which soon found another home far from our own. (Thank you, local firefighters, for your toy collection bin!) The kids never even wondered where Talking Elmo went.

After we parted ways with Talking Elmo, I started to seriously rethink toys–and not just from the wasted money standpoint. First of all, my children had way too many toys–I’d even broken a pinky toe tripping over a pile of them. But second, and more importantly, what value were these toys bringing to my children’s lives? I was reminded of an inspiring little book that I’d read when my first child was still a baby, called Trees Make the Best Mobiles: Simple Ways to Raise Your Child in a Complex World by Jessica Teich and Brandel France de Bravo (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2001). In it, the authors write, “The more active or complex the plaything, the more passive your baby will become.” Children are instinctively creative and adventurous. They want to build and create their own masterpieces, not have the masterpieces arrive on their doorstep, already built for them. If you’ve ever watched little kids at the beach, you know that they can spend hours constructing the most elaborate sandcastles, complete with moats, dungeons, and towers, even if you’ve left the pail and shovel at home (woops!).

I’ve also been heavily swayed on my path to fewer and better toys by the book Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids by Kim John Payne with Lisa M. Ross (Ballantine Books, 2010). The authors convinced me to dramatically weed out my children’s toy collections, so there was more open space to play and fewer choices to overwhelm them. I started by storing some toys in the basement, but when I realized the kids didn’t even notice the missing toys, I gradually moved the boxes up and out, to other homes. The authors were right: The kids had much more focused attention and enjoyment with the toys that stayed (and I didn’t break any more toes).

If you’d like to rethink the toys in your home, here are ten suggestions to make your children’s toy collections more manageable for you and more enjoyable and stimulating for them:

1. Assess your toy collection. We lined up all of our kids’ toys from one end of the upstairs hallway to the other, like a big parade. Frankly, it was a shocker, as we have a long hallway and some of the toys were piled up to make them all fit the length of the hallway.

2. Keep classic toys that rely on your child’s imagination. Legos, simple wooden blocks, musical instruments, and art supplies are always winners. Perhaps even better? The back yard. You can’t beat the pricetag.

3. Get the whole family on-board with a yard sale. I recently wrote about the lessons we learned at our spring yard sale. It’s so liberating to purge your stuff all at once. If a yard sale won’t work for you, seek out the toy donation bins in your area, or check with your pediatrician or dentist to see if they’d like any extras for their waiting rooms. Also, libraries often will accept puzzles.

4. Practice your resolve at the store. If a simple “no” won’t work, ask your kids which of their toys they’re willing to donate to make room for the new one. Works for us– suddenly, our kids become inseparably attached to the collection they’ve already got waiting for them at home. My kids are also budding environmentalists (their mom has a green blog; it’s bound to rub off on them!), so when they pick up some cheap plastic thing at the store, I just say, “Wow, think of all the pollution that toy created when it was made!” and they drop it like it has cooties.

5. Avoid tie-in merchandise. Disneyland is great for a visit and Nick Jr. has some cute TV shows, but don’t get sucked into the marketing vortex of licensed and branded toys. Most times, these are not high-quality purchases, and the characters already have their own fully developed stories. Let your kids form their own adventures with “no name” toys.

6. Consider more “non-toys” for toys. If you’ve ever given a baby a wooden spoon and a pot to bang on, or given a kid a big box from an appliance delivery and some magic markers to decorate it, you already understand this point. Kids like the challenge of making something from nothing.

7. Repurpose grown-up things. My daughter has one of those big plastic kitchens (which I wouldn’t buy at a store, but I rescued in almost-new condition before the garbage men got to it in our neighborhood). She uses cast-offs from our actual kitchen (an old teapot that had quit whistling, pans that have lost their coating, an old set of utensils) instead of pre-made kitchen toys. “Real” stuff just feels better in little hands, and using “grown-up” things enhances the experience of pretending.

8. Stop buying toys that require batteries. The planet will thank you, and you and your kids will be a lot less frustrated when you get off the hamster wheel of buying batteries for toys. (Your house also will be a whole lot quieter!)

9. Dress-up Time. Few things entertain my children more than playing dress-up with grown-up clothes. Put a box aside for your kids, filled with some old hats, scarves, sunglasses, and costume jewelry. Again, “real” stuff tends to be more fun for kids than cheaply made dress-up items from the dollar store.

10. Give experiences instead of things. As I wrote in a post called The Gift of Time, love and attention are the most precious gifts of all. Give those in abundance. And if you see a Talking Elmo doll, just keep on walking!

Are you overwhelmed by the toy collection in your house, or do you have it totally under control? Please confess or brag in the comments section below. (P.S. Thank you very, very much to Tony for inviting me to guest post. Tony, it’s your turn next at Joyfully Green!)



  1. Joy, this is GREAT.

    Last weekend I went to a barbecue party. We walked in to a FIELD of plastic shrapnel crap littering the entire house. It was amazing. The “zombified” reference is right on. It is absolutely impossible to pay attention to any one thing, and I watched kids float around half crazed as a result until I couldn’t stand it anymore.

    My girls have a box each of toys plus a couple of balls and a hula hoop. What I figured out is that even the little one (18 months) can keep her attention on one thing for a long time. Since there’s not an endless stream of plastic crap, my 4-year-old can absolutely rock the hula hoop because she’s always got that thing. Plus, it suddenly became a corral for animals, a goal for a ball game she made up, etc.

    This is how I remember things as a kid. I am really not too sure how this changed, and it seems like now we’re at war with crap. You have to have an actively engaged plan, otherwise it just seems to seep in to your life. How did this happen??

    Oh, and AMEN on the battery thing.

    One last thing…. I used to work in a wood shop, and I cranked out a big basked of hardwood blocks of different shapes and sizes. We’ve got hours with those things, and it was all from scrap that was going to a landfill. Hmmmmm…. I smell another solid hustle.

    Gotta go.
    Great post.

  2. Marilyn Russell says:

    The best toys that my children had were their father’s red wagon and a set of 250 pattern blocks. One of the criteria that I used when selecting toys was if I would save it for the next generation. We kept some scrap wood around and they were taught how to safely use some of the hand tools. Somewhere there is an article about the best toys being things like sticks and puddles and trees to climb.

  3. I am with you on this Joy!

    Even though our kids are long past the toy stage, apparently hubby and I were “minimalist” waaaay before it had a name.

    My husband and I have a construction company and often sell our personal house. Feedback from the Realtors (from their buyers) is “Does anyone live here?” They think our home is a model home because there’s so little “stuff.” LOL

    ~ darlene :)
    Darlene with BlogBoldly recently posted…Build Your Online Business One Step at a TimeMy Profile

  4. Great writing, great tips, and thank goodness for a Mrs. or Mr. Scrooge out there on this issue. We do not have children, but we do have nephews and their parents need this article. Will you send it to them, anonymously?
    cj recently posted…Getting What You Wish ForMy Profile

    • Yes, cj, indeed I will forward it to them–just leave their full names, email addresses and phone numbers in the comments section and I’ll get right on it! Social security numbers, too, just so I can verify I’m sending it to the right people…

      Thanks for the nice feedback, and in the spirit of the Great Jollyhoombah, have a toe-twitching, margarita-sipping, dandelion-blowing, frolicsome weekend!
      Joy @ Joyfully Green recently posted…Big News: Joyfully Green is Hitting the Road!My Profile

      • How in hell’s creation did I miss this!!!!!????? -toe-twitching, margarita-sipping, dandelion-blowing, frolicsome weekend!- Thank goodness our weekend has just begun lest none of these wonderful events come to be. BTW: The fam said no to the release of all their personal info. I guess I’ll send it myself and joyfully receive my lashes this summer;)
        cj recently posted…Getting What You Wish ForMy Profile

  5. I love the practical steps at the end of this post, especially number one! We have tried hard to not acquire a lot of toys but with well meaning grandparents, uncles & aunts and silly junk giveaways everywhere we go, we’ve got too many. I pulled all their toys out and lined them up and took a picture of them and that made me realize we have way too much. Seeing them all out at once makes a big impression. I immediately did a huge purge and the boys haven’t even noticed them missing. They mostly just play with their trains, cars & tinker toys anyway.

  6. Kim Greenfield says:

    I love this post Joy!! We have been trying to “thin out” the toys too! It is true that when the toys “disappear,” they are not missed!! I love your ideas of passing along the old pots etc, as well as reminding the kids what went into making that plastic toy they “must” have!! I am enjoying all of your posts and am so excited when I see a new one in my RSS!! Keep up the amazing work!

  7. Ya know, we don’t have kids, so I probably should just keep my mouth shut, but (because I can’t! ha!) – if parents wouldn’t buy their kids so much CRAP (think back on excessive Christmas gifts, birthday gifts!) and saved the money in the bank instead, maybe they’d have more money when the kids are ready to head off to college. We have 20+ nieces & nephews, and it makes me bat-shit crazy to even think about buying any of them another “toy” -type gifts. We usually just give money/savings bonds – I know, no fun, but I’m thinking some day they’ll thank us. And I KNOW they won’t remember what they never received!! ha ha

  8. I don’t have kids yet but the ones I watch on a regular basis LOVE classic toys. Matchbook cars, lego, and even wooden toys are in their favorites. Kids don’t need something battery powered and electronic to keep them occupied!
    Daisy @ Prairie Eco Thrifter recently posted…Friday Links – Bachelorette WeekendMy Profile

  9. Totally agree with #5
    Tom King recently posted…Dog Extremely Scared Of Car Wash – funny videoMy Profile

  10. You’ve totally convinced me! We have so many toys it’s silly; most of it is from family members spoiling our little ones, which is nice, but bad for our space problem. I have so many that I still have to change the batteries in, but the fact that my kids aren’t bored makes me keep putting it off; that’s probably a good thing. I’m adding ‘Trees Make the Best Mobiles…’ to my to-read list on GoodReads for sure!
    femmefrugality recently posted…ABCmouse Review and GiveawayMy Profile

    • Keep putting off those battery changes! :) Gifts from relatives are tough–there seems to be an endless stream of presents from birthdays, holidays, and just plain old visits. I don’t want to train the kids into thinking that every time a relative shows up at the front door, they get a new toy. On the other hand, I don’t want to hurt the relatives’ feelings. Often, I just donate the gift in a couple of months to a toy collection bin. The kids never miss the old gifts because they’ve gotten something new since!
      Joy @ Joyfully Green recently posted…From Omnivores to Vegans and Back Again: How Our Experiences Shape Our Food DestiniesMy Profile

  11. What a great post!
    Laura4NYC recently posted…Blog Anniversary! 2 years already?!My Profile

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