Oftentimes, when people ask what my son likes to play with, I scramble to think of a toy he loves. I blurt out “oh he likes trucks” or “he plays with his blocks quite a bit”. While these are all true, I find myself wondering why I feel the need to answer with a toy, when really, his favorite things to do- or play- don’t involve “toys” at all. I can see how this happens because childhood and toys kind of go hand-n-hand. Yet, most parents will agree that children lose interest in toys very quickly. Think about it, Christmas just passed and most kids got a lot of toys for Christmas. The question is how many of those toys are still being played with? Maybe one, two at the most.
As my son has gotten older, I’ve come to terms with the realization that he doesn’t need more toys, he needs interaction from us (his parents, caregivers, etc.) and experiences such as trips to the park, walks outside, the library or a museum. He might join us in the kitchen if we’re cooking his dinner and start stacking paper cups. He might stand on his stool below our window to look outside and watch the geese walk across the grass or across the street.
One of the main reasons we don’t provide our son with a myriad of toys is because it’s out of our budget. However, I’ve noted some other benefits in the recent months to having fewer toys. The first and foremost benefit stems from the minimalist model- only invest in what you truly need, the rest will cause unnecessary stress. I know I’m not the only one who gets overwhelmed by constant clutter. Right now, my son is too young to clean up (without extra guidance), so that job is left to his mother… me. Another benefit that relates more to their cognitive development, is simply that it improves their attention span. It’s simple- when you give them less toys, they spend more time on each toy. Often, children are far more interested in things that aren’t considered “toys” at all- what the adults are doing, or what they see in their environment (especially if they’re outdoors).
Below I’ve included some ways you can encourage curiosity and exploration in children- without toys. Maybe your children have already showed you their sense of wonder by doing some of these- and maybe you have a few more you can add to the list.
1. Window watching. Look out the window with them. In early winter/late fall, my son loved to watch the geese walk around right outside our apartment. He would watch cars, the city bus, or anything else that was going on outdoors.
2. Climbing. Provide them climbing opportunities. A couch works well. If they are young, be sure to cushion the bottom with pillows and blankets to catch their falls 🙂
3. Hide and seek. Play chase or hide and seek. My 16 month old doesn’t yet know the concept of “hide and seek” (he doesn’t wait for me to hide), but he loves coming to find me if I run to one of our rooms and hide behind a door or in the closet. He also loves it when I pretend I can’t find him even when he’s standing right in front of me. These are great connection builders. I believe in independent play, but I also believe it’s important to take time out each day to focus on your child/ren and only your child/ren. Those are the times they’ll look back on when they’re older and cherish.
4. Enjoy nature. Go on walks and collect rocks (when weather permits).
5. Peek-a-boo. Play peek-a-boo with big blankets.
6. Developmental games. Use cups to practice dumping and pouring (we use small dixie cups).
7. Silly faces. Make faces together in the mirror.
8. Dance. Have a dance party (this is great for kids of all ages!) Turn on music you know they love and take their lead! It’s fun, makes no mess, and is great for sustaining the child-parent connection.
9. Clean. Have them help clean. All you need is a broom and dust pan. My son is young, but he loves to help. Before we got him his own cleaning set, he made several awkward attempts with our broom. He might of knocked a few things over from the counter, but… at least he was trying to help.
10. Cardboard boxes. Give your child crayons and they can decorate the box with their own artwork, or (if the box is big enough) they might use it as a play house. You could even build a fort!
11. Bubbles. What toddler doesn’t like bubbles? You can find them at the dollar store, four in a pack.
12. Sprinklers. If the weather is warm, turn the sprinklers on and let your child have a blast running through the water.
Each child is unique, so while one child may love playing in the mud outside, another child might prefer staying in and baking a special treat with you. Whatever it may be, there is always something out there for your child’s interests- that doesn’t cost money, and doesn’t clutter your home or collect dust in your closet. When you reduce the number of toys, you’ll begin to see that children engage longer with activities, they’ll increase their attention span, and it will create less stress in your home. Toys for kids are often made to stimulate, but more often than not, these toys over-stimulate and overwhelm your child- and even you. Looking in the mirror and making faces or watching out a window are ways to stimulate your child without overwhelming them.