Less complex and less stimulating toys – not to mention fewer toys in general – are in best interests of children’s all-around growth and development.

Child Health

The Fewer Toys Children Receive this Holiday, the More Play

Less complex and less stimulating toys – not to mention fewer toys in general – are in best interests of children’s all-around growth and development.

Children today grow up in a vastly different environment compared to the world their parents and elders experienced. But certain similarities in human nature remain unchanged, especially when the holiday season rolls around. 

“When I was a child, everyone got a Christmas catalog,” says Dr. Lyn Nuse, specialty medical director of pediatric primary care at Atrium Health Levine Children’s. “The first thing you did was try to find what looked like the coolest toy. Kids today have the same desire. They want the latest and the greatest.”

Those often include lights, sounds, screens and voices, an assortment of electronic gadgets and digital devices that can keep children occupied for hours at a time. Many such toys are even falsely deemed as “educational,” a label that attracts well-intentioned adults like sharks to chum.

But parents who are interested in their children’s mental and emotional development should heed Dr. Nuse’s advice: “Gifts don’t need to be super splashy or heavily electronic,” she says. “And there don’t have to be 20 toys under a tree; there can be three or four.” 

The dangers of overstimulation 

According to a 2018 study by researchers from the University of Toledo, an abundance of toys (measured at 16 or more) can reduce the quality of play. Conversely, fewer toys at once (4 or less) can help children focus better and play more creatively. They played with each toy longer and in a greater variety of ways.

“Having fewer toys makes children more imaginative and intelligent,” Dr. Nuse says. “That study reinforced everything we know about how children develop skills, creative imaginations and problem-solving through playing.”

In addition to the number, the type of toys can have an effect, too. Pediatricians have noticed a trend over the last several years, witnessing increased levels of anxiety and depression in older children and teens. More and more school-age children are dealing with issues of poor focus and inattention. “This seems to have paralleled the increase in digital media, the use of electronics, smart toys and gadgets that reduce the amount of social play,” says Dr. Nuse.

“The more toys, lights and noise there are to interact with actually increases anxiety because it’s very overwhelming to take in all of those different stimuli,” she says.

A smaller number of high-quality toys that children can interact with is better for encouraging healthy social skills. Electronic books are fun and engaging, but parents and older siblings often lose quality time spent reading to their children or providing other necessary human-interaction needed for bonding purposes.

Making the transition

Technology has its place, but moderation is the key. The American Academy of Pediatrics offers guidelines for media use among children younger than 2, and children between the ages of 2-5. For the younger groups, media use should be very limited and done only alongside an adult who can co-view, talk and teach. The older group’s screen use should be limited to no more than one hour per day, with media that is interactive, non-violent, prosocial and educational. 

If children have grown accustomed to more usage than recommended, parents must utilize a reduction strategy that works for their situation. No single approach is right for every family.

“Sometimes cold turkey is best,” says Dr. Nuse. “Just have 10 toys to play around with and switch them out every few months. Some people find it easier to gradually decrease and put time limits on TV access, video games, YouTube, and that sort of thing, while working in other opportunities for play.” 

Things to look for

Children today might struggle to comprehend what older generations did for fun, before the advent of computers, video games, mobile apps and the like. But the same, old-fashioned toys that worked decades ago still work now, in terms of enjoyment and instructional value. 

Toys such as Lincoln Logs, building blocks, plastic balls and other simple toys like these are really important in children’s development over time.

“Anything that deals with imagination or pretend play has a positive influence on children,” Dr. Nuse says. “For younger children, think about dolls or old-fashioned carpenter benches where they can hammer pegs through holes. I have patients into middle school who still like putting things together with Legos.”

For older children who might be over-involved with electronics and video games, resist adding to the glut. Don’t yield to guilt or your desire to please them. You’ll actually be doing them a favor, curbing the overstimulation that can stunt their creativity, imagination and social skills.

“It goes back to keeping everything in moderation,” Dr. Nuse says. “It’s truly something that you have to be very purposeful about.”