Can You Buy Kids Too Many Presents? Scientists Think So

Decreasing the quantity of toys could increase the quality of play for kids.

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The fewer toys children have, the more fun they seem to have playing with the ones they’ve got, a new study suggests. This research could come as welcome news to parents this holiday season, many of whom are likely buried in Hatchimals and Nerf guns or worried about the cost of Hatchimals and Nerf guns. Regardless, fewer toys may be more fun on Christmas morning — if not overall.

“From the results of our study, we suggest that parents and other caregivers might consider offering toddlers opportunities to play with just a few toys at a time,” study co-author Alexia Metz of the University of Toledo told Fatherly.

Past research shows that as toddlers’ cognitive, language, and motor skills develop, they begin to engage in play, and their ability to pay attention influences how complex this play is. One of the ways child development experts measure a kid’s attention is their capacity to resist distraction. Although several studies have looked at obvious distractions such as TV, few have looked at toys as a distraction. In fact, Metz and her colleagues could only find one study about toy distraction ever — it was conducted in 1979.

“We felt it was time to update the findings given that children today likely have many more toys/playthings in their homes — judging by sales data,” Metz said.

To do this, Metz and her team observed 36 toddlers between the ages of 18 and 30 months playing with either four and then with 16 toys. Each toy was gender neutral and fell in one of four categories: educational (toys that teach shapes, colors, or counting), pretend (toys help children imagine their different worlds and perspectives), action (toys that can be activated through moving them), and vehicles (toys with wheels). When they had four toys, one represented each category, and when they had 16 there were four from each.

After separate 15-minute recorded play sessions, they measured the incidences of play with each toy, the duration or each incidence, and the manners of play — the variety of ways kids played with each toy. Results revealed that when kids played with fewer toys, they had fewer play incidences, played with toys longer, and played with greater variety. On average, four-toy sessions resulted in half the play incidences, 108 percent longer duration of play, and 63 percent more manners of play.

One main limitation Metz notes is that the families were recruited on a University campus and were mainly white and upper-middle class, who reported having over 80 toys in their homes on average. She recommends future studies recruit larger, more diverse samples in order to increase confidence that their finding across the board. If they are, this is good news for parents with too many toys that they want to get rid of, but also for families who can only afford a few items to play with.

“I would hope that our results are encouraging for families who feel that they aren’t able to provide an abundance of toys for their children,” Metz says. “Toddlers’ playthings don’t have to be new or expensive, or in fact, toys at all.”

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