Toys R Awful

I’m starting to see Christmas decorations in shop windows–though less here than in London–and it’s too much. Too early. Too materialistic. To avoid being a total Scrooge, I’m writing and posting this well before Christmas. (Though maybe around the right time to confront some pre-Christmas shopping…)

One of my jobs as an au pair is cleaning up after the kids. Luckily I’m not expected to keep everything spotless, but I am supposed to pick up toys and generally keep the place looking at least a little bit short of a disaster zone.

This is hard.

Not hard in the sense of physically difficult manual labor or intellectually rigorous, thoughtful work. But the countless toys seem to be operating on the glitter effect–they’re everywhere, they get lodged places you’d never expect, and as soon as you think you’ve gotten them all, you find more.

I do not think these kids have an unusual amount of toys, and their parents certainly aren’t bringing home small bits of colorful plastic every day. However, it still feels like too much. Not because I’m a Scrooge, though, but because I watch these kids closely, I play with them, and I notice that what really grabs their fancy are not the fancy toys, but… (drumroll, please) the pieces of paper, the glue, and maybe the blocks.

Most formal games get dumped out of the box. The pieces become props in new games of the child’s invention.

Pre-structured craft activities are sometimes fun, but only once or twice. Once the novelty is gone, the craft usually isn’t repeated.

Most of the animal or people toys are largely interchangeable. A handful would suffice.

When I took the kids to a large, poorly-designed playground the other day, I had to laugh–after a little while playing with the various pieces of equipment, they transitioned to an invented game about monkeys on the one short, sturdy tree in the place. The perfect size and shape for them to climb.

I’ve heard a lot of people laughing about how kids often seem to appreciate the box a toy comes in as much as the toy itself. Often, they seem to be laughing at the dumb kids–come on, who would be that stupid? But I can still remember being maybe five or six at the oldest and getting to carve doors and passageways in a series of huge cardboard boxes we got when we bought a new washer and dryer.

For adults, toys are symbols. They’re symbols of material prosperity and parental affection. Buying toys signals something to other parents. Buying toys as presents is seen as a loving gesture. It is a loving gesture. But there are other loving gestures out there.

For kids, toys are also symbols. Little blobby figures become the actors in important dramas the kids are trying to act out. They become characters in larger story arcs. Things that move (trains, cars, anything with wheels) become ways of figuring out motion and space and force. Kids innovate to construct forts, castles, moats, houses, bridges. Swords, guns, magic wands transform the child into an actor in her own right.

I think it’s important for kids (and adults, frankly) to play, but it’s less important to buy a sea of toys for kids to play with. As I spend time with “my” kids, I find that frequently there are too many options. As I spend time cleaning after them, I find all the little odd bits to things that have gone missing and are not missed.

If you can tolerate tripping over hard plastic every day on your way to make coffee, more power to you. Personally, the clutter of all the toys really gets to me. It’s hard to find something specific, too, so I find myself on hands and knees trying to find the one thing amidst the general chaos–and that drives me batty.

Most of the time, the kids aren’t playing with the clutter, either. They’re drawing, or cutting things up and glueing them, or building things with blocks and knocking them over. The puzzles are good structured activities for when mommy wants to spend a focused half hour with the kids, but the same favorites are pulled out again and again.

As the time for gift-buying approaches, consider the actual desires of the children you’re buying for, and consider scaling down the actual purchases. –Or scaling up. Sometimes a single “big gift” might be more valuable than a handful of smaller, easily-forgotten items. Tricycles, scooters, and small bikes are great examples.

And consider funky alternatives, like some kind of craft supply that is a little unusual but would be really fun to play with (I’m thinking about different kinds of corrugated cardboard, shiny paper, etc.). For many kids, a good book will go over well, and will be read over and over (and can be neatly stowed on a shelf).

Finally, experiences are often more memorable, and more appreciated, than tangible gifts. The 4 year old girl I take care of regularly tells the story of being taken to the circus by her grandparents–two years ago. If you live far away, this may not be possible, but you could possibly figure out a way to share an activity over Skype, or give a rain check for a later time when you would be with the gift recipient.

The most important thing is not to feel guilty about an “alternative” gift. There’s a weird amount of pressure on parents to provide a lot of physical stuff for kids, and a lot of that is generated by advertisements–marketing departments, in other words, not kids. Resist!

P.S. I wrote this just days before stumbling across this article – another perspective with additional reasons why kids don’t need so many toys!

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