HOW TO SIMPLIFY PLAY
“Education is an Atmosphere. By saying Education is an atmosphere, it is not meant that a child should be isolated in what may be called a ‘child environment,’ especially adapted and prepared; but that we should take into account the educational value of his natural home atmosphere, both as regards persons and things, and should let him live freely among his proper conditions. It stultifies a child to bring down his world to a ‘child’s’ level.”
Being a mother during the twenty-first century has many blessings, but some major difficulties as well. One is that we live in a culture that is obsessed with buying and consuming. We feel that our children need fancy toys for them to be intelligent, develop imagination and be happy. But more and more we find our children unhappy and bored amidst boxes of toys.
Why? A major reason so many children are suffering is that too many toys and too much complexity can actually be harmful to a child’s development. This usually comes out in the form of anxiety and hyperactivity. It can even harm your child’s ability to play. I personally noticed my children complain of boredom and were unable to play for long periods of time when we had too many toys available to them. They fought more often over toys that are battery-operated and finite. Sibling rivalry and inattention is a huge indicator that you need to simplify your environment. I have seen the following benefits of simplifying toys down to the bare minimum: happier, more content children; less sibling rivalry, and hours of imaginative play. I haven’t heard “I’m bored” since I simplified our toys and playroom. You can read more about the research on play and toys here. Before you can fully embrace simple toys you must understand the underlying principles behind them–relationships and self-education.
Another consequence of complex, commercialized toys is that many children do not develop motor skills that are needed for real-life, and as adults they are unable to understand scientific laws because they have not experienced these laws in concrete terms. One of Charlotte Mason’s most famous quotes is “Education is the science of relations.” When children play they are forming relationships with the laws of nature, themselves and others. As proof that open-ended play is cardiovascular surgeons are reporting that their students are having difficulties understanding how a heart works because they never used a pump, and others cannot sew up arteries because those fine motor skills were not developed as children. Some of the best toys we have are funnels, measuring cups, and buckets for the children to play with in the sand and water. They learn about physics by playing with cups and tubes in the tub, and funnels and scoops in the sandbox.
“Self-education is the only possible education; the rest is mere veneer laid on the surface of a child’s nature.”
Consumer driven play is quite the paradox: too many choices, and at the same time not enough choices. The truth is that children develop creativity and fine motor skills when they need to create their own toys, like wrapping a wooden block with fabric to create a toy couch. Joy is sparked when a child solves a problem with their own solutions. Open-ended toys have endless possibilities and choices, whereas finite toys–like character figurines and battery-operated trucks– do all the work for the child. What our children really need is to be active agents in their play and education. They need open-ended toys to exercise their imagination and solve problems.
How to Detox Your Playroom
- Gather all the toys from around your house and put them in a pile.
- Throw away toys that are broken.
- Donate toys that are battery-operated and are finite (meaning they can only be played with in one way). If you aren’t ready for this yet, put them away in the garage and watch your children blossom and grow with open-ended toys.
- Over the next month watch and take notes:
- Which toys do your children play with the most often?
- Which ones hold their attention longest?
- Which toys require creativity and thinking out-of-the-box?
“Everything in the nursery should be ‘neat’––that is, pleasing and suitable…Nothing vulgar in the way of print, picture-book, or toy should be admitted––nothing to vitiate a child’s taste or introduce a strain of commonness into his nature.” (Charlotte Mason, Vol. 1 pg. 131)
When choosing furniture pieces for the playroom, choose ones that will serve double-duty as both organizers and toys. For example, IKEA Kallax can store blocks and baskets, but it can also be a dollhouse, cages for veterinary clinic, or parking garage for trucks. A low shelf can store toys, but it can also be used to play store as shelves or checkout counter.
All toys should have a home that is easy to access, easy to see, and easy to move. Large, tall, opaque bins are usually the worst choice. I have found that open baskets, clear bins, or wire baskets promote less mess because the child doesn’t have to dump everything out to discover what’s inside. A really good option is to display toys on a shelf. When toys are displayed the child can simply pick up a toy without dumping out the whole bin.
That being said, play is meant to be messy. Children learn from creating, destroying, and re-creating. I’ve found my children will not play as deeply if they are afraid to make a mess. Keep your playroom separate from other living spaces, if possible, just so they can feel free to create and work on their creations over multiple days. I put my three boys in one bedroom just so we had a room dedicated solely to play.
Which Toys Are Best?
“In choosing toys for the children, how important it is to bear certain points in mind; one special thing to consider is, to give when possible something out of which the child can make other things, or can do something more with.” -Parent’s Review Vol. 17 no. 5 pg. 366
In general, the best toys:
- Grow with your child. Blocks are just as enjoyable for a two year as a ten year old.
- Are not gender specific. All children love playing with animals and a toy kitchen.
- Are high-quality. Children are rough on toys, and higher-quality toys are less expensive in the long run.
- Open-ended. Play scarves can be made into a dress, cape, ocean, or tablecloth.
The best toys fit into these four categories. I recommend having a good variety of toys from each category, based on what your family dynamics and your individual children’s interests. You do not need everything on the list–take inventory of what you have and fill in the gaps based on your family’s needs.
- Play dough or clay
- Water table
- Tools for sand/water play
- Threading beads
- Wooden Balance Board
- Push-toy ( like cart or wagon)
- Shape-sorting toy (for infants and toddlers)
- Blocks (wooden blocks, magnatiles, Legos)
- Square craft boards to use with blocks
- Real child-sized tools (hammer, pliers, screwdriver)
- Sewing box (embroidery thread, needles, fabric, buttons, pins, scissors)
- Child-Sized Cooking Tools (rolling pin, measuring cups, spoons, bowl, apron, spatula)
- Play scarves and fabric
- Kitchen + food
- Cash register
- Schleich Animals
- Bags, boxes, trunk
- Dice (lots of game ideas online, Greedy is a family favorite)
- Cards (Uno, Matching, Old Maid, etc)
- Board games
- Matching games
- Wooden puzzles for different ages
- Pattern blocks
WHERE TO FIND TOYS
A few of our favorite brands for toys are IKEA, Hape, Melissa and Doug, Schleich, Haba, and Treasures From Jennifer (Etsy). Always check Facebook and Craigslist to find the items used before buying new.