“If parents note that their children are struggling to focus during play, the one thing they might try is reducing the number of toys available,” Metz said.
But she warned against taking this method to the extreme.
“It’s also important to remember that sparsity in environmental stimulation, including playthings, is known to have negative effects on development,” Metz noted. “This is well documented in the cases of children raised in extremely impoverished environments.”
Past research has shown similar results to Metz’s study. In the 1990s, German researchers Elke Schubert and Rainer Strick removed toys from a nursery in Munich for three months and detailed their findings in the book The Toy-Free Nursery. Within a few weeks, the children had completely adjusted. They were more social with each other and their play was much more creative.
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Creative play is one of the most important things for children to experience while they’re developing, Metz urges.
“Creative play allows children to explore the physical aspects of the world, setting the stage for learning science concepts, logic, and problem solving,” she remarked. “It can propel a child's life choices and support development of empathy, and it’s fun. This can relieve anxiety for children and promote bonding with caregivers.”
Reducing kid’s toys could have other benefits as well. Last year, NDP research found that toy sales reached $20.4 billion in the US and that the average American home has at least 71 toys. But children often only play with a select few favorites, leaving the rest as a waste of money and a waste of plastic, which is a growing environmental concern. If parents and caregivers take the advice of Metz and her colleagues, this could help alleviate the problem.
In future research, Metz hopes to discover more about the role of play and distraction in childhood development.
“We would like to know if repeated focused play leads to better problem solving, improved fine motor skills and visual perceptual skills,” she said. “We would also like to test if regular opportunities in early childhood to play with fewer distractions helps children to be more resistant to distraction later in life.”
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