Here's Why Having Many Toys Could Be a Problem for Children

As the holiday season gets into swing, behavioral science experts suggest that too many toys can negatively affect attention spans and creativity in kids.

As parents collect gifts for their young children this holiday season, they may want to consider limiting the number of toys. Behavioral science experts suggest that too many can distract and shorten their attention span.

The U.S. has 3.1 percent of the world’s children but buys 40 percent of the world’s toys. A study to be published in the journal Infant Behavior and Development supports the idea that children play more creatively and are better focused when they have access to fewer toys.

Researchers from the University of Toledo observed 36 toddlers (nine boys, 27 girls) of roughly two years of age as they played with four toys or 16 for up to half an hour. The kids with only four toys played with each toy for a longer period of time and in more varied ways than the ones with more options, who tended to move from toy to toy. They were also more inclined to put down the toys and play in other games.

Based on their results, the researchers suggest that giving toddlers access to fewer toys could improve their ability to pay attention, especially at such a critical age for focus development.

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“The ability to withstand distraction emerges during the transition from toddlerhood to preschool years,” Dr. Alexia E. Metz, an associate professor of occupational therapy at the University of Toledo and one of the study authors, told Seeker. “Later in life, one might be able to develop the skill, but it would take more effort and repetition.”

Having fewer toys around might be particularly beneficial for kids if they’re already having a difficult time paying attention at a young age.

Creative play is one of the most important things for children to experience while they’re developing.

“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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