Defending simplicity in childhood

A friend of mine shared this article  on her facebook page, and though I’ve read many articles sharing similar themes, I found this one to be especially interesting given my background in psychology. The article talks about how having too much stuff can actually push normal childhood quirks into the realm of abnormal thereby actually CREATING mental health disorders. Very interesting stuff.

I’ve been doing daycare for two full years now and when I first started, I read a lot of articles about how kids need a large variety of open-ended toys to stimulate creativity. I joined a daycare providers facebook group and saw lots of pictures of small spaces crammed with toys in really creative ways by people doing it a heck of lot longer than I had. Since having my own kids and starting up a daycare, I’ve received LOTS of free or really cheap toys, and so to be a good a good daycare provider, I put out ALL THE TOYS at the same time hoping for creative, independent play.

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So since you can’t really see in the above picture, both the shelf and the cabinet are crammed with stuffed animals and small toys, plus the foam blocks and wood blocks. Behind the cabinet is a white, plastic 4 shelf unit also crammed with toys. We used the whole basement as the primary daycare play space.

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This above picture is the other half of the basement. Behind me was another climbing toy slide and the corner unit of a desk under which I stored all the napping supplies (pack’n’plays, blankets and nap toys) and on top of which hosted the diaper changing supplies and my laptop for a near constant stream of music.

As I read, I learned on the Internet (of all places) that I pretty much had the IDEAL set up. Lots of toys, lots of space, as safe as any space reasonably can be, and a ‘yes’ environment for the kids. I also had toys upstairs in our living room in a two-drawer filing cabinet plus another medium sized rubbermaid of toys where they played while I made lunch.

So when it came time for us to decide we wanted out of the city into a smaller town and a slower pace of life, I naturally wanted to find somewhere that would have a decent sized dedicated play space. And once again, I crammed ALL THE TOYS in there. Naturally, it looked like a tornado went through every. single. day. and that stressed me out a lot and I spent a lot of time putting stuff away “where it belongs”.

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A teacher friend of mine then recommended I rotate toys and helped me begin the process. So I put away about 50% of the toys. And the above picture is what it looked with ONLY 50% of our toys in there. I wanted the climbing toys because I believe in good opportunities for physical activity, even if we’re trapped inside 6 months of the year (at this age). I wanted as many open-ended toys as I could to “help stimulate creativity”.

There was still so much clutter. It still stressed me (and my much tidier husband) out. I still spent a lot of time cleaning up and trying to teach the kids to clean up. They still weren’t as creative as I would expect them to be.

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So I got rid of a slide. I weeded out even more toys. I took the white shelving unit out. I gave some toys away.

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It is SO much more manageable now because there are fewer toys.

As I’ve reflected, a few things have stuck out to me.

  • At our first house, even with all the toys available, the girls mostly played with just a few toys each day. And some of their favorites were wearing receiving blankets as superhero capes, running around in the middle when all the toys were picked up, each girl pulling on a corner of a receiving blanket and running around (we called the game “pull), and stacking the foam blocks when I made them into cubes. They mostly played together, with all the same toys. They liked the really simple stuff.


  • One had a tendency to grab a few toys and hoard them all day, transferring them from safe spot to safe spot (away from my daughter, haha) and would get really upset if she lost even one of them. Looking back and knowing what I know now (from yet more reading and my own personal experience experience), she was clearly overwhelmed with the selection and needed to simplify. So sitting with her cup and spoon and ball and one or two other things was calming for her. She could control those things when so much else was out of her control. I wish I had realized at the time the importance of that. I would have helped guard her selected toys more vigorously and not made her share them if she left them unattended and one got nabbed.


  •  They weren’t as creative as I would have expected given the large variety of toys like I had been led to believe. They bounced from toys to toys, making giant messes (which is fine, kids do that and we cleaned up every day before lunch), but I expected more creativity. They never spent enough time with just one toy to really begin being creative. They also expected me to play with them A LOT instead of playing by themselves. I am all for playing with kids, but I think it’s REALLY important that kids learn to play by themselves and provide their own sources of entertainment from time to time.

(As I sit in the kitchen writing this, my son is napping and my daughter and daycare kid are entertaining themselves, playing together sometimes, playing separately, but happily playing without intervention from me. Clearly I have grown and learned.)

What I’ve discovered is that less is truly more when it comes to kids playing. The fewer toys they have, the more creative they have to be with them. The more we provide mindless entertainment and tell them what to do when they complain “I’m bored”, the more we stifle real creativity. One naturally must be bored in order to be creative.

We moved to a small town at the beginning of summer, three months before my son was born. I did not get a daycare kid all summer, so it was just my daughter and I. While surely I’m unique in this regard (no, no I’m not), I didn’t have much energy. I rather enjoyed just sitting in a lawn chair watching her play outside pretty much every day. I didn’t get down on the floor much, I didn’t run around much, I didn’t do much of anything much. And she did just fine. She played for hours with water in the pool with her plastic cups. She found sticks in the yard and ran from the dogs or fed the sticks to the dogs. She climbed on our climbing toys. She sat in a chair next to me for 30 seconds before she was off again. She played the dirt and mud. In short, she had a blast all summer, developed gross and fine motor skills without any sort of planning on my part, developed her language skills, and developed her ability to play pretty much alone.

After the birth of my son, things were pretty chaotic as we adjusted to being a family of 4 instead of 3. I also started a daycare kid a few weeks after he was born. Lots of changes. For Christmas, my daughter received a Play All Day Elmo toy who talks and has games and whatever and for most adults is terribly annoying. Elmo VERY QUICKLY became her favorite toy. She lugged him everywhere around the house and played with him ALL. THE. TIME. Looking back, I see he was a constant in her life, her friend who was always there and not tired or looking after a baby or making food or doing whatever it is adults do after having a baby. Elmo was ALWAYS there for her.

Then, one fateful day, she played in her poopy diaper. There was poop on the walls. On the window. On the floor. On the windowsill. On Elmo. After assessing the situation, I decided it wasn’t worth the time to spend cleaning him off because with a mechanical head, he is not machine washable. She was absolutely devastated when she saw him in the garbage and wasn’t allowed to take him out and then saw dad take him to the outside garbage. It was a pretty traumatic event for her (and for me as her mother who had to put her to bed alone that night with no Elmo and the saddest little toddler tears you’ll ever see). We replaced him with a washable Elmo the very next day after discussing the importance of Elmo even though we never really hit the nail on the head of him guiding her through a pretty rocky stage of her young life.

It’s taken me some time, but I’ve realized why Elmo is so important and why he’s her best friend. I’ve realized the constant. We now have a rule in our house that she does not have to share Elmo or Cookie Monster (who was given as a gift to be a friend for Elmo) with anyone if she doesn’t want to. Those are her toys and her toys only. If she asks for them, they MUST be returned to her. As a result, she is more than willing to share everything else. When she’s overwhelmed with lots of noise or people (as is her tendency), she grabs Cookie and Elmo and walks around holding them until she’s able to process and join in the fun.

The best part is that she is SO creative with those two toys since she spends so much time with them. She changes their diapers. Takes them for walks. They climb on chairs and slide down the slide. They “attack” us and eat our legs or ears or noses. They push us over. She practices soothing techniques I use with her. They push buttons on the play microwave or my son’s music toy or the kid piano. They play in the bouncer. They get waterless baths in the bathroom. She really gets to integrate all the things she sees and practice them because her focus is on fewer toys. Sure, we still have WAY too many, but I think we’re heading in the right direction.

It is important to me that my kids can entertain themselves without me, without some kind of electronic device, without a lot of toys. I want them to learn about the creativity inside of themselves, like I learned when I was young, and to have an active imaginary life. We didn’t have movies when we drove two hours to grandma and grandpas – we had the radio, maybe a couple toys or a book, but we were really left to our own devices to entertain ourselves on the drive. My daughter is slowly learning how to do that on our drives since it’s 30 minutes to anywhere from our house.

What about you, friends? What is important to you?

Kids really need simplicity and predictability because everything in them is changing so much and so fast – from what they can do and understand to what they can see and say. Kids need time to integrate what they’re learning and free play is how they do it. If we want our children to grow up happy, healthy, and be productive members of society, we need to let them be bored to generate creativity, to allow them stillness and quiet time, and not schedule every second of their little lives. There are lots of days I wish I had more freedom to go to town and adult, but I if I really think about it, being home most of the time is really what they need to develop their best selves.

I’m certainly not perfect and I don’t have it all figured out, but I’ve learned (mostly from my wonderful husband) that you can only get somewhere one step at a time. I have to envision the future I want for them and for our family, then figure out what I need to do today to help that. What do I need to do today to help them be more creative or learn more about their bodies work? What do I need to do today to help them develop awareness and learn about consequences? What do I need to do today to be the model for them to follow?

My children will be like me someday and I want that to be a good thing. I keep that in my mind almost all the time. So what does that modeling look like?

Sometimes that means retreating into the kitchen to write a ridiculously long blog post while they play in the playroom. Sometimes that means sitting in a chair on interacting verbally. Sometimes that means playing on the floor and being goofy or coloring with them. Sometimes that means going outside and playing together or going on a walk.

It’s always about doing the thing I’d want to see them imitate (which I don’t always do) and remembering to apologize when I fail and work to start fresh again. Friends, we all need to slow down, to lighten up, to put less pressure on kids to learn, to stop wishing for the next stage, and just let them be kids. They have their whole adult life to be adults. Let’s just let them be kids for a while.

Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it. –Proverbs 22:6


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