Why Kids Probably Don’t Need Toys

Photo (cc) by Willie Nordmann

Last week my life partner and I had the chance to watch his granddaughter for a couple of hours. The baby, whom I’ll call “Rose,” recently had her first birthday.

Her dad brought along a couple of stuffed animals but no other playthings. That was fine, because I’d prepared for her visit by pulling together:

  • A clear plastic jug that once held 8 pounds of popcorn.
  • A small dough scraper.
  • Some metal measuring spoons.
  • Two canning jar rings.
  • A large kitchen spatula.

For the first 15 minutes or so, Rose sat on the couch like a very small queen with a very large diaper butt. She stared all around her, checking out the scene and fingering the textures of the afghans beneath and behind her.

When I gave her the plastic jug with the kitchen items, the fun really began.

She put everything in and then reached in to pull it all back out, seeming fascinated by the fact that she could see the items – and her arm – through the clear plastic. The edge of the jug’s rim was a little bit sharp (though not enough to draw blood) so she quickly figured out how to reach in without feeling an unpleasant sensation.

I showed her how to dump all the items out at once, and how to push the dough scraper and spatula through the space made by the jug’s handle. To LP’s relief, she did not decide to bang the measuring spoons against the jug. Appparently the irregular and discordant noises of children’s play grate on his nerves.

Too bad, because I’d planned to make another “toy” by dropping a few dried beans into a small plastic bottle and gluing on the lid. Instant maraca! Now that I know that such sounds drill him, I won’t do it.

Of course, if I’m ever called upon to baby-sit by myself, then I plan to make all sorts of joyful noises with the young miss.

The best non-toy toys

Frugalist nonpareil Amy Dacyczyn would have approved. “Babies are happiest with pot lids and measuring spoons, and they are given more toys than they need,” she notes in “The Tightwad Gazette II.”

According to my mom, one of my favorite preschool activities was to take all the canned goods out of a low cupboard and then put them all back in. Apparently I had my own ideas of how the cans should have been arranged.

Later I enjoyed playing with scraps of wood in my grandparents’ garage. My grandfather was a carpenter and he never threw anything away, apparently. (After his death we found several boxes he’d knocked together out of bits of wood; all held odds and ends of hardware. “Whenever Dad needed a box and didn’t have one, he’d make one,” my father remarked.)

When my niece was about Rose’s age, she loved to have someone empty all the clothespins out of their storage container, which was an old Clorox bottle. She’d drop them one at a time back into the jug, then smile happily when someone dumped them back out so she could begin again.

My family has an absolute genius for simple amusement. Then again, so would most babies if they weren’t surrounded by bells-and-whistles playthings, stuffties that light up and play music or, heaven help us, hand-me-down iPads.

Show of hands: Who’s entertained kids by setting out non-toys such as pots and pans, a big cardboard box or a few pieces of Tupperware? In fact, my partner’s mom suggested we just pull out all the Tupperware and miscellaneous plastics (sour cream, hummus, yogurt) and let Rose have at them. Less was more, as it turned out.

More fun, less clutter

“Kids don’t need toys,” LP remarked at one point. Later he clarified the thought: Kids don’t need nearly as many toys as we think, and most kids have too many.

A woman I once worked with did a quarterly toy clearout. Every three months she packed up at least one-fourth of her children’s playthings and banished them to the attic. While there, she’d pick up some of the things she’d previously sent to the Toy Gulag.

Guess what? Her three kids were delighted with the “new” stuff and played happily and intently with it. Since they had only 75 percent of their toys downstairs at any given time, the result was more fun and less clutter.

Understand, I’m not against toys as such. I’m against excess. I’ve seen quite a few children’s rooms dominated by dolls or tyrannized by Tonka. Doting relatives + inexpensive yard sale toys = overkill. When you have too many toys, none of them is really meaningful.

Full disclosure: I have a bag of small playthings, probably 75 in all, acquired during my daughter’s growing-up years. Some were inherited from her cousin and the rest we accumulated here and there (especially as regards kids’ meals at various fast-food outlets). In her teen years she sometimes took the bag along to baby-sitting jobs because children are generally fascinated by large quantities of small objects, and by other people’s toys.

Occasionally I bring it out when my nephews are visiting. They, too, are delighted by the variety and the novelty. I won’t introduce Rose to it any time soon, in part because many of the pieces are just the right size to block a toddler’s airway.

It’s also because I hope she’ll see her grandfather’s house as one that isn’t full of toys, but rather of storybooks, music, cooking, kid-sized chores, walks and gardening. She can get light-up stuffties in other places, but how often does a kid get to play with an empty Orville Redenbacher jug?

Readers, what were your favorite non-toy playthings? Share those memories in the comments below or on our Facebook page.

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