A recent study gives us some scientific insight.
Babies begin to play from early on in their infancy. They are curious and attracted to brightly colored toys and sometimes random things like small bits on the carpet and empty packaging. Through play, babies learn to interpret their world and increase their mental, social, emotional, and physical skills.
The enormous benefits of play for development has been long known. This has led to much investigation as to what kinds of toys are best for children's development. Parents and toy companies alike often want to enhance their child's engagement with play through toys.
A recent study looked at what helped improve the quality of children's play—less or more toys?
Development estimated that fewer toys in a child's environment would lead to better play. The study participants were 36 toddlers aged around 24 months. Seventeen of the children were only children. Children were screened for the exposure to play prior to entering the study to ensure that they had a good repertoire and experience of play.
A variety of 32 sit-and-play, gender neutral toys were used in this study. Toys represented three categories:
- Educational (toys that may teach a concept such as shapes, colors, or counting)
- Pretend (toys that suggest themed play scenarios for "as if" play)
- Action (toys that can be activated through manipulation or toys that encourage exploration)
Toys were consistent with a checklist written on behalf of the American Occupational Therapy Association (2011) to aid parents in toy selection.
The toddlers played in two different conditions. One play session was a Four Toy play session and the other was a 16 Toy Play Condition. In the Four Toy condition, one toy from each category was randomly selected. No more than one toy was designated as battery operated. In the 16 Toy condition, four toys from each category were randomly selected. No more than four toys were designated as battery operated. No toys were repeated for both conditions. Toys that were indicated as a child's favorite were replaced with a randomly selected toy.
Toddlers attended three individual sessions with their caregiver. The first session was for the purposes of screening the toddlers for suitability. The caregiver was asked to remain on site during data collection and was able to view the session.
Prior to the play sessions, each toddler was asked for verbal agreement to play with the statement "Would you like to play today?" The caregiver was asked to assist in helping the toddler feel comfortable before separation for the play session occurred. Caregivers were asked to join the toddler in the room during the session and to abide by research protocol if separation distress occurred.
The play session began with a two minute adjustment period in which the researcher interacted with the toddler in a friendly manner. Once comfortable, the toddler was informed that he/she could play with toys in the room however he/she would like to.
If the toddler approached the researcher to engage in play, the researcher participated in the reciprocal interaction, following the toddler's lead. The researcher did not ask or attempt to engage the toddler in any play behavior. Caregivers were also followed this protocol for interacting with their children if they were in the room during the data collection period.
Each session was videotaped. Play behavior was coded following the two-minute adjustment period. The researchers were interested in three things:
1. The number of toys the toddlers played with.
2. How long the toddler played with each toy.
3. The number of actions the toddlers used when playing with the toy.
For example actions such as drumming, dumping, exploring, pretending, matching, gathering, or inserting were all recorded as different types of actions.
What parents can learn
The study found the quality of the toy play was better in the play condition with fewer toys. In the 16 toy condition the children played with more toys but their engagement with the toys was of less substance. The depth and duration of the play was best with four toys.
The researchers suggest that having fewer toys is beneficial to play due to children's limited attention span at this age. When given a larger number of toys to play with their find it hard to focus and engage in deep play. Parents involved in this study reported toddlers had 90 toys on average in their play environment.
Western homes tend to be overloaded with toys. Parents regularly complain to me about the stress of managing toys and I've had my fair share of difficulties with this issue. I've never been successful at stemming the tide of toys that flow through my home.
It seems for children, access to more toys does not result in better play. The results of this study suggest that if you have a large number of toys in your home, reducing the number of available toys is beneficial to increase the quality of children's play. Consider rotating toys on a weekly basis to allow your child to experience different toys. It keeps toys novel and may alleviate any concerns about toys being wasted.