Opening the front door I’m confronted with a sight that could suggest we’ve been burgled. I keep my eyes focused on the middle distance to avoid looking at the detritus at my feet.
My oldest boy has just started primary school and already I wade, knee deep in the collection of rocket ships, tractors and play food that he has accumulated in the short four years of his life. His younger brother’s compendium is just as impressive. It looks as though the Early Learning Centre has thrown up all over the floor, where flying chunks of Little People have managed to reach behind the sofa. I am forever tripping over, walking around, picking up and dare I say it, in moments of utter contempt for anything plastic, throwing toys. My world has been bombarded with the Technicolor of all things Made in Japan.
There is so much choice for them in these toy boxes that my boys must find it difficult to make a choice at all. They lean in to the box, pull an item out, throw it to the floor, then another and another as though searching for some special treasure until the floor is no longer visible. Instead there is only an ocean of plastic stuff, and the boys are sitting in the empty toy box, pretending it’s a car/campervan/nest.
I find all this mess incredibly overwhelming and stressful. I wallow in an unhealthy state of fatigue and my shoulders slump at the very thought of tidying it. Long ago the (smaller) mountain of toys was confined to the boys’ bedroom, now wherever the boys might spend a few moments toys will congregate, and seem to be breeding. By the front door, in the kitchen, I can’t close the toilet door for the mass of plastic that has migrated there. In an effort to try to eradicate the clutter that is overtaking our lives I buy larger and larger storage boxes, with lids, to house it all, but these too become overstuffed, and unable to close when we add to the pile with even more mass produced cheap plastic.
I’ve not helped the situation. We parents have an innate need to provide everything imaginable to aid our children’s progress but all I’ve done, and I’m not alone in this, is fall for advertisers’ ploy in believing that their new Buzz Lightyear with realistic voice sound effects and extractable wings will cultivate my child’s imagination and enhance his creativity; I am under the miscomprehension that the newest toy on the market is vital to the development and stimulation of my children’s minds.
With their jolly adverts depicting chirpy, fascinated (and virtuously clean!) children marketing companies try to convince us that buying more branded stuff mean we love our children more than the next parent. This does little but create a sense of entitlement in the child. They are happy for the five minutes it’s in their hands but only until the next thing catches their eye. At a recent trip to the supermarket I witnessed a G force strength tantrum over a Thomas train. The mother was attempting, and failing, to wrestle her son into his buggy while around them other parents stared aghast at the poor woman’s attempts to pacify her whirlwind son. “Perhaps you can have one for your birthday darling.” She says through gritted teeth as she tries to strap him in, he is not placated by her words and screams and struggles even harder. “Shall we ask Grandma for one?” She tries. That doesn’t work either, so she quickly grabs the toy from the shelf and marches off to the till.
When I was growing up in the 70s toys were for Christmas or birthdays only. It was inconceivable to think that we might get a new toy at any other time of the year. These days we are faced with (invariably cheap and plastic) toys wherever we go; supermarket aisles are filled with them. No matter how we try to manoeuvre our offspring around them we just can’t escape, and too many of us fall for the pester power that fools us into thinking that if we give our child this one thing then they will grow up happy and fulfilled. Not so, what will happen is that it will be thrown in a toy box, never to be seen again.
The catalyst for change came for me when, one day as I paddled through the chaos I stepped on a sharp piece of marble run, which pierced and severely bruised the pad of my left foot. I swore a lot, threw a few toys that were within reach and resolved from that point on to remove all excess plastic from my house. Also, I was forced to acknowledge a certain truth – that there were so many toys cluttering up my house that they no longer held any value for my boys.
It took me a few weeks but step by tiny step I emptied my house of surplus matter, and with each step I felt as though a dark cloud was lifting. I started with the broken toys, then those that languished beneath a layer of dust, and moved on to those brightly coloured plastic toys whose function was too specific as to disallow any form of freethinking, free flow play.
I expected tantrums of massive proportions and signs of distress that their beloved, but un-played with Peppa Pig camper van, rocket ship and merry-go-round had vanished and their mountains of toys were diminishing. Instead, much to my amazement not only did the boys hardly notice when each day for about two weeks another bulging bag went walkabout (to the charity shop), but they seemed to be calmer, and more good-natured towards each other. Research has shown that too many toys can be overwhelming and lead to restlessness in children. The constant distraction also means they have no time to reflect and therefore develop shorter attention spans. I wasn’t convinced. This was merely the calm before the storm surely, I thought.
Yet increasingly I’ve noticed them become more compliant. It could all be an illusion, the misjudged perception of a calmer, more peaceful self but they seem to settle more easily into peaceful play. This clutter-reduced environment obviously affects them in a similar way to how it affects me.
Lately, a sense of calm has pervaded the house. The little explosions of frustrations I expected never came. For my part, whereas I used to feel irritated when they’d pull out a toy from the bottom of a huge pile, only to see the rest fall to the floor like an avalanche, I’m now able to watch with interest as my youngest selects a car from the much reduced toy box, find a spot on the rug and while away a good half hour, cheek to carpet, making broom broom noises. The other son will be deeply engrossed in some dramatic make-believe scenario involving a Lego car and a Wow figurine.
Don’t get me wrong, there are still times when they’ll complain that they’re bored, ironically, not as frequently as before the cull. Since then I’ve discovered that boredom is actually highly conducive to creativity. Less is more, apparently. Kim John Payne co-author of Simplicity Parenting says that too much stuff and stimuli can rob children of their attention. It takes away their ability to explore their imaginations deeply. Fewer toys focus their attention, he says.
I’ve come to realise that I’ve relied too much on toys to entertain my children. I forget those moments when, out walking or on a beach or some other location where there are no colourful plastic items to be seen for miles around, the boys will usually find some form of entertainment, usually with a leaf or a stick. They don’t need toys 24/7 to keep them entertained. I fear that when we offer them distraction only in the form of toys we inadvertently communicate to them that pleasure equals products. They will become accustomed to the constant stimulation that toys, and later on, material possessions gives them.
I believe that knowing how to find pleasure cannot be taught because there are no rules, it is an individual thing, a different experience for each of us. We can only tell our children what we enjoy and hope that this inspires them, and we can only watch to see where they find enjoyment and give them more of it. If we show them that material belongings equal pleasure then we are setting them on the road to the consumer grindstone. I needed to educate my children into taking pleasure in things other that what they see on the toy store shelf. Now, going for long woodland walks, being creative with paper and glue, reading a book with lots of colourful pictures and dancing like crazies around the living room are all thing that my children and I do now that we’re not so distracted.
It can be liberating not to have to continually search for the next best thing to increase their IQ, up their creativity, assist in their motor development. I sense in the not too distant future demands for mini iPads or the latest equivalent will supersede the demands for a remote control car, because all their buddies will have one.
I’m not cruel, I wont starve them of playthings but I have seen the benefits of less with my own eyes. I know that by simplifying their lives, and removing the clutter I am allowing them freedom to access their imagination. I no longer succumb to pester power either, knowing that once I say no, I know I’m making the right decision for the right reasons, I no longer have that nagging doubt that just maybe this would be the toy that eclipses all other toys.
As the piles diminish I began to gain a sense of clarity – had I been trying to make up for something by allowing the clutter to build up around their ears? Maybe I was trying to ensure that, rather than give them attention myself, I could distract them with the mountain of toys. Ironically, it is only since I got rid of the surplus toys that they no longer demand my attention.
Aside from the odd game of hide and seek I’m redundant as a playmate and they’ve moved on the bigger, more deeply imaginative things. I no longer need to stimulate or control their play because they seem to feel more in control of their own enjoyment. I will give them the time, the resources they need; scissors, glue, large cardboard box etc., and then I give them the freedom to just get on with it. They make the choices of what and how to play.
The toys that remain have allowed them to discover the fun that can be had with a large cardboard box, which, with the power of their fertile imagination becomes a spaceship, a shop or a cosy birds nest. A blanket and cushions make a teddy’s bed and a sandbox with added water from the water butt makes a gooey cake mixture and…well, you get my drift, I’m giving them experience not entertainment. Pretend or make-believe helps children develop executive function which allows them to self regulate their emotions and impulses, something they’re going to need in this world of commercial extravagance.
These days we all have too much choice, too many decisions to make and too much stuff. It can be overwhelming, for parents and for children. I feel as though I’ve taken an important first step in allowing mine to take childhood at their own pace rather than that of the manufacturers whose aggressive marketing tactics dupe us into thinking that their toy will be the best, adding to the accumulation which does nothing but overwhelm and stress them.
I’ve given my boys space, time, and free reign to do what they need to do, without the accompanying clutter that appears, almost overnight, to engulf us, both physically and emotionally.