Early childhood services taking away the toys

Published on Tuesday, 11 June 2019
Last updated on Tuesday, 31 December 2019

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It's widely acknowledged that play based learning is important for the wellbeing and development of young children. But when it comes to playing with toys the jury is out.

Our modern world full of mass consumerism and impressive technological advancements means that children are spoilt for choice when it comes to toys. Regardless of whether they're designed to be educational or not, some experts now believe that toys are the wrong tactic for helping toddlers grow and learn.

Replacing toys with everyday objects

children's nursery in Bristol, England recently removed and locked away all toys on its premises for a month. While it seems like a harsh form of punishment, it was in fact an experiment which saw them replace the toys with ordinary objects such as cardboard boxes, tin containers and used train tickets.

The results were fascinating with the staff noticing the following:

  • Children who normally spent a lot of time indoors ventured outside a lot more to play
  • Children talked to each other more and increased the amount of time they actively played with one another
  • Children were more creative and used their imaginations more when playing with the real objects instead of toys

Parents of the children attending the preschool also reported that their children appeared very happy playing these simple, yet imaginative, old-style games with everyday items.

A possible prevention method against future addiction

Meanwhile in Germany, a Berlin-based daycare centre also adopted a no-toy practice a few years ago where they left children with only furniture items such as blankets and cushions and very minimal art supplies, for periods of several weeks at a time with no instructions. The goal this time, was around improving children's life skills to help strengthen them against addictive behaviours in the future.

The idea apparently formed from a Bavarian addiction study group which started in the 1980s and deduced that for many people, habit-forming behaviour began in childhood. The researchers therefore developed a project for early learning centres which saw the removal of things which children sometimes used to distract themselves from their negative feelings – essentially toys.

"Without any toys, children have the time to develop their own ideas," said Elisabeth Seifert, Managing Director of Aktion Jugendschutz, a Munich-based youth non-profit organisation that promotes the no-toys project.

"In toy-free time, they don't play with finished toys. They develop their own games. They play more together, so they can better develop psychosocial competencies."

According to Seifert, and reported by The Atlantic, these important life skills include understanding and liking oneself, having empathy for others, thinking creatively and critically, and being able to solve problems and overcome mistakes. She believes that the sooner kids learn these the better.

With regards to evidence around whether it's beneficial, it's true that no long-term research has been undertaken on this project. However, while some argue that removing toys from young children is cruel and promotes unnecessary distress; other studies indicate that children who participate in toy-free time show increased social interaction, creativity, empathy and communication skills.

Going back to basics

Experts agree that pretend or make-believe play has quite a crucial role in children's development which adds weight to the idea that removing toys from young children (or at least reducing their access to them) has strong merit.

A hundred years ago children were lucky to have simple toys such as dolls, balls and cars; and instead relied mostly on objects around them and their imagination to play games and have fun. Children today may not have the opportunity to do this, particularly when so many toys now have exciting sounds, lights and other modern features to lead the way – and this isn't even taking into account digital distractions such as tablets, smartphones and TVs.

However, if given the chance, a child will easily turn a stick into a wand and become a wizard, use leaves as pretend money to buy things from a shopkeeper, or create a car out of a plain cardboard box. The imagination has no limits when prompted to fly.

Additionally, more research is revealing that too much screen time and artificial stimulation from devices can be detrimental to children's physical, mental and emotional development; therefore indicating that electronic toys in particular should be kept to a minimum, if at all.

Ideas for your early childhood service

The notion of children having no or limited access to toys is certainly an interesting one. If you're keen to explore the practice in your service, here are a few ideas to consider:

  • Conduct a trial no-toy period – This could be for a day, a week or more. Just be sure to communicate with the parents prior to let them know what you're doing, have all educators record observations during the experiment, and provide clear results to determine whether it was a success or not and should be repeated.
  • Do a toy cull – It's possible that you have too many toys available to the children at any given time. You could donate some to another centre or put half of them away to be swapped out with other toys at a later date.
  • Have toy-free afternoons – Perhaps a total toy ban is not the right solution for your service, however you could easily promote toy-free periods throughout the day to encourage outdoor or other imaginative play.
  • Promote playing with simple objects – Gather cardboard boxes, containers and other items and encourage children to use them to create games and role play scenarios.
  • Remove electronic toys and screens – If you are going to continue to let children play with toys ensure they are simple and keep interaction with any screens to a bare minimum.

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