Toys: Setting the Parameters of the Imagination

Published in Nazareth Journal, December 1997. Republished in Keystone: the journal of Christian Home Schoolers of New Zealand, November 2004. This text is the author's copy and may vary slightly from the publisher's copy.
Every once in a while, I suspect that every parent feels like a hopeless idealist. Some parents feel this way when announcing to secular friends or relatives their intent to follow the Church's teaching on birth control. Others sense their own naiveté when they state that they intend to never own a television set. I feel this way when it comes to toys.
"My children," I say, with all ingenuousness when the topic comes up in discussion, "will never have a lot of toys. I'm a toy reductionist."
"Ah," the older parents say, smiling paternally at me, "we used to feel that way. But the toys just come out of nowhere. We don't buy them -- they just appear. Face it: as a parent, you are doomed to shoveling your way through a living room full of Fisher Price, Loc-Blocs, and Matchbox cars. Believe us. We know."
I don't think they take me seriously.
And they could be right. After all, my husband and I only have two children -- and one is in the womb, and doesn't yet play with toys. Years from now, I could find this article buried beneath a heap of plastic play-food mixed with Tinkertoy heads and laugh cynically at my former aspirations.
But I feel quite strongly about toys. There are several reasons. The strongest reason is that when it comes to toys, my childhood experiences are at my fingertips. I remember vividly what it was like to be a child, in relationship to toys, at least.
To tell the truth, I don't think I ever got over my love for toys. If put in the right environment and given a couple of average-sized kids to entertain, I could fall back into playing with them quite easily. I remember building sand castles and block cities. I remember making my own dollhouses, being perennially dissatisfied with the ready-made ones I found in the stores. The stuffed animals and dolls I loved I can readily picture -- even remember their names and personalities.
I also remember my dislikes. Certain toys I always found ugly, and even repulsive. Not just the horrid plastic monsters and Masters of the Universe grotesques, but certain plastic baby dolls, cheap stuffed creatures, clown dolls. As a child, I was pretty discriminating with what I played with.
I also remember the Clutter. The house I grew up in had a large basement -- a wonderful place that was big enough to ride tricycles in and roller skate in, a perfect stage for plays and puppet shows, a natural site for forts built out of tables, boxes, and blankets. My six-plus siblings and I played there for hours on end.
But I also remember Cleaning the Basement, our standard Saturday chore. I remember wading through the slough of Fisher Price playsets, action figures, puzzle pieces, farm animals, plastic soldiers, dried playdough, torn books, wooden blocks, and various little odds and ends that no one could identify. We had to sort out the toys into various cardboard boxes my mother had covered with contact paper for this express purpose of organization. I remember the endless trips to the toybox and block bin, feeling sour and aggravated by the knowledge that I hadn't even played with half of these things -- my little brother had knocked them off the shelves when he was pretending to be trapped by an earthquake, or my friends had dumped them on the floor just to be mean. Even from a child's perspective, it was easy to see that our family owned too many toys.
What could our family do about it? As the oldest child, and therefore supposedly the most responsible, I quickly arrived at the idea of throwing most of them out. I was always overruled, first by my siblings, which was natural (I only suggested throwing out their toys, of course) but more unreasonably, by my parents, who thought that "your brothers and sisters might want to play with them again some day."So most of the toys remained, until gradually they subsumed into dusty disuse on their basement shelves, simultaneously loved and hated by the children of our family.
This frustration with Toy Clutter has never quite left me. The sight of a living room or bedroom cluttered with a hodgepodge of playthings still arouses in me quite the same emotions. I suspect my brothers and sisters still feel the same way. I know that other parents, who are constantly having to pick up after their offspring, share these feelings. But what's to be done about all this? Is there no end to the modern onslaught of toys?
My husband is also the oldest child in his family (my parents now have ten children, his have eleven) so his emotions on the toy issue are almost identical to mine -- except stronger. "Our children will NOT have a lot of toys!" he was the first to declare emphatically when we discussed the issue during our engagement, and I eagerly agreed. We know what it's like to clean up after other people for oh, eighteen to twenty years straight, and by golly, we weren't going to let our kids have to go through that -- let alone put us through it.
In fact, my husband was even more adamant about reducing Toy Clutter than I was, being a man and a former boy. Little girls do tend to produce more Toy Clutter -- boxes of tiny doll clothes, piles of stuffed animals, shelves of doll collections, horse collections, shell collections, jewelry collections -- and I still have my girlish sympathies. For example, I still have a significant amount of cherished girlhood toys in my cedar chest. Andrew doesn't have anything that he owned as a child, except for a clothes rack and a poncho.
So we had definite ideas on the toy issue before we even conceived our first child. We thought rightly that we had better plan our strategy against the menace of Toy Clutter early, so as not to be caught unprepared.
We came up with an informal list detailing how Toy Clutter begins in the first place, and after each item listed a possible strategy for dealing with it.
How do Toys come into a home?
. Parents buy them. 
Therefore, we resolved to be judicious in our toy-buying as the first line of defense. We would not buy "fad" toys -- Baby-Make-A-Face and other one-use only toys. Generic, traditional toys would be the best buys -- balls, teddy bears, blocks, dump trucks. And we'd have to watch to make sure that we didn't buy toys merely for the sake of buying the child something -- when a snack or a trip to the park would do equally well.
2. Relatives buy them. 
This was a potential danger, we thought, particularly from grandparents and godparents. We decided to embark on an "education campaign" to let our parents and siblings know how we felt about toys. Also, we felt it was only fair to give them alternative gift ideas to toys. The alternate gift turned out to be perfect: books. As book addicts and lovers of children's literature, we firmly believe children can't have too many books, provided they aren't cheap ones about syndicated characters. "You can ALWAYS get our children good kid's books," we told everyone, and no one really objected. In fact, I found out that several of my aunts had always felt the same way about toys. (You think you're being so original at times, when you're only living out your family genes)
3. Friends buy them.
Either friends of the family or friends of the children -- e.g.. at birthday parties. This was a bit more difficult to explain, but we thought we'd deal with it on a case-by-case situation. Fortunately, with birthday parties, parents often have the opportunity to suggest gifts to the guests, and we thought we might be able to give some judicious guidance there.
4. Children buy them.
This, we reasoned, might be easier to deal with, at least for a while, since parents can monitor what the children bring into the house, or even what they buy. And if we formed our children's tastes correctly, they might not feel the need to spend their money on useless toys. As a child, my favorite store was not the toy store, but the craft store, where I could spend my pennies on materials to make my own toys -- pompom animals, felt dolls, wooden doll furniture. I look forward eagerly to introducing our children to my childhood pastime, although my husband foresees difficulties with Craft Clutter in the future. But that's another issue.
5. They get left in your home by accident 
(by neighbor children, visitors, etc.) In that case, we would have to be firm and direct about returning them or passing them on.
6. People give them to you,
in the same way that they pass on used clothing, etc. We would have to be committed to passing such toys on, if we thought they would be Clutter-inducing. One mother told me that it is possible, "so long as you don't let your children play with them first. Once a child plays with a toy, it becomes part of their soul, and you can't remove it without some degree of agony." We would have to be vigilant.
The second line of defense against Toy Clutter would be how to deal with the toys once they were actually in our home and possessed by the children. There are several ways in which toys leave the home, aside from getting lost (either by the child losing them or by the parent conveniently forgetting to find them). Parents have several options for enabling Toys to leave:
1. Throwing them out.If the toy is broken beyond repair (easy with plastic toys) or if there is a general family revolt against Clutter. These revolts, usually led by older siblings or parents, can be traumatic for younger children and are generally not to be encouraged, as oppression of the strong by the weak. However, in my family and my husband's, throwing toys away (covertly, late at night) was often the only way that Toy Clutter could be combated. We decided we would have to develop and utilize other kinder, gentler strategies against Toy Clutter, once it had actually occurred.
2. Giving toys away (to friends, to St. Nicholas projects, to the Salvation Army) or selling them (e.g.: at garage sales). 
As hard as it is, we would have to encourage our children to be generous in sharing their toys with others, even to the extent of giving them away. I know how terribly hard it is to give away something you are attached to. Well, one way to help the children understand this would be for me as a parent to demonstrate such self-sacrificial giving myself. Also, we would have to build up in our children the virtue of hospitality, particularly towards the poor -- to help them see the needy, the stranger, the poor as Christ Himself. Giving away your possessions, even toys, isn't just an exercise in disinterested charity (giving away what you don't need) but is merely restoring to Christ what is His by right. He deserves everything we have. Even if we gave Him our most treasured possession, He wouldn't owe us anything. That virtue of generous, foolish love is perhaps the hardest thing parents have to teach children -- because it is so hard for us. If giving away toys could help teach them that, it might be a useful thing indeed.
This also points out, incidentally, that any strategy against Toy Clutter won't be effective unless it's accompanied by a general attack against Clutter in general -- particularly Parental Clutter. As single people, we'd tried earnestly to simplify our lives, and we would have to continue this often harrowing process of sorting through and giving away throughout our lives. We would have to be neither hypocritical (giving away our kid's toys while hoarding CDs, bric-a-brac, clothing, and grown-up toys for ourselves) nor exempt our children from the discipline we practiced.
3. Packing toys away, to be given to younger children or, in rare cases, saved for the children's own children. 
Packing toys away is a useful strategy for helping to de-clutter a house. Once the toys are out of sight and out of the way (hidden in a closet or attic, not simply in a box in the playroom to be used as emergency ammunition in pillow-fights), in some cases the children become less attached to them. They may be willing to give them away, if the toys are truly useless. Maybe not. In any event, the box of toys can be unpacked on special occasions (birthdays, rainy days) to be played with again, and other toys can be packed away in its place.
While packing away may not help children give toys away, it does reduce the amount of toys which are immediately accessible and need to constantly be picked up and put away. And it's a good idea, I think, to encourage the children regularly go through their toys to decide what they no longer play with, what needs to be fixed, and what could be saved for play later on. It's a useful exercise in stewardship, and preparation for adult simplification.
Even with the First and Second lines of defense, my husband and I felt a need to be a bit more selective. After all, how could we determine whether or not a toy was acceptable for our family?
There were obvious moral considerations. For example, playing with toys that were occultic (monsters, witches, etc.) was unacceptable -- although perhaps a token evil person to serve as the Bad Guy in made-up adventures would be allowed. (Growing up, our Fisher-Price people were constantly menaced by an ugly plastic dragon who was forever kidnapping the children or the parents and needed to be resoundingly defeated by the townspeople).
Toys that encouraged violence -- toy machine guns and bombs -- were also obviously out. Also, we felt (I have always felt) that Barbie dolls and their ilk don't really represent the kind of femininity we want our daughters to imitate. The skimpy outfits of many Disney heroines (and heroes) are also unacceptable to us. I remember reading (as a precocious ten-year-old) the Christian psychologist Dr. Dobson on the subject of Barbie dolls. He asked what type of image girls were getting about what their bodies should look like when they become teenagers from the voluptuous curves and flawless complexions of fashion dolls. It's a set-up for low self-esteem as well as grooming the girl to readily conform to the pressures of the media and the fashion industry to fit into a certain model of "beauty." I just don't think that little girls, in their innocence, need to be exposed to those kinds of pressures at this age -- or at any age, actually. Girlhood was meant for better things.
Still, we knew of many parents who censored violent and sex-oriented toys out of their children's possession who were still drowning in Toy Clutter. And somehow, I felt that Fisher Price and PlaySkool toys didn't help to create the kind of environment that I wanted our children to have. Were there further guidelines to use?
The answer for me came in the form of an article in Plain magazine, a magazine put out by a variety of Christians with a tradition of simplicity -- Anabaptist, Amish, and the like. In an issue devoted to children, I came across a short but terribly good article called, "Toys really are Us." It was written by Sarah Martin, founder of the Natural Baby Company. "Children don't really need toys," she concludes, since things from the outdoors and from the home -- like pots -- make wonderful playthings for most children.
However, she admits, "parents like to buy their children toys." This is true. So she makes an effort to find toys for her catalog that are made of natural materials -- wood, wool, cotton, toys that "resonate with the child's spirit." After all, children are alive, so it's only appropriate to give them toys made out of materials that are also alive. Plastic, that staple of children's toys, just isn't on the same level.
Here was a new standard for judging toys -- why not simply limit toys whenever possible to wooden ones over plastic ones? Wooden toys cost more and are hard to find. Therefore, we can't buy as many of them as we can plastic toys. But the toys we do buy will be of greater quality, and since there will be fewer of them, there will be less threat of Toy Clutter. So we decided to pursue this strategy.
So far, it's worked. Although Caleb hasn't reached his second birthday, I think I can say he has a reasonable amount of toys. But he does spend more time playing with pots and pans and cardboard boxes my husband brings home from work than with his wooden trucks. And he has a lot of good books, which he enjoys looking at. He's even stopped tearing pages (for the most part).
I do have a tendency to pick up what I call "intelligent looking stuffed animals" at thrift store and garage sales. But I've deliberately limited myself to tiny ones. Large stuffed animals tend to be overwhelming in numbers, and collect dust. Small ones can be slipped in a pocket to come to Mass or on a trip to the store, and while easily lost, can be easily replaced. Caleb's favorite first birthday present was a tiny bear with jointed legs, intended as a Christmas ornament, given to him by an elderly lady in a nursing home. Small Bear came with us everywhere for quite a while before losing himself in a mysterious manner.
But I wonder how our family will be able to stave off the Toy Menace. After all, we're just beginning, and Toy Clutter doesn't generally get underway until Kid Four or Five comes along (although I know some families our size are already snowed under the barrage of Toddler Toys).
Last summer, I met a family who gave me hope. We had the wonderful opportunity to stay with a remarkable Catholic family with six children for a few days. I had the chance to view most of their house and gradually noticed that they had a sensible amount of toys. The young boys had built a block castle in the living room, and the girls' bedroom was dotted with doll homes build in convenient nooks. The older girl had her craft projects spread out on the porch, and the boy's bedroom had a magnificent showcase of Playmobil models -- but that was it. There were no Legos underfoot, no stuffed animals lying in the stairwells or boxes of trucks overflowing in the den. There were toys -- toys that were in constant use, from the look of things, but not in excess. I will also mention that the family had the largest collection of wonderful children's books I have ever seen.
I remarked on this to the mother of the house, and she said, "It's been a lot of work on my part to keep it this way." Explaining her strategy, I found she and her husband had used the same strategies we planned to use, especially giving away toys that were unacceptable. "It's been hard, but I think it's worth it," she said. "Our children really play with the toys they have."
So it can be done. It has been done. So my husband and I sail on in our idealism of Toy Reduction, with our dream of happy, uncluttered children enjoying their playtime, learning to be creative and innovative in their surroundings and to be generous with their possessions.
:Update in 2004: The author continues to follow all of the above, and IT WORKS. Five children to date, and still our carpet isn't covered with layers of Barbie toys and Legos.
For ideas on teaching/entertaining toddlers that don't involve expensive educational toys (which often have long shelf lives), try visiting a Montessori classroom or visit Montessori N'Such or Montessori Services on the web.
Maria Montessori, a Catholic educator, believed that children learn best when they "work" at play -- learning to do things that are useful as well as fun. For example, children learn how to pour by pouring beans from one small glass pitcher into another one (an exercise I recently introduced to Caleb, which engrossed him for an hour). Other activities include spooning walnuts from one basket to another with a spoon or a pair of pinchers; twisting thick strands of yarn into a braid; stacking boxes from largest to smallest and colored sticks from shortest to longest. While some of the Montessori classroom equipment is sophisticated, some of it can be made at home, and other "lessons" use materials most of us have in our homes already (such as beans, baskets, etc.). The Montessori method would be of interest to any parent planning on homeschooling, since it helps to lay groundwork for "school" learning.
Check out books in the library on the Montessori method, such as Basic Montessori by David Gettman and Teaching Montessori in the Home(Elizabeth G. Hainstock). Another good resource is the Montessori Catholic Council for more information about Montessori's Catholicity.
A beautiful catalog of very basic and beautifully made toys can be found at More like art than toys in some places!
Hearthsong offers toys for older children and babies that are perennial favorites and hard to find in other places. I get lots of ideas from their catalog, although I seldom buy the toys. They sell a lot of craft kits, science tools, as well as old-fashioned balls, skipping ropes, and dollhouses. Call 1-800-325-2502 for a free catalog.
Magic Cabin Dolls sells lovely, simple stuffed dolls as well as less-expensive kits that you can make yourself. They also sell dollmaking books, including Making Dolls by Reinckens, which has patterns for the lovely, simple Waldorf-style dolls sold by the Natural Baby Company. Call 1-888-623-6557 or write P. O. Box 1996, Peoria, IL 61656-3866.
Another good book, long out of print, is The Doll Book, written by people espousing the Waldorf method of teaching toddlers. It has doll patterns, as well as suggestions and guidelines for toys for different ages of children. "It's a great book so long as you don't make it into a god," said the mother who recommended it to me.
copyright Regina Doman, 1999. This document is available for republishing only after the author's permission has been obtained. Click the top button for an email link to the author.


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