- Less is more when it comes to babies and toys.
- Having fewer toys facilitates a child's focused attention.
- Gradually, as their attention span develops, having more toys spawns creativity.
I moved to Cardiff a few weeks ago and spent last Saturday morning exploring all the toy stores in the city center. I have no children, but I am one of those people who has toy stores on my bucket list whenever I move to a new city.
If you have ever been alone in a new country, you know it can be lonely at times, and toy stores are my happy place. The walls filled with Lego, all those boxes of robots, Easter-themed dollhouses—and how could I forget the carved dragons? (We are in Wales, after all!)
It made me wonder about my ten-month-old niece. How many toys do I lay out in front of a toddler? What about the rest of the room—do they need to have a lot of other toys around them? Does she have the attention span to play with all of them?
If you have spent time playing with a baby, you may have also wondered the same things. A recent study published in Infant Behavior and Development has attempted to answer exactly this question.
The researchers were interested in studying the best conditions for high-quality play and interaction when toddlers played with a parent. They tested the quality of play across conditions in which infants either had fewer toys (e.g., 4 toys) or a lot of toys (e.g., 12 toys) laid out before them during playtime.
Infants played for longer and in more creative ways when they had fewer toys. When only a few toys were present, children spent twice as long exploring each toy and they played with each toy in more than one way. (Who hasn’t seen a baby using a banana as a phone?)
Why Might More Toys Negatively Impact Play?
One explanation for these findings could be that infants are distracted more easily when a lot of toys are present before them. This results in shorter play durations with each toy and missed opportunities for deeper exploration with the same toy. When a vast number of toys are present, the adult seems to be directing the interactions with the child initiating lesser and lesser.
Is Your Home Designed to Facilitate Sustained Attention From Your Baby?
A study conducted in 2012 showed that middle-class American families, on average, had 139 toys visible to the children in their homes. Not only were the toys visible, but children could also access these toys easily. Most often, the toys were organized in shared spaces such as in the living or dining area, leading to distracted babies.
In many ways, this is totally understandable, what with crazy rental markets and crazier construction ideas. When I lived in New York, I had to jump from my bed onto a chair to get to the bathroom—where was I supposed to stow away toys?
But it's also easy to understand the baby’s perspective. Imagine a toddler being in a playroom with access to an overwhelming number of toys around them. Some of them likely experience challenges with even making a choice about what to play with.
To find a balance, we should start by acknowledging that infants and toddlers have low levels of sustained attention. Therefore, having more toys presented to them makes it harder for them to sustain attention on one toy.
(As an aside, this applies to other environmental stimuli beyond toys. If the television is running in the background, or a video is being played on the iPad, these events could be as disruptive to a toddler’s play as having too many toys around them. When such distractors are present, infants have been shown to play lesser, interact lesser with their parents and demonstrate lower attention levels.)
What Does This Mean for the Choice of Toys and the Design of Your Home?
Does this mean you need to stop buying new toys for the baby? No—but finding open-ended toys that afford play in more than one way should be the way to go.
Toy trends come and go; a recent New York Times article made me reminisce about the time when the kids' section was filled with narwhal toys. For toy companies, we are the consumer. And if you're anything like me, new shiny toys and transformer robots likely excite you and make you believe that your child needs them.
It helps to remember that in fact, the child is the consumer. And for them, having more toys or new toys is not necessarily better; in fact, we know that it may be worse.
Making attempts to declutter the play area—turning off the television and removing unused toys from the immediate vicinity, for example—could facilitate better play quality. Gradually, the child’s play and attention skills develop and they interact for longer durations of time with each toy. At one point, the child will be ready to play for longer, even when a lot of other things are present around them. Then, clutter could actually spawn creativity.
But until that moment arrives, having fewer toys is likely to lead to deeper exploration and more sophisticated forms of play. With lesser stuff around the house, the whole family—not just the baby—may be happier and more creative too.
When I left the toy store, I walked into a nearby clothing store—and what did I see? Two little kids having the time of their lives. The store was packed to the rafters with all kinds of stuff—but these two were throwing a little ribbon back and forth at each other. Apparently, a bird was out to get them!
Arnold J. E. (2012). Life at home in the twenty-first century: 32 families open their doors. Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press.
Dauch, C., Imwalle, M., Ocasio, B., & Metz, A. E. (2018). The influence of the number of toys in the environment on toddlers' play. Infant behavior & development, 50, 78–87. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.infbeh.2017.11.005
Koşkulu, S., Küntay, A. C., Liszkowski, U., & Uzundag, B. A. (2021). Number and type of toys affect joint attention of mothers and infants. Infant behavior & development, 64, 101589. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.infbeh.2021.101589