An over-abundance of toys may stifle toddler creativity

GettyImages-859851982.jpgBy Emma Young

When my kids were toddlers, there were caches of easily-accessible toys in most rooms of our house. But perhaps I should have kept most of them stored away, and brought just a few out at a time, on rotation – because the results of a new study in Infant Behaviour and Development suggest that a toddler with few toy options not only spends longer playing with each one – presumably developing their attentional skills – but is also more creative in their play.

Carly Dauch at the University of Toledo, US, and her colleagues studied 36 toddlers, aged between 18 and 30 months. The researchers drew from a pool of 32 toys of four types: educational toys (that teach colours, for example), “pretend” toys (that suggested themed scenarios – perhaps playing a being a doctor, for instance), action toys (that required an action such as stacking or building from the toddler, for example) and vehicles. The researchers videoed the toddlers taking part in two, 15-minute supervised play sessions: in one, they were in a room with one toy from each category (so four toys in total) and in the other, there were four from each category (so 16 in total). 

The researchers found that when they presented the toddlers with 16 toys, the toddlers played on average with half of them during the assessment. In contrast, when they presented them with just four toys, the kids played on average with three. 

Most importantly, the amount of toys available seemed to affect the way the toddlers played. When only four toys were on offer, each of the, on average, 10 play “incidents” lasted longer – around two minutes – compared with about a minute each for the, on average, 20 play incidents in the 16-toy condition. With fewer toys, the children also came up with about 60 per cent more different ways of interacting with each toy (such as “pretending”, “inserting”, “stacking”, etc). 

Sixteen toys are more distracting than four, the authors conclude. Fewer available toys allow a child to focus more on a toy, to explore it more thoroughly, and to discover different ways of using it. Given evidence that young children can benefit from attention training, “an environment that presents fewer distractions may provide toddlers [with] the opportunity to exercise their intrinsic attention capabilities,” the researchers write. 

Certainly, many kids in the US and the UK, for example, are not exactly short on toys. In the UK, the toy market is worth around £3.5 billion annually, while in the US, around US$3.1 billion is spent on toys specifically for infants and pre-schoolers every year. One study of American middle class family homes reported that, on average, 139 toys were visible, with most homes having at least 100 and some as many as 250. Given these numbers, “potential disruption in play created by an abundance of toys may be even more apparent within a naturalistic environment,” the researchers write. 

However, the toys used in this study did not belong to the children involved. As anyone who’s ever taken a young child to the house of another – and witnessed the subsequent play frenzy – knows, unfamiliar toys are far more exciting, and distracting than familiar ones. It isn’t very surprising that the toddlers in the 16-toy condition checked out as many as they could, as quickly as they could.

Of course, one way to stop young kids getting quickly bored of their toys is to restrict access to them. If hiding away most toys and making only a few available at any one time helps toddlers to develop their attentional skills – and be more creative in their play – and increases the odds that you’ll be able to walk through the living room without tripping over – surely it’s the way to go. 

The influence of the number of toys in the environment on toddlers’ play

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

13 thoughts on “An over-abundance of toys may stifle toddler creativity”

  1. I’m not clear from this where the ‘quality of play’ comes from. Perhaps it’s defined in the paper. Here it seems rather subjective.

    The findings do seem contrary to the Montessori method, unless the point is that completely undirected play with a mess of new toys (especially if, as the picture shows, the toys were simply dumped helter-skelter on the ground) leads children to spend more time (at least at first) simply investigating all the toys available, before (presumably) making a choice. How is that not a sensible approach from the child’s point of view? Isn’t this exactly what we do at a zoo or museum?

  2. I don’t follow the conclusion here…without longitudinal data how can we make any conclusion other than “when students have fewer toys, they play with them for longer.” We don’t know what the long term impact of that is and whether it harms creativity. One could argue that exposure to many toys – i.e. 8 rather than 3 – actually gives them exposure to many different experiences upon which to base later creativity…

  3. I wholeheartedly agree with this article and have observed similar behavior in myself and my children.

    I think this is an example of the too many choices paradox where the more choices we have (say 100 different flavors of yogurt) the more likely we will be unhappy thinking that we didn’t make the best choice. Instead of enjoying what we’re immediately eating we think about the other options that we’re missing out on.

    It’s also similar to how a messy desk reducing one’s ability to effectively focus on the work at hand

  4. With less toys in front of them, children will play with their toys in creative ways and access their imaginations more–which develops their cognitive mind and grows their ability to stick with a task for longer amounts of time.

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