KIOS: Parenting, Part 10: Playing Naturally (and why we don’t have toys with batteries)

This post is part of my series, “Kickin’ It Old Skool: Why and How We Are Old-Fashioned” or KIOS for short.  If you’re new to the series, please read my disclaimer before continuing on.  I’m keeping a table of contents to this series here so you can see what I’ve already written about and what more there is to come. 

Long before I was pregnant with Ellie, Nik and I knew that we didn’t want a bunch of crazy, noisy toys in our house.  When we got pregnant, we decided that we were going to institute a “no batteries” rule for our toys.  Then that morphed into a “no plastic toys” policy.  Primarily, we saw this as a way to slow the crazy onslaught of toys that seem to come from everywhere. We also decided we didn’t want brand names, labels, or characters in our house or on Ellie’s clothes.  So that means no Disney, no Dora, no Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, none of that.

As Ellie has gotten older, though, our “NO batteries and plastic” rule has morphed into more of an philosophical ethic about how we want Ellie to interact with her environment and how we want her to play.  So while yes, we still have a “no batteries or plastic toys” rule, we prefer to talk about what we DO want for Ellie and not what we don’t want.

In this post, I’m going to be quoting heavily from Kim John Payne’s excellent book, Simplicity Parenting.  The book’s tag line is, “using the extraordinary power of less to raise calmer, happier, and more secure kids.”  That’s exactly what we want!

In his book, Payne talks about simplifying four major areas in a family’s life.*  One of them is simplifying the home environment.  Naturally, he focuses first on toys.

He advises parents to sort through their children’s toys and eliminate any toys that:

are broken;
are developmentally inappropriate (either too old or too young);
are conceptually “fixed” (such as specific to a TV show or movie);
“do too much” and break too easily;
are very-high stimulation (as in bells, whistles, noises, voices, etc.);
are annoying or offensive;
claim to give your child a developmental edge (like Baby Einstein and Leapfrog);
you are pressured to buy by your children;
that inspire corrosive play (as in fully detailed plastic guns or violent video games);
are multiples of toys you already have.

Thankfully, at this point, because we started out with the “no plastic or batteries” rule before Ellie was born, we don’t have any toys in these categories.  So we have a much easier job than some families do of simplifying.

Now our task is to decide what toys to let in.  This is actually harder than it sounds.  I think we probably have too few toys right now.  Rather, we don’t really have many toys that Ellie wants to play with, which tells me that she’s developmentally ready for new toys that we don’t have yet.  We have to find new (or at least new to us) toys that fit our specifications that she also wants to play with.

Generally, this is what we want to consider as we think about what toys to welcome into our home, along with our “no plastic/batteries/labels/brands” rule.  (Some of this is inspired by Payne’s book, some from other reading we’ve done):

1. Is the toy made from natural materials (such as cotton, wool, wood, metal or rubber)?

2. Does it encourage open-ended, creative play?  Does the toy give multiple options for how it will be played with?

3. Does it encourage Ellie to engage all her senses in play?

4. Does it encourage imaginative play?

5.  Does it encourage her to do real purposeful work (such as garden or housework tools that are her size)?

6. Does it encourage social interaction?  (Payne says this is important.  Sometimes I just want her to play independently but I suppose that shouldn’t be all the time! :))

7.  Does it encourage her creativity in movement, art, or music?

That’s a lot, I know.  Obviously, not every toy is going to fit every specification.  But if it doesn’t meet several of these, then we don’t want it in our house.  Specifically, I’m planning to make Ellie a doll to play with, we want to get her some smaller housework tools to use while helping me, we’re thinking about getting a wooden kitchen, and I want to greatly expand our art supplies.  We’ll be doing this slowly but surely, probably by haunting Craigslist and garage sales as well as buying new and making some things ourselves.

We also plan to continue limiting the number of toys we have.  This is partly self-serving on my part (less toys=less clutter to put away) but also, Payne says that:

A smaller, more manageable quantity of toys invites deeper play and engagement.  An avalanche of toys invites emotional disconnect and a sense of overwhelm.

I know that controlling both the kind and quantity of toys we have will become more difficult as Ellie gets older (with presents from other kids, etc).  However, we are trying to form good habits now so that our job will be easier down the road.

I also feel like I have some much more to learn about fostering deep, creative play in children.  I’ve only touched the surface of learning about how important play is for children’s healthy development.  The toys are only the beginning!


**As a side note, I wish I had read this book when I was a 20-something single woman.  Just about everything he talks about is relevant to a frantic single life as well as to families.  The power of less can make calmer, happier, more secure adults too.  So I recommend this book for everyone, parents or not!


Along with Payne’s book, I also recommend:
Einstein Never Used Flash Cards: How Our Children Really Learn– And Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek , Roberta Michnick Golinkoff ,  and Diane Eyer

This blog post, about art and art supplies, is an inspiration to me.  I also love her idea of a letter writing station!!

I don’t consider myself at all accomplished in the “art project” realm but this blog looks helpful, The Artful Parent.

Here’s some more good info about downsizing books and toys.

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9 Responses to KIOS: Parenting, Part 10: Playing Naturally (and why we don’t have toys with batteries)

  1. Crystal S says:

    Not that you are asking for a ideas, but since our kids are about the same age I thought I’d share a little. Some of the most useful and well played with toys in our house (versatile and can be used in many ways) are toys that are equally fun played with alone or with another child. Funny, but they are the same basic toys that kids have played with for 100’s of years. We like: blocks, stuffed animals/ a couple of soft babies, play kitchen with some dishes and food, toy tools, and many books. We have lots of other toys but these are the ones that get the most use. They are also the more universal toys. All kids like them. Some toys appeal to different personalities more. My daughter loves throwing balls while my son loves lacing beads and tying knots. Also, never underestimate the wonderful resource that is cardboard. Before any big box goes in our recycling bin it first gets used as some sort of play thing whether it is a house, tunnel, car or just coloring wall.

    • Laura says:

      I should have asked for ideas, Crystal!! Thank you so much for sharing these with me. I will definitely keep my eyes out for this things – all toys I was thinking about anyway so it’s great to have some real-kid confirmation that they’re good ones!

  2. Mom says:

    I love Crystal’s response – couldn’t agree more. And I would have to include puzzles to this list.

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  4. Martha says:

    I agree in general. That’s we did with our children..very few toys, mostly playing with dirt and water making things with paper and pieces of cloth etc .cubes and colored pencils .but there is a but..when children go to school and realize that other kids have other kinds of toys, they feel left out. Inferior, because the other kids brag about their stuff. So my advise having the experience, don’t over do it. The forbidden fruit is sweeter.

    • Laura says:

      Thank you for that advice, Martha. We certainly don’t keep Ellie from playing with toys at other people’s houses. In fact, one of the reasons why she loves Yiayia’s house so much is all the toys that Yiayia has that we don’t! I can see how this issue will get more difficult to manage as Ellie and Mark get old. We simply don’t want those kinds of toys in our house though (and frankly don’t really want to make room for them). So we’ll just keep talking about it with them and hopefully, it will work out with a minimum of resentment.

  5. Pingback: Ellie’s Very Last Baby Present, Mark’s Great-Grandmother’s Hat, and a Cruise to Argentina in 1964 | Salmon and Souvlaki

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