Wednesday 7 March 2012

Playing Without Toys

Before we had children, Kira and I always talked at length about how we would raise them.
I thought I knew how to go about dealing with certain issues, but you can't really know until you are actually there.

One topic of discussion was, and is, toys.

Before we had children, I believed that they should have few toys, and that the toys should be simple and made from wood or metal.

I believed that toys should inspire creativity and imagination and should not be entertainment devices.
Little did I know then that I would have very little ability to control the toys coming into this home.
I was immediately overwhelmed and lost control.

Auren is almost five years old.  That is five years of toys.  I've been waiting for the kids to play with toys for five years.
I am through waiting.

I assume that many children play with toys.
There are stores full of toys.  Rows and rows and aisles and aisles of toys upon toys.
I picture millions of kids playing with toys.  But that's all I can do is picture it in my mind.
Our kids don't play with toys.
I shouldn't say not at all.

They get the toy out of it's box or off a shelf and place that toy elsewhere in the house,
only to abandon it.

There are a few items that do get used.
The blocks get some mileage.  The LEGO sees some good action too. (Even if you don't count me.)

 all the toys really do is adorn the kid's bedroom with the colour and shape of consumption.

Trophies of capitalism's success in changing how we express our love for one another.

Plugged in.  With a sharp bit.

We have been actively purging the house of toys for a little while now.
The kid's don't notice anything missing but if they see something leaving they gain a renewed interest.
We hide the catharsis as best we can.  Sometimes we just tell them that they have too much.
There simply isn't enough room to keep everything.
There are the obvious choices,
such as items that are an orgy of clutter or toys that have absolutely no hope of contributing to a child's development.
Some of the more difficult choices are those gifts that were given with honest generosity and misguided love.
As we mature as adults, as well as parents, we are learning to take control of our family and apply values as we see best.
The experience of parenting endorses the confidence to make our own decisions and be less likely to succumb to the wishes of others.

I've given the toys a fair chance to redeem their value.  They have been unable to do so.
Our children still play.....but not with toys.
Let me tell what they do play with.

They play with our stuff.
An old camera bag with a camera, some lenses, a few bits and pieces of photography gear.
A wooden box with an old compass, a flashlight, a bit of rope.
String with tape.  Auren loves nothing better than some string and some tape.
A roll of electrical tape provides hours of entertainment, at least until the roll is spent.
Old books and pens.
Backpacks filled with a teddy bear, a hat, a camera, some paper and an old organizer book.
It really wouldn't matter what it was, but they love to play with our things.  It's mostly old things because there are old things laying around in boxes and in nooks and crannies waiting to be discovered.
Discovered is way better than gifted.

They love the kitchen.
They love to help in the kitchen.
They love the shop.  The shop is absolutely loaded with things to discover and explore.
What is controversial is letting them play in the kitchen and in the shop.
Those two spaces are the most dangerous parts of the home.  Most people keep their kids away from danger in the home. Let's not be so careful as to prevent the kids from experiencing their environment firsthand.

I am going to go out on a limb here and be perfectly forthright about how we parent.
We allow our little kids to play with knives.
They want to prepare food like we do.
They don't want a pretend knife with some pretend veggies that pretend to be cut.
We have tried those.  The kids know the difference.
They want to cut the food.  They want to use the real knife and actually cut the food.
Why would we deny them that.  The worst that will happen is that they will cut themselves.
Let me be clear.  I am not talking about unsupervised use of sharp knives.  We all know what happens then.

I believe that many of the toys available are meant to free the parent from the children.
You can set your kids aside with a pretend knife and not worry about them.
But then you are disengaged.  What the kids want is to use the real thing and to do it with you.

The times have changed as well.
I remember getting a tool set as a gift when I was very young.
They were real tools.  A real hammer, a mitre box and saw, a clamp.
They were not meant for me to play with by myself somewhere.
They were toys that allowed a child to emulate their parents with implements intended for smaller and less agile hands.

There are times when we need them to play on their own.
They need play that's stimulates their agility and imagination.
All you need for that is some tape and a stick.
But what they really want to do is to be like you.  To do what you are doing.
To act it out in their own way.  To participate in the household.
They aren't fooled by cheap plastic imitations.  They aren't easily enticed to play away from their parents.

So, we're done with toys.
There is too much stuff to play with already.

Toys don't inspire the imagination, no matter how well thought out or educationally appropriate.

Imagination comes from the soul.  Imagination is inspired by watching us.

Some toys will stay.  The LEGO is something that we can play with together.  The blocks are versatile enough to fit into other activities (such as taping and tying things). Play-dough and dress-up are also winners with our kids.
And then there is the fake plastic chainsaw.
The kids are dangerous enough with scissors.  They're not ready for a real chainsaw.... least not for a few more years.


  1. The toys discussion – how did we get here, to a point when toys become a problem because there’s just too much of it? At our household, we try to keep toys to minimum, so my son really gets to play with it. Best toys are definitely legos, cars (and a wooden track), fitting toys, and paper and crayons or pens. Also the oranges and lemons he sees in the kitchen. He is still too young to be interested in helping out, but soon that will probably be his major goal.
    The question is of course, how to limit the toys that get into our household, not by our hands, by through grandparents, aunts, friends… Not to mention, in a few years, through the birthday parties, when the invitees bring a present each… (That was something that really made me shiver, the amount of toys my nieces got at the birthdays, and how meaningless they became in just a second – literally a second.) We’re not there yet, but I’m already worrying about it. Do you have the same problem? How do you deal with that?

    1. Hi Teresa,
      This is a very tender subject. It's not as much about the toys as it is about expressing love and generosity.
      Gifting has become a form of emotional expression. Perhaps it always has been to some degree, but now, more than ever, our society has turned to gifting as a substitute. A substitute for time spent. A substitute for tactile expression. A substitute for meaningful interaction.
      The insidious element in this story is the materialism that is intentionally generated by the corporate sector; capitalizing on the human condition and it's frailties to satisfy greed.
      Practically speaking, we began with subtle hints. Exhausting those, we moved on to open statements of opinion regarding gift choices.
      Having received actual rebuttals to our wishes for fewer and alternate gifts,we now immediately remove the items. In many cases, toys have remained in their packaging to be taken to second hand stores like the Salvation Army. Though I feel uncomfortable dispensing materialism to the less fortunate, maybe sales proceeds can do some good.
      One of the best suggestions for alternate gifts is the promise and fulfillment of an outing, a shared experience. Nothing is more memorable and meaningful than time spent together.

    2. Toys....
      What did you play with when you were young? Did you live in a world bare of store bought toys?
      After homeshcooling for over 20 years I would like to weigh in on the discussion with my own experience.
      Unless you intend to cloister your kids in a world of buttonless flies and chromeless cars your kids will come into contact with the consumer world and the toys that come with it. Thats just what happens...its the presents from relatives...its the birthday will be the rides on the school bus too. So what can you do? I understand your concerns....
      Yes we live in a consumer society. You can reach any level of self sufficiency you like but regardless you will have to surface at some point and go to the store for supplies. We lived isolated sometimes for a month at a time but still had to go to town from time to time. Kids watch movies or television. If its not at your house then they will do it at their friends.
      We initially enacted the no battery rule in the house for a while and tried to control certain types of toys like guns (all of our guns are real....important tools...we felt that our children should understand them for what they are from an early age). The battery embargo didnt last very long so instead tightening the reigns we decided to loosten them with some directed assistance. We decided rather than to try to restrict we would try to enable...enable our children to responsibly participate within our consumer society. How did we do this? We did this with thrifting. Living on a restricted budget we often shopped for clothes and other needs at thrift stores. Its a responsible way to participate in this consumer reusing and repurposing discards from the rest of our society. I won't go on about how this is a responsible practice, likely you already know. So what happened then? Our kids started to develop interests...their toys reflected these interests...these interests grew into livelihoods and then the kids moved out with the tools that they needed to live anywhere in our society that they pleased.
      An incident on a visit to a nearby town on a thrifting trip a couple of years ago sums up my thoughts. We stopped by the supermarket to pick something up and there were a bunch of mennonite carts in the parking lot. I guess a bunch of kids from the local community came into town on their own....they were sitting in the parking lot binging on chocolate bars and other processed foods...go figure????
      Looking back what have I learned? Teaching your kids moral values, respect for family and respect for others as well as exposing them to the concept of "right livelihood" are a good grounding for the and possessions....they are a part of our world.
      Trying to walk the "middle path" always worked well for us,
      What a " kettle of fish"!!!!
      Yours in parenting

    3. Hi Martin,

      I grew up with a lot of store bought toys. I know that from seeing pictures.
      What I remember is LEGO, Meccano, my bicycle and a lot of fishing.
      I was given a canoe at a very young age and spent much of my time on and around the water, swamps, and forest.
      One of our strategies in to not censor our kids' experience. I do not worry about them being influenced by their peers. Prohibition usually has predictable results.
      We are not so much concerned with the kinds of toys they play with, although there are ethics at play when choosing overseas manufactured goods that rely on disposable batteries.
      We have simply found that they don't play with most toys. Certainly we would not remove something that they loved just because we don't approve. Barbie is a great example of a toy that is hugely popular with children and detested by so many parents. We don't agree with censoring our children's interests in order to form them into what we think they ought to be. Rather, we seek to become better engaged with what truly inspires play.
      Attention deficit is a common phrase nowadays. I have noticed that the length of time that the kids play with a toy has more to do with the toy than it does with their attention span. I know that sounds intuitive, but that could be overlooked if there were no toys in the house that inspired long periods of play.
      Constantly renewing the options seems to be the response to short attention spans.
      The fundamental problem with the consumer economy is not the consumption itself. Economy and market are critical to civilization. The fatal flaw lies in the excess. Purchasing for the sake of purchasing itself. Shopping as a salve for emotional distress. Intentional contraction of the buying cycle through engineered obsolescence.
      I could go as far as suggesting that toys are designed with little provision for extended attention; intentionally.
      The toy issue is really a symptom of greater problems at hand. Most notably, the reduction of time spent socializing within the family. Parents are working too much.
      If they are working more to buy "things" for the family, they could be missing the point.
      Thanks Martin, for helping give this discussion some inertia.
      Also, I'd like to say that we take the identical approach when it comes to firearms.
      And, I haven't been to the dump yet to talk to Dave.

  2. Love this post! This describes exactly how we're feeling about toys in our house, and while we don't ban them (we would love to, but as you described, it's almost something you can't control) we've stopped buying them. We have never bought a toy the kids truly enjoyed and got any amount of serious use out of aside from good old Lego, Magformers and wooden trains. They have been thrilled with the packaging other stuff comes in (all 300 tons of non-recyclable plastic, metal ties, a yards of carboard) there is very little interest in the toy itself. If we do buy something we pick it up at Mastermind or Turtle Pond and get something wooden that leaves plenty of room for imagination. Our kids love utensils, tools, paper geared busy boxes, etc... and I like it that way. It's nice to read that other families are feeling the same, sometimes I feel bad about it, but it's not like the kids mind or go without. A couple years ago we took our 4 year old to Toys R Us (Gag) to pick out a present, we spent over an hour walking that store trying to choose, not because it was overwhelming with wonderful possibility, but because there was nothing she really wanted and I don't blame her!