What Too Many Toys Can Do

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An interview with Kim John Payne

I remember when I first read Kim John Payne’s “Simplicity Parenting.” Many friends had recommended his book. But I’m a wary person by nature and especially wary of the veritable industry of simplicity: magazines, media, gigantic stores touting ways to simplify. But Payne’s book cuts to the point.  In one chapter, he recommends clearing out the clutter of toys and leaving just a few for your children. Braced for the worst, I went into my sons’ room and purged. The result: the room was clean, organized. There was a feeling of space. I liked it, but what would my sons think? My oldest entered first followed by my four year old. I stayed behind and listened. A giggle rippled through the air, my youngest gasped with delight as if he was sitting in front of a birthday cake. Instead of my boys being bent out of shape with what had been removed, they found new joy in the toys that were left behind, played with them more deeply, and began to relax more. What is this power of simplicity? Kim John Payne tells us all about it. – Julia Posey, TMC Web Content Producer

How does a large amount of toys, games, trinkets, dress up clothes, etc. affect young children?

Fewer toys reduces conflict among siblings. With feedback through our blog and countless workshops, we’ve noticed kids get along better when there is less. It’s not a huge mystery. Fewer toys invokes scarcity. Scarcity fosters more cooperation. It activates the limbic system in the brain which encourages cooperation. With fewer toys, a toy is rare and is precious. Limiting toys allows for increased depth of play that allows children to process their day. I see it as a cup where they carry all of their experiences from the day. it allows them to empty their cup for the day and be ready for the next.

Should the amount of toys be limited for kids age 3-6? Why?

Yes. And it’s not just the amount of toys, it’s the kind. In this holiday season as parents are looking for toys for their children, they should ask, “Is this a toy that invokes the creative facilities?” Neutral toys tend to be best. The more a child can impart themselves in the toy, the better the toy. The child can have an industry and purpose. All people love this, not just children. I have built something. I have done something, that builds their self-esteem enormously. I am also a fan of real tools for children, small enough for children to use. Real toys. Not cheap plastic ones. Children learn from imitation. They learn by imitating work. Children who help with the work of chores, if they stand along side us with their own tools, their own gardening tools, their own wash up tools, they can mimic and build their sense of self-esteem by accomplishing a task and being helpful. Granted, it’s probably faster as a parent to do the work by yourself, but we can teach and learn through the gift of work. Many parents have said their best gifts have been small tool boxes with sand paper and hammers. I’m a big fan of those kinds of action gifts as opposed to Xboxes. The difference is action. Children are doing the action rather than the action is foisted on the child.

How do too many options (for play or in general) affect children?

Too many options make a child anxious. Fewer options allow more depth and connection in play.

Kids are often hyper-scheduled with classes and activities after school. Is it too much for the young child? What is reasonable?

Tantrums are the devices of young children to show they are overloaded. As children grow, tantrums evolve into melt downs and the amygdala part of the brain takes over. It’s a child’s undeniable message that they are too stimulated. Instead of nurturing a child’s development, over-scheduling is counter intuitive. Children need down time for brain development. An over-scheduled child does not have time to process what she/he has experienced or learned. I call it a 3/3/3 principle. Children can be busy, active and engaged for 33% of the time, creatively engaged 33% and allowed 33% for crucial down time.

If kids don’t have a ton of toys to play with and activities to fill their time, what will they do?

They will reach out to nature, siblings, you & themselves. You will find that children will look to nature to fill their time and spend time observing and experiencing. They will turn to their siblings. They will also turn to you to follow you as you do your work whether it be preparing supper, sweeping the floor or tidying up. They will also turn to themselves and a deeper creative play. Allow your children to be bored. I like to call it the gift of boredom. Allowing children to be bored truly is a gift. When a child comes to you and states their boredom, say “oh dear” and empathize “I can see you are bored” but don’t offer some kind of entertainment. Let the child be resourceful because out of boredom comes engagement and creativity. Creativity is more important now than ever before. These days the average job a person holds is under 2 1/2 years. By allowing our children the gift of boredom, they can develop their creativity and adaptability. These are the skills needed in the new work world. We need to give our children the space and the grace and time to develop that. Over-scheduling and too many toys ruins that. Simplicity parenting is not a regression into the past, it is a bold step into the future.

How can we teach our children to value simplicity?

Simply put: by valuing it ourselves.

In the Holiday Season, how do you manage the sometimes excessive influx of gifts from friends and relatives?  Can it be handled graciously?

This is such a hot topic on our blog. I take this from the parents input on our site. You address your relatives, and say, we are doing things differently. And request that each grandparent, uncle or aunt only buy one gift for the child. Or give the gift of time if they are local. Give the gift of an outing or an experience. I’ve asked this question countless time from parents, “What is one golden moment from your childhood.” In all the years and countless times I’ve asked the question, it’s never been Disneyland or a fancy gift. It’s always been an experience, an outing, time spent in nature. The main thing about gift giving and opting for simplicity is to make a decision to stand on your principles. The proof will be in the family pudding. Your children will not be entitlement monsters, but kids with gratitude for what they receive. That’s something all families can appreciate.

Kim John Payne is the author of Simplicity Parenting (Ballentine Books, 2009). He is the founder and director of the Center for Social Sustainability and has worked for 24 years as counselor and educator helping children and parents. He has been featured in Time magazine, the BBC, NBC, ABC FOX, and is a regular guest on NPR. Learn more about simplicity parenting at

The Mother Company aims to support parents and their children, providing thought-provoking web content and products based in social and emotional learning for children ages 3-6. Check out the first episode of our children’s series, “Ruby’s Studio: The Feeling Show.” We want to be a parenting tool….For you!

Posted in: Expert Advice, Learn, Modern Parenting

Comments (34)

  1. jessie

    I would love my grandson and his wife to read and implement a game of
    3-4 toys to play with every day. I feel that a room full of toys overloads a young 3 year olds brain. No social skills are learned thru a room full of toys.

  2. Limiting Toys Gives Children More Ways To Play | nourishing minimalism

    […] Fewer toys reduces conflict among siblings. With feedback through our blog and countless workshops, we’ve noticed kids get along better when there is less. It’s not a huge mystery. Fewer toys invokes scarcity. Scarcity fosters more cooperation. It activates the limbic system in the brain which encourages cooperation. With fewer toys, a toy is rare and is precious. Limiting toys allows for increased depth of play that allows children to process their day. What Too Many Toys Can Do ~The Mother Company […]

  3. Dawn

    I have been fighting the toy battle for awhile now. My son’s father and I are divorced. Every time he visits his dad, he comes home with a load of new toys. I asked his father to leave them at his house, to no avail. My son is “attached” to all his toys. I have talked to him about donations and space and all of that, yet he gets so emotional about it. Please help. We are getting buried in toys.

  4. Rose

    I agree with everything here, except the idea of allowing your children to be bored. I don’t know about everyone else, but me as a child, I did get bored. It lead me to be very sad and back to the television as a way to fill my time. I did have toys but I tired of them and my parents didn’t do much to give me ideas. They did pretty much what you said. I believe children need direction and lots of it. As a child I could have filled my time with learning a hobby, studying and learning new practices, becoming more aware of the needs of others and engaging in being hospitable or helping those in need. As I grew into being a pre-teen it would have been VERY helpful if my parents taught me (or at least guided me) to learn what I would need as an adult like sewing, cooking, babysitting, car repair, etc. but they did not. I don’t think I’m so strange, I think this is the average situation. No parent has loads of time but taking away almost all toys and not filling the gap is leaving idle hands and kids who are desperate to fill the void. It may end up not being something as “safe” as tv viewing.

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  7. Amanda

    I have been ready and have gradually been simplifing our childrens lives but it seems that not evryone is on board. I get cleared out and the stuff comes back in. It seems so rude to tell someone not to show love the way they know how (A physical object)How do I politely tell family members what we are doing and to STOP buying them things and to just give them time?? Does the book touch on that topic? Like Birthdays and such?? Thanks!

  8. Anne

    As a mother of 6 children I would like to say that all children are different, all have different concentration spans and all have different likes and dislikes. I believe it is necessary to provide the basic developmental toys for your children (motor skills, colour recognition etc) whether you buy these toys or make them yourselves, it doesn’t matter. I have found that some children are naturally co- operative and some will fight constantly no matter what you do, because of other issues involved, sibling rivalry, age gap etc. The most important thing to provide, whether you have a room full of toys or just a few, is time with you, the parent, playing games, chatting, reading, cuddles etc. This will definately help your child feel happier, more secure, more mature for their age and therefore more co operative, with you and their siblings.

    • Will

      This is the comment that I can agree with the most! I am the father of a 5 year old girl. I get her on the weekends and any day I don’t have to work. Which it’s usually weekends. I am blessed with a very good job which allows me to buy her anything she wants. We just had a mega toy clean out (why I’m on the page.) I realized that I am doing her a disservice by giving her everything she wants. The way she had her toys kept shows an obvious lack of respect for them. Spending quality time with her has always been my biggest priority and looking for situations to teach life lessons. Your comment about giving direction to your child was a real eye opener! This is definitely something I am going to diligently strive to do! Thank you!

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  10. Tracy Roberts

    This post is right on and Simplicity Parenting is one of my favorite books as a parent educator, I use KJP’s work a lot. I find it odd though that this website then touts a television show (lets talk about media effect on children also in Simplicity Parenting), plus you click that link and you are trying to sell us toys and videos. Hmmmm.

    • Samantha Kurtzman-Counter


      We at The Mother Company often wrestle with this conundrum, but the truth is that media is ever present in our modern lives and studies show that young children are watching upwards of 40hrs of television per week! That statistic is deeply disturbing, but it also means that there is an enormous need for high quality, gentle, helpful media for young children that is actually beneficial to their growth, rather than detrimental. We all know children can and do learn from media, we also know that many parents count on it on a daily basis – so we are trying to make programs as helpful and healthful as possible to a generation of children and parents as well. But we hear you! It is a true quandary. Thanks so much for your input. — Sam Kurtzman-Counter, TMC

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  12. Jennifer

    Great advice! I googled “too many toys” and found this because it’s finally dawning on my after four years. My son was being really naughty and as a punishment, at the end of my tether, I put away about 60% of his toys. He hasn’t missed them or asked for them and he and little brother are now playing and cooperating. It’s amazing. I’ve always considered myself to be unmaterialistic but I’ve realised that I was teaching my son to be materialistic. He’s always begging me to buy him more and more toys. It’s a great lesson for us all to learn.

  13. Laura

    Love this article! You’ve made a lot of great points that we totally agree on. The section about tools confirms our beliefs that anything can be a “toy” and that there is nothing more gratifying than “building and bonding”.

  14. MajKitab

    While this is a thoughtful article, it really doesn’t offer me any insight or relevance… and I’m no minimalist so I was looking for something here to tell me all about why we should change. Moderation should play an important role in everyone’s lives no matter the facet. We have a ton of toys here and my kids enjoy the variety – but we also rotate to avoid disinterest!

    Types of toys and over-scheduling seem like a whole ‘nother topic.

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  17. Bob Nicholls

    I love it, have been slowly working away at all the clutter at our house, including the kids toys. Problem is I am the one attached to them not the kids, but truth is she only plays with a few favourites and much prefers the general household stuff to play with. Only problem is my partner doesnt like her playing with household stuff!

  18. Momof4

    We have always kept a tight cap on the amount of toys. Not necessarily what kind, as we felt if there were few the few should be what they love. It hasn’t provided us with cooperation or sharing. In fact, they argue there aren’t enough Legos to build their project and then everyone is fighting over the last Lego.

    Worst, when their friends come over they complain that there aren’t enough toys. And the toys they have are lame. This results in hurt feelings all around. Sometimes names are called. I do notice one other play date the child kept herself busy even playing with the baby toys. And had fun on a little wooden rocker. This may be a symbol of our lifestyle though and the area we live in/school district. This is an upper middle class neighborhood and most parents don’t subscribe to our general thought. And we feel like we are doing our kids a disservice…so we really went out on Christmas toys this year in hopes they’ll fit in better. So sad, it almost seems like a trap.

    • AS

      I totally understand. Stay strong!

  19. Rachel Ernst

    Implementing what I learned in Kim John Payne’s book Simplicity Parenting has made a world of difference. Not every single answer was given to me as a formula in the book, but, the basic outline and the encouragement was enough for me to apply it and have it work. Beautiful.

  20. Mo

    This is very true for our 2 year old son. He has lots of toys thanks to many loving family members (we have bought hardly any of them), and the more he has to play with the less he plays. He becomes distracted and starts getting into things he shouldn’t. We keep 90% of the toys in the basement now at all times, only keeping the favourites in the family room. Each morning we go down and pick two toys to play with for the day. He loves getting to pick which toys, and he actually plays with them all day long, creating very detailed games with each.
    And around birthdays and Christmas, we try not to open all the toys he gets. We save a few to open in a few months. That way, it’s like Christmas or his birthday all over again with a fresh batch of toys he’s never played with.

    • Stephanie

      Mo, great idea about picking two toys a day to play with. I think I am going to try that with my 6 year old.

  21. Corey

    This is excellent. This is my Christmas having two children, and I made a decision to not go crazy with toys. It is not necessary. Love this and am sharing it on my page’s Facebook page.

  22. Heather

    I am all about this. I realized it a couple years ago when I threatened to get rid of all my kids’ toys if they didn’t pick them up from the playroom. I bagged every single one. My girls returned to the playroom, and I didn’t hear any mention of anything there for two weeks. BUT, I have found that girls’ friends complain that we don’t have any toys. I always encourage them to figure something out, but fear that they are not returning to play at our house. Any help?

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  24. Nev

    Great post. I am a firm believe in few but quality toys (made of wood preferably and requiring lots of imagination).

    My daughter will be 16 months soon and has a small basket of toys in every room. When I say toys I mean: wooden spoons, bottles with dry pasta, an old book of mine, a sock, a rattle or two you get the picture. 🙂 She doesn’t really play with any of it anymore but it’s there for her to use if she wants to.

    Our kitchen is open spaced to the living room and in it is a small sideboard/shelf with cook books at the bottom and a shelf full of stuff for her at her height (her books, a puzzle, an empty gravy container, a wooden tractor etc. She loves getting the books out to look through herself or us with her.

    I don’t understand why people think that children but especially babies need all these toys. And most of them leave nothing to the imagination…are cheap, loud and boring (in my eyes). My daughter gets her ‘noise and plastic fix’ at her friends’ houses, which are overflowing with those things to the point that they can’t even walk in the room anymore) and we have banned any of that stuff in ours.

    Anyway, good article. Thank you. 🙂


  25. halbhh

    A problem — I really like this piece and agree with most all of it, and even learned a couple of new ideas, but….

    I just can’t make myself believe this idea:

    “Fewer toys reduces conflict among siblings. With feedback through our blog and countless workshops, we’ve noticed kids get along better when there is less. It’s not a huge mystery. Fewer toys invokes scarcity. Scarcity fosters more cooperation. It activates the limbic system in the brain which encourages cooperation. ”

    I’d love to believe this. It’s really important, and a main issue for countless families.

    I believe the other parts: about real tools for instance — wonderful insight!

    But, you just haven’t proved this part about less toys = better sharing. I don’t believe it.

    Sure, if you have more than one child, so that they are used to playing together…*and*….they have had too much clutter for a long while….*and*…they are tired of many of the numerous toys….*and*….etc.

    But, just less toys = better play from the start? With our only-child 4-yr old? I don’t believe it.

    I’d love to believe it, to see that it’s true.

    Maybe if you offered a link to research, or wrote a whole column on just this one thing alone, proving it.

    • anon56

      Try it in your home and let us know.

      • AS

        I agree with anon56. Try it for a few months and see if behavior changes. If they say they’re bored, it’s tempting to try to entertain them. But we shouldn’t. This is a skill they need to develop themselves.

        Two things that helped us:

        Reduced/No screen time: We had no TV until age 3 and now very limited screen time. We watch TV maybe 1-2 hours a week now, and carefully chosen educational shows. When something is on TV my 5 year old doesn’t enjoy, he will get up and turn it off to go play or read books. He plays with Legos for 2 hours straight, reads books for 30 minutes plus at a stretch.

        If toys come in, some go out. Anything that just gets dumped on the floor and is not played with constructively and imaginatively gets tossed. We do a toy assessment every season. It really helps with the clutter.

        Hope you decide to give it a shot. I think you will be amazed.

  26. Stuart

    How interesting. I’ve noticed how when we travel and the kids have access to fewer or no toys and scarcity is an issue that instead of the conflict I used to expect, we usually get increased cooperation, playing together and creative and imaginative play.

    • Joden

      Cooperation in the face of scarcity makes perfect sense.

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