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 (31)

  1. 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.


  2. 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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  5. 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!


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