Whether parents go overboard at the holidays or well-meaning relatives think Baby needs everything to be truly fulfilled, it’s common that a baby can have too many toys.
There is a post-holiday syndrome that frequently hits households with babies and toddlers—toy overload. You know, when your child’s room or playroom has too many toys and looks like the aftermath of a toy store explosion? So what do you do about it?
For starters, more toys means more clutter. On top of that, too much of any kind of stimulation can create sensory overload, says Dr. Vicki Panaccione, better known as the “Parenting Professor” and founder of the Better Parenting Institute. “Toddlers can only take in so much information at one time,” she says.
Besides making her house look junky, Stephanie Nakhleh of Santa Fe, New Mexico, noticed that too many toys make her kids whiny and bored. In her 25 years as a child-clinical psychologist, Dr. Panaccione has seen this often. “Too much stimulation, too many choices can actually result in acting out or withdrawal behaviors,” Dr. Panaccione says. “Their little nervous systems have a hard time processing and dealing with so much information coming at them at one time.”
Dr. Panaccione also believes too many toys takes away the “specialness” from individual items. Toddlers will naturally go from toy to toy, exploring their options. “Too many toys can spoil the enthusiasm and decrease the chance that toddlers will fully explore [any one] toy, using creativity, imagination, and observational skills,” she says.
Dr. Carol E. Kessler, coordinator of the Early Childhood Education Programs at Cabrini College in Radnor, Pennsylvania, agrees that an overload of stuff isn’t a good thing for some youngsters. “They will throw the toys, break them intentionally, or use them aggressively (disrespecting property and other persons),” Dr. Kessler says. “[They can] be overwhelmed with clean up and certainly not be appreciative of their parent’s generosity.”
Baby Toy Guidelines
So how many toys should a young child have at once? And which toys best stimulate creativity and exploration? Dr. Kessler recommends an assortment, including books, blocks, and other manipulatives, paint, play dough, and balls. “I am not a fan of electronic toys,” she says. “Encourage children to use their imagination, and toys which facilitate this magic are the best choice.” She adds that fantasy play, such as puppetry, is child-healthy, and she loves puzzles.
“Ideally, I go for quality toys,” Nakhleh says. “The kind that are open-ended and look nice. Wooden building blocks, mosaic tiles [building blocks], wooden train sets, etc.” Add-ons for these toys extend the enjoyment on other occasions, and she finds these toys grow with kids, encourage creativity, and if a few pieces are lost, that’s OK. That’s a bonus in her book. “Never buy toys that have tons of little parts where you actually need each little part to make the toy work,” she says.
Dr. Panaccione also reminds parents to limit the amount of any one kind of toy available. “They do not need five baby dolls, a 72-box of crayons, 1,000 building blocks, etc.,” she says.
So what’s the solution? Dr. Kessler suggests an approach used by every great preschool teacher—rotation. “I would recommend no more than 10 toys at one time,” she says. Rotating toys every few days will prevent them from becoming stale.
Many moms employ this strategy. Sonia Fuller, an Atlanta mom of two boys, finds that rotating works well. “Once toys are opened for Christmas [or] birthdays, whatever toys get the least amount of attention right away get packed away in our toy closet and brought out one at a time a month or so down the road,” she says. Fuller finds this helps the kids maintain their interest in their toys longer.
Helen Polaski, a mother of three from Milan, Michigan, had a different method for deciding which toys weren’t as important to her children. “I started to notice that the toys that didn’t seem to mean much to them were the toys that invariably were not put away correctly,” she says. “Their favorite baby doll was always with them or on their pillow. [Other special toys] had a place and they were in it.”
“We have a real load of toys,” says Tricia Ballad, a mother of three from Bloomington, Illinois. “It’s tough to purge out the baby toys that my oldest is grown out of because the little one still plays with them,” she says. They tackle this problem by occasionally packing up a box or two of toys they haven’t played with in a while and stashing it in the attic. “A few months later, we rotate those boxes out and stash a new box or two.”
Dr. Panaccione agrees with rotating to keep toy stock fresh. “It’s almost like getting it for the first time all over again, since out of sight can be out of mind for many toddlers,” she says. She cautions, though, that all toys are not created equal when it comes to rotating. “Some toddlers become very attached to a certain possession,” she says. “This is not one of the toys I would rotate.” But she adds that leaving a few that are always available will provide a sense of stability and predictability, even as others are rotated and reintroduced.
More Toy-Overload Options
But what if that still doesn’t work? There are other options to tame the toy monster. Polaski went through her children’s rooms and removed and organized toys that seemed to be there, but not really cared for. “Not one of my three children noticed the absence of said toys,” she says. If a month went by without her kids asking for any of the missing toys, she would ask if they cared if the toy was donated to a local shelter or play center. “A couple of times they chose to keep one or two toys, but normally the toys were given up without any distraction,” she says.
Donations can be made to the Salvation Army or Goodwill. Fuller and her boys pack up toys to donate at least twice a year. “This also helps us discuss regularly how lucky we are as a family to be able to give toys to boys [and] girls who do not have as much as we do,” she says.
Or how about setting up a way not to get so many toys in the first place? That’s what Lisa Phillips’ family did. “My brother has two kids, aged 2 and 4, whose birthdays happen to be in December,” says Phillips of San Francisco, California. “Instead of giving them multiple gifts, we buy them something relatively small and then write a check for their college account.”
According to Phillips, the girls never even miss the toys. “I bought them the time-old gag gift of a can of nuts which holds the surprise pop-up ‘snake’ and it wowed them over,” she says. “And it was only $2.99! Kids don’t know how much toys are, they only know if they like them or not.”