The $10 Worth Of Toys That Replaces $15,000

If you’re interested in Minimalism and other bloggers/writers check out this piece in Wandr’y magazine profiling a half dozen people that have made the move to less. Interesting to see how a lot of us writing about living with less were inspired by each other. Chris, Henry and I get a little shout out in there too.

Have you ever had a desire to just throw all the toys away?

Maybe it came when you were moving house and boxed up the third round of stuffed animals that sit on shelves, looked at but not loved.

Or perhaps you had a painful run in with a small piece of Lego in the early morning.

Or, for the 873rd time, you picked up all the toys in the living room and dumped them back in the kid’s rooms.

You can do it. You can get rid of all the toys and guess what? It might actually be better for your kids.

It’s estimated that parents will spend roughly $15,000 on toys and electronics for each child. Yikes. I can hear parents ripping their kid’s holiday gift list in half right now.

Even more motivating: we can spend less than the cost of two very fancy coffees to keep our children entertained, engaged and help them develop play based skills.

The ‘pocket playground’ is $10 worth of materials and toys that can supposedly replace all the iPad games, Polly Pockets and Playmobil sets. It contains eight low cost items like coloured pencils, embroidery thread and Plasticine beads and can be adapted for 50 activities.

The simple toys in the pocket playground support exploratory play and develop problem-solving skills, spatial awareness, dexterity and creativity – something modern toys and screen based activities aren’t doing.

You can read an article about the study here.

Growing up without a lot of money and not a lot of toys was great for my imagination.

My sisters and I had a little doll clothing store made from things we found around the house. The front counter was an After Eights Mints box. My older sister sewed little garments by hand and we used empty After Eight Mint sleeves as the store bags.

When I think back to my childhood the best fun and games were never attached to a toy or something bought at the store. Our fun was based on make believe or around a neighborhood wide game of Becker Becker (similar to hide and seek). We climbed a lot of trees and built a lot of indoor forts out of chairs and blankets.

Is going toy-less practical for most of us?

While I enjoyed reading about this mom’s experience of a week with no modern toys and screens, and I may even give our home a brief toy sabbatical in the future, I can’t see us down-sizing to the pocket playground long term.

Our train set gets a lot of use and after a week away from it our son was asking about his trains. It gives us hours of fun play each week. A lot of that play is independent which helps me get a few things done around the house. Looking forward to that time even more when we have a new baby in the house.

Also, from comments here on the blog and in discussion with parents of older children, I know we’re at an easy age to have fewer toys at home. Our son isn’t asking for the toys his friends have yet or comparing what he has to what other children have. Sigh. Ignorance is bliss.

Going toy-less and screen-less with older children would be a huge challenge if they attend school outside the home or socialize with other children that have modern toys.

While I think the pocket playground is great, I know it’s an almost impossible feat to get rid of all the toys for most families.

Practical ways to use the pocket playground or go toy-less:

There are some moderate ways to use the pocket playground or toy-less time to reduce toy clutter and foster more imaginative play.

  • Travel: before our next trans-Atlantic flight I’m going to put together a pocket playground to take on the road. It’s small, inexpensive and would be great for long flights. Also a nice idea for when you’re away from home for an extended period of time.
  • Toy-Free Days or Weeks: replace some or all of your toys with the pocket playground for a short period of time. I’m imagining all the reasons you can give your four year-old for why their toys need a rest…
  • Use More Household Items for Play: Henry did a great job turning just about anything, like a fork, cup or a sugar packet at a coffee shop, into a train track or a train when we were on holiday. It was a good reminder to allow him to explore our kitchen cupboards and other areas of our home for non-toys that are safe to use for play.

Has anyone tried a toy-sabbatical or reduced the toy collection and focused on more play with household items? How did your children adapt to fewer toys? Did it take them long to start playing with household items?

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  • We have 7 children, and have been toyless for 4 years!! It has been WONDERFUL!!! For birthdays we spend $50 each. We always get things like gift certificates to our local used book store, science experiment kits, craft project kits, itunes cards, etc… I wouldn’t change a thing!! For Christmas we buy used or we hand make our gifts for each other…..I put home made goodies in the stockings along with fruit. :)

    • It must be much easier to clean your house doing this! I like Legos and Playmobil because they provide the opportunity to build and pretend. I do love toys, but I believe that we certainly don’t need as many as we get these days. Minimalist mom is lucky to have grandparents that are so generous, and now they are asking what to buy instead of just giving tons of toys, etc. I think that if children learn to pick up their toys and take care of them, it saves stress for moms and teaches them responsibility. I like some of the comments below that talked about how they couldn’t play with the toys the next day if they didn’t pick them up. Try putting a sheet under toys when kids play. It makes clean up so much easier.

    • Wow! I love hearing this.
      Curious: iTunes gift cards, do your children have iPods or laptops? If so do you have limits on usage? How old are your children?
      I’ve been blown away by a) how easily my toddler learned how to navigate the iPad and b) how he’ll ask for it after we say no to tv. 😉 Smart cookie.

  • I wish I could try this but my children seem to defy general assumptions. They have a fair amount of toys, so by most people’s logic, there should only be a handful that they enjoy and the rest sit there unused. To the contrary, they play with EVERY toy EVERY day, and ask for EVERY toy that’s stored out of rotation nearly every day. Meaning, if I ever try to remove a toy, it takes an average of 10 minutes before they notice and beg for it back.
    They do like playing with household items, but it often becomes wreckless/dangerous very quickly.
    Has anyone ever cut back on toys their children love, not just neglected toys? It’s definitely too many because it creates an unmanageable mess throughout the day, and we need to make room for a baby too.

    • This is the problem I have, too. My daughter really does use all her toys and asks about ones I’ve removed. I’m not comfortable with the idea of taking away her possessions.

    • I have a friend who requires her son to pick up all his toys before bedtime, and if any are left that she has to put away, he’s not allowed to play with them the next day. Perhaps something like this may help with the toy overload, especially if you’re finding the toys everywhere.

      You could also ask your children to pick 1 toy to give away. Sometimes putting them in control helps.

      • Great suggestion, Kendall.
        Jessi & Kate: if you feel like everything is played with, and easily contained/upkeeped, you probably have the right number for your home/kids/lifestyle. Some families manage their toys better than others.

  • My children have very few toys really in comparison with a typical child today and are screen free 99% of the time, which I really believe helps with imaginative play. They are age 4 & 7. They play make believe every single day. Last week they were ‘busking’ next to the bottom of the staircase, this week it’s ‘Lets play teachers’ , a common theme around here. They don’t use toys as such, and if they do, they are incorporating a range of things into imaginative play. When they were busking, they wanted a musical instrument which we don’t have. So they went to there play kitchen basket, grabbed an enamel pot and banged that with a wooden spoon. We have a basket of stones and shells which they use as treasure in play. They use play silks to wrap baby dolls in. They make there own narrative with the objects around them. They definately play more with less. What is tough is people’s expectations of what my children should own. Their peers think they should own certain things, iPod, Nintendo, 20 dolls instead of a couple. It’s hard to navigate.

    • Busking! So cute. We actually have a set of Melissa & Doug musical instruments. They get a lot of use. My husband also plays guitar for my son and lets him strum a bit. Not minimalist but some day I would like to have a piano or keyboard in our home for music lesson.

  • Oh this is the battle of my life right now – the number of toys we have and continue to acquire. We buy virtually nothing in the way of toys, we just happen to have many generous relatives and that makes it all the more difficult to get rid of things. Its hard to part with items bought out of love. That said, there’s been many, many trips to Value Village in the last few months trying to pare down the collection and I’ve noticed my 3 year old is starting to use more imaginative play and really get good use out of each toy, now that there is less. For Christmas this year, both boys will get stockings filled with simple, hand-made toys rather than gadgets. And the one in, one out policy is in full-effect around here now, much to the chagrin of my mother in law:)

    • Since she is aware of what you are doing, maybe this will encourage her to spend money on experiences for you and your kids, or even her and them instead of the stuff. She might even like it better.

  • We just cut back drastically on toys, and we’re all loving it. There’s less to clean and everything has a place. We did not seriously purge costumes, though, because that dress-up chest makes the kids very very happy.

    There is plenty of TV viewing around here, but the children do not use computers, hand-held devices, or any other electronics except the radio. I have found that giving them unlimited access to the TV actually keeps them from being that interested in it. A little PBS in the morning, and they’re done.

    I really wish I could get my dad on board for the less-is-more birthday/holiday season coming up. Thankfully, the rest of the family is, contributing to the college funds and giving us memberships and such.

    • TV: thanks for posting this. I sometimes wonder if making a toy/tv taboo or harshly limiting sends kids in the direction of wanting more. I remember someone posting here about how their parents were very strict about food, how much and what they ate, and the kids became obsessed with buying junk food as a result.
      One of my problems with tv is that my son literally watches and will not move. I’ve seen his other little friends watch tv and play or dance at the same time. TV makes my kid go sedentary so we try and limit it.

      • Some of your son’s behavior might be due to not having a sibling (notice i didn’t say all-i’m sure personality comes into it, too). Could be that when the baby is old enough to be a playmate, the TV won’t hold the same power over him. Also, I should mention we went through a stage where they watched a ton of disney movies. I won’t even say how much per day because it was a lot. It’s like they needed a binge and then it was over. I just don’t sweat it too much, though. We don’t have cable, so most of our viewing doesn’t include commercials at least.

      • I think, set rules are just fine – even if it means none for Henry at the moment. It could mean “half an hour a day” or “two films a week” later on.
        From what I saw, the worst impact has using TV as a treat – and banning TV as a punishment. This really causes addictions in most. (I know of a particular “cruel” family where they actually had a TV in the childrens’ bedroom, but locked in a cupboard and not allowed when they were bad – needless to say, the children tried to unlock the lock all the time. It was always right in front of their eyes, thus on their mind) As long as it’s rather matter-of-factly “no, we don’t watch TV every day”, it doesn’t seem to bring forth that addiction so much.

      • I don’t let the kids get up and move around while we watch TV. I limit the TV watching (one show before bed in the evenings – Gilligan’s Island or I Love Lucy, hearing a two year old ask to watch “Lucy” is the best thing ever :) and one kids’ movie on Friday afternoon with popcorn). I like the down time, and want it to be a precedent that we sit down and watch TV, we don’t just have it on as background noise. That way if I am sick (or they are sick) and I turn on the TV we can all have a quiet break.

  • We used to have a “playroom” downstairs, but I recently cleaned out to that space to make room for homeschool and reading areas. I did keep the train table and a dresser with blocks, cars, train parts, and purses. I moved 70% of their toys upstairs to their room. I LOVE having fewer toys downstairs and the kids don’t seem to mind. A nice bonus of having fewer toys is that the kids can help clean up! Now I’m really tempted to start getting rid of a lot of toys that I moved to their rooms. :)

  • We do have far fewer toys than the majority because of the fact that our boys, especially our 4 year old, loves household items to play with. However, I think it really depends on the child. Since our oldest has the biggest imagination and prefers to often play by himself, it takes little to keep him very engaged and involved. I actually find him in his room, by himself, sorting his rocks and random treasures or creating elaborate story lines with his found objects and his few favorite dragons. I think the key part is to start them young! We’ve “downsized” the toys quite a bit over the last year, and I’ve seen no difference in play v. boredom. I have a YouTube home tour showing just what we have, and honestly, those few bins are MORE than enough for two kids (even though people commented that our boys are surely deprived)!
    P.S. If you ask about our best purchase as parents, it’s our trampoline. Hours of play year round and gets out all that energy.

  • I recently reduce our toy bin and it has gone pretty well since then. There is less clutter to clean up and the best part is that my son shows more imagination with the toys he does still have. He also hasn’t really missed the missing toys. Actually, he helped me separate the keepers from the other we were throwing out, it was kind of a game to him.

  • We will be moving internationally in about 9 months so I’m starting to think more seriously about how many toys my kids have and how many they really need.
    Firstly, compared to SOME kids, they don’t have that many. But compared to others they have heaps.
    Secondly, they play with the toys in imaginative ways that the toys were never really designed for. So I’m loath to discard something that they’ve ‘grown out of’ but are using for some other purpose. They are pretty inventive and creative using household objects all the time – favourites are building houses/forts/shops etc out of the sofa cushions. My daughter also has very good fine motor skills so is always beavering away at some little craft project – our collection of random pieces of paper glued together probably exceeds the toy collection!
    Thirdly, over the summer we had an awesome 7 week trip across Europe. I limited the kids toys, books and craft supplies to one small backpack each (ie they could carry or roll it themselves). Sometimes the paper accumulation got a bit out of hand and I had to get my daughter to cull, but on the whole it worked out well. We were pretty busy, but there was at least an hour or two of downtime everyday where they just played. Little mini plastic animals and dinosaurs were a hit, the paintbox came out a few times, Lego figures were also well played with, along with colouring books and blank paper.
    I limit my kids’ TV watching to half an hour to one hour per day and keep it to appropriate shows, and there are many days when they watch nothing. That said, the long drives and flights that we had to do a few times over the Summer were made a lot easier by the iPad. Particularly for my son whose booster seat was not high enough for him to see out the car window :-( The kids don’t really know about apps and games yet, as far as they’re concerned the iPad is just a video player.
    I will definitely be culling their toys (further – we’ve already pared it down a fair bit) before we move and my two criteria are 1) multi-function toys and/or 2) creative toys.
    I really can’t stand Barbie because I think those dolls really limit creativity, but my daughter (age: 5) was given a couple by her cousins (who she adores) so I won’t take them away from her, but when we’re in the store and she sees Barbies for sale and she asks for another one for Christmas (even though she doesn’t really play with her current ones THAT often) I say flat-out ‘no’ and that she has enough. And steer her toward the Lego and craft stuff…
    My son is very creative (age: 3.5) but is obsessed with guns and good guys and bad guys etc, so will creatively turn pretty much anything into a gun or some kind of weapon. I don’t really know where he gets it from but it’s hard to prevent as a straw or spoon can become a gun or sword! I’m just hoping he grows out of it sooner or later but looking at the older boys I know, it seems like it will be later!
    It’s also really hard preventing more crappy toys from coming into the house. Every birthday party they go to they get some rubbishy plastic toy that will break in a week. These things drive me nuts as the parents have spent money on it and that money really didn’t need to be spent at all! And all it’s doing is cluttering up the house and causing heart-break when the thing inevitably breaks.
    The only thing I have a really hard time getting rid of or not buying in the first place are books. We do have a decent library here but we also have a great charity shop which sells books for about $1 each, so I will often go there and just stock up. Of course, I donate lots of books back to them, but there’s also the Scholastic book order catalogue that comes to school periodically. I don’t want my kid to be the only one who doesn’t get SOMETHING in the book order and it’s also a good source when you need books in a series or something that you can’t find at the charity store. So our supply of books is constantly increasing, even when I give lots away. I do love books, and can mostly justify it, but when you move internationally every 4 years or so, they start to feel like a bit of a weight around your neck…
    My thriftiness is also a bit of a problem as people are constantly giving me their old stuff. Sometimes this is great – eg I literally haven’t needed to buy my kids any clothes except underwear in over 2 years – but sometimes it’s not so great as we get junky toys left on our doorstep and before I can sort through it all, the kids find it and latch onto something and refuse to let it go. Then I don’t know what to do. Should I reason and negotiate with them, or just sneak it away in the middle of the night? Moving to another country might be a good excuse – oh, dear, it got left behind for the new people in our old house!
    I could clearly go on and on about this topic! But I shall leave it there for now :-)

    • You could probably say something like…”oops, someone left this on our steps accidentally. We better put it aside incase they come back”. yeah I know its lying…Or… “we will take it to a resale shop so who ever left it might be able to find it again.” Or I might just say…No, you have enough toys. Another thought would be if they keep that toy then they must (right away) give a different toy away. Just some thoughts!!!

  • What I do is usually hide some toys for a while and if the girls haven’t asked for them , I donate them. Although, there was this particular huge stuffed animal, it was a tiger. It was enormous, months pass by, I was happy I got rid of it. Then one day my daughter asked “where is my favorite white tiger?” Oh boy! I was in trouble & she cried. This was 4 years ago, and she still remember and gets mad if for some reason she remembers!
    I guess it’s sort of an occupational hazard :)

  • We just went through this earlier this summer! I actually packed up most of their toys and put them away for a few months. I wrote about it here: It was so nice to have fewer toys! I told the kids we would get their toys back down when the weather got too cold to play outside all day and they were okay with it.

    We just got everything back down this month and at first they were so excited to see everything, but after just a few days they are back to playing with their few favorites. We really only play with a few dolls, books, and their art supplies. The pocket playground would be perfect for us!

    When people give us second hand toys I talk about how we get to borrow the toys and then I sort through them and pass on what I don’t think we should keep. It usually works, although just recently my youngest (11 months) fell in love with super annoying singing Elmo camera! We don’t buy battery toys but she found it and wouldn’t give it up. She carries it around constantly so it’s hers now.

  • What a timely post. I am clearing out 99% of my kids toys from their closets. The only things I will keep are some games they play alot, open ended toys like legos etc. ,books they will read again or another sibling will read, a few craft projects. Other than that all of the other “stuff” that they haven’t touched in a year (seriously, its been a year) I am tossing. Their outside toys?… they play with almost every. single. toy!!! so they won’t be going anywhere!!!

  • I think getting rid of toys is wonderful but it is equally important to have your child participate. Just having things disappear can be really upsetting and the toys are really theirs. We would be upset if someone arbitrarily cleaned out our possessions and left what they thought was worthwhile. I really like Kathryn’s idea to talk about “borrowing” the toys and then passing them along. When I enlist my child in getting rid of toys and I am always surprised at what he chooses to let go and I am the one having second thoughts!

  • This morning I read The Daily Mail article, then your post and finally the one that you linked.
    As I was reading the list in the first article, I could see my 3,5y son having nothing but those things. Because I know and almost everyday see, that those are exactly the toys that he loves most. Picking a colouring book and watercolors can keep him occupied for two hours, when my almost 1 is sleeping. So does plasticine (and my, how he prefers classic plasticine to all kinds of sophisticated Play Dohs or Moonsands!) or shoelaces. Actually, whole last winter he wouldn’t part with his five colourful, long shoelaces. Sometimes we had difficulty walking around the house, because he didn’t let us move the laces spread all over the doorhandles or armchairs.
    The only thing that I would add to the list is a toy car.

  • I’ve been meaning to write a blog post on this exact topic. After reading “Simplicity Parenting,” I did a huge cull of Oliver’s already (by most standards) quite small toy collection. First to go were the electronic toys, all of which had been gifts. We were not a fan of electronic toys to begin with, and the book gave me the impetus to let go of my gift receiver’s guilt and pass those toys on to new homes (disclaimer: we did keep one very quiet Fisher Price cell phone toy that Oliver really loves).

    After paring down the collection, I then put about a quarter of it into his closet to create a rotation of “new” toys every month or two.

    The result? With fewer toys available, he spends more time playing with each toy, which is great for developing attention skills. He also plays *much* more calmly (and independently) when he is not overwhelmed by clutter and by the lights and sounds of electronic toys. Cleanup is a breeze – the entirety of his toy collection could be cleaned up in three minutes or less, even if all of it were strewn all over the floor.

    Toys are kept in the bedroom only (we have none whatsoever in the main living space of our home), so when Oliver is in the kitchen, living room or dining room, he plays with safe household/kitchen objects that we give him, or he entertains himself by looking out the windows, running around, crawling under furniture, trying to put on his shoes, or chasing the cats (poor kitties). When we’re out and about in the city, I don’t bring toys with us. He will happily entertain himself for long periods of time with rocks, sticks, leaves, empty coffee cups and lids, straws, etc.

    It’s amazing – Oliver lacks most of the current “must-have” toys, yet he never seems bored :)

  • I put up a preventive plan against toys even before my daughter was born. We put a wishlist up and made sure everyone knew about it. And I made sure to speak out about wanting only simple wooden toys for her. Most of our friends and relatives cooperated, we ended up with a lot of things we actually needed and a few things that we are now donating/selling.

    I think most people want to be helpful and generous, they simply don’t know what we want. Getting over my embarrassment of asking for specific gifts helped a lot, and it seemed a lot were relieved not to have to figure out what to give my daughter.

    All of that said, the only consistent thing my daughter ever plays with is Lego (Duplo). She’s only 2 so that may change.

  • It’s a great idea to establish how much is “enough” for you and your children and to engage them in the conversation when they’re old enough. I didn’t start thinking that less was better until about six years ago and while in the middle of a move, convinced the girls to get rid of all but their most favorite toys (i.e., one set of Polly Pockets, one favorite Barbie and some dress-up clothes).

    For oldest DD, (who has ADD, btw), she viewed this as a kind of freedom and has strived since to continually purge the unloved from her room. For youngest DD, though, it seemed to create a sense of deprivation. She has since taken up “collecting” odd things and is very attached to her stuff and despite our efforts as a family to simplify, her life goal is to have a huge house with lots of stuff.

    So in hindsight, I wish I would have asked her at the time what SHE though was enough. I also think that maybe some of us are drawn to simplicity and minimalism because that’s our journey and some of us aren’t.

  • I love reading everyone’s thoughts. We did (and keep doing!) a big purge. My biggest hurdle is the many pieces that are part of the few sets we have. Blocks, LEGO, trains, cars, LEGO Heroes, Zoobs, magnets, dress-up and the smattering of odd-and-ends. I am trying to clear away as many of the random toys and just focus on the sets. They are easier to contain and the boys can pull out one set at a time. I have a hard time with rotation because I like how they will be suddenly inspired to make something or play with a certain thing. We are about to put our house on the market so I am looking forward to the motivation to further purge and simplify. Likewise, I am cleaning out the rest of the house, too. I want to set a good example and not just clean out their stuff. And I do let them pick one or 2 things to keep from what I’ve set aside to give away. That way they see what’s going, we talk about it and they have a chance to stake a claim on something really important to them. Thanks for the great article and discussion!

  • This is a lovely and thought-provoking post.

    We are already toy minimalists, though we do regular culling to release unused toys and destroyed toys (DS is young and hard on his toys). So, we are happy with the overall amount.

    The real struggle that we have is not with stuff. I am good at curating my stuff.

    The real struggle is dealing with or holding space for the disappointment that people — whose love language is giving objects — feel when they are stymied by our lifestyle choices (and firm boundaries for those choices). I know that it is my lifestyle that is in conflict with their love language. I know that this choice is difficult for them to understand, and over and over they feel the deep rejection of their love when we reject their objects.

    I have been able to direct family toward giving money to savings accounts for DS as well giving for experiences for him (archery lessons, swimming lessons, museum passes, etc). They do not enjoy this, but they will participate. It pains them to do this the way it pains me to accept objects.

    I suppose it’s a funny balance.

  • We have recently moved to live in a van for a year. Not many toys as there is not much space. The two girls are happy and have so much fun just playing in thier “room” a top bunk a little bit bigger than a double bed with a single mattress which they top tail on and a few toys and thier clothes. They have friends over to play and even when it rains they and they are stuck inside the friends still don’t want to go home. Before we moved I asked them to help me sort out thier things. they had to chose what to keep with some guidance. i.e what would you like to give away didn’t work but which 5 items of jewellry would you like to keep did. We have some back up things in storage which we haven’t had to access yet, they are happy.

  • Lots of great ideas here! Part of the reason I downsized the toys recently is that my kids weren’t playing with them. Instead, they were busy making things out of paper or cardboard. So I started removing toys from their overstuffed playroom, and they didn’t even notice!
    These days I limit the toys to the available containers–if the toys don’t fit, some have to go. As other commenters have mentioned, I tell the kids that if they can’t keep the toys cleaned up, it’s a sign of overwhelm, and some toys must go then too.

    • I won’t be keeping any toys we have so far. Nothing is really that beloved, unique or special. Now, perhaps that is because my kids mostly play Legos, draw pictures and kick a soccer ball around. No one has yet to become attached to a lovie or soft toy. If we had something like a handmade wooden train, something that was unique and they loved, I might think about it.
      I could see myself keeping some of their favorite books more than toys.
      Such a personal choice – what toys are you thinking of keeping for future grandchildren?
      Also, this is a bit morbid but my husband and I are older parents and I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about future grandchildren. If my boys became fathers when my husband did – cusp of 40 – my husband would be 80 and I would be 73 when the grandchildren arrived. That’s a long time to keep original books in good condition and to move them and store them along the way. Why not give them a good home where they will be used for the next 40 years.

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