There are times my children's rooms get so messy I lose the plot, pack up all the toys and stick them in the garage. And boy what a relief it is... until I start feeling bad. Then I filter them back, a few at a time and it's like they're new toys all over again. For a while.
It turns out it's a pretty sound strategy, according to researchers, who suggest that the fewer distractions kids have access to, the more creative and successful they're likely to become.
Academics at the University of Toledo studied 36 children between the ages of 18 and 30 months across two groupings. Observations were taken of each child playing with toys on their own, over two one-hour sessions - one at the university and one at home.
The children in Group One were given 16 toys to play with and Group Two kids had four toys. The researchers found that, "With fewer toys, participants had fewer incidences of toy play, longer durations of toy play, and played with toys in a greater variety of ways."
They concluded that, "...when provided with fewer toys in the environment, toddlers engage in longer periods of play with a single toy, allowing better focus to explore and play more creatively."
The study was recently published in the journal Infant Behavior and Development, with researchers outlining the critical factor of attention span in mastery of fine and gross motor skills; skills that are achieved through play.
It makes a lot of sense. The longer a toddler spends playing with one toy, without the distraction of many others, the more mastery they achieve as they discover and invent new ways of manipulating the toy.
The study notes, "Children under three years of age, remain vulnerable to distractions, particularly for objects that are near, novel, responsive, interesting, and/or personally meaningful," and they have little control over their responses to distractions, so play can become fragmented by interruptions from other stimuli, therefore hampering mastery and higher order levels of creativity.
In the 16 toy group, the toddlers moved from toy to toy, spending only a short time with each before becoming distracted by other toys. In the four toy group, the toddlers sat with each toy much longer, and were more engaged.
The study surmised that, "Exploration enhances physical skill development such as bilateral coordination, fine motor coordination, refined pinch patterns, and even pre-writing skills. " It also "...encourages the development of cognitive skills including pretending, cause and effect, problem-solving, and various other executive function skills."
So what can parents do with this information when they already have a houseful of toys? If you have the time and inclination, then putting most toys away and rotating them on a regular basis should do the trick.
If this is too labour-intensive, then have a good clean out, keeping quality open-ended toys like blocks and puzzles and the odd soft toy.
Ask friends and relatives to put towards an activity for birthday and Christmas gifts, so you don't get constantly inundated. Not only is it better for the environment, it's also good for your child.