If you're a mother of toddlers, there's a fair chance that your house is cluttered with toys. Bursting toyboxes and video games in the playroom, toy cars in the living room, scattered LEGO pieces in the middle of the hallway, stuffed animals on the stairs — it's all sort of inevitable when you're a parent to young kids. But science says that your toddler (and, of course, you) might actually be better off with fewer toys.
According to recent research, The Influence of the Number of Toys in the Environment on Toddlers’ Play," published in the journal Infant Behavior and Development, kids are actually happier when they're not so spoiled for choice with toys.
The researchers, who hail from the University of Toledo, gave 36 children younger than three years old either four or 16 toys with which to play for 30 minutes. Those with four toys were in one room, and those with 16 toys were in another. What they found: Children with fewer toys are "actively engaged for a longer period of time" than those who have more options, and that's largely because they use their creative instincts to play with the same toys in different ways.
"Play with toys in a variety of manners reflects exploration and discovery of their affordances," the researchers wrote.
In fact, the children with four toys had one-and-a-half times more interactions with their toys. This kind of "sustained play," according to the researchers, "may allow for more opportunities for trial and error to learn about the toy’s characteristics," and "deeper exploration may lead to increased imaginative play, supporting expression and affective development," according to the research.
A host of previous research already tells us that exploration can help your kids by encouraging skills such as bilateral coordination, fine motor coordination, refined pinch patterns and pre-writing skills. And increased exploration can improve cognitive skills and various executive function skills.
Exploration with regards to toys is hampered, however, if there are too many present options.
"The other toys present may have created a source of external distraction, provoking the participants to abandon play with a toy at hand to explore another," the study's researchers write, noting that children have short attention spans during the early developmental years and can even become too overwhelmed that they end up abandoning all their toys.
If you've already accumulated too many toys, the researchers suggest putting the options on rotation for your children to provide "opportunities for novelty without creating the distraction posed by having too many toys available."
Of course, there were some limitations to this study, and the researchers suggest deeper dives into the type of toys given to the toddlers to better guage if quality of play is affected by the number or toys in the environment or by a specific toy. Until then, however, it may be time to start cleaning out the toy closet.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at HerReport.org by night.