The 5% of toys kids actually play with

Last week I wrote about how much screen time is healthy for growing minds. Here’s a related question that we find ourselves debating as parents: how many toys should children have?

I raise the question because I read recently that the average ten year old has 238 toys. Parents tend to spend £350 pounds a year on toys for each child. Grandparents and friends add another £300 a year, so that by the age of ten children have £7,000 worth of toys.

Old forgotten broken little toys background

Despite this largesse, parents estimate that children have a pool of around 12 toys that they’ll play with most days. That’s about 5%. As James Wallman points out, if you skipped the ignored 95% you could save £10,000 on toys by the time a child reaches 16, and put it towards something more interesting than Disney’s Frozen merchandise.

Children like toys, of course. (So do adults – I love an excuse to go toy shopping) It’s nice to have plenty of choices, and of course not everything is going to get used every day. Some games are going to be reserved for the weekend or special occasions. Others have a novelty factor that wears off after a couple of hours. With some toys all the fun is in putting it together – here’s looking at you Scalextric – and then it’s just a tripping hazard for the next couple of days.

So we can’t expect to only own the favourites. There’s always going to be a cupboard with puzzles, or beads, or overly elaborate sets of things that need adult participation. But there is a problem when it gets too much. As well as the wasted money, there’s the clutter, and the challenge of storing it all. There’s also the psychological effect. Is it healthy for children to grow up with everything they want? How will children learn to value what they have and look after it? And it makes excess normal. Children who have too much stuff are likely to grow up to be adults with too much stuff, and that’s not good for our wellbeing or for the environment.

Part of the problem is that, as mentioned above, parents are only doing half the toy buying. Hundreds of pounds worth is coming in from others, with perhaps little control over what it is and how appropriate it might be. We don’t hit those averages ourselves, but we still get presents in on birthdays and Christmas that I know will be languishing in a box within days, never to be played with again. Or at least, until I put it in a bag to take to the charity shop, and then it becomes the most important thing in the world…

So one place to start is to brief family and friends. That’s not always easy, and I’m aware that we’re pretty lucky on that front ourselves. We tend to phone each other in my family and check about what we’re going to give. I like to try and get presents that won’t become clutter, either because it’s edible, or an experience, or a one-off project.

Back at home, here are a few other suggestions for reducing toy accumulation:

  • Specialise along certain lines. Do they need wooden trains and plastic trains? Playmobil and Sylvanian families?
  • Resist fad toys or tie-ins. Some of this is inescapable if everyone’s into it, but there’ll be another blockbuster along in a minute and all those action figures won’t be interesting any more.
  • Something in, something out. I remember my Mum suggesting this at one point before Christmas. There was a great hue and cry, and I can’t recall if we ever carried it through. But some families insist that children choose one thing to give away for every new thing that arrives. Done with flexibility, it would a good way to teach children not to hoard, and to be generous.
  • Avoid toys as rewards. Do things together instead, even if it’s just the promise of going to that park on the other side of town that we don’t get to so often.
  • Don’t have everything out all the time. We rotate toys around fairly regularly, and they stay exciting that way.

What else are you doing to keep a sensible toy collection?

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