Give the Kids Materials, Not Toys

Sometimes I get haunted by my own words. This is a blog post I wrote for one of my Norwegian blogs a year ago, and it’s been nagging in my head the last few months to re-read it, take personal stock of my own child-rearing to make sure that I practise what I preach, and then translate it and post it here. So. Here you go:

If you’ve ever set foot in a toy store, you’ll know what I mean when I say that almost all of those toys are meant to represent something specific. You have dogs, dolls, cars and so on, and none of these toys will ever be anything else than what they are designed to be. They are frozen.

On top of this, they come with certain patterns attached to them, either by adding a tape saying specific things, or by a predestined role to play. A Transformers doll will most likely never pick flowers in the woods, and a Barbie doll will probably never explode a planet either. These toys, by definition, come with restrictions to the child’s play.

Because on the other hand, you have the child’s creative imagination, needing stimuli and opportunity of growth to blossom. It needs space. The child needs to fill his play with meaning, use his imagination and his creativity, totally independent of what the manufacturer thought he should be doing.

Give a child a wooden block, and the child makes it into a house, a car, a plain, a boat or anything. A piece of wool may become a troll, a sheep, a pussy cat or mom’s hair in the morning, whatever the child and his play needs it to be. And as the child grows and learns how to use tools, there are absolutely no limits to what he can make of the materials presented to him.

But this requires that the materials actually are presented.

It can be hard to turn around a child used to predestined toys into accepting nature and hobby materials as a replacement, but it is worth a try. The Norwegian teacher Arne Trageton writes in his book «Play with materials» (roughly translated, this is a book that was on my curriculum when I studied to become a pre-school teacher):

The unstructured materials are the most important toys. Structured toys aren’t necessary and in part damaging to the play. One of my students was fascinated by my claim that pre-made toys block the child’s play. In her practise period, she made the kindergarten take away all the cars, trains, dolls and all the other toys. Instead, they made sure to present the children with a wide array of materials. The constructive play blossomed like never before. Nobody asked for the toys before the end of the second week. Then a few girls wondered if they could have their dolls back. But – wasn’t this period too short? Maybe the result only reflected an exiting and new break in the frozen kindergarten tradition of a lot of toys and very little unstructured materials? The next student therefore did the same experiment in a period of seven weeks, in another kindergarten. The same thing happened. The constructive play blossomed. Cars, boats, plains, houses, people and animals in a variety of forms were produced and played with. Nobody missed the toys, before the end of the seventh week. Then some of the girls wondered if they could have their dolls back!

Maybe we’re doing our kids a huge disfavour by getting them so many toys, which on top of it all are meant to represent something specific? I believe our future will be needing creative souls who know how to make use of the potential in materials, making us more capable of exploiting the resources and reuse the things we’ve already made. But who is to teach them, if not us?

A research from 2002 tells us that the average Scandinavian child has 500 toys each.* Most parents know that the kid probably won’t even miss half of them if they were removed without the child knowing about it.

What would happen if these toys were removed, and instead replaced with a creative corner filled with materials?

Do you dare to try?

* This is a link to a Google translated version of the article. It sucks, I know, but you’ll be able to read it. The most scary thing is that this was 10 years ago. A newer report tells us that while we in the year 2000 imported 9553 tons of toys to Norway, we imported 13018 tons in 2010. There is no reason to believe that the number of toys in each children’s room are any lower now.


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0 thoughts on “Give the Kids Materials, Not Toys

  1. Kom gjerne med tips om hva slags materialer man kan gi barna isteden. Jeg tenker umiddelbart på ting fra naturen som pinner, blader og konger. Men føler meg begrenset allerede selv!

  2. Kom gjerne med tips om hva slags materialer man kan gi barna isteden. Jeg tenker umiddelbart på ting fra naturen som pinner, blader og konger. Men føler meg begrenset allerede selv!

  3. Wow, I am amazed by the statistics but when Christmas comes and I see pictures of children with ‘santa gifts’ I can easily believe in the 500 toys. I did not allow my son so many in early years but they creeped in as gifts from others, picked up at second-hand sales for near pennies, etc. However we do purge frequently and as I did not allow so many toys in early years, he prefers to invent his own. A favorite toy is a pencil dressed in some identifying mark to represent a character (usually from Lord of the Rings!) or other object he turns into a ‘toy’! A great post!

  4. Thank you for this. It has brought me back to my childhood on the farm. We had horses which sometimes were dragons or unicorns or whatever we wanted them to be. I agree a blank slate produces a larger creative space for children. They can turn it into anything they want it to be.

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