I recently caught an interview with the brilliant and funny P.J. O’Rourke about his new book, “The Baby Boom and How It Got That Way.” He talked about how many toys and how much access to media children today have and how perhaps it’s stunting their imaginations and attention spans.
Kids growing up in the 1950s and ’60s learned to be inventive. “Go outside, it’s a beautiful day,” O’Rourke remembers his mother telling him, no matter the weather. If it was 40 degrees and raining she might add, “Here, put on a jacket.”
“We played with dirt!” O’Rourke laughed. I can relate; I remember being pushed out the door every afternoon after school. I’d be horribly bored at first, but pretty soon I’d get absorbed in trying to get a butterfly to land on my finger. Another favorite activity was making a stage out of a cardboard box and forcing my cats to perform little plays.
If you’re reading this in an actual newspaper and not online, I bet you have similar stories. Maybe you had a GI Joe, roller skates, marbles or jacks. An old tire once occupied my cousins and me for an entire weekend.
In his book, “Clutterfree with Kids,” Joshua Becker explains the downside of giving children too many choices. When a child has less, he tends to take better care of his possessions. When one toy breaks, it’s not casually discarded for the next bright and shiny plaything. Thus, children learn perseverance, ingenuity and resourcefulness by trying to fix the toy or use it in a new way, Becker says.
Becker stresses the importance of limiting toys to encourage creativity. He references a German study in which all toys were removed from a kindergarten for a period of time. Although the children immediately complained of boredom, they were soon inventing games and new ways to play.
Children with fewer toys develop longer attention spans for the same reasons. There aren’t 10, 20 or more toys waiting on the sidelines to distract them, so they focus on one thing longer. I had one Barbie. And oh, the adventures that Barbie had and the crazy costumes and tiny furniture made of household discards I made for her. Another friend of mine, a brainy male kid, spent a few weeks taking apart and reassembling a small TV. Good times, no batteries required.
Interestingly, I’ve noticed in my work that the children who have fewer toys and clear spatial boundaries (their toys and possessions are not throughout the home) seem better able to entertain themselves, are more organized, and more respectful of adults. It’s something that has stood out to me after working with a wide variety of families over the past eight years.
One little girl — I’ll call her Nadia — particularly impressed me. A child of well-off, highly educated parents, Nadia is definitely privileged, so I was surprised to find that her room was not overflowing with toys. At nine years old, she was actually excited to work with me to organize her room, another pleasant surprise.
The first thing I noticed was a washing machine-sized box with a piece of chiffon draped over it that took up a lot of space in the room. “Do you really need this box?” I asked her. “That’s my reading fort!” Nadia said excitedly and showed me how she had arranged pillows inside and crawled in with a book to read. The box went from being an organizer’s eyesore to being my favorite thing in her room. It brought back great childhood memories and illustrated perfectly the gifts of setting limits.