A Stick, a Bucket, and a Piece of Rope

Speaking of removing external suggestion to allow your child’s authentic self to blossom, let’s talk toys.

I’ve been thinking about toys ever since the first ones started arriving in the mail, 3 months before the due date of my first child. When I was despairing the already accumulating stores of kid stuff, my mother-in-law said something to the effect of, “Oh, someday your whole house will be strewn with Fisher Price. And you know what? You’ll love it.”

Actually, almost five years in, I don’t love it. I love having my kids home with me, I love watching them explore the world and I adore watching the development of their independent play. Certainly, I have come to appreciate the relief and redirection of a well-timed gaudy plastic noisemaker, but overall I consider toys an entirely overdone pain in my ass.

a basket of questionably necessary toys, waiting to get dumped on the floor

Do kids need toys? I honestly don’t believe they do. Well, let me re-phase that. I don’t believe they need purchased items which were designed solely to be toys. In the dynamic environment of the DIY household, kids will make toys out of anything and everything. Often, even when there are myriad designated toys littering the floor, my kids will be running around playing with a piece of cardboard and a tin can.

That said, we have tons of toys. My Man is a sucker for making the kids squeal with glee, and that’s the bang you get for your new toy buck. Even I sometimes fall prey to thrifted plastic junk just to see those first 10 minutes of toylove. Doting grandparents have contributed a mighty pile as well. In our culture you have to be a hard-edged grinch not to accumulate toys.

I think it’s safe to say that everyone takes in more toys than their kids’ need. The question is what you do with them after that 10 minute honeymoon has worn off?

I used to keep all the toys, and right down at kid level. I hated that passive-aggressive mom trick of giving stuff to the Goodwill when no one was looking, and I figured what’s the point of having it if I keep it hidden away in a closet?

I still hate the covert Goodwill trick, but I have absolutely had to stoop to it. You can only pick up so many toys off of the floor, over and over and over and over again. I started by filling up boxes and keeping them in the closet. They weren’t permanently exiled, just saved for a rainy day. When I would take one down, the kids would have a guaranteed 15-20 minutes of blissful toy reunion. When the thrill wore off again, I would put the box back up. I highly recommend this.

Lots of good creative toys like Leggos, Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, etc drive me completely insane if left accessible to the kids, though that’s the way I did it for ages. It appears that my kids’ favorite game to play with anything in the ‘many small pieces all contained in a box’ category is dumping out the box. A top favorite with Leggos in particular (they make such a great big noise!) is to then swish your hands in the pile really fast so that the pieces fly out into a completely distributed 12 foot radius. I was beginning to really hate those cheerfully colored plastic blocks. Then I finally realized that if the pieces are scattered helter-skelter across the house, they can never play with it anyway and really what’s the point?

That’s when I started keeping the Leggos, and all those ‘many small pieces’ toys, up on a high shelf. The shelf is in our girl’s room, and open to view but too high for little people to reach. We take the box down once every few weeks and, miraculously, our relationship with Leggos has been remade. Not being a part of their daily landscape, the kids see them in a new light. They appreciate them more for what they were actually made for—building stuff. And I happily learned that cleaning up Leggos as soon as their play session had dissolved (don’t wait too long, a stitch in time saves nine!) is easily done with a dustpan.

Puzzles are my pet peeve. For some reason puzzles are considered unanimously desirable. People were giving us puzzles before our first was even born. They’re made out of wood and educational, right? Surely us greenie NPR hippies would like them. Every kid play space that’s worth anything has a whole stack of puzzles. And what do kids under the age of 3 do with a stack of puzzles? Systematically dump each one out on the floor and then immediately lose interest so that you, the adult, has to put them all back together.

I’m 34 years old, I don’t want to spend my time putting together motherfucking farm animal puzzles.

There’s nothing inherently evil about puzzles, but they need adult supervision. If given one puzzle at a time, some 2yos will maintain the focus and desire it takes to put it together. By 3 they are starting to have a real interest, but I still don’t see the point of owning puzzles because once a kid has done the same puzzle 5 or 6 times, they are done. Understandably, they have mastered it and want to move on. Many good libraries have puzzles to lend, if your kid likes them.

My other pet peeve is single use toys. Things which have only one way to play with. In a great decluttering post recently Kyce mentioned having given ‘play food’ the boot, and I’m with her all the way. My girl was always very good at disregarding whatever the intended use was and just using any toy as a prop for her self-created play, but then why bother with those specific toys in the first place? Our kid kitchen has been through several reincarnations over time, but lately it’s come down to just a small stainless steel mixing bowl, a small skillet—both thrifted—a kid sized rolling pin, a collection of animal shaped cutters, and a big tub of homemade playdough.

So, I hate puzzles and play food, and can barely tolerate Leggos. What toys do I like?

I like the toys that I see the kids actually play with (not just dump on the floor) the most often, and the ones that require no parental assistance or supervision. Here’s a list of my favorites:

Figurines— both animals and people, they use these every day. Our boy will also use trains and trucks like figurines, carrying them around and treating them like animate objects.

Building sets—as much as they can get on my nerves, I do like the way they work kids’ brains. Like a puzzle that you design yourself. My Man got a wonderful set of magnetic building pieces, flat squares and triangles with magnetic edges, that have become one of my favorite purchased toys of all time. Babies love them because of the satisfying way that they click together and will just hold two of them clicking together and apart for quite some time. As they get older they can use them in ever-more complex ways, starting with flat, floor based patterns and building up to awesome 3D structures. They are also easy to clean up because they click right together.

Collecting and carrying devices—I’ve recently realized that not all kids are like this, but our girl adores anything she can put other things into. Bags, boxes, basket, buckets. As long as it has a handle. She puts together a seemingly random assortment of items and then carries it around. This was one of the first ways that I remember her playing, and she still does it all the time. I don’t really understand what she’s doing, but I understand that she likes it.

Playdough—we make our own so we never have to get our panties in a bunch about mixing the colors or leaving the lid off. When it’s all brown or dried out we just make up a new batch.

want to kick it up a notch? i have one word for you: glitter. glitter and playdough were made for each other, i just can't believe that it took me two years of playdough making to figure that out.

Art supplies—I keep the bulk of our art supplies in a closet. We break out the paints maybe once every couple of weeks. I buy big bottles of blue, red, yellow and white and then use a Styrofoam egg carton to mix up more colors. Crayons have never taken off at our house, colored pencils are tolerated, but pens and markers are the clear favorites. Since the 4yo learned how to control a pen, she has become quite prolific and so I leave the basic drawing stuff out for constant access. The house is scattered with little notebooks and random scraps of paper. It’s really awesome to see what she draws with her budding skills. I also have to put in a little plug for scissors. We got our girl a pair before she was even two. If you get the kid-safe kind, with the chunky rounded ends, there’s not too much damage they can do, and they just love cutting things up! I think it must give them a real sense of power to make a big piece of paper into lots of little pieces.

Kids’ Table—this is perhaps a given, but not to be underestimated. We have built up over time to one in each room!

Hidey Hole—some kind of tent, playhouse or kid sized space is almost always a win. We used to have a plain sheet stapled at the top to the wall and held out at the bottom by the edge of a bookshelf. They loved it. Then last Christmas I got them an Invent a Tent and although I’m not that happy about how well it’s held up, it has gotten lots of use and love. I guess a few broken pieces are to be expected.

the invent a tent configured as a bow picker (fishing boat)

Rocking Horse—our girl adored her big plush rocking horse when she was 2, it was one of those expensive items I would never have bought, but My Man splurged on it and time proved it’s worth. I got a cheaper one down here for the boy’s second birthday, but he hasn’t given it the time of day…

Now what about toys that aren’t toys? In some ways, there’s no point listing them, if you give your kids access to the (safe parts of) the household, they will pick out their own favorites. But I do find it’s good to remind myself just how much fun kids have with these most simple household items:

  • string, buy several rolls at once so you won’t have to be stingy
  • rope
  • tape, I have a friend who bought a case of cheap tape for her daughter’s birthday
  • kitchenware (our bottom cabinets get unloaded all the time)
  • laundry baskets
  • recycling (plastic bottles, etc)
  • cardboard boxes
  • coins
she played with this cooling rack on a string for at least 20 minutes

And what about the outside world? Oh my, that is another topic altogether! But I simply cannot leave the humble ‘stick’ out of this post. I heard it was finally given a place in the Toy Hall of Fame. Not to mention leaves for stomping and piling! Trees for climbing! Rocks, sand and water! All absolutely irresistible to kids of all ages, and not to be underestimated.

So, you’re convinced. Kids don’t need toys, certainly not near so many as we give them. But what to do about it? Can you actually get rid of them? Won’t someone call child protective services?

The first time I went on a major decluttering spree, I felt guilty. I worried. I kept all the toys I gleaned in a box in the closet in case anyone asked after them. Each time I’ve grown bolder, taking more and more toys away with each sweep. I keep watching to see if I’ll hit up against a wall where the kids don’t have enough left and get restless.


The 4yo does occasionally ask for a toy that’s been boxed, and I happily drag it out for her. Once in a while she wants something that I’ve given away. But, for the most part, out of sight = out of mind.

Even with all of my decluttering binges, I still feel like we have way too many toys. I still think kids should (and would) be happy with just a stick, a bucket and piece of rope. But we aren’t living squirreled away in a log cabin in the Alaskan bush, we are quite firmly seated in the modern world. Toys are everywhere, and I only have so much say over the running of our household (25% of the vote if we are being fair) so I try to let it go.

Let it go, clean up the mess, and hide whatever I can get away with.

25 thoughts on “A Stick, a Bucket, and a Piece of Rope

  1. I so hear your pain! When my kids were little, I was cleaning their room one day and decided to take to Goodwill all the toys they didn’t use. Thousands of dollars of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Polly Pockets, etc… Looking at those bags, I decided that i would never buy a “toy” again. Books, movies, games… that’s all my kids (and now my grandkids) ever got from me after that.

  2. this is hilarious because it’s so true. i’m anti-puzzle myself for my little ones. so NOT worth the clean up! my biggest pet-peeve: stuffed animals!!! we have so many it’s sickening. and my boys rarely play with most of them. I wish I had a dollar for every stuffed animal some family member has given us. I would put it straight into a college fund.

  3. You’ve just said exactly what I’ve been thinking for awhile.
    The delight the kids get from a stick from the garden, or an old hat or bag of mine is just as much as they get from a multi-skilled talking robot that then sits neglects for the next six months. I am thinking of *stooping* to being an ‘on the sly goodwill mum’ with a vengeance! I think with less they really would play more!
    (Been reading your blog for a while – loving it. Much thanks )

  4. We’re also on the No More Toys wagon. My big boy (who is six, has Aspergers and is the smartest, most creative thinker I know) would just rip them apart. He’d get some $50 piece of plastic crap as a gift and say thoughtfully “well, I guess I could use SOME parts of this for my inventions…” My heart nearly popped with pride when he delivered his Christmas request list: “All I want for Christmas is garbage, some metal and an electricity-shooter.” Lego is all we have left. And various pieces of actual garbage that he picks up off the street. Which does, admittedly, bring it’s own set of problems…

    1. Our 11.5 year old who has Asperger’s, Tourette’s and ADHD is the same way. He keeps begging me to let him go pick through dumpsters for his 12th birthday present.

  5. I totally agree about watching independent, imaginative play develop being the bees knees. It still feels kind of miraculous to me. And, happily, lot’s of folks insist that the less toys, and the more “open ended” they are, the more able to engage in that kind of play the kids are…
    For awhile when my 4 yo refused to clean up her toys alongside me I got into threatening to take it all to the thrift store. I feel guilty about it, but Cora was totally like, “yeah, that’s a great idea.” So at least I don’t have to be all covert about it.
    Toys she really cares about? Two stuffed bears that she dresses in her extensive collection of newborn sized clothes saved from baby sister. And a stroller to push them around in.
    Love the mardi gras doll house.

  6. I am on the “less toys are better” bandwagon as well! I have 2 youngins a 4.5 boy and 1 year old girl and the difference in the 2 is amazing. With our oldest we were super strapped financially and living with family in a not big enough house, we simply didn’t have money or space for a lot of toys. We utilized a lot of plastic spice bottle shakers, household things that could be played with but then put in there proper place, and only one or two bigger toys (like push toys) when he was learning to walk. DS always had very good imagination and could literally play with his thumbs for an entire 30 min car ride, having little wars and adventures in his own 2 hands. Now we have #2 who utilizes all of big brothers toys plus a ton of her own that were saved from #1 over time. The biggest difference I have noticed: DD plays with the toys “correctly” because she has an example to follow. Case in point- took DS until he was close to 2yo to learn how to play with a toy truck (push it and say vroom :) ) but DD is doing it now at 13mo. We have also never taken toys discreetly to goodwill, we have always been totally up front with DS about where the toys are going. It hasn’t always been pleasant but it is getting better with age. We use donating toys to goodwill as a teaching tool for generosity and sharing, lately he has even helped to pick out toys that he no longer wants. My biggest problem here is that he tends to pick out the more expensive toys that I want him to get more use out of first! Apologies for the wordy comment-guess I have a lot to say on this matter :)!

  7. Yup. I have raved about this before. And done many a cull. And have recently become a toy library convert (fortunately we have an excellent one next to our house)

    My man is even more ruthless than I am. Funny story though – I asked him to go through the toy cars and get rid of all the crap (because I don’t have a clue, nor any inclination to figure it out) to which he got quiet and finally said ‘well actually, we used to like the broken ones to use for our smashes’. Wha..?

  8. Playdough is my hands down favorite at the moment. I am a mean anal mother who can’t stand the mixed up colors, so I usually just make a big match of one colour at a time, or two at most, that mix well together.

    I have a four year gap between my first two kids, which in think contributed to me not getting rid of toys soon enough – we didn’t have masses, only having one kid to accumulate them, and I knew we were going to have more (if we could), so we didn’t get rid of baby toys. Anyway, by the time I started trying to reduce, my eldest was old enough to notice and object. Damn it! We are still decluttering slowly, but I wish I’d gotten them used to getting rid of things they font use much when they were younger.

    And by the way, I am so with you on the play food – what’s the point? Give them so grass or paper and scissors, or sand or play dough – things they can use their imagination with, and you can toss out later!

  9. Love this. My daughter would rather make sticks and pinecones into her babies (or dinosaurs at any given moment in time) to cart around, feed and love than use her actual babydolls (who just lay unused in the cradle!). As for the covert Goodwill trips, I’ve never been covert about it. I periodically ask my kids to pick out some things they would like to give to others who otherwise wouldn’t have toys to play with, and they happily find things to give away. I’m always amazed at the generosity they show, too. Putting the choice in their hands not only removes the “NO I LOVE THAT TOY I WANT TO KEEP IT” aspect but gives them a sense of giving back to the community. Even my 3 year old has been very great at it for some time.

  10. I’m glad I’m not the only mom who hides toys from her kid. My little has so many and if I don’t hide half of them at a time, she would only be overwhelmed. She loves puzzles so while they are a pain, I keep them around for her enjoyment. Blocks and legos are the best, and little figurines too! Stuffed animals seem to multiply and I’m frequently sneaking some of those in a bag out the door…

  11. It’s great that you’ve kicked the kids DVD habit! I so know the ‘too many toys’ conundrum, even though many of ours are preloved or we’ve kept & used for ages, I’d still like less toys. The kids, not-so. I remind them Mary & Laura had nature to play with, or if they were really, really lucky… a handmade doll, or even a corn-cob doll was a good thing. Of course, that just led to, ‘can we make corn cob dolls, Mummy?’!! I am saving corn husks at the moment to have a go at those instead.

    1. I didn’t say anything about having kicked DVDs. We have cut down since my last post about it, but they still watch plenty. Seems to be enough time in our days for that AND the full spectrum of healthy play. Thank goodness.

      1. DVD’s, even TV, are not the end of the world, esp. if it means a little sanity for the parents! It sounds like a good balance, same as what we try to achieve….

  12. My children were major Lego lovers. The 27 year old just dragged them all out last weekend and he and his girlfriend spent the afternoon sorting and building. It was nice to hear that rustle of the Legos as they swirled their hands through boxes, looking for the right piece. My husband built a Lego table…it was an old sliding door. He built a raised edge on 3 sides and put it up on a frame so they could stand at it.

  13. I love it. My daughter’s favorite toy for years was a rubber chicken that she dressed in her own outgrown baby clothes. I used the put away and bring out later method for years. The problems begin when the peer pressure starts. “You mean you don’t have a (insert some mind numbing electronic device) yet? Your Mom is mean.”
    My kids had a few favorites. Anything with wheels and I gave them an old vinyl shower curtain to draw roads on which was reserved for rainy days when they couldn’t use dirt and rocks for roads.

  14. We still have and use the legos from my and my husband’s childhood. You know, back when you got a box of multi-colored bricks instead of a bunch of custom shapes that can only really make one thing that’s co-branded with disney.

    But when my 7 year old daughter asked for the Pirates of the Caribbean lego pirate ship for Christmas, we still kinda beamed with pride.

    1. I haven’t looked at Legos for years, I think ours are all pre-everything. We do have a castle and a pirate ship but this is from 18 or so years ago so I know it is not the Pirates O-C ones. My son did mention how I never did get him the set he really wanted and I guess he has looked on line for it.

      Hate Playdo, can’t stand the smell or anything about it. I figured if they wanted to mush something around they could help knead dough or mix and roll out cookies.

  15. The toys thing makes me just mental too! We have literally asked people to stop buying our child stuff (ok, I’m an English teacher so books are always ver wellcome) and still they do. I’d get rid of it but then they expect to see it when they come and visit.

    So glad I found your blog off of pinterest C:

  16. We got rid of so many toys when we moved that I actually am feeling a little inadequate and ashamed of our toy collection when other parents come over.

    So after reading this, I am now on the hunt for a magnetic building set. Would you mind sharing what kind yours is?

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