Ah, the joys of Christmas. All of the toys, the gifts, the things that you didn’t pick out but now you have to find a place for in your home. The pressure. The consumerism. So many thoughts and feelings, and all the while it’s supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year.
Personally, I get a lot more joy out of getting rid of things than I do from getting gifts.
I significantly purged our toys not too long ago, and I’m already feeling the itch to do it again. I can’t wait to go through after Christmas and strip it down to the bare bones.
It’s not that I don’t like toys or that I want to deprive my kids of play. Quite the opposite.
Kids play more, play better, and play deeper with fewer and simpler toys.
Studies have shown this again and again.
Toys should be focused on engagement, not entertainment.
It’s just so easy to get caught up in all of the fun toys, the cool toys, the popular toys, the “educational” toys. The last time I was purging, there were still a lot of things I just couldn’t let go of. Even today as I was making this list, I kept seeing more things “Oooh, and that’s cool” “Oooh, that’s definitely a must” “Ooooh, I forgot about that kind of toy.”
But really, I would gladly pare it back to only three kinds of toys.
I mean, it has to be Legos, right? They are the ultimate toy.
(In our house we’re currently at Duplo age, but the same rules apply.)
It’s impossible to have too many. It’s not a problem if you have duplicates. You could really get by with Legos being the one and only toy you have, because they can be used to build anything else.
Have a kid who’s obsessed with trains? There are legos for that.
Have a kid who loves dinosaurs? There are legos for that.
Harry Potter, superheros, animals, malls, roller coasters, absolutely anything you can dream of.
You don’t need a dollhouse, because you can build one with Legos.
You don’t need a marble run set, because you can build one with Legos.
And the very best part of all? There is a standard size and shape that has been around for years, so there are plenty of inexpensive off-brands that are all compatible with each other, as well as some amazing companies that make super cool pieces that give you even MORE options for what you can build and how you can play.
I could go on and on and on and on, but I’ll just skip ahead to the part where I show you some of my favorites.
2. Wooden Trains and Tracks
I wouldn’t have thought of these as an essential before Arthur got some for Christmas when he was two… and hasn’t stopped playing with them since.
Every kid has their obsession, and not every kids’ will be trains, so think about whether this is the right fit for your home and your family, but I will say there is one major upside to having wooden trains be one of the main types of toys in your house.
There is a standard size and shape.
I know, I know. I already mentioned that with the Legos. But you guys, it is HUGE.
See, I love shopping cheap. Buying secondhand. Finding off-brands. Hunting at thrift stores. And I’ve run into a lot of problems with this when it comes to toys.
Take Fisher Price Little People for example. They drive me absolutely crazy. Because as far as I can tell every few years they change the size and shape of their people. So if you (like I did) have some brand new toys gifted to you, have hand-me-downs that are 5 years old, buy some extra people on Ebay that are 10 years old and find some more things at a thrift store that are 20 years old, none of them will work together.
And then there are some of the new trendy toys like magnet blocks. They’re super cool, they really are, but there is such a massive range of quality, style, and yes, size and shape. Unless you buy the exact same brand every time, you can’t use different sets together.
So, back to wooden trains. These things are just so much fun, even I enjoy building them. And there are so many accessories available. Some of the tunnels and stations and things might seem pricey for just one little piece, but once you have a large collection of the basic trains and tracks, it can be really fun to add some of these fancier things for birthdays and Christmases.
Here are some of the ones that we own and love or that we have on our family’s wish list.
Legos and wooden trains are especially great options for grandparents to give.
As there has been a push for minimalism, there is a lot of discussion about how to get extended family and friends to stop adding to the never-ending pile of toys.
A lot of people will give you tips on setting boundaries. Ideas for experience gifts or savings accounts.
But also, that kind of takes away the fun for them of seeing your child, who they love dearly, open up something special and light up with excitement.
For someone who has a strong gift-giving love language, it can be hard to be told to stop giving gifts. And for someone who is overwhelmed with way too many toys, it can be hard to receive so many. And for someone with a specific minimalist idea of what kinds of toys they want for their child, it can be hard to be given things that don’t fit that vision. But for someone who isn’t immersed in the current culture of motherhood, it can be hard to understand what kinds of toys are “right” and which ones are “wrong.”
One-size-fits-all Legos and wooden trains eliminate all of those issues.
No need to worry about hurt feelings or misunderstandings or long detailed wishlists.
Just get them Legos or wooden trains. Any kind, any brand, any number, they can’t go wrong.
You don’t have to find room for all the loud flashy toys (you do have to find a place for all of the Legos and wooden trains, but that will be another post for another day.) They still get to give “real” presents.
It can actually make it even more special if Grandma and Grandpa (or Aunt Fran or Cousin Ned) are the only ones who give them this special kind of toy, and they can help them build their collection over the years.
3. Imaginative Play
Okay, so maybe I’m cheating just a tiny bit. This is really a category of toys that could include quite a lot. But let me explain. I’m counting it as just one type of toy to remind you of how many you need — very very very few — and maybe more importantly, what you DON’T need — anything that doesn’t fit in this last category.
So what exactly is “imaginative play”? It’s kind of one of those trendy buzzwords like “Montessori” and “open-ended” that have just vague enough of a meaning that toy companies can slap it on a toy to make it sell even though it may not fit the true principles behind it.
In short, imaginative play toys are toys that foster imagination.
(Super helpful, right? Not obvious or vague at all!)
This can include costumes and props for make-believe play of real life or fantasy. Think a stethoscope, a hammer, baby dolls, superhero capes.
It also includes figures. Barbies, dinosaurs, animals.
But here’s the key with imaginative play: less is more!
Seriously. I promise you. This is so hard, but so important.
One dinosaur will be a cherished toy that will be played with constantly. Ten dinosaurs will enable a child to set up a whole dinosaur world and have the t-rexes battle the stegosauruses, and there will be enough to share with siblings and friends. But thirty dinosaurs? They’ll get dumped out and spread around the house but the endless options will be overwhelming and the child will actually get bored much faster. And go dump out another box of even more toys.
You can also skip a lot of the accessories and let the kids fill in the gaps with their own imagination and creativity. You don’t need to buy every single element, just provide a few key items to get them started and let them make-believe the rest, figure it out with items they already have, or make their own with paper or those wonderful Legos.
Imaginative play is no substitute for real life.
Arthur started being really interested in cooking a little over a year ago, so last Christmas we got the kids a play kitchen, fake food, plastic pots and pans, the works. I thought for sure they’d be a hit.
But the kids have barely touched them all year. Because they really cook real food in the real kitchen with me all the time. So for his birthday I got him some plastic knives and a cookbook, and that has brought so much more joy than the toys did.
Involve your kids in your own tasks and habits as much as possible.
This is why I love kid-friendly, but REAL tools, brooms, etc.
I’m not saying you have to throw away all of the toys you already have. In fact a really excellent method is to have only a few toys out and more in storage, then rotate every week or two. This way none of the toys ever become just white noise.
It’s a difficult balance, and it’s something you have to decide for your own family.
Observe how your child plays. Start with the bare minimum and slowly add in more until their attention span seems to fade, then pull back a bit.
As you’re building your toy collection, as you’re adding more, just really try to be intentional and think about whether this new thing you’re bringing into your house will really add to your family’s lives or not.
Kitchen stuff is great, tool sets are great, doctor’s kits are great. Art, beauty, safari, pilot, grocer. There are so many options, but that’s what they are, options. UTo choose from.
As in you don’t need all of it.
So keep that in mind as you scroll through this list of ideas.