I’ve gotten a few questions or comments on Instagram about how “intentional” we seem to be about the toys we bring into our home for Arlo, which honestly feels like a huge compliment! I’m trying more and more, across the board, to be more intentional with items we bring into our lives and toys are a tricky one. You want your kids to be stimulated, but you also know that nothing lasts forever when it comes to childhood and every toy as a ticking clock on it, it seems.
So today I wanted to share our philosophy on toys, some things that have worked for us and some tips for how to get friends and family on board. I should note, since we have a toddler, a lot of my tips are toddler focused (and may ONLY work on toddlers) but not all of them. I’m aware that these may change or evolve as he gets older and will update our strategies accordingly as he does.
Our General Philosophy
I’ll talk in detail about a lot of questions I get below but here’s a quick overview of our philosophy: We don’t buy a lot of toys and we don’t make a big deal out of it if we do. We save up ideas and use those for birthday and holidays. We ask ourselves a lot of questions before we buy something, and focus on things that are open ended and will have longevity. We clean out things often that still make their way in somehow, and donate them to places we know can use them. We are honest with friends and family about limited space and easy overwhelm. We make a few rules and we also break them occasionally, because we’re talking about toys here… not the end of the world. Keep that in mind! =)
Now for the long version!
Questions To Ask Before Buying A Toy
Before we buy any toy for Arlo, we ask ourselves a bunch of questions. Because we have limited space, and are trying to be conscious of minimizing waste, we DO try to be intentional about what we bring in, and that we’ll get the biggest bang for our buck out of them. Here are a few of the questions we ask:
- How many different ways can my child play with this toy?
- What is it made of? How well is it made? Will it last?
- How long will my child like this toy for? Can it grow with them?
- Can my child play with this independently, and also with others?
- Where will this go in my home?
- Do I (the parent/guardian) like this toy?
I’m going to speak from an eco-standpoint here, not a safety standpoint. It’s up to each of us to determine what materials we are comfortable with our children handling/chewing on/etc! Read labels and make the choice you’re comfortable with!
We all know plastic isn’t good for our world, period. It would be great if we could all afford to only buy wooden or sustainably made toys but those are often pricier and not a reality for everyone. I bend more on my thoughts on plastic when it comes to toys because plastic toys can have a real staying power. When we go to my parents house, Arlo now plays with my (plastic) toys that I played with 25-30 years ago. Things like LEGO bricks can be passed down from generation to generation. So my priority when it comes to toys is that the toy is something that will last when it comes to interest, especially if it’s made out of plastic.
And if you can buy toys second hand, do it. Facebook mom groups are GREAT for this.
The Importance of Open-Ended Toys
When purchasing a toy, we almost always choose something that is open ended or promotes creativity. That means we gravitate towards blocks, puzzles, train sets, dolls/figurines or cars. We like having toys in our home that can be built or used differently every day. It’s great for his creativity since there’s no set “way” to play with them, and frankly it’s more fun for us since we don’t have to play the same exact thing over and over and over again.
Be extra careful when it comes to craft “kits” or block “kits” that only have one outcome. They end up being more “one and done” and don’t promote as much creativity. I prefer to buy a big box of blocks, or a basic set of craft supplies (paper, crayons, felt) and come up with ideas on our own. We absolutely make exceptions for the right kit (I’ve shared a few we’ve loved over the years!) but I’m super picky about the ones we bring home.
The Toy Aisle
Simple: we almost never buy toys when we’re at a toy store/Target/etc. with Arlo, therefore, he doesn’t expect to take home a toy. Instead, he just LOVES playing with them while he’s at the store.
When it’s time to leave, we set a timer for two minutes and tell him he has two more minutes to play (showing him the timer) and when it rings, we ask him to say goodbye to the toys and we’ll see them again another time. Does he still get upset when we have to leave? Sometimes, but it’s only ever because he’s sad he has to stop playing and not because he’s mad we aren’t taking it home. Major difference!
He is completely unmotivated by toys as a result though, which is great except for when you want to bribe him to do something with a toy. 😉 Ha! Kidding… mostly.
When we do buy him a toy while he’s around, he gets SO excited and is very appreciative.
Birthday and Holiday Gifts: Getting Family + Friends On Board
You can have all the philosophies you want, but that doesn’t mean friends or family will abide by them. People love to show their love through gifts (myself included!) and that can be tough, especially when you’re trying to eliminate waste. Here’s a few things that have helped us:
- We don’t buy Arlo many toys. We instead save up a list of “bigger” ticket things we think he’d want, and then send several ideas to each grandparent prior to his birthday or a holiday. We tell (close) family that we don’t have room for a lot and we want to make sure Arlo loves everything.
- We ask grandparents to only buy one or two gifts.
- If the gift giver isn’t there and we don’t know what’s in the present, we open the gift ourselves BEFORE giving it to Arlo. If it is something we don’t want in our home, we just don’t give it to him and he doesn’t know the difference. (Again, this only works because he’s so little…)
- We mention to close family that we will donate anything he or we don’t love and we follow through with that. People do NOT like to see their gifts being donated and it sounds harsh, but sometimes you just have to be honest with people. Nobody is happy if money is spent, waste is generated or space is wasted because you didn’t want to be honest! Family still will buy him some random small items and that’s totally fine with us, of course! Don’t get TOO stressed about the little things unless it starts to get out of hand. Just focus on the big ticket items and making those fit your lifestyle.
- We don’t do gifts at birthday parties. We instead ask guests to bring a book to donate to an organization or school. This means that we don’t end up with 20+ gifts we don’t have room for or don’t want.
- If you have family that you know will want to pick out their own gift, here are a few ideas for how they can do so:
- Ask them to add on to a collection you have! New trains or train tracks for your set, new animals or figurines/furniture for a dollhouse or barn, etc. The person gets to pick out something they love and feel more involved in the decision making, and you know your child already loves that category of toys and that you already have a spot dedicated to storing those items, too.
- Craft supplies! Stickers, crayons, clay, pads or rolls of paper, you can never go wrong. I love putting together my own “craft kits” as gifts with various open-ended craft supplies.
- Encourage them to pick books! You can never have too many books in my opinion and it’s a great compromise!
- Ask for experiences! Zoo passes, Disney tickets, movie tickets, membership to a museum or play gym are all great gifts that don’t involve “stuff”!
Our Philosophy on Toys with Batteries
We, in general, do not buy or ask for toys for Arlo that have batteries (ie toys that light up or make sounds). If we do get them, we almost always remove the batteries. I get a lot of questions about why this is a rule and the answer is simple and selfish: I cannot stand toys that make noise, especially when toddlers love repetitive behavior and play it over and over for one thousand years. 😉
I also don’t see the reason for things to constantly be motorized or make sounds. I’d rather see Arlo move a train around his train track himself, or make sounds in a book ourselves and talk about them.
A good tip for any toys you end up with that have batteries and don’t really “function” without them: If they’re small enough, leave them at your kiddos changing table or in a place where they have limited or timed access! Arlo has a dress-up monkey that says things like “Where is my RED SHIRT?” It was a gift and he only gets to play with it when he’s getting his diaper changed. That way, there’s a time limit on it, and it also distracts him so we can change his diaper in peace! He LOVES it.
Our Hard and Fast “Rules”
In addition to our thoughts on toys with noise, which I wouldn’t say is exactly “hard and fast” anymore, we have two rules that are very much cemented in stone:
No video games and no weapons or toys that include weapons (that includes things that resemble or are used like a real weapon, such as light sabers, foam swords, water guns, etc.)
Arlo is a bit young for video games at this point, but it is a sticking point for me and unless we determine that there as an emotional or medical need for them, I don’t plan on budging… even if he hates me for that. 😉 I know not all video games are one in the same, but I have a hard time with a lot of the subjects they depict and a lot of the research around them. I don’t judge anyone whose kids play video games! And I am sure Arlo will play them at other kids homes at some point, but we won’t have any in ours.
We don’t allow weapons of any form, period. Even faux swords from dress-up costumes or light sabers from Disneyland. Arlo has started picking up a few “fighting” moves/games at school (pointing fake swords or weapons and making noises) and we IMMEDIATELY squash that behavior. “That is not allowed in our home. It hurts people and it hurts our feelings.” We don’t make it a bigger deal than that, or else he’d keep doing it.
How Many Toys Is “Too” Many?
I don’t think there’s a perfect number of toys, it will really depend on your child and your space. I *do* think it’s important to edit, starting with what you bring into the home to begin with. But we all know no matter how hard we try, things weasel their way into our homes anyway. We do regular, quarterly (if not more often) clean-outs of toys to donate. I currently do this when Arlo is not home or sleeping. He feels little too young to understand the concept of picking what you want. Within the next year or so, I’m hoping to incorporate him into this process so he has some autonomy over his belongings.
My brother had a strategy with his kids though that I loved, which was any time a new toy came in, another toy had to go out. This could work great with older kids who are asking for something. Do they want it ENOUGH to give up another toy they already have for it? Be sure to follow through.
Where To Donate or Sell Toys
We donate or sell toys Arlo no longer wants but we try to be really REALLY conscious of where and how we do this. Because if you donate items to a place before reading their rules, you may as well just throw the toy in the trash since that’s exactly where it might go if it’s not something that meets their guidelines. Here’s a few great places to start:
- Facebook mom groups or “buy nothing” groups
- Friends and family
- Local shelters
- Baby2Baby or other charities supporting children
- Preschools, daycares or church nurseries
I’m curious to hear if you have any strategies or philosophies when it comes to toys? This has worked for us, but it won’t work for everyone, and it will certainly change over time! I feel really good about the toys we bring in and the ways we ensure that happens and hope we can continue to pivot those principles as Arlo grows up!
Wooden Truck + Conveyer Belt | Disneyland Castle (Similar)
Letter Puzzle (Similar) | Train Set
Mega Blocks | Magnatiles | Plus Plus Blocks
LEGO Duplo | Rainbow Wooden Blocks
Dress Up Monkey | Wooden Garage | Gumball Machine
I’ve written several posts on some of our favorite toys and activities, you can find those below:
Our Favorite Toys for Two Year Olds
Unique Gift Ideas for Toddlers
Five Free Toddler Actitives to do at Home
Books for One Year Olds, 18 Months Old, Two Year Olds
at home with Ashley says
I really enjoyed this post! For us, we try to have toys that are small because we run out of space so easily. I’ll secretly get rid of toys here and there but have to get rid of toys I know for sure my son wont miss. Otherwise he’s at the age (5) where he totally notices!
Yep, totally hear you on the space thing. We run out of space super quickly too! Anything that we can fold up or stuff into a basket is ideal!!
This was super interesting to me, both as someone who doesn’t have kids yet but also as someone who has experience providing therapy to children – and some of that experience in play therapy. My mom didn’t allow guns or fake weapons in our house either and both my brother and myself turned out fine 🙂 But I also know that in play therapy there can be benefit to “aggressive play”.
Anyway this is such an interesting topic to me and I really loved reading your perspective! Thank you.
Wow! Thank you for that link, it was SUCH an interesting read and perspective!
This mirrors our philosophy really well. We have tons of cars, blocks, balls, and books – not a lot of other ‘stuff,’ and we also tend to avoid electronics. He gets to play with some of that stuff at friends’ houses and a little bit at daycare. I recognize that this may need to change at some point, but it’s working well so far! Thanks for sharing.
Paige Cassandra Flamm says
I really love and appreciated your thoughts on this as sustainability is something we’re constantly striving towards in our home too, and we want to bring things into our home that we know will stand the test of time!
No kiddos yet,but I remember my mom had a helpful trick in order to curb my need for new toys when I was under 5.She would divide my toys in half,not including the ones I was most attached to (say doll,stuffed bear,etc.) since I’d be likely to notice if the teddy I went to bed with was missing, and put them away for 6 months.After the 6 months she’d switch them out with the other batch of my toys and it would feel like all new toys for me!As mentioned,I think this might apply more for toddlers,since I’m pretty sure that a kid a bit older might notice,but it worked great for a while with me!
SO smart and so true! The other day Arlo found one of his old toys in the garage and it was like he had NEVER seen it before. Ha!
Thank you for sharing this! I am always curious how other parents handle toys. We are in the process of getting rid of toys, we have WAY. TOO. MANY. And surprisingly, my almost 3 year old has handled it well. I got him involved and let him decide what stays and goes. I started with similar items, like toy animals. He had 5 plastic zebras: i said lets keep 2, a mama and baby, and we can give the other 3 away to friends. He likes the idea of giving his toys away as gifts (even if they dont actually go there), as long as they dont end up in the trash.
I WISH I could get in laws on board with experience gifts. But “tickets to the zoo are about you and not him, so I wont buy that” 🤬
I don’t have kids of my own yet, but I share a lot of these opinions about toys. A lot of this is because of how I was raised. My mom had a strict no motorized vehicles rule. My sister and I would love to play with the Barbie jeeps you can sit in at the store, or at our friends’ homes, but we weren’t allowed to have one. We did have bikes and scooters and skates. My mom would say, “I want you girls to learn how to push yourselves.” Kind of corny, but to this day I agree with that philosophy.
Video games were also not allowed in my home as a kid, and because of that I have no interest in them today. They do not excite me, and it’s not something I would ever spend my time learning or playing. My boyfriend, on the other hand, loves video games (and the violent ones! yeesh!) and still plays them today at 31. This is already a big debate for us on the topic of parenting.
You talk about violence and “fighting moves.” Very young, my mother enrolled me in karate (I really wanted to! I don’t remember where I got the idea or how I became interested). It sounds violent, but the practice of karate actually teaches self discipline, control of your own body, and appropriate times to practice self defense (in class!).
Really appreciated this post! We are adopting in March – and I’m already feeling overwhelmed by the amount family wants us to have. There are many awkward conversations ahead, I’m sure.
Thank you for sharing!
Curious if he goes to a Montessori or Waldorf school? Seems like you follow a lot of that philosophy other than maybe rotating toys.
We were able to squash the too many toys thing for birthday by setting up her college fund and asking for contributions to that. They can even do it online.
I do have regrets on some of the toys we got her during the first year (she just turned 2) but we’re moving soon so I plan to use that as a way to purge. I’ve already noticed the less available the more she plays with what she has vs going from one thing to another every 30 seconds.
I LOVE this post and definitely plan on applying some of these “rules” to our home when the time comes to have a family.
Funny story — my parents had the same rules about weapon toys — they just were not allowed in our home. My brother was obviously exposed to more of those types of toys as he got into elementary school, but my mom wouldn’t budge. One morning he bit his toast into the shape of a gun to play with. My mom could not believe it. 🤣
This is great. I really try to encourage family to limit their gifts but i find if i suggest things that my daughter would really benefit from, we get that AND other presents too. It frustrates me so much.
We regularly go through her toys and cull. She is 4 1/2 now and gets involved in the decision making. We are going on a holiday to Disneyland (from Australia) in August and i have told her that every toy she is ready to let go of and we sell, that money goes into her bank account to save for something special on our holiday. She is really excited about this and has let go of some baby toys finally.
did you make that Disney Castle in the picture?!!
i would love to see a tutorial for it, and want to make one myself 🙂
thanks for the amazing posts!
Parenting Passage says
Thanks for sharing this :). Learned a lot from the philosophies you shared.
I am not a mom but still loved this post. I remember years ago a family friend had a boy and that was the first time I heard about the no play weapon rule. At the time I thought it was a bit harsh (my brother legit thought he was Davy Crockett when he was little) but their reason totally made sense when I heard it. They lived on a 500 acre ranch and hunting was a normal part of their life. They wanted their boy to grow up thinking all guns were real so there was never mistaking one for a toy. I will also add as I’ve grown older, seeing kids play “shoot” each other, even just pointing fingers and making noise, really makes my stomach turn.
I have three kids, including three year old twins, a boy and a girl. My son will turn anything into a sword. Today it was a chopstick. Yesterday it was a fairy wand. This morning he grabbed a butter knife in the kitchen and began parrying. We were tired of watching him waving various hard sticklike objects around and finally relented and got him a foam sword and shield at Legoland and now it is his favorite toy by far. He slept with both for days.
I used to be anti toy weapons but son is truly interested and enjoys this type of play, and I don’t think encourages aggression. My daughter is actually far rougher in her play without any weapons 😬. Anyway, during the quarantine we found a sword workout on YouTube and have been doing that. It is a good workout!
As a mother i always let my daughter draw and make new things, thanks Lia!