Author: Kim John Payne, M.Ed., with Lisa M. Ross
In his book, author Kim John Payne—a researcher, counselor, and private consultant—shows how it is essential to simplify the lives of our children. He first recognized this need for simplification when he saw the same signs of post-traumatic stress disorder in children from middle-class British homes as he had in children from refugee camps in Indonesia and Cambodia.
Obviously, the British children had not witnessed the same wartime horrors, but the compound effect of their fast-paced, information-over-loaded society had taken its toll. He writes, “… I realized that for both groups the sanctity of childhood had been breached” (8).
As he helped the parents of the British children simplify their lives, they saw incredible results. The kids were happier, easier to manage, and did better in school. And for some, previously diagnosed disorders like ADHD and OCD disappeared.
Payne begins by asking if we are building our families on “the four pillars of ‘too much’: too much stuff, too many choices, too much information, and too fast.” Then he discusses four layers of simplification: 1) environment: purging your child’s room and choosing the best toys to encourage creative play, 2) rhythm: creating daily routines, 3) schedules: limiting extra-curricular activities, embracing the gift of boredom, and creating distraction-free zones, and 4) filtering out the adult world: avoiding adult topics, limiting screen time, and avoiding helicopter parenting.
All these sections had great insights and ideas, but as the mother of a toddler the part I liked best was the section on environment.
Parts I liked best:
An entire section of the book is dedicated to how to simplify your child’s toys and how to choose toys that encourage creative play. Payne doesn’t list what toys you should buy (in fact, most of the chapter focuses on the value of having fewer toys and more unstructured time), but he does list the types of play that tend to engage children and encourage creativity. And this list has helped me when choosing toys:
- Trial and Error Play: For babies this is hours on the floor trying to roll, sit, scoot, crawl, and stand up. For older kids this could mean learning a new skill like shooting a basketball or jumping rope. The important thing is to give kids unstructured time and space to try and to fail at something—thereby allowing them to feel a sense of mastery that comes with unaided accomplishment.
- Touch and Experience Play: Children need to experience their world: mud, ice, wind, rain, rocks, and bugs. Payne says, “Excellent toys for all of this ‘primal’ exploration are buckets, nets, shovels, kites, scoops, bubbles, baskets, and containers for pouring and collecting” (80). Playing in nature, cooking in the kitchen, and—within limitations—allowing children to use real tools for real purposes also encourages this type of play.
- Imaginary Play: Simple props allow children to use their own “imaginary muscles” as their most important toy. Often, a trip to Goodwill can supply better playclothes than a superman outfit or other character-specific costume. And Payne explains, “The simpler the doll, the more a child can project onto it and draw from it” (81).
Payne’s list of types of play continues beyond these three, but the important thing to think about is what toys have “staying power” with your kids. Which toys are the ones they return to, the ones they can play with for hours, the ones that adapt to new situations and change roles over time? These are the best toys.
Another list found in the book discusses toys to avoid:
- · Conceptually “fixed” toys (toys based on movie characters, etc.)
- · Toys that “do too much” and break too easily
- · Very high-stimulation toys
- · Annoying or offensive toys
- · Toys you are pressured to buy
- · Toys that inspire corrosive play (violent video games, etc.)
- · Toy multiples (sorry, no need for 100 beanie babies)
These toys tend to not have as much “staying power” and usually end up cluttering rooms or collecting dust after a few days of use. They also do not engage children for long periods of time because they tend to stifle imaginative play.
On the other hand, simple toys not only encourage creative play, but also relieve parents of their responsibility to constantly entertain their children. Once children have the tools and opportunity to engage in creative play, parents can and should get out of the way. As Payne says, “Children’s play flourishes when we ‘let it’ happen rather than ‘make it’ happen” (77).
How this book made an impact in my life, especially as a mother:
This book has changed the way I approach buying gifts for birthdays and holidays. I try to focus on toys that will have staying power over time, toys that do less, and toys that encourage imagination. Sometimes I have to search for a while (it took me 30 minutes on Amazon to find a simple ride-on car that didn’t have annoying noises or lights), but to me it is worth it.
And even though I’ve tried to keep our toys simple, my son still usually prefers playing with regular household objects like the salad spinner. Sometimes I wonder why I buy any toys at all.
This book gave me the permission I needed to purge, to give away, to not buy, and to simplify. I have to admit, I still have a long way to go, but I am converted to the concept that less is more.
Question: What toys have “staying power” with your kids? How can we let play happen for our kids instead of making it happen?
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