Children Play Less the More
Toys They Get
ByJonathan Leake and Tom Robbins

Children are losing the ability to play properly because they are being given too many toys and games, according to new research.
The studies show that children - especially those under five - are often overwhelmed and actually play less than those with fewer toys. It may even harm their development.
Some of the work was done by Claire Lerner, a childhood development researcher with Zero to Three, which is funded by the US government to run pre-school educational programmes across America.
"Our studies show that giving children too many toys or toys of the wrong types can actually be doing them harm. They get overwhelmed and cannot concentrate on any one thing long enough to learn from it," said Lerner.
Her conclusions have been backed up by British research looking at children with relatively few toys whose parents spend more time reading, singing or playing with them. It showed such children surpass youngsters from more affluent backgrounds - even those who had access to computers.
Kathy Sylva, professor of educational psychology at Oxford University, reached her conclusions from a study of 3,000 children from the ages of three to five. She said: "There is a complex relationship between children's progress, the type of toys they are given and the time parents spend on them.
"When they have a large number of toys there seems to be a distraction element, and when children are distracted they do not learn or play well."
Sylva's research, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, was prompted by concerns that childhood is being irrevocably altered by parents substituting toys, computers and television for spending time with their children.
Some parents notice the impact early. Orhan Ismail, a researcher from Colchester, Essex, saw a change for the worse in Cameron, his 10-month-old son, after he was given a "deluge" of toys last Christmas.
Ismail said: "If there are too many toys in front of him he will just keep flitting around them, and then end up going off and finding something like a slipper to play with. Now we just get out one or two toys and hide the rest in a box."
About £1.67 billion is spent each year in Britain on toys - equivalent to £139 per child. An NOP poll last year calculated that there was £5 billion of unused toys in the country's homes. Myfanwy Alexander, 39, and her husband, from near Welshpool, Powys, decided to limit the toys their six daughters play with. From the youngest, Gwenllian, aged four months, to the eldest, Myfanwy Jr, 14, the girls are encouraged to play outside. When indoors, they use boxes and board games rather than Barbie dolls.
Alexander believes many toys restrict children's imaginations. She said: "A dental hygienist Barbie can only work as a dental hygienist. But a cardboard box can become anything. The only limitations are in the child's mind."
Such views can prompt strong reactions among other children. "Once a four-year-old guest asked to watch a video. When I said we don't have a video machine, she threw up everywhere. She suddenly felt terribly vulnerable because we didn't conform to her idea of typical adults."
The Alexanders' approach is, however, being increasingly recognised as the right one. Research by Michael Malone, professor of early childhood education at the University of Cincinnati, shows that parents should carefully manage their children's access to toys.
Malone said: "More is not necessarily better. This is a myth that needs to be extinguished from western suburban culture. Our work shows that having fewer toys is associated with less solitary play and increased sharing. Conversely, too many toys can cause a sense of 'overload'."
Experts hesitate to put a figure on the number of toys children should have, but many believe two dozen is enough for children of pre-school age.
Most exclude books from this rule because of research linking reading with improved academic performance and self-esteem. "The more books, the better," said one.
By contrast, computers and electronic games are causing increasing concern over their impact. Sylva said: "There is some disquiet that playing on computers and electronic games can restrict children's development because they take away the need for creativity and imagination - and these are the essence of childhood."
Additional reporting: Deborah Collcutt


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