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When less is more: On choosing holiday toys this season

Published on Psychology Today

For families who celebrate Christmas, it’s every kid’s dream to wake up on Christmas morning to find a countless number of gifts wrapped and perfectly placed under the tree. To be able to provide such a fantasy for their children is a dream of many parents as well, whether or not they can afford to make it happen. But, despite what children may tell you, is having a plethora of toys to choose from a good thing for kids? Is more necessarily better?

Research suggests that the answer is: not always. In fact, the number of toys, and the types of toys children receive have an impact on the way they play.

For example, one recent study suggests that having fewer toys might encourage children to play more creatively with what they’ve got. In the study, researchers put toddlers in a room with either 4 or 16 toys scattered on the floor, and let them play freely. Surprisingly, the toddlers who were offered fewer toys played with each toy for a longer amount of time, and played more creatively with each one when compared to the toddlers who had more options (Dauch, Imwalle, Ocasio, & Metz, 2018). This suggests that the number of toys children are offered might affect the quality of their play, and that children concentrate and play more creatively with each individual toy if there are fewer options to choose from.

Besides differences in how the number of toys affects children’s play, research also suggests that there are important differences in how children play based on the kinds of toys we give them. More specifically, simple, more old-fashioned toys might be better for learning than electronic toys that do fancy things like talk or sing. For example, one study looked at how babies aged 10 to 16 months and their mothers played with electronic toys like a baby cell phone, laptop, and talking farm, when compared to traditional toys like a shape sorter, wooden puzzle, and blocks. The researchers found that parents talked to their babies less and used lower quality language when playing with the electronic toys than with the traditional toys. This is important, as how much parents talk to their babies—and how many unique words they use—predicts children’s later word learning and literacy in school (Hart & Risely, 1995). Since fancy electronic toys often do all the talking themselves, parents talk less when using them, which might not be the best thing for learning. Indeed, children learn more by exploring themselves than by watching someone (or some device) do something for them (Bonawitz, Shafto, Gweon, Goodman, Spelke, & Schulz, 2011), so toys that do all of the work for you may not be the best for promoting learning or creativity.

There is also evidence that the gender-stereotypes associated with a given toy might bring out specific (gender-stereotyped) behaviors (Maccoby, 1988). For example, a recent study showed that children who played with princess dolls and watched movies about princesses were more likely to demonstrate gender-stereotyped behavior one year later (Coyne, Linder, Rasmussen, Nelson, & Birkbeck, 2016). In some cases, there’s nothing wrong with girls behaving in accordance with female stereotypes, at least on the surface, but the messages that these toys carry could be problematic if they limit children’s opportunities in some way. For example, there is evidence that just the packaging on a toy—whether the same exact toy is packaged for a girl versus a boy—affects the way parents and children play with toys. For example, mothers who are given a mechanical toy packaged for a boy built more with the toy pieces than those given the exact same toy packaged for a girl (Coyle & Liben, 2018). Thus, toys that promote gender stereotypes, and in particular, negative ones, might actually bring out unwanted behaviors.

Altogether, this research suggests that the number and types of toys we give our children might affect the way they play. In some ways, it’s possible that less is more, and that children will spend less time engaged with a single toy and play less creatively if there are lots and lots of options to divide their attention. Further, simpler toys like blocks and puzzles might encourage more parent engagement with children while they’re playing. That doesn’t mean that fancy electronic toys are necessarily bad, but mixing in some options that don’t do all the work for you might be a good idea if you want to encourage problem solving and creativity. Finally, toys that carry gender stereotypes might be okay if the message is positive, but these toys could promote unhealthy behaviors if the message is negative. Indeed, there is evidence that girls who engage with overly skinny dolls (Dittmar, Halliwell, & Ive, 2006), and boys that engage with hyper muscular action figures (Barlett, Harris, Smith, & Bonds-Raacke, 2005) feel worse about their bodies than kids who engage with dolls and action figures that had more average body types.

So this year, keep in mind that sometimes less is more, and mixing in some old school choices with the bright, flashy, and sometimes overly gendered toys that are most likely to be on kids’ wish lists might be just what you need to inject a little extra creativity into your children’s usual holiday fun.

Photo by Design_Miss_C/Pixabay


Barlett, C., Harris, R., Smith, S., & Bonds-Raacke, J. (2005). Action figures and men. Sex Roles, 53, 877-885.

Bonawitz, E., Shafto, P., Gweon, H., Goodman, N. D., Spelke, E., & Schulz, L. (2011). The double-edged sword of pedagogy: Instruction limits spontaneous exploration and discovery. Cognition, 120, 322-330.

Coyle, E. F., & Liben, L. S. (2018). Gendered Packaging of a STEM Toy Influences Children's Play, Mechanical Learning, and Mothers’ Play Guidance. Child development.

Coyne, S. M., Linder, J. R., Rasmussen, E. E., Nelson, D. A., & Birkbeck, V. (2016). Pretty as a princess: Longitudinal effects of engagement with Disney princesses on gender stereotypes, body esteem, and prosocial behavior in children. Child development, 87(6), 1909-1925.

Dauch, C., Imwalle, M., Ocasio, B., & Metz, A. E. (2018). The influence of the number of toys in the environment on toddlers’ play. Infant Behavior and Development, 50, 78-87.

Dittmar, H., Halliwell, E., & Ive, S. (2006). Does Barbie make girls want to be thin? The effect of experimental exposure to images of dolls on the body image of 5-to 8-year-old girls. Developmental Psychology, 42, 283-292.

Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore: Paul H Brookes Publishing.

Maccoby, E. E. (1988). Gender as a social category. Developmental Psychology, 24, 755-765.

Rhodes, M., Leslie, S.J., Yee, K., and Saunders, K. (2019). Subtle linguistic cues increase girls’ engagement in science. Psychological Science.

Sosa, A. V. (2016). Association of the type of toy used during play with the quantity and quality of parent-infant communication. JAMA Pediatrics, 170, 132-137.

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