child wearing a backpack
Brittany Hambleton
Brittany Hambleton
May 11, 2024 ·  5 min read

It’s science: Giving experiences instead of toys boosts your kid’s intelligence and happiness

It’s the classic Christmas scene: a warm glowing fire, stockings hanging on the mantle, and a giant, lit-up tree surrounded by a mountain of presents.

 For a child, Christmas morning is the most magical day of the year. What could be better than unwrapping toy after toy after toy?
But are all these toys actually making your child happier? The science says… not really. In fact, showering your kids with toys might actually have the opposite effect on them, and rob them of the imaginative experience they should be getting [1].

The Importance of Play

Play is an essential part of a child’s life. Through play, children develop cognitive, physical, social, and emotional skills that they carry with them into adulthood [2]. 

Through physical play, young children gain whole-body and hand-eye coordination, as well as build strength and endurance. Although counterintuitive, rough-and-tumble type play, such as wrestling or grappling, actually teaches children how to control aggression [3].

Playing with objects (a.k.a.- toys) is associated with creativity and problem-solving. Often, when children are playing with objects, they are developing a story in their minds, particularly when they are making or building something (LEGO is a great example of this). In this type of play, kids set goals and challenges for themselves and therefore increase their cognitive skills [3].

Symbolic play involves spoken language, reading, writing, art, and music. This type of play helps them develop technical abilities and teaches them to express and reflect on their ideas, emotions, and experiences [3].

Dramatic play is the most highly associated with cognitive and academic abilities, and games with rules teach kids to share, take turns, and understand others’ perspectives [3].

Toys, of course, are an integral part of play for children, but more and more research is proving that more is not always better.

Related: Children Need Structure More Than Warmth, Says Child Psychologist

Fewer Toys = Higher Quality Play

As it turns out, too many toys is actually overwhelming for children and can reduce their quality of play. A study that focused on infant behavior and development found that when toddlers had fewer toys to play with at once, they were able to focus more and play more creatively [4].

In this study, toddlers were given free time to play first with sixteen toys, then only four toys. Researchers found that with a smaller number of toys, children spent a longer amount of time with each toy and played with that toy in a greater variety of ways [4].

Less Toys = Better at Socializing

With the knowledge that fewer toys lead to higher-quality play, researchers in Germany wanted to find out what would happen if children had no toys to play with at all.

The project was called “Der Spielzeugfreie Kindergarten,” or, The Toy-Free Nursery. For three months, toys were taken away from a nursery in Munich [5]. It was founded by two public health officers who worked with adults suffering from various addictions. They wanted to prove that kids didn’t need vast quantities of toys to play happily.

The project found that without toys, the children invented their own games and decided for themselves what they were going to do, and in the process became more social and creative.

“They loved acting and putting on a show, or pretending to be in a circus or on a train, but most importantly, all the time they were playing, they were learning to socialize,” said nursery teacher Gisela Marti [5].

Marti also noted that children’s concentration skills improved significantly.

“Before the pens and paper were taken away from them, the children used to do one little squiggle on a piece of paper and then throw it away,” she says. “But when paper was given back to them they drew or painted all over it until there was not a patch of white paper left.” [5]

Related: Simple Toys May Be The Best Kind For Your Child’s Development

Fewer Toys can Lead to Healthier Parent-Child Relationships and Better Grades in School

A study conducted at Oxford University found that children who had fewer toys and no electronics and instead spent more time interacting with their parents did better in school and had greater social and emotional skills [6].

This proves that a child’s academic success is more reliant on their home environment and the amount of time they spend with their parents than on the toys they are given [6].
Spending more time with your child develops a healthier parent-child relationship and makes them want to cooperate with you. This benefit will continue as he or she gets older, and will make those teenage years go much more smoothly [7].

Instead of Toys, Give your Child Experiences

Research has shown that happiness is derived from experience, not things [8]. Experiences foster greater levels of gratitude than material possessions, and this goes for your kids, too.

“One reason for this increased gratitude,” said psychology graduate student Jesse Walker, “may be because experiences trigger fewer social comparisons than material possessions. Consequently, experiences are more likely to foster a greater appreciation of one’s own circumstances.” [8].

So this Christmas, focus on making memories instead of buying presents. Take your kids skating, bake Christmas cookies, and simply enjoy the time you have with your family. The happiness they will get from these childhood memories will last far longer than the momentary excitement of toys under the tree, and will provide them with countless benefits that will carry on into their adult years.

Read More:
Signs of Anxiety in Children: Emotional, Behavioral, Physical, and How to Help