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With Kids, Less Isn’t More. It’s Everything.

by Meghan Fitzgerald

It’s so easy to overdo it—to say, give or offer way too much to kids. After all, we love our kids with our whole hearts. Our adult brains also seek novelty, are optimized to multi-task, and lose interest in whatever is happening once we “get” it—so it’s easy to overprogram, especially when social media presents non-stop images of what other parents found time to pull off. I’ve seen teachers suffer this, too, looking at one another’s plans or photos and wondering, “Should I add more bells and whistles to my lesson?”

The thing is, kids actually thrive on less, not more, which is great news for us parents. Here’s how we can use that to our advantage right now.

Understand that kids know better.

Kids are not won over with bells and whistles. They suss out the magic in what we say and do, and they are drawn in by our ability to project wonder and create a special world that is theirs and ours together. They also really want to drive their own learning, so they are served best when we set things up for them, then give them space to play. We really don’t need a lot of stuff to do any of that.

If we really want to connect with our kids, let’s take out the clutter. If we want our kids to grow up to be focused, creative thinkers who are self-directed, persistent, resilient and joyful, we have to realize that less is not more; it’s everything. Science screams it, and now, more than ever, our kids need us to live by these truths.

Recognize that our world can overwhelm kids.

Too much stimulation—whether from things or attention—is hard for all kids to take. For some, overstimulation can easily become so overwhelming that it leads them to express a range of challenging behaviors.

The world in which our kids are growing up bombards them with stimulation. From screens to possessions to the focus of adults, the amount of inputs our kids receive now far outpaces any time in history. Today, the U.S. represents 3.1% of the world's children, but 40% of the toy market, and on average, we consume twice as many goods as we did fifty years ago. At the same time, kids’ free play time has been decreasing continuously since 1955.

Remember that simplicity is the key.

We know better, though. Research shows that kids’ play gets longer, more creative and more joyful when there are fewer toys in the play space. When adults interrupt play, the time and quality diminishes, but when adults support kids in a responsive way, play enhances. We know that kids learn to focus best when they have fewer choices and have agency to direct their own focus and shift focus in and out of activities. And, we know that the chance to repeat the very same play task supports the developing brain.

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” —Leonardo DaVinci

I am not nailing this either (you should have seen how many activities I crammed into my daughter’s birthday party last fall). But we have got to commit to making it cool to do less. 

Here’s my first pass at a short list. I hope you’ll join me—and please comment to add more!

Streamline play environments.

Again, kids play more creatively and joyfully when there are fewer toys around. If we have too many toys, we can reduce our collections or put some of them away to limit how many are out. If we don’t have a lot of toys, let’s start to see that as a strength. Look around and ask yourself, “I wonder what my child will find to play within this space?” 

Let open-ended toys make the cut.

If we only stock play spaces with a few toys, let’s choose toys that our kids can play with in limitless ways. We love WIRED Magazine’s list of the five best toys of all time (sticks and dirt top the list!).

“Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumbnail….We are happy in proportion to the things we can do without.” —Henry David Thoreau

Get kids outdoors when you can.

It’s the best possible playspace. When you can’t, bring the outdoors in. Read more about how here

Celebrate repetition.

Adults bore easily, but young children's developing minds thrive on repetition—it literally drives brain development. And yet, so many times we devalue a play opportunity for being “something they’ve done before” (This makes me crazy, to be truthful). When kids get the chance to revisit and repeat play scenarios, they strengthen the neural connections involved with those activities. Watch closely and you’ll also notice that when kids get the chance to try things repeatedly, they iterate, making small adjustments that drive discovery and, you guessed it, creativity!

Don’t fear downtime.

You can actually embrace it! Whatever it is about our kids being idle that repels us, let’s lean into it. What are we really afraid of? If our kids pause in play, let’s not assume they are under-stimulated. Let’s not rush to provide the next point of focus. Our kids truly can make magic of a little time and whatever they have around them. Plus, the chance to find the next object of focus for themselves will teach our kids just that—how to focus.

Trade words for quiet action. When our kids are playing, let’s notice if and when we feel the impulse to talk with them. We may be bursting with an idea, a solution to a challenge they’re facing, or a way to make their play even more exciting. Interrupt, though, and we will likely break their flow. So, in these moments, let’s wait and wonder, “Are they looking at me? Are they actively seeking to engage with me through conversation? Or, are they busy at work playing? If the latter, we can set down nearby and start to play alongside them, without saying a word. Our silent actions will speak volumes!

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