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 parents, caregivers and teachers love our kids with our whole hearts. And, we have adult brains that seek novelty, are optimized to multi-task, and that lose interest in whatever is happening once we “get” it.

Worse yet, we often feed off each other’s overdoing. We may see other parents who make or provide more stuff for their kids and wonder, “Am I doing enough?” I sometimes feel crushed under the combination of my desire to give my kids everything and what feels like a non-stop flow of images of what other moms found time to pull off. Teachers suffer, too—they look at one another’s plans or photos and ask, “Wow, they gave the kids so many choices. I wonder if I should add more bells or whistles to my lesson?”

Kids are not won over with more bells and whistles. They suss out the magic in our non verbals and are drawn in by our ability to project wonder and create a special world that is theirs and ours together. We really don’t need stuff to do 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 in history, our kids need us to wake up, realize, and live by these truths.

The world in which our kids are growing up bombards them with stimulation. Whether it be screens, things, or the focus of adults, the amount of inputs our kids receive 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.

In addition to the clutter epidemic, the adult world seems to have grown terribly afraid of what might happen if kids cease to appear occupied. Or, perhaps, we feel a great responsibility to make sure that their every minute is chock full of stimulation. We rush right in to provide the next stimulating experience, and settings that provide loose structure and put kids in the driver’s seat can make us nervous.

Too much stimulation—be it things or attention—challenges all kids. For some, overstimulation becomes overwhelming and presents as a range of challenging behaviors.

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” —Leonardo DaVinci

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.

And yet, on we go. Seeking novelty. Asking of every experience to give them something new, shiny and distracting. I say this with equal parts compassion for us all and urgency that we figure out a way to stop.

My teacher and parent friends, I am not nailing this either (you should have seen how many activities I crammed into my daughter’s birthday party). But we have got to commit to change, and we have got to stick together. We’ve got to make it cool to do less—to do the things that actually support our kids at becoming self directed, capable and curious learners. Here’s my first pass at a short list for 2019. 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. If we participate in a play class or group, look around and ask yourself, “I wonder what my child will find to play within this space?” not “How many different things is the facilitator providing to my child?”

Let open-ended toys make the cut. If we should only stock play spaces with a few toys, let’s choose toys that our kids can play within limitless ways. We are rather partial to WIRED Magazine’s list of the five best toys of all time (sticks and dirt make the cut!), but there are many great lists of open ended toys that promote building, imagination and rich play.

Get kids outdoors every single day. It’s the best possible playspace. Ever.

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—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 a given play activity, let’s not assume they are under stimulated. Let’s hold back and not rush to provide the next point of focus. We can wait. 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, once again, 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!

“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