Tuesday, April 21, 2015

too many toys, not enough play

I look around my house and this is what I see...


Lots of them. 

Our entire front room has become a toy room. A bounce house is holding our basement hostage. All winter long, two swings hung in our laundry room. They recently made their way out to the treehouse which takes up a great deal of our backyard. We got rid of half of the seating in our home to make more room for toys. We even made a trip to the IKEA madhouse specifically in search of ways to organize the miscellaneous playthings. 

We have a lot of toys. And yet, I suspect that our toy pile falls within normal (American) range. In fact, I often wonder if perhaps our collection of Duplos and doctor kits and dollhouses and STUFFED ANIMALS amounts to less than what the average American family has stashed in their home today. Who knows. I could be wrong.

All I know is this. In our house, there are too many toys. 

Too many toys and not enough play.

Play and toys. You'd think the words would go together, right? Well, they really don't. I mean, at least they don't in my mind. When I close my eyes and think of the word "toys," I picture stuff. Plastic stuff. Noisy stuff. Annoying stuff. I feel myself getting a bit anxious and just wanting to engage those endless small things in an organizational throw down, finally defeating them by binning, boxing and labeling them within an inch of their lives.

But when I close my eyes and picture the word play, my whole body relaxes. I picture running and jumping and laughing and pretending to be...well, anything. I like play better than I like toys.

And yet...

Playing with my children is hard for me. 

There, I said it. I struggle to play with my kids sometimes...okay, most of the time. 


Because I don't have time. Or, more accurately, I prioritize other things above play. And I'm not talking about soap operas or spa days or shoe shopping. I'm talking about changing diapers that smell like porta-potties, making food that's doesn't come out of a squeeze pouch and spending a cumulative forty-five minutes per day locking and unlocking cabinets, toilets and stairways. 

If we are going to have a reasonably clean house, eat semi-homecooked meals a couple times per week and stay alive, we are going to have very little time to play. 

The second reason I struggle to play with my kids is related to the first. Multitasking is killing our play. 

Killing. It. 

I try to trick my kids all the time. 

"Yeah, I'm totally playing with you...so interested in what we're playing right now...absolutely playing my heart out..." All the while, my eyes are scanning the room for the next thing I can transfer from the wrong bin to the right bin, licking my thumb and pressing it to the floor to pick up random crumbs, and attempting to fold some laundry. That stuff worked when Harriet was zero. But she's a bright girl and it takes her about a millisecond to figure out whether I'm actually playing pretend with her or just pretending to pretend.

Here's another reason I have a hard time playing with my kids. It's boring. (Insert even more guilt here.) I'm sorry. It just really is. Pretending to be "baby" or "puppy" or "patiently" (Harriet's word for patient when we play doctor) is fun for a while, but when you've been doing it multiple times per day for a couple of years, it gets a bit old. And the toys are super fun for a while but you can only make the cash register play that song so many times before it becomes the soundtrack to your dreams. 

The last reason? Play can be frustrating. The boys are now old enough that they want to play with everything that Harriet is using...and by "play with," I mean destroy. They are like a team of mini bulldozers, which makes her all the more sensitive and on guard...and shrill. No patch of floor is safe, so she usually ends up playing on the table or somewhere else high up, and even then, they're clamoring for her and screaming at her. My heart goes out to the poor girl. And it's not just her...they do it to each other too...always wanting to play with whatever their brother has and already hitting, pinching and biting to get what they want. So, playtime can be a bit crazy...and scream-y.  

I'm great at reading to my kids. I'm great at cooking with my kids. I'm great at making messes in the bathtub or in the sandbox. But most other forms of play? Not my strong suit. 

I've tried to come up with ways to fix this problem. I've packed away half of our toys (just like all the parenting blogs say you should do) so that, in theory, when I bring them out again, they'll seem brand new. Here's the problem. I pack them away and forget about them. Or I have no idea what I put in the box. Or I use a clear box. And then Harriet sees it and desperately wants to play with every single toy in that box. Or I don't think it through and pack away the most age appropriate items and then when I take them out again, she's grown out of them. So...this has not been effective.

I love the idea of toy sharing with another family. At the risk of sounding snobby, here's the problem with that. I'm worried that other kids won't treat our stuff nicely. I fear I'd be bummed out and even a little bitter if I lent Harriet's handmade dollhouse to another family and it came back with crayon marks on it. Or if the dress-up clothes came back ripped. Or if the dolls got accidental haircuts. (I'm realizing I'm more attached to this stuff than I originally thought.) And I'd be so nervous that my kids would damage the other family's toys, too! Even more nervous, in fact. Because just last week, Harriet drew all over her wall, her closet and a bunch of her toys. That stuff just happens.

I also really try to avoid plastic toys, electronic toys, noisy toys, etc. I like the wooden stuff, the cloth toys and other items that encourage open-ended play and lots of creativity. But they're more expensive. And the marker doesn't come off those toys like it comes off of the plastic stuff. And honestly, the kids seem to like the crappy, plastic, beeping stuff better...ugh. 

The last solution I've tried - going outside. The problem with that? We live in Minnesota. End of discussion. 

Just kidding, but only sort of. We absolutely adore the outdoors. We spend as much time as we can out there. Biking, going for walks, trips to the park, playing in the driveway and the backyard, excursions to the zoo. Love that stuff. But right now, on April 21st, it's snowing. And the second it stops snowing, millions of mosquitos instantly appear at our door, asking if we want to come out and "play" which is code for getting eaten alive. You simply can't win. 

And despite all of the reasons that play can feel hard and even impossible at times, I know in my heart that I must play with my children.

So much is riding on me playing with my children.

When I play with my kids, I show them that I love them. When I play with my kids, they can learn how strong, creative, interesting, unique, fun, kind, smart, and beautiful they are. When I play with my kids, I can teach them important things about peace and sharing and family and disappointment and hard work. When I play with my kids, I can be Jesus to them. 

Because if Jesus was visiting my humble home in the flesh right now, He'd be down on the ground playing with my kids. He'd be wrestling them and making messes and doing a different voice for each stuffed animal. Because He loves them and He knows that right now, at this stage in life, the best way to show them that love is through play. Whole-hearted, no holds bar play. And my kids would be awesome at being Mary, while I can only pray that I'd have the sense to stop being Martha. At least for a few minutes.  

The other night at my women's accountability group (yep, they snuck into this post too), I brought up the play problem with a bit of embarrassment and lots of honesty. And to my surprise, my confession was met with a great deal of nodding and comments like "me too" and "I feel the same way." So now, a friend of mine checks in with me a couple times per week about whether I'm playing with my kids. Not pretending to play, but really playing. That's how important this stuff is. So important that I needed to call in the troops. And that accountability? It's helping big time. And I'm finding such fresh joy in playing with my kids. Some days more than others. But every day, at least a little bit.

So kids?

Let's go play.


  1. You hit the nail on the head with this one. I turn the tv off and usually replace it with the radio, and try to play with my kids more. But honestly a lot of the time that means me sitting on the couch, watching them go from toy to toy or bring one to me. We'll get up and have a dance party, or then we'll play with puzzles, and sometimes it ends in a tickle war on the floor. I had convinced myself that me just being in the room and the two of them playing with their toys counts as play time. But you're right, it doesn't. I need to engage with them more, but dang those toys do get boring fast! Even something as simple as one of those magnet drawing boards - Chloe will ask me to draw a turtle, I'll spend two minutes on it only to have her wipe it clean in 10 seconds asking me to do it again. Really kid?? haha! I'd like to think that spending any quality time with them is better than nothing, but I do agree that taking it a step further and really playing together is necessary. My kids would be in heaven at your house with all the toys!

  2. This is such a struggle in our house! As usual, you put into eloquent words exactly what I have been thinking. I think it is especially difficult when we are their primary playmates!!

  3. "I'm great at reading to my kids. I'm great at cooking with my kids. I'm great at making messes in the bathtub or in the sandbox. But most other forms of play? Not my strong suit. " <-- Yep, for sure! This is me to a T.

    However, i don't necessarily agree that's a bad thing. Maybe it's just me not wanting to feel poorly about my parenting, but I truly believe that a lot of independent play is a great thing for kids. Sure, I do a lot of puzzles and book reading dance parties and pretending to be Dr. Stella's patient, but she also spends a lot of time making up games on her own, and I'm totally fine not being a part of that. FWIW, her ability and desire to do that has increased by leaps and bounds the more we have cut the standard toys out of our life. I started with the "put one bin away and rotate them out" mentality...but like you realized I just forgot about that bin. I then realized all those toys that I was picking up over and over weren't bringing any of us joy, and I started to just get rid of them. Stella now has an art corner (in a closet! see my post today), they have plenty of books on the shelf in their bedroom, and they have a bin of toys underneath our TV in the living room, and other than a few outdoor toys (basketball hoop, water table, bike, etc) that's it. Literally, that's it. It's so much less stressful for me to clean up after, for Charlie to trip over, and for the kids to go from toy to toy to toy.... it's nice. Sometimes I feel a bit of mommy guilt that my kids have "less" than others... but then I think less of what? They have their imaginations and parents who play along from time to time and they are happy. It works for us at least!

    To be clear - I'm not judging people who have a ton of toys. Just wanted to give my perspective as a parent who has gotten rid of the majority of toys in her house and feels nothing but joy about it. :-)

    1. Oh - the one set of toys I do rotate out are the toy kitchen accessories. There are a ton of different dishes, cooking utensils and food items, so I rotate those out to keep their imaginations fresh and my feet free from a million items to step on. Ha!

  4. I can relate since we don't have children, but I love your honesty and appreciate you speaking the truth!!! PS I love the bounce house ;)

  5. I am just like you. Great at reading. Great at getting outside and doing fun things. Great at long conversations with lots of questions.

    Getting down on the floor and playing? Urgh.

    The hard thing for me is E. is now in a stage where he wants to dictate every.single.aspect of the play, and I find it really hard to balance being the parent who is the loving and safe haven, and who will agree with all of his ideas, and the individual who HATES being bossed around for hours at a time.

    Plus there is always the fear that E., as an only, won't learn how to play with others if I don't stand up for myself and make our games include my ideas too. We spend a lot of time saying, "E., if you just tell people what to do, they won't want to play with you anymore" while he shrieks and weeps because we haven't built the track the way he envisioned it.

    It is a tough line to walk, and I have not found a good balance yet.

    But I love doing puzzles and playing board games. So that's something.

    I've actually started putting a timer on in the kitchen at points to remind myself to just concentrate on him and our play so I don't get distracted/bored. If we have twenty minutes before I have to make supper, I work on making those twenty minutes good play. Quality over quantity.

  6. Oh man, I've been tossing around this same dilemma internally so much lately. See, even as a kid, I didn't really enjoy playing with kids. Even my mom says so. And now, with my own kids? Yeah, still don't enjoy it. The guilt! I'm trying so hard, and I'm doing much better (most days) but it's legitimately hard! Mostly because, ya know, I just want to take a stinkin' nap! Anyways, solidarity sister. I need to make myself accountable to someone on this matter also.

  7. Dont beat yourself up about it. Some parents play others dont. Some prefer to read or teach their kids to cook or ride bikes or work together. Playing with kids with toys strikes me as another thing this generation worries about. Find what you love to do with them, and do that. Its ok. And it might not be now. I didnt play a lot with my child. But plenty of other activities we do together.

  8. Okay, I don't have kids but I do work at a daycare FULL of them and this is something I definitely struggle with. I do play with the kids as much as I can but sometimes, with 10 kids that gets overwhelming and you can only give them all so much of your attention. One of the things we are asked to do at this day care is share the love of Jesus with these kids and I have been so unsure how you can do that with kids as little as these are but that makes so much since. I pray that I can forever remember that description of Jesus playing with your kids because while it is going to be so helpful for me as a day care teacher it is going to be far more helpful when I one day become a mom. Every time I play with kids, whether it be my daycare kids, a friends kids, or my own (one day), I pray that I play with them like Jesus would:)

    Thank you for taking the time to post this and being humble enough to be so honest. I truly believe God honors this type of humility:) May the Lord bless you richly my friend and sister in Christ!

  9. Man you are thinking exactly like me in this post. I love my kids and I love taking them places and exploring new things, I like playdough, coloring, stuff like that. I HATE sitting and playing. I do what you do, think of something to clean, pick up, someone to email, etc. There is always something to do. It's like I need a vacation from my house to play with my kids! Thank you for your words. I think everyday if we just try a little bit, that's all we can do.

  10. My little guy just turned two last week (do I remember correctly that our boys share the same birthday? If so, happy first to the twins!!), and he isn't a huge talker yet, so we haven't gotten into pretend play as much. I'm good with puzzles and books and balls and art, but I have to admit I'm not looking forward to make-believe, even though it was my very favorite kind of play as a child!

  11. Thank you, thank you for your trnansparant sharing. I love your heart! I wish someone had shared all this wisdom when my chidren were small. I am hoding it with great hope -and gratitude - for upcoming grandmothering season. I pray the Lord allows you a glimpse at how your words truly nourish other young mothers, and we oldsters as well.

  12. THANK YOU.
    Thank you for making so many of us feel totally normal and not like total failures! I've been trying to make play time a priority but as soon the daily routine gets messed up, play time heads to the bottom of the list... x

  13. Oh man, we had the same realization about "stuff" during our time away from home this winter. It was so freeing to not have much more than a load of laundry each. We don't live excessively, but I never realized how much time and energy it takes away from other things (like play - however that may be manifested in a person's life) to keep track of & take care of our belongings. We stayed in a tiiiinny flat with a family of 3 in London and the toddler basically had three different toys - a set of legos, a basket of books, and a stuffed crocodile. Seeing that just showed me how deeply cultural our expectations really are. There are pros and cons to every mindset, but I learned a lot from that perspective.

  14. I just discovered your blog and have loved reading through your articles. You are a wonderful writer with great insights.
    I just wanted to say-- I have 11 kids and I completely empathize with this parenting dilemma. We are so busy, it's hard to engage in anything that doesn't seem essential . But I agree with the commenter above. I don't necessarily think it's a negative. I used to feel guilty that I was spread so thin, but I really believe that play time alone fosters a rich inner life and a love for being alone. As with all things, this needs to be in balance, but my children usually came to prefer some time without my interference-- and companionship among siblings is encouraged when I'm not involved. I think children can become so dependent on your presence playing with them, that they fail to realize all the incredible meandering which their own imaginations and minds can achieve when left undirected.
    I do play with them pretty often, but have found that it's easier ( and just as much fun) for me to engage them in household tasks. We turn on the Lone Ranger and run like nuts trying to pick up all our toys before it ends. I let them fold all the dish towels in a load of laundry. I buy pre-mixed cookie dough or brownies in a box( baking from scratch with helpers can be crazy- making!) and we sprinkle colored sugar on batch after batch. I cut up fruit or vegetables for salad and let them " decorate" the greens with red peppers or make berry patterns on top of the melons. In other words, bring them into your world, making work playful. They really learn a lot of basic life skills and heck, they think they're playing. And you get a little something done
    You are a busy mama with that beautiful little bunch. It's amazing that you accomplish all that reading aloud, biking, hiking and that your house is so remarkably clean!!!! Don't feel guilty-- you're doing a great job or you wouldn't have such incredible truths to share. God bless

  15. I have read your blog for years and check for updates regularly. Hoping you're all doing well and that you'll be blogging again soon!

  16. Why do woman today feel so pressured to play with and entertain their children? I feel like it's a newer phenomenon. When I was a child, my mom read me stories, cleaned the house, rocked me when I was sick, and fed me three home-cooked meals a day, but she rarely played with me. It was up to me to entertain myself, and I don't remember feeling neglected. If anything, I became more creative and resourceful as a result. There are plenty of ways to show love to our children. We are mothers, not cruise directors.

  17. I can so relate with this. Playing with your kids can be hard because it takes time and that time you feel you can spend it on something 'better'. Thank you for sharing and being so honest about your feelings, it makes the rest of us feel less guilty.

    P.S: your kids are so cute...

  18. I miss your writing and your updates. Hope all is well!

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  20. I hope you're planning to come back! I miss your blog.

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  22. I keep checking to see if you've come back :( I wish you would. You have a wonderful writing voice and your posts are so inspiring to me as the mama to two little ones.

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