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Taming Toy Overload

Early last December I walked into my 3-year-old's playroom and surveyed the scene. Toys occupied every available space  -- a play kitchen, blocks, art paraphernalia, riding toys, piles of puzzles, stacks of games, baskets of small treasures. With no closet in the room, playthings were piled against walls, overflowing shelves, and stowed in every available nook and cranny.

I panicked. Samantha's stash had been bolstered by November birthday presents, and Christmas was right around the corner. Where would we put all the stuff that was earmarked for her in Santa's pack? I was facing toy overload at crisis proportions, wondering, even if I found a way to wedge it all in, was having so much stuff good for my child?

Experts agree that the too-many-toys syndrome isn't just about the aesthetics of domestic order. It can have negative effects on kids' developing psyches. For toddlers and preschoolers, an overload of playthings can be overwhelming and distracting. "They pick up one toy, drop it, and move on. They can't focus on using any of their things to the fullest," says Margaret Sheridan, Ph.D., chair of the human development department at Connecticut College, in New London. Toy overload can lead kids age 6 and older to think that everything is replaceable and nothing is valuable. They don't learn to appreciate their possessions or feel a responsibility to care for them, adds Shelley Lindauer, Ph.D., director of the Adele & Dale Young Child Development Laboratory at Utah State University, in Logan.

Fortunately, even if the critical mass seems very critical, there are simple steps you can take to both trim it down and prevent your child from winding up overstimulated or under-appreciative of what she has.

Katy Koontz, who lives in Tennessee, writes a column for Vacations magazine.

How Toy Buildup Happens

Overload can creep up on a family for various reasons: buying too much for birthdays and holidays, giving too many spontaneous no-special-reason presents, always rewarding good behavior with toys, not clearing out what your child has outgrown or doesn't use, and buying the wrong playthings in the first place (either because they appeal to you more than to your kids or because the must-haves of the moment quickly lose their luster).

Thrifty shoppers can be particularly susceptible to stockpiling. "When my children were younger, I'd buy too many marvelous toys at garage sales for irresistibly great prices," says Marilyn Thomsen, of Colton, CA, mother of Stephen, 13, and Julianne, 10. "I realized that a major part of managing the toy problem was managing myself."

Coping With Plaything Pollution

To control the overload, try these parent-tested tactics:

Limit the number of gifts you dole out. "Whether it's for a birthday or special occasion, make your list  -- and then take a quarter of the things off," Lindauer suggests. "Remember that, at least for babies and toddlers, the paper and boxes might be more interesting than what's inside." Then after the shopping's done, pare the present load further by putting aside a few items to brighten the day for a child home sick or to keep her entertained on a long trip.

Keep gift giving focused on your child's truest heart's desires. Barbara Polland, Ph.D., a parent and child therapist at California State University, Northridge, suggests this system for kids over 3: "Write what toys a child says he simply must have on index cards, one to a card, or paste a picture of each toy on a card. Then have him sort the cards in order of importance. It validates his wants, because you're acknowledging them, but only on index cards." After a few weeks, he may eliminate some cards, she adds  -- a clue to which toys have staying power.

Save giving for holidays and birthdays. From the time they were 8, Thomsen's kids knew they had to save their own money for other toy purchases  -- and that these must be made prudently. "Usually, we won't let the kids buy something the first time they see it at the store. They have to go home and think about it," she says. "If the desire stands the test of time, they can spend their allowance on it."

But if lots of family members are also showering your child with gifts on birthdays and holidays, consider giving fewer presents yourself on these occasions in favor of more spontaneous just-because gifts during the year. "Surprise gifts are fine," Lindauer says, "as long as they're not too frequent."

Test-drive toys. If a much-desired item is a video or video game, consider renting instead of purchasing so your child can make sure it's something he wants to live with. Some community libraries have toy sections where you "check out" bags of Legos and board games as well.

Give gifts kids can build on. Contribute to a hobby or add to a collection of baseball cards, stamps, blank books for budding writers, or art supplies  -- like Play-Doh, crayons, or drawing paper  -- that run out quickly.

"One of the best things we ever bought for our daughter was a dollhouse when she was three," Lindauer says of Bergen, now 8. "She always wants something to go with it, like furniture."

Transcend the physical. Allison Clark, of Highland Park, IL, encourages relatives to give her sons, Cary, 14, and Kevin, 10, and her daughter, Nicole, 6, "a day or weekend doing something fun rather than toys." Activities can include going to the zoo or the aquarium, attending a children's theater performance, seeing a much anticipated movie on opening day, or taking a steam train excursion ride.

Rotate toys. Put a certain number of playthings away in a seldom-used closet, the attic, the basement, or the garage. When your kids get bored, bring those toys out and put others away in their place.

This approach has the added benefit of giving the toys more meaning. Veteran toy rotator Judy Lederman, of Irvington, NY, the mother of 14-year-old Jason, 8-year-old Eric, and 6-year-old Cassandra, says, "To the children, the toys are as good as new. And there's less clutter."

Ship toys to grandma's. Some overflow can be shifted to the homes of grandparents or other frequently visited relatives. Not only does this make the toys seem special, it eliminates the need to pack tons of stuff when you visit.

Create a "maybe" box. Lindauer has her children put toys they're on the fence about in a specific box. "If I ask my kids to decide if they can give something away, they'll want to keep it. But if it stays in the maybe box for a while and they don't miss it, they're more willing to give it up."

Cash in. One way to encourage relinquishing old toys is to sell them. "I share the profits with my children so they feel it's worth their while to get rid of stuff," Thomsen says.

Lederman's children decide on which toys to sell at garage sales and help price them. "I put all the money in a kitty that gets spent on agreed-upon vacation souvenirs or other family goodies, like an ice cream cake," she says.

Donate, donate, donate. Toys that aren't played with for a long time are good candidates for the giveaway pile  -- whether their destination is the Salvation Army, the church nursery, or a younger sibling's toy box. "It's never too soon to start teaching children about charity," says Lindauer.

This can be hard for kids under 3, however. To make things easier for a reluctant donor, establish a precedent for philanthropy. "If the whole family gets into spring cleaning every year," says Sheridan, "then donating things you don't use to someone who needs them is part of the family routine." Or try the approach of Weston, FL, mom Sherri Pfefer, who has two sons, Mark, 10, and Eric, 7: "For every new toy they get, they have to agree to give up an old one." Even if you don't adopt a one-toy-in, one-toy-out rule, explaining that giving away old playthings makes room for new ones coming in can be just the motivation some children need to fill up a box or two.

If that doesn't work, consider this strategy of one mother who insists on remaining anonymous. "I make midnight strikes," she says. "If a toy hasn't been played with in two years, it's gone. My kids never notice, and it works better than telling them they have to pick things to give away."

I decided to test a few of these tactics myself. I cleared out some toys while Samantha wasn't around, managing to fill the trunk of my car with stuff destined for both Goodwill and a consignment shop.

Then I asked Sam to pick out other items she was willing to give away, explaining that they would go to kids who didn't have many toys, and that by clearing some old things away she'd have more room for new ones. "Okay, Mommy! I'll do it now!" she trilled. Pleased by her enthusiasm, I turned my attention to making dinner. A few minutes later, she proudly called for me to come and see what she'd set aside: three small toys she'd gotten with fast-food kiddy meals. Well, I thought, sighing, it's certainly a start.

When Birthdays and Holidays Clash

Children born in the thick of the Christmas or Hanukkah season often end up with more toys than they can handle. Some solutions:

Celebrate half-birthdays
Have cake and ice cream with the family on your child's actual birthday, but save the party and most of the presents for six months later. Make it clear to those invited that the event is in lieu of (not in addition to) a traditionally timed bash. If people really want to give gifts at both occasions, suggest they give two smaller ones and divide them between celebrations.

Take it on the road
Plan a family trip or special activity for the birthday honoree. He will be more likely to have wonderful memories of such an event than of toys. If you go somewhere overnight, let your child choose most of the activities at the destination. For a day trip, provide several options and let him make the final decision.

Double the pleasure
Give one large present for both birthday and a holiday. Or buy a two-part gift and give each piece separately: a toy kitchen for a birthday and pretend food and plastic dishes for Hanukkah, say, or a castle for Christmas and horses, knights, and other miniatures for a birthday.

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