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How fewer toys leads to higher quality play

Children and toys go hand-in-hand, and there’s much to be gained when babies, toddlers and preschoolers play the day away.

Toys are a fun way to develop youngsters’ motor skills, enliven their imagination, encourage social skills, practice problem-solving and foster independence, but it is possible to have too much of a good thing.

Overflowing toy boxes and crammed shelves are overwhelming for children and parents, and there’s a school of thought that fewer, more carefully curated toys can enhance children’s play.

What is the link between fewer toys and better play?

Research has shown that the quality of a child’s play is heavily influenced by:

  • The number of play objects;
  • The type of play objects; and
  • The way in which the environment is constructed.

Having fewer toys on offer benefits a child’s play and development in many ways.

For starters, it reduces the amount of choice available to the child, which has been found to improve their quality of play. They are more likely to concentrate on one item for longer periods and use the play object in a variety of ways. This, in turn, results in more creative and imaginative play, and greatly benefits their cognitive development.

When children are free to play in this way, the long-term benefits include a sense of satisfaction resulting in the internal motivation to repeat and seek further play experiences. Setting up a play space that is ordered, and offers a small variety of toys in low open baskets, also supports autonomy and supports self-management because the child is free to clearly see and self-select their play.

This arrangement is of equal benefit to parents as it reduces mess and clutter, and reduces inevitable tidying up battles. We’ve found that children are more capable of resetting their own environment when it’s simply organised, and that they enjoy putting the right objects back in their designated baskets.

Parents also find that the focus on child-directed play frees them up to do a few of their own activities while their child is not relying on being entertained.

What practical steps can parents take to sort their under fives’ toys and improve the quality of their play?

There are several key ways to declutter toys and make space for quality play. I recommend that parents:

Get rid of multiples/duplicates or too many toys with the same purpose

Toys are essentially the tools that children use to do their ‘work’, so it’s important that they’re provided with different toys for different purposes, rather than duplicates of the same tool.

  • Get rid of toys with missing or broken parts

These toys mean the child’s ‘job’ cannot be completed, which can cause frustration and reduce the opportunity for them to feel that sense of completion and satisfaction.

  • Select real world toys over fantasy/character-based toys

Children’s play these days can be quite heavily impacted by the media or exposure to TV characters, and we find this can limit their leadership in their play. Children are naturally fascinated with the real world, so we suggest real world items over fantasy. Even in imaginative play, children actually desire to mimic adults in order to master and make meaning of real life and their own world.

  • Select passive toys over active toys

Active toys are those that do all the work for the child. They usually sing, dance or move, and although children can be drawn to these, it’s usually because they receive a quick hit of dopamine to their brains which acts as a reward to seek more of the same (e.g. instant gratification).

Meanwhile, passive toys (like sticks, basic household items, paper and crayons) promote the child to be the master and active agent in the play. This sometimes requires more effort from the child, but results in that internal satisfaction that supports their holistic development.

  • Select simple, open-ended objects over complex, multiple concept toys

Many toys these days are crammed full of concepts and sold as educationally beneficial. Young children do not absorb concepts through bombardment. Many concepts can be more readily developed in the child through open-ended objects which allow them to seek what they need at that time. These are items that don’t dictate the play for the child.

Aside from being active or passive, what categories do different toys fit into?

Toys can be sorted into eight categories, depending on the play schema they promote. Play schemas are the urges that children feel to behave in repetitive ways, and parents are encouraged to choose toys and plan activities that support these play impulses:

Happy teacher drawing with children at preschool and talking to a smiling little girl.
  1. Connecting

The Connecting play schema involves children putting things together and pulling them apart. To help meet this urge, parents can provide younger children with blocks, puzzles, construction type sets (e.g. Duplo or train sets), stackers and threading activities.

Craft activities can include gluing things together or making paper chains.
Children will also often use their bodies to link with one another, or with items, when they’re exhibiting this urge.

  1. Enclosing/Containment

The Enclosing/Containment schema sees items being contained within some form of boundary. This is where items are placed inside containers and children explore volume and mass.

To help meet this urge, parents might provide containers and loose parts that children can place inside the container, stacking bowls of different sizes that can be put inside one another, and items like shape sorters or a farm set with fences and animals.

Parents can also place paper and a few crayons in the craft area because children will often exhibit enclosure in their drawings.

Youngsters also enjoy placing themselves inside other things, and this is where big box play and cubbies can come into play.

  1. Enveloping

The Enveloping play schema is very similar to Enclosure, except that the child completely conceals an item, by wrapping things inside various materials. Loose parts toys, play silks, a baby and a blanket or Russian stacking dolls will all provide opportunities to meet this urge in play.

Children can also wrap themselves using blankets. And in the craft area, items such as envelopes are useful.

Portrait of smiling little girl working with plasticine in art and craft class of development school
  1. Orientation

The Orientation play schema involves a child figuring out positions in space, and it frequently involves their own body in space.

Hanging upside down, bending over and looking between their legs, laying on their backs and going down the slide in various ways are all examples of children orientating themselves in the world.

Parents can support this urge by encouraging children to explore in nature and use their gross motor skills doing things like running, bike-riding and climbing on playground equipment.

  1. Positioning

The Positioning schema is the foundation of organisational skills and it is apparent when children line up similar objects in rows or create patterns with objects.

Parents can support this play schema by making similar loose part items available to the child. This could mean providing a basket of soft toys or collecting natural items, like leaves or seed pods.

In the craft area, parents can provide wooden craft sticks and glue to allow opportunities to create patterns or rows.

  1. Rotation

The Rotation schema is all about things that roll or spin. Toys like balls, cars, spinning tops and twirling streamers are items that will meet this urge.

Children will also draw this schema, so it’s useful for parents to provide paper and writing items. Paint marbling can be a fun activity too.

Also, children will often use their bodies to exhibit this schema – twirling, rolling down hills, playing Ring-A-Ring O’ Rosy and requesting ‘Spinny Winnies.’

  1. Transporting

The Transporting schema involves transferring things from one location to another or moving objects from one location to another.

Objects like small buckets, baskets, wheelbarrows, baby prams, play trolleys, loose parts, doll babies and teddy bears can support this play schema.

It’s also a great idea for parents to encourage water and sand play, with various containers being used to pour and transfer from jugs to cups, or from spade to sand mould.

  1. Trajectory

Last but not least, the Trajectory schema involves children throwing objects, including themselves, through space.

To support this urge, parents can provide small, soft balls or beanbags that children can throw into a hoop or at a target. Ball runs satisfy the Trajectory and Rotation schemas. Blowing bubbles outdoors for children to chase, or providing levels that they can jump off, are also excellent ideas.

What else should parents consider when selecting toys for children under five?

I recommend toys that are sustainable for years to come and environmentally conscious. For example, wooden toys are a great way to promote children’s wellbeing and reduce waste.

For undertones, I also recommend a variety of safe, yet varied, material objects, like cloth, rubber and stainless steel, instead of just plastic.

I suggest passive toys that don’t do the play for the child, and over 12 months of age, I recommend toys that meet the natural cognitive urges all children have. It’s helpful to balance toys between the eight play schemas, and for preschoolers, I find craft and nature play is best!

Aside from organising their toys, what other advice do you give parents who are trying to improve the quality of their child’s play?

The environment, and the adult in the environment, mean everything to the child.

Once parents have sorted their child’s toys, I encourage them to set up an uncluttered play space with natural light, child-sized furniture, low open baskets for self-selection, and no more than about eight baskets on offer at one time (i.e. one basket to meet each play schema).

Parents should take on the role of an observer, rather than an entertainer, if they want to promote intrinsically motivated, satisfied and independent play.

Play can get lost in the busy daily routine, so it’s important to set aside time for independent play. To do this, I suggest building a predictable time of the day for play – usually following a period of adult connection and when the child is well-nourished and rested – to promote independent play.


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