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What is the most common and totally preventable “disease”of contemporary childhood? TOY OVERLOAD! Today’s kids have too many THINGS!

I have nightmares of children drowning in a sea of brightly-colored plastic objects while their parents and grandparents rain even more toys down on them. The poor kids don’t have room to move around let alone find the toy they want. And, worst of all, the the kids keep asking for more toys because they are brainwashed by the clever advertising of the mega-million dollar globalized toy industry.

Play is vital to all young mammals because play equals learning. Species that need to learn a lot, like higher primates and humans, play the most. One of the most important tasks of parenting is to provide an age-appropriate milieu for play.

Play with objects, like toys, is an important kind of play which fills an important developmental need. Play with objects helps children find out what things are and how they are used. Children imitate how adults use objects. Children also use objects to express themselves and to have social interaction with other children.

So every child needs SOME toys. The question is how many and what kind.

I can’t fault parents for wanting to make their children happy on birthdays or Christmas but I urge caution and restraint.

Parents and children are literally bombarded with commercials for what I call “junk toys.” These are usually plastic, breakable, un-fixable, anti-imagination (the child can only do one thing with them), widely-advertised and widely-displayed toys. They often come in a series so children want the whole set.

Children today often feel “entitled” to get whatever they see advertised. Affluent parents may think, why not, we can afford it. Struggling parents may feel sorry for their children because they don’t have year-round advantages so they overbuy at Christmas. Working parents may think–consciously or subconsciously–that toys substitute for time. And all of us parents cave in to the kids’ demands once in a while just because it’s too darn difficult to resist.

Suggestions to help parents prevent and combat toy overload:

* DO NOT BUY TOO MANY TOYS! Resist temptation yourself and help your child realize that those things in life we work, or wait, for are always the best. That which comes easy often loses its appeal.

* Concentrate on “nutritious” toys. These toys are sturdy, can be used over and over again, and can be used in several different ways depending on where the child’s imagination goes that day. Nutritious toys are building toys like blocks and Lego; items that foster creativity like crayons, paint sets, clay, and hand puppets; sports equipment; and objects that imitate what adults use like trucks, dolls, and dishes, toys that teach like puzzles and musical instruments. The best play is constructive and creative. Check out for suggestions.

* Buy developmentally-appropriate toys.

* Consider the child’s skills and talents and what he or she likes to do when buying toys.

* Avoid junk toys.

* Look around the house before you look around the aisles at the big box stores. My daughter’s all time favorite toy was a box the Encyclopedia Britannica came in. First my husband cut holes for the dog leash and pulled Rachel around the house in the carton. Then he cut a door and windows and she used it as a doll house. Last thing I remember was the box being used as a spaceship. Wooden spoons, pots and pans, old thread spools, old clothes and shoes for dress-up not only save you money but also teach your child about recycling from a tender age.

* Your child may need some parental input about how to play with certain toys. We instinctively roll a ball to our child repeatedly until the child learns how to roll it back. Later, kids may need help with new toys especially those that have tough-to-figure-out directions. When play with an object starts to flag, the child may need a lesson in imagination. The boy who no longer plays with his dump truck may love your suggestion to build a garage out of a plastic laundry basket using a cookie sheet for a ramp.

* Help your children avoid toy confusion, as well as become responsible, by teaching them how to put toys away. Show the children how to store small pieces in clear plastic boxes or jars. Help them label containers, first with pictures then words.

* Share the joy! Holidays coming? Give your child the opportunity of GIVING not just receiving. Buy and wrap at least one toy for a child less fortunate than your own–and involve your child in the process while you explain the true meaning of Christmas. Involve older children in decisions about where the family charity dollar should go this year.

* Concentrate on what every child needs and wants from adults: time and attention. These don’t cost money. And you don’t have to shop for or gift wrap them!

* Limit TV. This not only fosters creative play but it decrease exposure to media ads which lowers the incidence of the “gimme’s” at your house.