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The happiest kids this Christmas

As we enter November, many of you (more organised people than us) might be starting to think of Christmas and carefully selecting what will be the perfect presents for your kids, anticipating their heart’s desires—and yours.

Christmas morning arrives and the weeks of anticipation are finally fulfilled amidst a flurry of ribbons, paper and excitement. There are squeals and smiles and sometimes tears. And all seems well – for a while.

But the novelty wears off the shiny (and expensive) gifts, and soon many are forgotten and turn out to be not as fun or engaging as advertised. Our kids wind up bored… in a house full of toys!

We can feel a little emptier in the aftermath, and we wonder, was it worth it?

One measure of happy kids on Christmas morning is a fully loaded Christmas tree. But there’s a lot of evidence that suggests that giving your child lots of toys has the opposite desired effect—kids are less happy.

Read on here to see what research says is the best gift of all:

Kids need lots of quality play to develop fully

Research says that through play, children learn to interpret the world around them, enhancing the development of their cognitive, emotional, social, and physical skills, and their subsequent health and well-being along the way. Additionally, play-based learning prepares children for academic readiness and success, so it is important to optimise the environment in which children play (Schaaf & Burke).

In a recent study at the University of Toledo, Ohio, researchers hypothesised that “an abundance of toys reduced the quality of toddlers’ play, and that fewer toys will actually benefit children in the long-term.”

In the study, 36 toddlers played for half an hour with either four or 16 toys. Toddlers playing with 16 toys spent less time playing with each toy, moving from toy to toy more frequently.

When given only four toys to play with, the toddlers “played with each for twice as long, thinking up more uses for each toy and lengthening and expanding their games, allowing for better focus to explore and play more creatively—qualities that benefit children in the long term.”

Not only can too many toys be distracting, they’re a poor substitute for spending time with your kids

Kathy Sylva, a professor of educational psychology at Oxford University, studied 3,000 children from the ages of three to five and concluded that, “There is a complex relationship between children’s progress, the type of toys they are given and the time parents spend on them.”

Sylva’s research, was inspired by concerns that childhood is being permanently altered by parents substituting toys and screens for spending time with their children. She’s found that those children with fewer toys, whose parents spend more time interacting with them, surpass kids with greater means for laptops. etc., in several areas of emotional and social development. The implication is that a parent’s direct engagement seems to beat any toy or screen.

Benefits to having fewer toys:

  • Kids spend more time reading, writing, and creating art –  Fewer toys gives kids the space to love books and generally discover and develop their talents.
  • Kids have better social skills –  Kids learn to develop their relationships, and studies have linked childhood friendships to greater academic and social success during adulthood.
  • Kids learn to take better care of things – When kids have too many toys, they tend to take care of and value them less since there is always another in the toy bin.
  • Kids argue with each other less –  A new toy in a relationship is another reason to establish territory between kids. But kids with fewer toys are compelled to share more, collaborate, and cooperate.
  • Kids go outside more –  Kids with fewer toys look to the outdoors for entertainment and learn to appreciate nature, so are more likely to exercise, resulting in healthier and happier bodies.
  • Kids learn to persevere – Kids with too many toys give up too quickly on a toy that challenges them, replacing it instead with another, easier one. In the process, they lose the opportunity to learn patience and determination.
  • Kids become less selfish –  Kids who get everything they want believe they can have everything they want, setting the tone for developing a more unhappy and unhealthy lifestyle.
  • Kids become more resourceful –  With only the materials at hand, kids learn to solve problems—a skill with unlimited potential.

Children throughout history and across cultures have had a great time playing with whatever materials were available to them—and the fewer the materials, the more creative kids have to be.

According to the Toy Hall of Fame, the best toy of all-time is… the stick, followed by the box, then string, cardboard tubes and dirt.

What can you do instead?

Give experiences, not toys. Researchers from Cornell University found that, “People are more grateful, and even more generous, when they enjoy experiences rather than material gifts.” Psychology Professor Thomas Gilovich conducted several studies on the subject over decades and came to the conclusion that, “Happiness is derived from experiences, not things.”

It’s not too early nor too late to decide what Christmas will look like for your family.

The thrill of a new toy doesn’t last, but the joy of experiences can last a lifetime. Fewer, better gifts is better giving—but time is the best gift of all, and best given to those who mean the most to us.

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