Take a minute and think back to a few of your favorite childhood memories. What do these memories consist of? A family trip? A sleepover with friends? Playing catch in the backyard with mom or dad? Whatever they are, they probably have a lot more to do with experiences instead of toys or other material objects.
Now a parent yourself, you want your own children to have a happy childhood. If sometimes you feel bad because you can’t afford to buy your kids everything on their wish list, don’t stress. There is some evidence indicating that by giving your children experiences instead of toys you will be helping them become happier and smarter people. (1)
The Science Behind Why You Should Give Your Children Experiences Instead of Toys
From the time we are born, we are bombarded by messages telling us all of the material things we need to be happy. As adults, we are slightly better (though let’s be honest, still not great) at seeing through advertisers’ tricks.
Kids programming on TV floods them with messages that they must have this toy, that toy, and the next big new – that’s right – toy. As parents, we want our children to be happy and buying them all the toys that they “want” seems like the easiest way to get there.
The problem? It doesn’t actually work.
That’s right, research shows that giving your child too many toys, no matter how badly they say they want them, actually ends up making them less happy. (1)
Too Many Toys Makes Kids Less Happy
According to top childhood researchers and psychologists, when children are given too many toys they actually end up playing less. The reason? A large number of toys distract and overwhelm children. They spend more time understanding the toy than they do in free play. (1)
Childhood development specialist and educational psychotherapist Claire Lerner and the University of Cincinnati’s Dr. Michael Malone both separately studied the effects of too many on children. (1, 2) They found that with fewer toys, children:
- Use and develop their imaginations more
- Develop longer attention spans
- Share and interact better with other children and develop stronger social skills
- Learn to take better care of their things
- Are more open to exploring other activities such as music or art
- Develop stronger problem solving skills
- Spend more time exploring and being outdoors
Oxford University professor Kathy Sylva’s research reflects the same findings.
“when children have a large number of toys there seems to be a distraction element, and when children are distracted they do not learn or play well.” she says. (3)
Experiences Instead of Toys Makes Kids Smarter
In her research, Sylva found that equally as important as giving children fewer toys is parents spending time with their kids. Children whose parents played, sang, read, and just in general spent time with them learn better and are happier, regardless of their family’s economic status. (3)
John Radcliffe Hospital pediatric psychologist John Richer says much of this has to do with how much time children spend in imaginative play versus simply discovering the toy. (3)
When a child first gets a new toy, they must spend some time figuring out what that toy does and how you play with it. Once they’re done doing that, they can then start truly playing. Too many toys mean spending too much time in the exploration phase and not as much time in the play phase. (3)
“[Children] get overwhelmed and over-stimulated and cannot concentrate on any one thing long enough to learn from it so they just shut down. Too many toys mean they are not learning to play imaginatively either.” Lerner reported. (1)
The idea that children having too many toys is detrimental to their development and overall happiness is not a new concept.
Back in the 1980s, a group of researchers in Germany experimented with a toy-free kindergarten to see how the children would react. All toys were removed from participating kindergarten classrooms for three months. (4)
Their days were unstructured and allowed children to direct themselves from activity to activity on their own accord. They video recorded the children each day to follow along with how they were coping with the lack of toys. (4)
The first day, they seemed a bit confused by the relatively empty classroom and even somewhat bored. It wasn’t long before their imaginations came alive. By day two they were building forts with chairs and blankets, running around the room laughing, and actively chatting and playing together. (4)
At the end of the three months, their play was even more imaginative than at the start. Even better, they were more engaged in the classroom – their concentration and communication skills soared. (4)
Experiences Give Us So Much More
There’s no question about it: All people, from young children all the way up to the elderly, get more happiness from experiences than from things. Not only that, but experiences of material objects actually makes us feel more thankful for everything we already have. (5)
Researchers decided to put that theory to the test, and as expected, it’s true.
“Our previous research found that consumers derive more enduring happiness from experiences than from material goods, and our new studies show that experiences generate greater feelings of gratitude, with its resulting benefits,” said Cornell University’s Dr. Amit Kumar. (5)
Research co-author Thomas Gilovich says all you have to do is reflect on your own life to see this in action.
“Think about how you feel when you come home from buying something new,” he said. “You might say, ‘This new couch is cool,’ but you’re less likely to say, ‘I’m so grateful for that set of shelves.’ But when you come home from a vacation, you are likely to say, ‘I feel so blessed I got to go.’ People say positive things about the stuff they bought, but they don’t usually express gratitude for it – or they don’t express it as often as they do for their experiences.” (5)
Experiences, they say, connect us with others. They are less focused on social comparison and what we have versus what someone else has. (5)
They also found that when you give someone the gift of an experience, they feel so much gratitude towards you that they end up being quite generous in return. This could be in the form of a material gift, but also another shared experience or helping you with some important project. (5)
Some of you may be thinking: Sure, I’d love to give my child experiences instead of toys as gifts, but the latest Barbie doll or video game is a whole lot less expensive than a family vacation to the Caribbean.
All of those more expensive experiences are incredible, there are plenty of other experiences you can give your kids while spending little to no money.
Try things such as:
- Ice skating
- A beach day
- Bike rides
- Family game night
- Playing sports or outdoor games together
- Baking and cooking together
- Blasting music and singing and dancing together
- Art projects
Really, your imagination is your only limit. Not only will your kids have fun, but you will, too, and these activities will bring you closer together as a family.
If you give your kids experiences instead of toys and things, without even really trying you will raise more grateful, smarter, generous, and overall happy children.
- “Do your kids have too many toys?” MSU. Shannon Lindquist. November 20, 2017.
- “Patterns of Home‐ and Classroom‐based Toy Play of Preschoolers With and Without Intellectual Disabilities.” Research Gate. D. Michael Malone. November 2009.
- “The Fewer Toys Children Have, The More They Play.” Raised Good.
- “Toy-free Kindergarten.” AJ. Elke Schubert, Rainer Strick.
- “Study: Gratitude for experiences brings surprising benefits.” Cornell University. Linda B. Glaser. November 14, 2016.