We arrive late to our parenting group, slip in the side door, and hurry to the last two seats in the circle. I set eight-month-old Ezra on the floor. He happily chews on a jar lid, as I nod at a few of the other parents. I imagine my husband or I handed Ezra the lid earlier to keep him from cart wheeling off the counter during a diaper change. We find ourselves looking for anything to divert the little acrobat’s attention lately. The thought process goes something like this – razor, no; scissors, definitely not; penny, too small; jar lid, yes!
The group leader is chatting with the twins’ mom about how adorable they are. She clears her throat. “Oh good, we’re all here. I asked you to bring your baby’s favorite toy to share with the group this week. Let’s go around the circle and do a show and tell.”
I turn to my husband, who gets the group leader’s emails and whisper, “We were supposed to bring a toy?” He shrugs.
Joshua’s mom holds up his “Move and Crawl Electric Activity Ball.” She switches it on and it jumps and lurches across the floor. She rifles through her diaper bag and produces a set of stackable plastic rings and Joshua’s favorite rubber ball. Then she stands, reaches behind her chair, and fetches Joshua’s Activity Center. She uses both hands to tote it to the middle of the circle. Everyone sits watching it, hypnotized by the blinking lights and electronic sounds.
It’s Henry’s parents turn. They produce an artistically-carved maple teething toy and some organic-cotton plush toys.
All eyes turn to Ezra. He pulls the lid from his mouth and grins.
For the record, Ezra has toys, actual toys, not just jar lids. He has a wagon full of blocks, a dozen stuffed animals, trucks, a boy-doll, an oval-shaped cat that rocks back and forth like a bowling pin, a library of board books, and multitude of other contraptions made just for babies. He has fewer toys than a lot of babies, but it seems like they’re all over the place – usually underfoot or resting precariously on the edge of a counter or tabletop. Strangely, though, Ezra seems to favor non-toys – measuring cups, pans, wooden spoons, strainers, and yes, jar lids – to actual toys.
Could it be that most babies just aren’t that interested in toys?
I hear other parents remarking that their infants’ eyes light up when they’re handed a cardboard box, the ads from the morning paper, or a drinking straw. And I have to wonder if Mattel, Hasbro, and Fisher Price are spending big advertising bucks to keep a lid (so to speak) on what Ezra shows us every time he reaches for an empty toilet paper tube over his $40 stuffed lamb or his $20 vibrating zebra?
In parenting, as in most areas of my life, I tend toward minimalism, mostly because I hate to shop. So we didn’t purchase much of what others deem first-year “essentials” – including a crib, a changing table, a diaper bag, jarred-baby food, disposable diapers, diaper wipes, baby formula, or an infant car seat. We also shop the used baby clothing stores, and accept the boxes of hammy-downs that seem to arrive on our doorstep just when we need them. I’ve never felt deprived without all that baby paraphernalia, and Ezra looks cute in whatever we dress him in (even the strange plaid and stripe combos his dad finds in the bottom of his drawers), so I’ve never wished for new designer baby duds.
When it comes to buying more toys, though, my husband and I have had moments of doubt – like when the other babies were clutching their organic Egyptian-cotton dolls and banging away on their Activity Centers, while our baby excitedly waved a jar lid in the air. Or when we went to visit seemingly simple-living friends, and they had an entire room full of train sets and toy cars for their boys. Or when my sister recently visited and exclaimed, “Where are all of his toys?” Sadly my husband and I have even ended up at the toy store on a couple of occasions fearing that Ezra just doesn’t have enough toys.
Toys are a 22 billion dollar industry in the U.S.
It’s probably no wonder that new parents think babies need a lot of them. We’re heavily marketed to as early as the second trimester of pregnancy. And it’s a time when we might be particularly vulnerable to advertising. We desperately want the best for our new babies. And we’re told that toys, educational DVDs, exercausers, flashcards, and interactive activity centers will make them smarter – increase cognitive development, teach motor skills, improve hand-eye coordination, and give them a “head start.” Of course, we, and our friends and family members, rush out to the toy store.
Could fewer actually be better?
There’s good news for those of us whose homes are just moderately being taken over by toys. Brain research indicates that toys are not what make a baby smarter. What’s crucial is interaction with a loving adult in a secure environment. In Einstein Never Used Flash Cards, Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Dr. Roberta Michnick Golinkoff write, “A child’s intellectual awakening takes place during the normal adult-child interactions that occur in everyday, purposeful activities.” And toy-expert Stevanne Auerbach, aka Dr. Toy, advises that, “Parents are the baby’s ‘First Big Toys.’ Talk, laugh, sing, play games, and have lots of fun together.”
Family psychologist John Rosemond says in his book, Making the Terrible Twos Terrific, that even toddlers are more content playing with everyday objects – boxes, spoons, pans, and old clothes – than “injection molded plastic” toys, because those everyday objects inspire more creativity.
In her memoir Let the Baby Drive, Lu Hanessian recounts an episode where she and her husband buy an expensive drum set to replace the one their three-year-old son has fashioned out of boxes, cans, and spoons. He plays with the store-bought set for a couple of days, then it breaks, and he returns to his makeshift set.
So, why are parents laying down big bucks for cheaply-made toys that kids barely even play with? Hanessian muses, “Do we buy to placate? To win attention? To console or reward? To apologize? To buy obedience, compliance, cooperation? To compete or keep up with other parents? To prove our love? Our worth?….”
In search of treasures.
Who knows why we do it, but I’ve decided to stop worrying that we’re depriving Ezra by not stockpiling store-bought toys. Instead I’m going to celebrate his love of ordinary objects by making him a Montessori-style treasure basket. The idea was conceived over thirty years ago by Elinor Goldschmied, and it’s simple.
1. Find a low rigid-sided basket
2. Place 60 to 100 natural and household objects in it. “The objects might range from a pine cone, shell or medium-sized pebble, to a garlic press, bottle brush or leather purse. The greater the variety of texture, taste, smell and weight of objects, the better.”
3. Let your baby explore the basket uninterrupted for thirty minutes a day when he’s happy and alert.
Montessori practitioners believe treasure baskets lead babies to ask, “what is this? and what can I do with it?, thus laying the foundation of understanding the world they live in.” Sounds good to me. Besides, I’d prefer to spend the afternoon scouting the house and yard for treasures than trudging through the mall.