The Minimalist Toybox

My daughter Plumblossom has a tiny toybox—a little fabric bin that holds her small selection of rattles, balls, books, blocks, and other infant playthings. The majority of its contents are gifts from friends and family; lucky for her, as her minimalist mother is not particularly adept at choosing or acquiring such items. :)

In fact, while browsing Amazon and other retail sites, I’ve found many more toys I don’t want to buy than those I actually do. Here’s what I plan to avoid:

Battery-operated toys. I think toys that have flashing lights, electronic sounds, or too many bells and whistles are overwhelming for a baby. Furthermore, I want play to be about imagination, not pushing buttons.

Branded toys. No items with Disney or other mass-marketed characters will enter our home until my daughter specifically requests them (and even then, I’d like to limit them).

“Little grown-up” toys. Plumblossom will have to live without a play cellphone, laptop, or cash register for the time being. I know many people think it’s cute, but I’m not too keen on these little plastic versions of adult items. I want my daughter to enjoy being a child, before the pressures of consumption and connection encroach on her life.

Trendy toys. This won’t be hard, as without a TV, neither Plumblossom nor I have any idea “what’s hot” in children’s toys; fortunately, I don’t think I’ll have to worry about this for quite a few years.

Plastic toys. Oh, how I’d love to avoid plastic toys or anything made in China! She currently has a few, but as she gets older, I intend to replace them with European or American-made wooden toys (most of which are geared towards older babies).

So far, Plumblossom has a take-it-or-leave-it attitude towards her toys. She likes to turn the pages of her books, and now that she can sit on her own, play with her blocks and stacking rings. But to be honest, she finds household objects (bags, boxes, mixing bowls, measuring cups) and natural objects (flowers, leaves, sticks, stones) infinitely more interesting than what’s manufactured for her age group.

I also think she’s a minimalist-in-the-making: she’d much rather go for a walk, crawl around the house, or splash in the tub than sit with her playthings. And like her mom, she loves a clear surface; if I put a few toys on a table, she’ll sweep them off (and onto the floor) in record time.

Furthermore, I’ve noticed that if multiple toys are within her reach, she becomes easily distracted and distraught. She’ll pick up one for a few seconds, then go to another, then go to another—none seem to satisfy her for very long. If I give her only one toy at a time, she’s more focused, and plays more quietly and contentedly. It’s fascinating to see this reaction to “too much stuff” at such an early age, and makes me ever more determined to keep her play environment simple and uncluttered.

So what’s your opinion: am I short-changing my daughter by limiting her toy collection? What are the few must-haves for a minimalist under 1 (any favorites from your own childhood)?

{If you’d like to learn more about minimalist living, please consider reading my book, The Joy of Less, A Minimalist Living Guide, or subscribing to my RSS feed.}

172 comments to The Minimalist Toybox

  • Bethany

    My daughter is three and for some reason her favorite toys are rocks. Yes I said it. R-O-C-K-S. Rocks. She pretends they are all sorts of things from babies to turtles to corn. Now that we’re in the holiday season she like the tiny (real) pumpkins and she does the same thing with them. It’s very cute. Plumblossom will be very imaginative.

  • Elora

    I think this is very smart. My son is 21 months old and all his toys are wooden except one. He loves all his wooden toys much more then any plastic noisy toy he’s seen. His favorite toy of all though is a little wooden push cart we bought before his first birthday to help him walk, he still plays with it daily.

  • Scottie

    I am 66, which means I was a child in the 40s and 50s. We didnt have much money and my dad was in the navy so we moved often. The toys I remember are books, art supplies, a Ginny doll (about 7 inches tall and looked like a real 10 year old girl) with clothing, a Tiny Tears (realistic baby doll that drank and peed), a one-speed bike I named “Trusty”, lots of pets including painted turtles which I don’t think are sold anymore because of the fear of salmonella, a very simple electric model train (more for my dad I think), board games like Monopoly, and a metal dollhouse with tiny people and furniture.

    My twin brother and sister were born in 1959. My sis had a talking doll.

    My kids were born from 1975-1983 and we were not minimalist. We wanted to give them more than we had so they got lots of all kinds of toys including the themed dolls and action figures of the season. Still my daughter’s favorites were stuffed animals and my sons loved Hot Wheels, Legos, and wooden blocks. And books and bikes of course. And eventually a computer which they used creatively to write music and learn programming.

    Given a second chance, I would definitely go minimalist. And I’d practice the rule a friend had for her kids:

    Toy in, toy out. (If you really want something, what are you willing to give up to get it?)

  • Hello,

    My two boys who are now 12 and 14 enjoyed many small non fancy toys over the years. Some of their most favorite toys were believe it or not were “lids” from (butter dishes, peanut butter jars, jelly jars, etc) and we would give them a butter tub / small container with a lid that our little ones could easily open and put all the lids inside. They loved opening, closing, lids in & out and mostly chewing on the lids. Note lids need to be larger than a toliet paper roll (prevent chocking). A hand full of “tiny” beanie babie / stuff animals with out plastic eyes that were small (able to fit in the palm of an adult). The number one favorite “toy” of my smallest was a cloth diaper we would use them as a burp rags when he was really small, but eventually as he got older 2 – 3 he would carry one everywhere it was his “rabbit”, “puppy”, nap buddy, etc, only hard part was getting him to trade a dirty one for a clean one every now and then.

  • This is a great primer! We have two kids. Relatives with disposable income, a corporate lawyer and a corporate real estate broker, love to give us plastic crap with logos. I’m sending them your link with a gentle note. Thank you!

  • Tiffany Richard

    I read about having two bins of toys for little ones and then switching them out. This prevents the child from getting bored of their toys and then they require less of them! I tried it with my daughter as a baby and it worked! I actually used grocery sacks which I hung on hangers up high in the closet. I would switch her toys every 4 or 5 days and I would rearrange the toys in the bags every so often. I used one simple, shiny metal mixing bowl to hold the toys she was currently playing with and she loved it! She loved the shiny bowl as if it were another toy and she even liked to put her toys away.

  • sarah

    my toddler luvs to play pretend. it has become one of his favorite things to do, a fabric toy bin has become a car, and a chair a motorcycle complete with his sounds. love watching him play and how things change constantly.

  • Ulrika

    My 2 year old daughter loves playing with things that arent really toys per say. whenever we buy a new package of diapers, that is her moped, which she will sit on and drive around in the house. One single diaper is her bag where she will put things. She loves spoons and old youghurt buckets! She also loves to read and has too many books. Im sure she would be content with 2-4. She like building with blocks/duplo and she has two dolls, although only one of them she really care for. More and more Im starting to think that the less things the more imagination. We are now out traveling and didnt bring much (and what we brought she is not really interested in playing with now that there is so much else that is new for her) and she will now pick up a pretend snowball and throw at us, out of thin air. This is so funny! Anyhow, I dont think you need to worry about wheather Plumblossom misses out if she doesnt have some certain toys. Simply show her how to play without and you will give her so much more!

  • Thank you for the inspiration! Recently I’ve been getting rid of a lot of toys and keeping only those that “build imagination.” I have 2 boys, ages 4 and 1, so we do a lot of actual building. Our very, very favorite toy at the moment is both beautiful and ingenious – a set of hardwood building blocks with magnets embedded inside. It really opens up the building possibilities. My baby loves that he can make elaborate shapes, my 4 year old loves to make big structures as well as pretend instruments and gadgets, and I’m into making arches and other flourishes that you wouldn’t normally make with blocks. They’re called Tegu. They’re expensive, but they have years of play value and will last forever. Our first set was a gift, and our additional sets have been lightly used ones from ebay.

  • jackie

    Dishes with a teapot
    Doll and a stroller

  • carolyn

    Hi, I am pulling my hair out with toys. I started out with your good intentions,but grandparents with good intentions just didnt listen and love to indulge, just like they indulge giving them sweets etc. Consequently I have read your book and am on a quest to clear stuff. I think lego is a good toy but needs good management, ie clear boxed and labels, colour coding etc. It is so easily muddled. Mind you my boy loes to just make his own ideas out out of the mass of lego. I wonder wether my need to clear in some ways stifles him. He mixed all sorts up to come up with something new.

    But yes I hate plastic toys with noises but kids love them, and now on their way out to charity etc, and plastic garden toys push along s etc. My favourite purchase is a wooden wendy house for the garden, which has been a shop and a pet shop etc and a cafe.

    I have donated some stuff to my 3 year old s pre school, I donate old clothes there too and to year R school, when kids need a change at school these are welcomed.

    My kitchen is decluttered that is my start on my spring clean, thank you for inspiration, will I become obsessive I wonder, probably not but am keen oh and your front cover of your book I particularly found interesting as a florist, and have since started using jam jars etc to re use with ribbon etc

  • Mark

    I just found your blog and books. I love the idea of a minimalistic and focused life. I’ve lived that way for many years and really want to bring my daughter up the same way. I, too, bought her fewer toys and only those that encouraged imagination and were simply made. We read a lot of books together and spend a lot of time outside involved in physical play and exploration of nature.

    I just need a way to get my wife onboard. She is really the opposite of me in virtually every way in this area.

  • I am the wife of one, mother of 4 under age 10 and living in a smallish flat in China. Our kids share a bedroom with a triple bunkbed and one more bed. They have slept in one room since we started having kids and all of them declined the option of moving to the “guest room”. I’m interested in your thoughts on digital vs. “real” books for children. I remember reading a study a few years ago showing that families with more than 500 books in their home have children with higher scholastic aptitude than those with fewer than 500. Not sure how that number was discovered… We are transitioning to ebooks overall, but the younger set still needs that hand-eye coordination, page turning, pointing, and non-screen time for optimal learning. I think somewhere between 8-10, when reading is firmly established, book decluttering may become possible. My older two love the Kindle.

  • Tracey Kesler

    As a home childcare provider, I HAD all kinds of toys that I have collected over the years and still the children were bored if I was not directing an activity. I removed everything except for some blocks, a few cars, a few dolls and dishes for the kitchen play area (I took away all the play foods and other props)leaving them with the bare minimum. Guess what happened. They started using their IMAGINATION! I now do not have to entertain them for 12 hours a day. Yeah! I opened up the space, cleared counters. And even I feel great about being in the room. Stuff is so overrated! As for books, I removed several hundred books and left about 30. I use the library to bring in new books on a regular bases then I send them back. They see and read more books this way instead of going for the same books over and over dispite the selection I once had.

  • […] shares of her readers. And oh how many times I went back to her blog to read her article about a minimal toybox and how we need to declutter our fantasy […]

  • MimiR

    My “must-have” items depended on the kid.

    First one, it was a broken keyboard with the wire cut, footsie rattles, and a swing.

    Second was a bouncy chair and a broken cellphone and blocks–other than that, she played with her big brother’s things. She liked baby dolls, too.

    Third is blocks and Duplos and a huge and horribly noisy plastic activity set, plus a baby “gym” mat. He also liked stuffed animals.

    For all of them, BOOKS! Also, a walker would buy me 10-30 min of peace a day until they were good at walking.

    None of them likes rattles of any sort.

  • MimiR

    I forgot! One of the BEST things is pots and pans from the kitchen in the bathtub. Fill the biggest pot up with water, and watch the kid go to town. On the days when you want to die, this us usually good for 10-45 minutes of quiet while you sit next to the tub and your little one goes crazy. This is a fave activity of kids from first-sitting-steadily to about 18 months old. Do it only once every couple of weeks to get the max benefit. :)

    For older kids (about 14 months plus), the play kitchen and all the associated food has definitely gotten the most mileage, along with Legos.

  • Meagan

    My sister and I had a ridiculous amount of toys but our favorites were wooden blocks and plastic horses made for barbies I think. We also loved Hotwheels and tiny plastic animals.

  • Tina

    My kids liked puzzles and toy cars. They all read by 4 so they amused themselves by reading, too.

  • anon

    Like this list. But, instead of what to avoid, do you have a list of “must have” toys for each developmental age?

    I’m great at avoiding things on this list. BUt… your house can still get overrun with wooden educational toys if you aren’t careful. What are the top toys for each age? How many is appropriate? I do believe LESS IS MORE. Just want some more guidance on how “less” can it be.

  • Karenanne

    You should check out the Montessori method of raising children, very minimalist. A book by Susan Stephenson on birth to 3 yrs old and one for older kids is very eye-opening. You can get them from Barnes and Noble or from Michael Olaf website. Montessori philosophy fits in with minimalist philosophy in amazing ways. Wish I had discovered both 20 yrs ago.

  • Ashley M

    Hello, I think it would be helpful if you made toy recommendations and explain why they are beneficial for a child’s development. Avoiding plastic, etc are more personal opinion.

  • BJ

    As children we had bikes, barbie dolls, lego, a trampolineand books. That’s it. Our tv didn’t have any signal so we only had movies on VHS. We always bugged Mum for the newest toy our friends had but she never bought them. All the barbies were given to us. My memories from child hood are mostly exploring outside and reading. It was amazing.

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