Years ago, long before I found myself in the position of having to select toys for the retail market I learned two invaluable lessons about them from my children. The first lesson arrived one Christmas morning. Greg, my then five year old, had finally unwrapped the last of the seeming-less endless profusion of toys which hours before had bulged and stretched far beyond the perimeter of our respectably full tree.
The expression of joyful, excited anticipation with which he bad greeted this opulent array of packages had long since faded, and he sat there in what appeared to be a state of disorientation and confusion. And then came the grim and unexpected question. “Is this all there is?”
The paradoxical nature of the question, asked by a child buried in the rubble of an affluent Christmas morning, struck me with great force. And between the words of Greg’s question I heard him say “too many things make me feel empty” and “lots of stuff isn’t what I really need.”
My second lesson occurred over a period of several years as I watched my children play with toys. First, I noticed that among the multitude of toys which .filled their closet and room few captured their attentions for any length of time. Second, I noticed that they seemed to experience the greatest degree of enjoyment when they played with objects hardly classified as toys: like pots, pans, boxes, blankets· and branches. And third, I discovered that there were indeed some toys which they enjoyed.
In fact, there were some toys which they liked so much that they played with them for many, many years. Later, when I found myself the proprietor of a ·small toy store I reviewed the- lessons gleaned from my children, and I reached some conclusions which shaped my approach to selecting toys for the store.
The first was that children don’t need lots of toys, but that they do need a lot of love and human interaction.
The second was that if children are to have toys, they only need a few GOOD toys: toys which they can shape to their own unique needs and potentials; toys which are more than just possessions, but tools to help them grow as human beings rather than as mere consumers. I began to classify these toys as open-ended.
Most of us recognize the closed-ended toy when we see it. It is that toy which has limited uses and leaves little or no room for imagination or creativity. When the child and a closed-ended toy interact, it is the toy and not the child in charge of the play activity. Since most toys in the market place have that quality it is no wonder that most toys bore children. These kinds of toys are, in fact, an insult to the child’s natural desire to experience, explore, discover and express his or her own unique potential.
On the other hand, the open-ended toy respects the child and responds to his or her individuality and uniqueness. Open ended toys, like blocks, building sets, crayons or clay have an infinite number of uses. The beauty of such toys is that they can become whatever the child needs them to be and change with his or her needs or interests.
With them the child discovers again and again grand new possibilities both within and without. And when a child plays with an open-ended toy it is he or she who is significant and in charge of the activity of playing. Not the toy. And because such toys are so versatile, children don’t need a lot of them.
Almost three decades have passed since my five year old asked his poignant question – Is this all there is? .And today the rubble of the too-muchness borne of an excessively materialistic society still fills the souls of our little ones with a sense of neediness.
In a society which glorifies material possessions at the expense of human beings; in a society which encourages the development of passive spectators instead of active participants; and in a society which often looks outside to the expert for answers instead of within the self for solutions, there is a desperate need to provide our children with tools and experiences that touch and strengthen the authentic places within.
As my own little son taught me years ago abundance has nothing to do with an excess of stuff. Instead, the experience of abundance grows from within. For all of us it grows from loving relationships and rich self-growing experiences. It is important to remind ourselves that we will be tempted to show our love by showering our children with an excess of stuff. We need to remember that more is not necessarily better.
Rather it may, in fact, result in an experience of poverty. Choose, instead, to give only a few special things which create experiences of aliveness, self-connection and self worth. But most of all, choose. all year round, to give abundantly of yourself. Because, after all, true abundance comes from within and is nurtured in the sharing of yourself.
-Karen Benz Holland (The Wooden Horse Toy Store)