Escaping the tyranny of toys

9 December, 2013

Oh yeah, I know. I do love to use the word “tyranny”. It’s so dramatic. *flounces about* Tyranny this, tyranny that.

Ramona was introduced to her first whizz bang, vibrating, flashing toy when she was seven months old. It had rolled towards her from another seven month old and it frightened the living day lights out of her! The way she responded to it, revealing the whites of her eyes, her whole body tensing, a whimper escaping her lips made me think I should have introduced toys earlier. (In hindsight manufacturing a baby toy based on Freddy Krugar, wielding knives and screeching is probably a bit cruel.) (Jokes, it was just your average modern baby toy.)

Over the following months all the nooks and crannies of our home became filled with children’s bits and bobs. We tried to keep them simple, wooden or vintage (we had ugly plastic ones, mostly keep stuffed behind the sofa) but nonetheless we had many, many toys.

Selling our house and moving into a Campervan gave us a bit of an escape from STUFF and for the last four months Ramona and Juno have had a toy box consisting of 7 small dinosaurs, a doll, a cuddly lamb and a pull along dog, supplemented by rocks, twigs, trees to climb, shells, leaves, and beaches to dig. In fact they have been occupied most of all with these playthings from nature.

Which is kind of funny, considering what the production of toys is doing to nature. I read this article, The Gift of Death by Monbiot earlier and was gobsmacked. He mentions that NINETY NINE PER CENT of stuff produced ends up in the bin after 6 months, and he shows several times that the links between our mindless consumption of All The Things and damage to the earth and poorer people in developing countries are strong, direct and undeniable.


It seems mad that we are causing so much havoc to create things for our children that research shows are unnecessary, and often even bad for them. Toys can be so very prescriptive – they basically tell a child how to play. They are also very often gendered- they show boys and girls through their colours and accompanying imagery, who should be playing with it, boy or girl. They can also be over stimulating for very young children and conversely they can limit an older child’s ability- six and seven year olds could be spending their time creating genuinely amazing stuff, carving boats and cooking cakes.

As we approach Christmas I think of the millions of parents who are putting themselves into debt just to buy things for their children that not only do the kids not need, but that are probably having a negative impact on the kid’s creativity and imagination. And, AND, will probably end up in the landfill eventually anyway.

It’s just a farce. And a tyranny. *flounces*

The wily world of advertising has somehow convinced parents that a child’s toy stash is directly related to how much we love them. A child’s room is only really a child’s room if the walls are lined with toys- it’s especially bizarre considering the whole concept of toys was only invented in the 1600’s.

Birthdays and Christmases are hung on the act of giving presents. It is hard to imagine a celebration without a small mountain of gifts.

20131209-203248.jpgIt’s a bit high, on my horse up here, so let me confess a little something….

Ramona had her birthday a few weeks ago, while we were away. The night before, as she slept, I put together a little pile for her- a lush lion hat knitted by her Aunty and Uncle, a beautiful set of paper lanterns from Nana and Grandad and from us, a jumper from a flea market, 7 plastic dinosaurs from a charity shop and a vintage card game of Misfits (remember Misfits? This pristine set was beyooootiful- Ramona didn’t really appreciate it’s vintageness hehe) three things that cost £7.

That was all.

I cried. And flung the dinosaurs across the camper. £7?! Why was I such a mean mum?

Tim had to remind me that we had very specifically chosen to do this.

But if I, even I, so ambivalent about the general approval of society that I didn’t even shave my legs and armpits for my WEDDING, can’t handle it, who can?!?! The world is dooooooomed.

I pulled myself together and we have steeled ourselves once again for a present- moderate Christmas. Last year we gave Ramona a fair trade bus which is gorgeous, and we will find one thing just as ethical for her this year. And eight month old Juno can chew the wrapping paper.

Because we need a new model, for children’s rooms, for Christmases, for Birthdays. For childhood.

Imagine it- children whose imaginations are not limited by the innate rules of the plastic thing in their hand, who run about unbound because the stick they are waving is a Hoover, a sword, a dog. That’s not tragic, it’s creative.

Parents able to say no to overtime at work so they can get home to the kids and play Hide and Seek rather than earning more dosh to buy them more presents.

Families sitting around a Christmas Tree reading stories and poetry, looking at pictures and loo-roll nativity sets they’ve created for each other, spending the day having fun in a wintery forest and baking gingerbread INSTEAD of wildly flying from gift to gift. I know; “write a poem for each other” it’s laughable eh? I wish it wasn’t.

How do we get there? Especially when we are often surrounded by generous, well meaning friends and family?

~We can ask family members to do something other than give a present- such as a day trip to a cool place.

~We can chose one epic toy – or something more expensive from the list below- and ask family members to pitch in.

~We can put the current stash of toys on rotation, so that rooms aren’t filled with toys and so children can go deep with each item, plundering it’s imaginative depths.

~We can make celebrations more about other stuff- games, singing, candles, rituals.

~We can specific on Party Invitations that we don’t want presents.

~We can speak with other parents about this and see if they want to join in with the philosophy.

~We can choose to give things other than toys to our children, and the children in our lives. For example:

A mixtape (Ramona has been given two of these and they surpass all things she has ever been given, ever! It’s just a homemade CD with cool songs on)
Craft materials
A few classes of something (dance/ pottery etc)
An experience (Ramona rode a horse for her birthday this year)
A micro love bomb (3 hours totally devoted to doing anything they possibly want in the world -based on Oliver James’ concept for troubled kids)
A micro adventure (grab a tent and sleep in the local woods for the night, there are several within half an hour on public transport in London)

Toys aren’t inherently bad, but being trapped under a need to buy, and children knowing little other way to play IS bad. Children need fewer toys and more tools.

We need a new model, and we are the ones to make it happen.

Anyone else in?

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  • Xanthe 9 December, 2013 at 7:55 pm

    £7! Lu, that’s extravagant! Sticks and pine cones would have been free 😉

    I’m with you on this one, but (sadly?) because almost all of our toys are charity shop and waiting-for-the-bin-collection finds, we haven’t managed to avoid plastic as planned. We are still 99% battery free though, yippee! Just a couple of pesky books that make a noise, those batteries do not give up easily…

  • Mrs mac 9 December, 2013 at 8:16 pm

    I’m not a mother (yet) but so many if your posts resonate with me. I choose to not celebrate christmas, on the grounds that i’m not religious and I refuse to worship at the altar of buy stuff now! And I have enough/too much stuff anyway. People around me say i’ll have to get into christmas when We have children, but why? I’ll treasure christmas because of the time off i’ll have with my husband this year, but I want it to be a time for togetherness and calm when we have kids too. It comforts me that I’m not alone with my thoughts in these nutty few weeks leading up to christmas.
    Thanks for your blog.

    • Lucy 10 December, 2013 at 5:24 pm

      Yeah you know what, I think calm is really interrupted by the madness of mountains of gifts.

  • LydiaGrace 9 December, 2013 at 8:16 pm

    LOVE this! Children definitely don’t need the latest Fisher-Price contraption to feel loved and happy. In fact, giving them that sort of rubbish will lead to a spoilt teenager demanding half the shopping centre, a car, and plenty more besides.

    As a child, I shared a playroom with my sister that was full of all sorts of toys we had received as presents, yet all I can remember from those days is drawing on some tin foil with pound shop pens in order to watch the ink pool and shimmer.

    Pens, pencils, paper= presents done, in my opinion.

  • Mama Bec (@becb1984) 9 December, 2013 at 8:31 pm

    Funny, I wrote a post about this topic yesterday, although not as eloquently as you do –

    There are times when I want to chuck all of my daughter’s toys in the loft, but the trouble is so many of them were gifts from other people or have some other special significance it feels wrong to do so. Or maybe that’s just my hoarder tendency coming through. I do suspect that my hoarder tendencies come from the fact that I had load of toys as a child though!!

    We’ve asked people not to get Eleanor toys for Christmas or her birthday (which is two days after Christmas – talk about a gift avalanche) but suspect she might end up with some. We might do as you suggest and rotate her toys so that at least they all get used from time to time!

    • Lucy 10 December, 2013 at 5:24 pm

      I commented- did you get it? Great post, very eloquent!

      • Mama Bec (@becb1984) 10 December, 2013 at 6:34 pm

        Hmm, didn’t get your comment for some reason. Thanks for reading though!

      • Mama Bec (@becb1984) 10 December, 2013 at 6:47 pm

        Hmm, the comment didn’t go through unfortunately, but thanks for reading!

  • Umm Yahya 9 December, 2013 at 9:50 pm

    Very inspiring! I’m definitely up for the challenge – now the next step is how do I convince well meaning relatives, especially grand parents?

    • Lucy 10 December, 2013 at 5:23 pm

      Hmmm. Yes. Any ideas?!

      • Cathy 11 December, 2013 at 10:51 am

        This is my dilemma too. We have far too much ‘stuff’ for our girls already and our youngest is not yet four months. Upstairs in the spare room await piles and piles and piles of gifts from adoring and well-meaning grandparents. They also have a six-year-old granddaughter, my niece, and for some irrational reason are fanatical that they MUST SPEND THE SAME AMOUNT OF MONEY ON EACH CHILD. So yep, a four-month-old has presents totalling the same value as a six year old. A six year old who, as the grandparents proudly boasted last year, got every single thing she asked for for Christmas.

        Every. Single. Thing.

        I feel horrendously ungrateful but I have two real issues with this. Firstly they don’t consult me on what they are buying so it’s inevitably loathesome flashing bleeping plastic tat that I don’t want in the house, or a duplication of a present I would have liked to buy the girls at some point (I know, with that feeling of certain dread, that a massive pink plastic dolls house is headed our way. I do like dolls houses and the imaginative play they encourage but was rather hoping to pick one myself rather than have a Barbie horror foisted upon me) or clothes I don’t want them in (pink, pink and more pink, glitter and MUMMY’S CLONE/DADDY’S GIRL type slogans).

        And secondly it’s all cheap and nasty (YES I KNOW HOW THAT SOUNDS, BEAR WITH ME) because they are huge fans of quantity and ‘having plenty to open’. It’s not the amount of money they spend – I wouldn’t care if they bought no presents at all – it’s the fact they use that money to buy as MUCH as they possibly can, not just one or two more thoughtful gifts.

        We have discussed asking instead for a specific gift or perhaps putting the money they would spend into an account for the girls, but we know them well enough to know if we asked for this, they would oblige and STILL buy the heaps of tat ‘so they still have lots to open under the tree’. They are in their 60’s and very set in their ways and have that very Northern (I’m allowed to say that, Im from the North too) mentality of money is ALWAYS tight so we MUST need financial help with the girls, even though we really don’t.

        Ultimately, they are our daughters but they are also their granddaughters. I may prefer a different way but I am not minded to lecture my lovely, caring in-laws in the ways of present-buying to fit my own ideals. I will be the first to speak up when they undermine my parenting (as they do, constantly) but I feel this, I cannot really do much about. They don’t live close and I know full well they make up for not seeing the girls as much as they’d like by buying them endless presents instead. If I were to speak out regardless of how I phrased it they would feel hurt and rejected. I do not want to create feelings of hurt and rejection among my family at Christmas.

        So, piles of tat it is. I will just heap it all to a charity shop the next week! And not buy presents for my own children – which is a wrench as I of course want to, but the amount of gifts awaiting upstairs is actually obscene, and I have no desire to add to it.

  • Umm Yahya 9 December, 2013 at 9:53 pm

    I’m muslim btw so I havetime to figure it out before Eid hopefully lol

  • Victoria 9 December, 2013 at 10:47 pm

    This is exactly how I feel about Christmas presents, Thankyou for articulating it so well. My kids have many toys, all hand-me-downs from other families with kids, and they mostly sit unused as the 3yo prefers the craft supplies, cooking / cleaning (lucky chap) and the 8 month old is ecstatic when he gets some paper to rip up. Now to persuade relatives that a box of old stuff that can be used for craft is better than an all-singing all-dancing brand new toy!

    • Lucy 10 December, 2013 at 5:23 pm

      A box of old stuff= perfect present!

  • Leslie 10 December, 2013 at 1:12 am

    I wrote about this just recently too – it is of course in the air with the holidays buzzing and being in Manhattan, in the vortex of consumerism has given me a terrible headache and anxiety attack and I KNOW Santa is only bringing one gift for my daughter this year. Just yesterday her grandparents came and after PROMISING me they would not bring toys they brought a Melissa and Doug toy (oh, that loathsome company, that epic landfill filler ) that was a doozy. Literally EMPTY boxes with labels as though they were grocery store items – as if we can’t take those out of our cupboard when they are empty for her use – which is what we do!- and a grocery store basket! All hail the God of Consumption! The toy itself was a monument to consumption and the literal emptiness of these mindless boxes labeled “granola” and “tuna” was enraging in its decadent waste of space and paper! I kept my cool and quietly recycled the whole damned toy when they left. Here is my post on Manhattan Christmas. At least the first one, but more to come, no doubt. It’s a topic we must continually discuss!

  • Leslie Kendall Dye 10 December, 2013 at 1:15 am

    I wrote about this just recently too – it is of course in the air with the holidays buzzing and being in Manhattan, in the vortex of consumerism, has given me a terrible headache and anxiety attack and I KNOW Santa is only bringing one gift for my daughter this year. Just yesterday her grandparents came and after PROMISING me they would not bring toys they brought a Melissa and Doug toy (Oh, that loathsome company, that epic landfill filler ) that was a doozy. Literally EMPTY boxes with labels as though they were grocery store items – as if we can’t take those out of our cupboard when they are empty for her use – which is what we do!- and a grocery store basket! All hail the God of Consumption! The toy itself was a monument to consumption and the literal emptiness of these mindless boxes labeled “granola” and “tuna” was enraging in its decadent waste of space and paper! I kept my cool and quietly recycled the whole damned toy when they left. Here is my post on Manhattan Christmas. At least the first one, but more to come, no doubt. It’s a topic we must continually discuss! Thank you for this lovely post, by the way!

  • Leslie Kendall Dye 10 December, 2013 at 1:35 am

    Another good place to get gifts:

    We have gotten the most lovely old books in very good condition from old libraries around the country and even some from England. And we pay a couple of dollars at most. Better yet is tracking down an out of print title, some lost book that no one reads anymore and returning it to the world of reading by having it arrive in the mailbox. My daughter ADORES when a package from abebooks arrives, and she already understands the idea that the book has been loved by other children before her, which is the icing on the cake or maybe even the cake itself…

    • Lucy 10 December, 2013 at 5:22 pm

      Wonderful thank you!

  • Ali 10 December, 2013 at 4:04 pm

    We follow the four present rule- something they want, something they need, something to wear and something they’ll read.
    This year 4 year old girl child has a pull along wagon, new wellies, a new jumper and (a few!) books.
    There will be a stocking but have made Christmas decorations for it, soap, choc money….
    She’ll be given a plentiful bounty of gifts from relatives so I don’t feel the need to over indulge. I just wish family would lay off the ‘plastic fantastic’!!!

    • Ali 10 December, 2013 at 4:24 pm

      Ps my daughter does have LOTS of toys but 90% of them we make together … Card board puppet theatre, shadow puppets, bottle shakers, paper kites so on. Helps that my background is in play therapy. I’m currently complying a blog with all the things we’ve made over the years with instructions.
      My daughter will always be happier with books, paper& pens. We don’t do television and have never needed to.
      But people treat you like a freak if you dare admit that!!

      • Bake 10 December, 2013 at 9:11 pm

        Love the sound of your blog -keep us updated when we can check it out 🙂 Oh, and I agree about the freaks and no TV, people wonder how we cope without it on all day…

  • Kat 10 December, 2013 at 5:52 am

    Couldn’t agree more! I envy your trip and the restrictions it has put on you as a family (ie. can’t take a million toys with you), but how much you’re learning in turn. It sounds AMAZING. Back to nature and imagination. You’ve inspired my next blog post 😉

  • Ruth 10 December, 2013 at 7:32 am

    Ahhh, love this post, and so much of it resonates. Like you, we spent some time recently without the full toy collection – ten weeks while our container made its way across the world – and it was a real joy watching how T’s imagination expanded to fill the gap. We spent so much time doing games that only involved pen and paper – drawing items in our *shop* and doing shopkeeper role play, that kind of thing.

    I am not quite as hardcore as you, but I’ve taken the lessons from that and really, really cut down this Chrustmas – he’s getting a stocking full of little things – books, glow stars for his ceiling, bubbles – but no big present from us.

    I think the thing if you’re going to buy big stuff is making sure it’ll really last. T has just inherited the big cardboard box full of Lego bricks that has passed its way through my two older brothers and then me – most of it is at least 30 years old, but he’s playing with it more imaginatively than any of the Lego he has been bought more recently – probably because it just came as a big jumbled box of bricks that he can turn into anything, rather than coming with instructions to build something specific.

    • Lucy 10 December, 2013 at 5:22 pm

      Yes, I think Lego counts as one of the things that are quite brilliant. It almost becomes a family heirloom it lasts so long!

  • Jess @ Along Came Cherry 10 December, 2013 at 10:08 am

    I just wrote a very similar post to this! I HATE the excessive spending and present buying that people think they need to do at Christmas. I’ve bought Cherry a few second hand toys this year and J has one second hand book at the moment as he doesn’t even know what’s going on. It amazes me just what Cherry enjoys playing with really, a bit of paper or a leaf / flower / acorn provides her with far more entertainment than any toy ever has done. Last year we got everyone to pay money into a big wooden kitchen which she loves as she pretends to make cakes. This is because she likes to be like me and I make cakes A LOT!! It makes me so sad that people end up in debt to buy their kids presents!! x

    • Laurenne @ This Mummy 10 December, 2013 at 11:45 pm

      I have read both of your posts and completely agree. I have already bought a few (unnecessary) things for this year and I’m going to go completely simple and thrifty with just a few homemade and second hand bits next year. I am just getting more and more annoyed with the amount of crap we have and consume and just craving a simpler life at the moment.

      We have a house just filled with all this stuff and all it does is make me feel overwhelmed and overstimulated and annoyed I have to sort/clean/move it all around so how must my kids feel?!

      When we go away in our caravan life is so simple and we have barely anything and I feel so much calmer. I need to make changes me thinks!!

  • ThaliaKR 10 December, 2013 at 10:19 am

    Lucy, I think you have a wee typo – it’s not 1% go in the bin, but 1% still in use! 99% in the bin or otherwise discarded.

    We have been peripatetic wanderers for much of SBJ’s life so have had similar experiences to you.

    The all-time favourite toys in our house are the tried-and-true stayers from my own childhood, and various pieces of household equipment, esp stacking measuring cups and bowls.

    Thanks for this, and all your hard work/ranting 🙂

    • Lucy 10 December, 2013 at 5:21 pm

      Hehe, thank you, yes. Please read all my posts one second after I hit publish and tell me all my mistakes, I’ll give you a percentage of all my earnings HARHAHAHA.You are the best x x x a

  • Eline 10 December, 2013 at 6:44 pm

    I’m in! Our family tries to be as non-consumerist and free of useless stuff as we can. My son is ten months now and we’ve only bought him two toys so far (and you thought £7 was mean?), but it’s getting harder.
    Our relatives bring him new toys whenever they visit (which isn’t often, so they really go all out when they do). Christmas is indeed approaching, as is his first birthday. And sometimes I nearly cave myself because the guilt and advertising nibbles at me.
    We’re big fans of toy rotation though, we always ask for books, and once he’s old enough to appreciate it I’ll try to go for more experience-type presents.
    I also love to make him stuff – he plays with the taped-together ‘toys’ just as much and it gives me endless satisfaction. And when they break I won’t worry about the money I spent.

  • Mia 11 December, 2013 at 1:17 am

    Fantastic post. PERFECT post, in fact.

    I despair often at the mountain of toys Caspar has. He is the only grandchild between both mine and my husband’s parents so is a touch spoilt, but I have to admit, I find it hard to resist buying him “stuff” when he is taken with it and enjoying it. For example, my dad gave me some money to buy him a Christmas present from him, we walked past Mothercare and Caspar saw an ‘entertainers station’ – keyboard with microphone, drums and samples – that I couldn’t tear him away from. That became his early Christmas gift (he won’t be getting any other big ones) and he loves it but I’d rather have had a real piano that I could play too and we could enjoy as a family!

    This year we decided to just give him small stocking fillers. He asked for a spinning top, so that and a kaleidoscope (around a tenner in total) are his main presents, and a wooden segmented snake that looks and handles like a real one (from Wilko’s of all places!). The rest is mostly stuff he needs (toothbrush, new sponge, etc) but somehow there are still loads of little packages and I know there will be more from family. It’s strange, isn’t it, how it is hammered into us that how much we buy for our children = how much we love our children. It’s a total fallacy (almost as good a word as tyranny!).

    This post has inspired me to go through his multiple toy baskets this weekend and get rid of all the plastic crap he just doesn’t need. Thanks for articulating so perfectly why I have been feeling so down about the mountain of plastic tat. He has such an an amazing imagination. I’m going to start to remember to feed it more organically, instead of allowing it to be filled with overstimulating (frankly, sometimes, quite scary!) rubbish!

  • Poppy 11 December, 2013 at 9:40 pm

    I recently discovered your blog and I love it!!! Although I don’t have children (yet) I do work with them and agree with so many of your posts (including this one – not just in terms of children but everyone! I’ve done a fair amount of my shopping this year in charity shops). Have you heard about Project Wild Thing? They are all about getting kids outdoors and recently had an article in the guardian with alternative gifts for children:
    Also, a book I recommend to anyone buying gifts for kids is ‘The Stick Book: loads of things you can make or do with a stick’ –
    There’s also a Wild Weather version – loads of ideas of projects to do with kids.

    Keep up the thought-provoking and funny posts! 🙂

  • Libs 11 December, 2013 at 10:06 pm

    Fantabulous post as always. I only hope that I can keep this much faith if and when I have children of my own.

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  • Leslie Kendall Dye 15 December, 2013 at 7:55 pm

    I can’t remember if I mentioned this book yet or not, but have you read “the Idle Parent?” by Tom Hodgkinson? I read it before I was a parent, when I was a nanny and it resonated deeply. He covers many of the issues and problems related to toys (the way we define them today, anyway) and the leash around our necks that a consumer-driven economy creates! Another book I love is “Simplicity Parenting” which is a bit less fun a read but deals with the peace of mind that comes from being surrounded by less. And by fewer choices. And more negative space. Thanks for this list, I’ll be saving it!

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  • Emily Greentree 19 December, 2013 at 11:02 pm

    I have been reading your blog and I love it. Everything is resonating with me. I love this post, this is something I have been thinking about recently. I only gave birth to my daughter in February, and 10 months later my house is full of toys. I am planning on giving many to the charity shop. This post has really made me think and I really want to try and give my daughter more experiences and less reliance on plastic for entertainment x

  • Fay 22 December, 2013 at 10:56 pm

    Agree, agree, agree! I feel so happy that we made the decision to not overload our little girl with toys. She’s 4 next month and her favourite toys are stones, beads, buttons, marbles, felt-tipped pens, hair clips and a few second hand lego princesses. I adore hearing the stories she makes up with these few items. Love the ideas for presents you suggested, will think hard about birthday gifts next month.

  • (Slightly late) Tuesday Treats « dorkymum 19 February, 2014 at 4:16 pm

    […] 1. “Selling our house and moving into a Campervan gave us a bit of an escape from STUFF and for the last four months Ramona and Juno have had a toy box consisting of 7 small dinosaurs, a doll, a cuddly lamb and a pull along dog.” – the tyranny of toys from Lulastic. […]

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  • Kelly McManus 16 August, 2015 at 10:48 am

    I really enjoyed reading this. Thanks for a great article, Im glad I found your blog it’s right up my street! From a mum of 3 in the UK trying to live a care-free, frugal life with my children 🙂

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